Romancing the Railroad

"Τηλέμαχ’, ούδ’ όπιθεν κακός έσσεαι ούδ’ ανοήμων, ει δη τοι πατρός ενέστακται μένος ηύ,"

"Telemachus, you'll never be a bad or senseless man, as long as your father's good spirit is instilled in you,"

—Athena, as Mentor, Homer's Odyssey, 11, 270-71

IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 1951, AND I WAS FIFTEEN, when I laid eyes on the two most beautifully exotic girls I had ever seen in my life. Half Greek on their father's side and half mixed European (mostly French) and American Indian on their mother's, they had come to the section house at five in the afternoon to pick up their men, Ralph and Don, whose last names, Lavadeur and Nelson, pointed at their own meandering descent from the couplings of Hudson's Bay Co. fur traders with women of the Chippewa and Cree tribes during the second half of the nineteenth-century. Their great-grandparents had probably been among the numbers who left Canada and sought asylum across the border in Montana after the 1885 rebellion led by Louis Riel to establish a separate nation for the Métis people had failed and its leader hanged as a traitor to England.

So northern Montana became a melting pot for full and mixed blood Cree and Chippewa, many of whom encamped along the banks of the Sun River and on a hill northwest of Great Falls that in 1887 was called "Jim Hill," in honor of the Great Northern Railroad's famous builder, but was later renamed "Hill 57" as a topographical advertisement for the bottled and canned variety put forth by the Heinz company. It was on this hillside, boldly transformed into a natural billboard with a large whitewashed figure 57, that this melting pot of Indians underwent further diversification by minute increments such as the settling there of the Greek from the island of Crete, who worked for Anaconda Copper, Tom Commútis.

I never got a good look at Tom's girls again, after that afternoon early in my first of four summers working as a section hand on the Great Northern, when they came together and waited outside of the pick-up for Ralph and Don to squeeze into the front of the truck with them—four was a crowd in the cabs of trucks of that vintage, especially with the long stemmed gearshift sticking up from the middle of the floor—and head for home on Hill 57. For the rest of that summer, one or the other dropped them off in the morning and came to get them at the work day's end. They rarely drove all the way up to the tool shed and siding that fixed the beginning of our section over the rough gravel topped path from the asphalt road covered with' washboards and bombarded with potholes off Front Road, which in less than a mile merged with Highway 15 as it headed for Vaughn, Montana, the end of our section ten miles away, and other points west. And they never got out of the truck.

The distant postage stamp images of them with their long black hair falling over their shoulders, neither of them distinguishable from the other, framed by the driver's side window was all I ever saw of them again. And all we ever heard of them was Don or Ralph's monosyllabic answer to some curious section hand's prurient question about what it was like with them. Wild. With that much (or little) left to the imagination, I concocted a fleeting picture in my mind of tormenting my mother, who had made her preference emphatically clear that if I must go on a date it should be with a Greek girl, by bringing one of Tom's girls home with the clinching boomerang of an argument that well, she's half-Greek. But it would be a few years before that kind of wild claimed a definition outside of my fantasy life and besides, the true romance of that moment was with the railroad.

Among the hundreds of mostly black and white photographs my parents kept in what seemed to me as a boy of five or six a magical metal box, there was one I never tired of searching out and studying. It was a small print of a photo taken around 1909 in the Kansas City railyards of my father and some thirty fellow young Greek workers. They are standing, three rows deep, with a string of Mather Horse Cars behind them, some smiling, others with their heads slightly cocked, and a few with their caps or hats pushed back, as if posing for their class picture. The men in the front row stand on crossties between the rails, most of them holding the top end of their long handled spiking mauls, whose double-sided hammer heads rest at their feet. My father stands near the center, with a bandana tied in a crossknot around his neck and wearing a large light colored work glove with a star on it that covers the forearm above his right hand, in which he elegantly balances his spiker. My abiding fascination with this photo gave it documentary status, an unassailable proof and lesson of my past, and when I chose to have it reproduced on the cover of a book of poems in the mid 1970s the decision seemed unsurprisingly natural, almost predestined.

