Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Life In Odessa

 Story and pictures courtesy of Jack Dayley.

 Great Northern's fast mail train was late.  Number 27 was due at Odessa at 835PM and it was past 10 now. The second tricker and the post office man, who was there to hang the mail and pick up the pouch were having some kind of vocal dispute. Their voices penetrated the thin wall that separated our bedroom from the telegraph office. Neither my wife nor I could get to sleep, although our young son was deep in sleep. As usual, when this squabble took place, I rolled toward the wall and banged it with my hand. The voices subsided.

 As I tried to fall asleep, I thought about how my wife and I and our son came to be here, sleeping in a tiny windowless bedroom in the Station Agent's living quarters in the small prairie town of   Odessa Washington.   

 When I returned from China, Burma and India at the end of WWII we had a joyful reunion. I held first trick at Chewelah, Washington. This was a good job in a fine branch line town. But the job only worked six days a week, and we soon learned that we could not survive on that small salary.

 Just then, the Odessa agency came up for bid. By this time, I had 6 years seniority.   The Odessa job worked seven days a week. Although there was no overtime for the 7th day, the salary was a bit higher and the extra day of pay was welcome.  Not only that, but the Agent made some extra money in Railway Express commission, about fifteen dollars a month, plus a tiny Western Union Commission. But the clincher was that the Bridge and Building crew had just remodeled the former women’s waiting room into living quarters for the Agent.  When the depot was built, it was common to have a separate entry and bathroom, plus a ticket counter opening.  This was for couples and women and children.  The men’s side was just that - for men. 

I bid on the job and my seniority was enough. At age 24, I proudly became the Great Northern Agent at Odessa Washington.

We had been living among forested mountains and moving to this stark prairie land was a shock. We landed there, having brought all our belongings in a two-wheel trailer. We looked around in dismay. The horizons were endless. The only obstructions to an unlimited view were the several gaunt skyscraper wheat storage buildings called elevators.        


Looking toward the horizon was like standing on the shores of the Pacific Ocean and looking west around the curve of the earth. We were to learn that watching oncoming trains was like watching ships approach when viewed from the ocean shore.  First to come in the view over the horizon was the smoke from the stack, and gradually the entire engine would appear. If the wind was from the west, and it usually was, the sound of the working steam engine could be first felt, then heard. The sound grew louder and the train larger, until the senses of sight and hearing were overwhelmed. The train would pass with the effect of an earthquake.

Over the years we watched thousands of trains come over the horizon and the impact was always the same.

Unable to sleep after the noisy squabble from the office, I heard the block indicator drop as No. 27 left Nemo. This was a short block, only about four miles, and with a thump, two pairs of feet hit the floor. The post office man ran to hang the first class mail in the hook for pick up, and the operator got on the horn to inform the dispatcher.

 In minutes I heard the penetrating whistle of the high wheeled steam engine sounding for the crossing just as the bells began to clamor. The engineer leaned hard on the whistle as 27 screamed over the crossing and past the depot. The depot shook, so did our bed, and all the dishes in the cupboard rattled. There was a thump as the mail pouch hit the platform. The door banged as the operator came in and OS'd him by. He asked the dispatcher for a good night, got it, and I heard a double bang as he closed and locked the office and waiting room doors.

I settled into sleep. The telephone bells hanging on the office wall clattered now and then, and the soft sound of the main line sounders broke the stillness, but these were familiar sounds, soothing to me. We slept on. Several more trains would roar through town, but we were not disturbed by their screaming passage, even though they were only some 60 feet from where we slept.  We had become accustomed to the sound.  


The living quarters were very basic. The high ceilings remained, but a partition gave us two rooms in addition to the cramped airless bedroom. There was a roomy kitchen although the view from the windows was not scenic since they overlooked the parking area on one side and the house track on the other. The front room windows gave us a view of the parking lot and the main line just a few steps away plus several wheat elevators just across the tracks.               

There was a tiny bathroom with a metal shower. Switch engines passed only feet away. If the window hadn't been painted shut, I could have put my arm out and touched the engine. It was a bit uncomfortable to be in the bathroom when a switch engine was working. 