A decade or so after I first began musing on this photograph, I realized something, perhaps viscerally more than in any other way, of special importance about it. It provided me with the only picture of my father before his engagement to my mother eighteen years later, before his being was completely dissolved in the body of his presence as paterfamilias. It was the earliest image of him, at eighteen, in his life available to me, there being no record but oral history of his childhood and early adolescence in Greece. So there he was, my father-to-be but not yet my father, not yet, who but for the grace of God may have gone other ways and there would have been nothing, no me to pore over the paper on which his picture was printed. As reinforcement against this "impossibility," I would one day connect with the young man in the photograph, step, as it were, into that picture with him and his friends.

To take that step, a decade later, I needed my father's help to convince my mother. Like most of the Greek men in Great Falls, he had come there by signing on to Great Northern extra gangs. Like some of them, he eventually left his employment with the railroad to go into business. Unlike my father and those who heeded the call of free enterprise, many were content to remain with the Great Northern, some continuing in track maintenance and others moving, as my father had for a couple of years, into other departments such as the roundhouse, where the huge steam-driven locomotives were repaired and serviced. Many of the men who stayed on the road became section foremen, each with the responsibility for the integrity and safety of a portion of track from ten to twenty miles in length, whether in the railyards in town or out along the line. My father, who I could tell liked the idea of my getting a taste of the work he had done as a young man, was able to elicit my mother's consent to my taking that step by speaking first to the foreman of the Great Falls to Vaughn section, who was sometimes allowed to request an extra laborer or two for the summer months, and by arranging for me to work for him. I remember my father driving me to the Great Northern employment office, where I was put on the payroll and issued my social security card, which I carry to this day in my wallet, its description of me as "Section Laborer, Track Dept.-Butte Div., Great Northern Railway Company" serving as memento of a unique connection between my father and me and as talisman for my future working life.

The foreman for whom I was to work that first of my four railroading summers (I also worked on his section crew during the last of those summers), was George Tsernotópoulos, more familiarly known as George Chinos, which he had been named for the general public's convenience in his younger days when he occasionally performed strongman feats and did a little professional wrestling. The older Greek-American kids of our generation, who had been lucky enough to see him in action, nicknamed him "Mr. Montana," a telling, though most likely unintentional, reflection of just how comfortably and confidently we were feeling at home in the high rolling plains and mountains of this new world Arcadia. But in our family he was known exclusively by two designations, "koumbáro" and "nunó." So deep was the friendship between him and my parents that he had stood as best man at their wedding and as godfather to both my older sister and me when we were baptized. My father and he, from the closely neighboring villages of Filia and Tsorota' in the province of Kalávryta on the Peloponnese, had known each other since their earliest years in this country, and my father and mother believed that they had chosen wisely in their concentrating their "koumbaria'," a relationship with deeper than mere social ramifications because of its sacramental basis—no matter how well or badly it may eventually turn out-upon this one good man. If my nuno' was to be my boss, how could my mother say no?

Our crew, which ran at full summer strength to six, including the foreman, gathered a few minutes before eight in the morning at the tool shed, which also housed the motor car. Open topped, its gasoline-driven engine flanked by two parallel benches, each of which accommodated three men, this indispensable vehicle rode the rails at a top speed of between 20 to 25 m.p.h. and had a pair of long retractable handles by which a single man, if necessary, could lift one end and with a continuous pivotal movement shift the car off of the tracks onto a turnout or back again. Along our section's ten-mile length were several turnouts and a couple of main sidings, which were equipped with switches where they pulled away from the main track and rejoined it. The motor car could be parked in these sidings or set onto a turnout in the event of an oncoming train or during work, though it wasn't always convenient to do so. The turnouts were deep enough to hold a flat tool car as well, but it was their locations relative to where the crew was working as well as the freight and passenger train schedule that the foreman had to keep well in mind throughout the day. This utility car, which was equipped with small handles for shifting it to and from the tracks, could be hitched to the motor car, as it usually was in the summer months, when special equipment or extra tools and a water can with a large piece of ice in it were needed. Depending on the day's work orders, which the foreman received from the office of the roadmaster, we pulled pungent new crossties, which had been dipped in creosote, buckets of spikes, and assorted tongs, mauls and spikers, even rails or other track elements, on the cart behind us. But the basic tools were a couple of heavy jacks with which to raise track, a long steel bar for each man to use in lining up the track, and a fairly shallow, square-edged shovel for every man to tamp the ties of the raised track with, which, being the most common activity of railroad section work, gave it the name "gandy dance" and to those who did it "gandy dancers."

Before summer's end, I had become competent at all of the tasks routinely expected of a section laborer, earning $1.50 per hour for eight hours a day, five days a week, compared to my father's pay of a dollar per ten hour day, six days a week. By the time the fourth summer had passed, it could be said I had become not only proficient at the work but also increasingly aware and appreciative of its contribution to the larger enterprise of running a railroad. (A well-meaning professor of mine in the social sciences core during my freshman year at Colgate with whom I had shared stories of my summertimes in Montana, had urged me to major in economics, go on to business school and a career in railroad management.) But my filial and financial purposes for working on the railroad also included a plan to move on come September, one of the several conditions of my presence that my fellow workers and I understood separated us. For some, who had been at it for years, the end of summer was just another comma between seasons in a long story that would close sooner rather than later with retirement, period. For others, at work only for a few months, it meant wondering and worrying if a layoff was in store. For me, the onset of fall meant leaving for another year of high school or to go to college or to quit for good. Still, on the job, I gave it everything I had, which my godfather later claimed came as no surprise to him, but he must have let out a small sigh of relief when his expectations of me were met or confirmed.

Like a number of the Greek men who worked for the Great Northern (or the Milwaukee Road, which employed a smaller work force), my nuno') did not marry until he was well into middle age. Some never married and moved gradually from the status of being a young bachelor, "anípantros," to that of "gerondopalíkaro," that wonderful compound that yokes together the words for old or aging and brave young man, blithely flaunting its paradoxical literal nature, to denote old bachelor. My godfather was among those many single Greek men in America who avoided terminal gerondopalikaría by traveling to Greece after World War II and the Greek Civil War, events which had presented a ten-year obstacle to plans for marriage in the old country, and returning with young brides from their home towns and villages. He was still single that first time I worked on his section, but by the fourth summer, after a two-year hiatus during which I worked on another crew, he was married and moved from the boxcar bunkhouse of his long bachelorhood into a small house the company had transported to his section for him and Katero, his new wife and our new koumbara and nuns'.

By the time I returned to work for him in June of 1954, I was an old hand, having spent the two intervening summers on Tom George's reputed Truck Gang, and my godfather was beginning to look past the coming years towards retirement and a possible return to Greece. Compared to the first three years, it was a relaxed and easy time in which we kept our section of track in tip-top shape; patroled the line on the "putt-putt," as he called the motor car, for brush fires set by sparks from passing trains along the right-of-way (it had been a seriously dry summer), putting them out by flinging shovelfuls of dirt with a kind of a whiplash arm and wrist action against the crackling, relentlessly creeping flames; and helped load several hundred head of newly-shorn sheep a big outfit had driven to one of our sidings into double-decker stock cars, a dirty, dusty and smelly affair that had the one virtue of breaking the monotony of our customary daily routines. Assisting the rancher and his handful of men, we were supposed to make sure "exactly" thirty sheep were driven into each deck, for the meat packer at the other end would watch for low counts only and at a market price of $35 per head one too many meant an irretrievable loss—"Lookout! There go three pair of new back-to-school shoes for my kids," screamed the sheep rancher with bravado and a touch of self-mockery.

Though many of my memories no longer return under the rubric of a specific year, there are a few crucial ones that steadfastly hold their place in the sequence. My introduction to the Truck Gang was such an event, though it didn't come until after I had been on the job a couple of weeks that first summer. Those earliest days on the section, the first phase of my breaking in, I worked under my godfather's watchful oversight and that of the crew member of longest tenure, Naoúm Veroúlis, "Pete" or "Old Pete," as he good-naturedly urged everyone to call him. A quietly intense and wiry Macedonian with blue-eyes that floated like tropical fish behind his thick-lensed glasses, Pete had returned to his birthplace in Greece for a wife immediately after the occupation was over and had already started his family. My mother had befriended his wife, Helen, and we visited them often at the house Pete had had built for them, a convenient walk of a quarter of a mile from where he worked so many years for the Great Northern on my nuno's crew. At work, I addressed and referred to him as Pete, but in his home or at church he was always Kyrie' (or Mr.) Veroúli. Ralph, a big, powerfully-built taciturn man, and Don, who enjoyed playing his wry sidekick and couldn't resist bursting into song two or three times a day with the lyric, "Way down yonder in the Indian nation/ 'fucked every squaw on the reservation," along with Aristides, my nuno's younger brother, whom he had recently brought over from Greece to enable him to better support his family back in the village only to discover they didn't like each other very much, and I, the greenhorn, constituted the rest of the crew Section Foreman George Chinos had to boss the summer of 1951. After those first few days during which I was being led and was finding my way around the tracks, we reported on a Monday morning to our foreman with a special work order he had just received from the roadmaster's office in his hand.

Roadmaster Mr. Tom Connors, having recently inspected our section and found it to be in good condition—you never knew when he and his assistant might turn up in their covered two-seater motor car—had directed us to join forces with the Truck Gang on the Simms line, some stretches of which had fallen into a poor state of repair. A railroad track on which only a freight train ran in either direction a couple of times a week, and very slowly at that because of its bad condition, the Simms line branched off of the main line at Vaughn and continued west for forty miles to its end at the small ranching town of Augusta, Montana. We were to meet Tom George, fellow Filaios and a close friend of my father's, and his large crew of men, the closest thing left to the extra gangs that he and my father, my nuno and Pete, and all of the other young Greeks had worked on earlier in the century, somewhere between Sun River and Fort Shaw, mere specks of places that were smaller even than Vaughn and Simms, whose populations at that time probably didn't break 200. (A historical marker indicating its past importance, however, stands near the state highway at Fort Shaw, out of which one day in January of 1870, uncommemorated in the marker, four companies of the Second Cavalry rode under the command of Major Eugene M. Baker and massacred 173 Piegan Indians, of whom 53 were women and children, misjudging them for another band that had attacked a white settlement.) The Simms section foreman, who had returned from Greece with a bride three times younger than he, was supposed to join us with the one or two men who normally worked for him in the effort to put his section into working order, but he never showed up even once during the two weeks we were at it. His absence did not seem to surprise, much less disturb, George Chinos and Tom George in the least. As for the Vaughn crew, we were more than happy to spend two hours a day riding the rails to and from real work. The Truck Gang, which was not attached to any specific section but served as a special assignment or trouble-shooting extra gang, actually traveled in a bus to and from wherever it was they were needed. They enjoyed being paid to ride every day.

When we arrived at the appointed place, Tom George and his men were already there and had raised several lengths of rail in order to pull the rotting and broken crossties, like so many useless teeth, out of the tracks. These bad ties, which seemed to outnumber the good by at least two to one, had been dragged to the side and lay there, some of them mere fragments and decomposing slivers of their former selves, beside their shiny black, acrid smelling replacements. A work train had preceded the crews and had deposited all of the materials we would need in our reconstructions: new ties, tie-plates to replace any that had cracked or rusted out, buckets of new spikes, and piles of gravel with which to pack the mended track to its bed. The sight of the twenty or so men moving individually or in small groups of two or three up and down the track carrying out their assignments and the polyglot sound of their voices, shouting to each other occasionally about the work but mostly bantering with each other about girlfriends and wives, drinking and gambling, and taking it too easy on the job, created a vibrant, almost boisterous picture of railroad work compared to the quieter, more modest one in which I had been immersed during my introductory days on our section. And then there was Tom George, a small man of strong voice under bib overalls and a long sleeved shirt under a baggy khaki jacket with bulging pockets, standing in the tracks in front of our motorcar, his head, covered by a sweat-stained fedora, atilt, his teeth biting down hard on his pipe, pulling out his pocket watch and saying loudly as he looked at it, " Mr. Georgie Chinos, you take a long time gettin' to work today!" The twinkle in Tom's eyes and tiny upturned breaks on the corners of his mouth gave clear notice of the pseudo-confrontational nature of his message.

The two foremen, I soon realized, had probably established the oppositional roles they would play when working together long ago. My nuno' was the moderate, firm yet easy going on the men as long as everyone pulled his weight, capable of a joke or democratically playful exchange with anyone. Tom George was the implacable champion of the Great Northern, protecting its interests against slackers and sloppy work, the perfectionist who knew even better than the roadmaster what was good for his railroad. Speaking English only to each other in front of the men, they put on a little show, as much for their own entertainment as for anyone else's: Tom would grumble and rant, reminding "Mr. Georgie Chinos" and everyone within earshot, of their obligation to give the railroad their very best. My godfather would respond with quips like, "Don't pay attention to Tom George, boys. He's the 'Beast of Society'!" (The first time he used this in my presence, my nuno leaned his head towards me and quietly asked, "Ktínos tis kinonías--pretty good translation, eh, boy?") Whatever "the Beast of Society" may have meant to most of the men in the assorted company of Chicanos and Mexicans, Indians, Filipinos, an Italian and one Swede (the truck driver) and handful of English and Irish names—this was one of those American microcosms in which northern Europeans were the minority—the two foremen's fondness for each other and their ability to work well together was obvious.

Tom George watched me carefully that first summer when our section worked with his gang, and I must have gained his approval, for the next two summers, when my godfather either had no opening on his crew or was in Greece courting and arranging to marry my nuns to be, I was employed, on his recommendation to the company, on the Truck Gang. He was hiring me, he emphasized the first time, because he knew I was a good, hard worker and not because he and my father went fishing together. And I was satisfied that this was largely true, though I would have been a fool to deny I also enjoyed the privilege of an insider. Just as big city Greeks had worked their way into recognition as florists and restaurateurs, the Greeks of the western United States had established themselves in the railroads, and in the Great Falls of that time dominated the railyards and outlying sections. My father told me a story, when I was in my thirties, about how he and his friends had left Kearney, Nebraska, early one morning after a night of being bombarded with rocks thrown against their boxcar by out of work locals. Greeks may have been forced on occasion to flee Kearney and other such places, but they never relinquished the place they had made for themselves as young men helping to build America's railroads west of the Mississippi. So a number of men like my godfather and Tom George held sway over the tracks of the Great Northern—just before, as it turned out, conventional manual labor in railroad maintenance would be replaced by machines.

Prominent among these men who presided over the last hurrah of this part of a history they helped make (years later, I wondered, inconclusively, about how aware they might have been of the impending mechanization), was James Demopoulos, the foreman of the Yards. In his long tenure as boss of the biggest and most complex of sections, Jimmy Demos or "Jimmy My Boys,"—as he was nicknamed because of his sweetly coaxing and plaintive signature call to work, "Co'mon, my boys!"—was well-known throughout the company and revered by the men who worked for him. Diminutive, with what seemed to be a permanent roll-your-own Bull Durham cigarette attached to his lower lip, and, like Nestor, sleek in his old age, he and his wife had already raised and sent to college on his railroad salary seven daughters and sons by the time I went to work for the Great Northern. His youngest son, Tommy, eventually returned to the new, modernized railroad and rose to the position of roadmaster. I worked with the Yard Gang of "Jimmy My Boys" only a few times during my four years, on the rare occasions the Truck Gang was sent to the Yards to assist with a particular problem and a couple of times when my nuno's crew had to help repair the switches or replace a damaged frog, a compact one and a half ton device that enabled the wheels on one rail of track to cross an intersecting rail, in the area where the Yards ended and the Vaughn section began.

A few years later, Mr. Demopoulos, one of the patriarchal figures in our community, showed remarkable concern and support for my father after he had suffered a heart attack at the age of sixty-five and had been forced to retire. My father, who recovered and lived another thirty-one years, all but the last five of which were vigorously active, never forgot the kindness of his older patrioti and spoke often of how much it meant to him. Not until a good decade and a half had passed and I had begun to contemplate the many stories my father had been telling me about his youthful experiences on the railroad, did I realize that Mr. Demópoulos' solicitude for him and his appreciation of it expressed the memory of a strong, almost familial bond that had persisted through their lifetimes and the assorted commitments that had come with them. The first families they had known in this country had been those that they had fashioned for themselves, of young boys and men having to cook and launder and look out for each other in their boxcar bunkhouses so they could spend long days pushing gravel under crossties and leaning into their lining bars as they moved, like some modern dance ensemble, down a receding rail of track, each one visualizing his own fetching, if uncertain, future. Who can define or evaluate fully the enduring nature and value such experience might have?

But there had also been patriotes who were all too willing to take advantage of their younger countrymen and the companies for whom they worked, like the recruiters who arranged to take a hefty, long-term commission out of the pay of every man they signed on to a gang, or the gang bosses, sometimes the same men who had done the recruiting, who collected wages for the names of ghost workers taken off the markers and monuments in cemeteries. I had heard such things about a man who had left Montana for California and had used the money he had amassed to start a successful business venture in San Pedro. He had never married and never shared his precious periousia with anyone in this life. After his death, it was scattered among heirs in Greece he barely knew or not at all. The few times my father mentioned this man to me it was with pity and contempt, as if he had missed the boat to the best new life America could offer.

For a handful of men, gerondopalikária to the end, working on a railroad section provided adequately enough for the needs of the new lives they chose to make for themselves. Unlike James Demópoulos, or Tom George, or my godfather, who had not only become foremen but also active members of the community centered around the church of Saints Constantine and Helen, a man like George Katsimali's was content to draw his pay and to seek his entertainments as he saw fit, showing up for church once a year a few minutes before the midnight Easter service and occasionally for a festival in the church basement. As a small boy, I recall how excited we children became when "o Katsimali's" appeared at a "chorosperída" in anticipation of the pranks and magic tricks with which he regaled us. A decade later my fellow workers and I on my godfather's section gleefully looked forward to his substituting for my nun6 when he took his vacation. Known as "the Straw Boss of the Yards," Katsimali's had been assistant foreman to Jimmy My Boys for years and had often filled in for the Vaughn section foreman and others when they were away. The combination of his colorful nature and off-color banter about women and their anatomy, which had earned him the nickname of "George Catch-urn-all-ass," and his blissful disregard for the requirement that we spend eight productive hours a day on the job provided us with a paid midsummer holiday. I remember during my fourth and final stint on the Great Northern, when my nuno' took my nuna' to Lubbock, Texas, to visit her brother for a week, Katsimali's took over for him and on Friday, his last day with us, an hour or so after lunch ordered us on to the motor car. Skillfully negotiating a labyrinthine series of switches and avoiding freight cars barreling up and down the tracks, as trains were being made up, he brought us through the Yards and delivered us eventually to the railroad siding of the Great Falls Brewery, where we spent the rest of the afternoon drawing free beer from an outside spigot and listening to George lecture us and the brewery workers in his foghorn voice on the unquestionable disadvantages of virginity and chastity with such comical fervor I couldn't help thinking of him as a twentieth-century avatar of Chaucer's Wife of Bath.

Katsimali's and Torn George were about as different as could be in their views of the railroading ethos, and during my two summers on the Truck Gang I learned to appreciate Tom's abilities to direct our work with good humor and consideration behind the persona of gruff taskmaster that he put on. He even joked about himself occasionally in a loud, serious voice, referring to himself in the third person, "Tom George don't smoke no chigarette till he was 21, don't taste voushky till he was 25, and don't go to no whorehouse till he's 30 years old!" This and other such self-deprecating remarks elicited discreet titters and giggles from men who had done and seen most everything and made certain among themselves that everybody knew it. Tom, it was common knowledge, had been made an extra gang boss for the first time at the age of eighteen earlier in the century when, according to oral history, one thousand of the ten thousand inhabitants of Great Falls were young Greek men, most of them employed by the railroad, who were catered to by their own cafés and kafenía in a Greektown area a couple of blocks west of the Great Northern Depot and offices. The fact that Mr. Tom Connors, Division Roadmaster, had served as Tom George's timekeeper as a boy laced the occasional scene with streaks of irony when Connors showed up and pulled rank on him by offering petty criticisms of tasks that we all knew had been done to perfection. While it was happening, Tom George bit down hard on his pipe and listened respectfully to "Mr. Connors," but once the roadmaster disappeared down the track in his special motor car all hell broke loose.

At such moments or at other times when Tom ranted up and down the tracks, we were all reassured by Emil Samzón, Tom's favorite hand, that there was nothing to worry about, "Do not be afraid of Tom George, it is his nature to go boo boo boom!" By reputation the strongest man pound for pound on the Truck Gang, Emil protected his five-foot-two flyweight physique from the high plains sun, wind, rain, and dust under multiple layers of denim work clothes. The exquisite Filipino features of his dark caramel smooth face (he was a native of a small village on the island of Luzon) were framed by a striped denim work cap, a bright red bandana knotted around his throat, and the upturned collar of his jacket. Seeming more to inhabit rather than to wear his outfits, Emil knew how to conserve his energy and to pace himself through the day and would occasionally disappear for fifteen or twenty minutes after announcing in his high, lilting voice, "Tom George, I got to go sheet." As he walked to the point of complete immersion into the tall grass along the railroad right-of-way, some men made mock wagers over how many garments he would have to remove or loosen before he could do his business, but no ever dared try to find out. My nuno' had mischievously nicknamed him "to pondíki," and Ralph Lavadeur, who knew it meant mouse in Greek, told Emil it meant strong man and that it was appropriate because his last name was Samzón. When Tom George, who never used this nickname, summoned Emil for some special task, like spiking up twenty to twenty-five freshly laid crossties at the end of the day, he'd call out his name, extending its two syllables as far as his breath could go, "Emil—pick a partner and spike 'em up!" That first summer, when the Truck Gang and the Vaughn crew had converged upon the Simms section, Emil invariably chose Ralph as his partner for this most athletically demanding of routines in the gandy dance. An unequal partner could make the task frustrating and physically disagreeable, and an inept one could make it risky, for a spike that had not been sufficiently started with the first man's first swing could fly up into a face if it wasn't hit true.

After my first few weeks, my nuno' wisely set me off to learn how to spike on my own, showing me how to pound in a spike by kneeling down and driving it like a large nail well into the tie by holding the spiker by the handle just below the head like a hammer before standing up and swinging away. This was certainly safe, but much too slow for serious spiking, in which two good men, after the spike had first been tapped in just enough for it to stand upright, could drive it in with three, four at the most, on-the-money blows, whose ringing hits rhythmically pierced the air. And then there were the lessons to be learned from errant swings that missed the spike altogether and landed on the rail, sending sharp stabbing pains through the hands, wrists and up the arms, not to mention the humbling realization that a mere five minutes of fairly accurate spiking could leave a beginner exhausted and with a strange numbness vibrating throughout his torso. With practice I got better and better, but it wasn't until near the end of my second year during the first summer on the Truck Gang that my friend Emil, who never let on if he knew the true meaning of his Greek nickname, responded to Tom George's call one afternoon by coming up to me and saying buoyantly, "C'mon, pon-ding, you and me, we spike 'em up!"

Because all of us were well aware that our sole reason for being there was to ensure the safe and speedy rush of the streamliners, those narrow luxury hotels on rails, and of the mile long freight trains, America's lifelines, we felt entitled to a moment's resentment for their unwelcome intrusions upon our efforts to maintain our glistening stretches and perfectly banked curves of track, to whose care the pounding passage of these trains relentlessly returned us. But in the next few years, the gandy dance itself would be replaced by one man operated tamping machines, the cross-country passenger trains would be pushed to the brink of obsolescence by jet planes, and the status of freight trains in the nation's circulatory system challenged by the spreading arteries of interstate highways and the proliferation and gigantism of the trucks that now threaten to clog them and the cities they connect. And now that, since the late 1980s, the caboose, that bright red office and cozy home away from home of the trainmen, has given way to a small computer box attached to the last car of a freight train, my waits at railroad crossings come to an end with a half sigh, half elegiac cussword for the passing of the railroad as I had once known it. Or, perhaps, for the transitory condition of my own consciousness, in which there persists the desire to retain a semblance of myself somewhere in that photograph from 1909. As a boy, I had wished myself into that picture, and now I cling to what is left of its fading presence, filled with ghost figures that linger in memory's hoard of multiple exposures.

With all that those four summers of railroad work gave me, they also diminished and redefined the power of the call to faraway places of a night train in the distance. The vague romance of escape was significantly qualified, rather than simply superseded, by the romance of the return to roots. Together, they shaped a rite of passage in full view and earshot of the Heraclitean flux embodied by a speeding train's clickety-clacks over the rail joints as it disappears down the line. But, ironically, the train I remember most vividly was a slow one, as it moved one afternoon across the enormous bed of gravel that filled the gap of what we called the Manchester sinkhole midway between Great Falls and Vaughn. It was one of the numerous times the Truck Gang regularly joined the Vaughn crew to shovel gravel all day along the track bed to reinforce its massive, yet shifting, almost fragile, support of the passing trains. Of all the jobs we did, this was the one of deadliest monotony, and we didn't mind in the least the breaks from it the train schedule afforded us. I was standing with Martin Martinez, a "bracero," or guest laborer from Mexico, at the top end of a long file of men leaning on their shovels and watching the Empire Builder, the company's premier streamliner, making its stately procession along our track. From its majestic epithetical name, referring to the Canadian born founder of the Great Northern, James J. Hill, to its last car, the elegantly domed club car, the Empire Builder grandly conveyed what first-class travel was all about. As it rolled past us, a bald man dressed in a suit sitting in front of the curved back window of the club car raised his highball glass to us and gave us a short jerky nod. "Pendejo," muttered Martin as he returned to his gravel shoveling. "He thinks we're the pendejos," I said, without having any way of truly knowing the man's intentions. I stood there for a minute, musing in my callow eighteen year old way on the picture I thought we made for him and said to myself, "Here's to you, too, Mr. Pendejo! In a few weeks I'll be on that train myself on my way back to college." At the time, I enjoyed it as a quintessentially "only in America" moment.

Soon there came many train, plane, and car rides across the country and a journey by ocean liner from New York to Europe after taking a masters degree in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. In just four years after my final summer of 1954 on the railroad, I found my way to Greece pursuing experiences I couldn't have dreamed up, though I had received what was surely priceless preparation for them, standing there on the Manchester sinkhole as the Empire Builder coasted by. In June of 1958, after an eight month stay during which I had met almost all of my relatives in Athens and the villages, including Tom George's sister, and poets like Gatsos and Elytis, I was within days of sailing back to New York when I received a call from my nun& He had retired from the Great Northern and had come back with his wife to live in Greece, a plan I had learned about from my mother's letters, but I wasn't sure if we would connect before I left. They had arrived two days before my departure, so I was able to go to their hotel to see them. It was a happy and emotional reunion, and we were glad to have the chance to meet at what was to be a crossroads moment in our lives. I can't say how aware of this we were, and if we were neither of us was saying anything about it. My godfather and I hugged and kissed as if it were for the last time.

"Romancing the Railroad" was published in Mondo Greco, 6/7, Fall 2001-Spring 2002.