There was no clothes closet, but then we really had no need for one. Our wardrobe was scanty. In fact, I wore parts of my army uniform for several years. The wool, olive drab shirts and trousers were welcome in winter, but uncomfortable in summer. As we prospered, I built a rack for hanging our clothes in the tiny bedroom.

A single steam register gave a little heat, but a newly installed coal-burning caboose stove provided most of the warmth. The coal was furnished by the GN. It was mined on railroad property in Montana and everyone who used it firmly believed that the coal produced two buckets of ashes for each bucket of coal. 


The cupboards were rough but sufficient for our simple needs. The inside of our home was painted with the same dull grays as the exterior.  The interior paint scheme was uninspiring.

My wife, Pat, was in Chewelah with her parents for two or three weeks when our next son was born. I seized the opportunity to plan a surprise. I would paint the interior!

The only available interior paint in those days was a watery product called Kem-tone. I bought several gallons, borrowed some scaffolding, and began to paint. I worked from end of shift until midnight to finish the interior of our house. The next morning, daylight showed me that another coat would be required. That night, I put in another eight hours of painting. Not enough. A third coat would be needed to cover the depressing and persistent gray color.

All the work and the frustration paid off when Pat returned.  She opened the door while I proudly carried our new second son.  When she stepped inside her face lit up and her eyes sparkled as she looked upon the clean, bright interior of her home.

The business district of the tiny town was only a block away and consisted of a dozen shops and businesses. This was to be our home for nearly seven years.

The town had been founded by German-speaking immigrants most of whom had migrated from the Russian Ukraine. They and their descendants made up the majority of the population then, and that is true today. Most residents had Germanic names, and even the second and third generation descendants easily used German words and phrases.

These were hard-working people with strong family values. Doors were left unlocked. Children attended church with their parents. Odessa was a peaceful, comfortable place to live.

At first, we thought the people of the town might be clannish and we wondered about being accepted. They were just cautious, waiting until we were checked out. When we began to participate in community affairs and make an effort to become a part of the town, we were accepted at once.

Pat was a leader in forming a new Rainbow Girls chapter in Odessa. She was in the Eastern Star and made friends easily. During our time there, she worked in a clothing store for a time, and was a secretary for the town's only attorney.  

I joined the two veteran’s organizations and played on the town baseball team. I became Scoutmaster of the Odessa Boy Scout troop.  In this small town, each of the scouts had parents and grandparents, all of whom were involved in supporting the troop.

In 1950 a Boy Scout jamboree was held in Valley Forge Pa. Several Odessa scouts chose to attend along with the two hundred others. I was selected to be a scoutmaster for one of the troops. Even though I had free transportation on the railroad, I could not afford the additional costs, nor could I afford to take time off from work. The town took up a collection and gave me several hundred dollars in order that I could make the trip. We made the trip in a special Boy Scout train, taking a huge, circular route so that we could see our great country. Among other things, we saw the Dodgers play in Ebbets Field, looked out the crown of the Statue of Liberty, had President Truman for a guest, walked the streets of New York City.  We were gone for nearly a month and all of us returned weary and glad to be home, but many memories. 

For me, the commute to work was easy. I opened the front door and stepped out onto the platform, then walked around the train order signal and the telegraph bay and opened the waiting room and office doors. Each morning, I performed this routine with a sense of excitement and joy. Starting my day at work was exciting. I had an important job which I enjoyed, a family, a home. And security. These were to be difficult but happy times. 


It was not possible to completely separate my family life from my job, although we tried very hard. We had no telephone in the living quarters, and incoming personal calls were inevitable. There was an invisible boundary drawn between our living area and the railroad's business area. Sometimes the lines blurred, as the railroad intruded into my home life, and my home life intruded into my business, but not often.

The noise and excitement of living on the main line was natural to our sons. Fifteen or twenty trains a day roared within feet of where we lived, ate, slept, played. We established strict safety rules and they were rarely bent. Only once or twice did our sons ever try to play on the main line. We devised safety signals. One tap on the wall meant that a train was in the vicinity, two taps meant that all was clear. And yes, three taps meant the coffee was ready.

With a busy crossing about one hundred feet from the station, we constantly worried that a westbound train might hit a car and drive it into our home. Thankfully, it never happened, although there were some moments we held our breath as a car ignored the lights and bells to race across the tracks ahead of the speeding train.

One day a man I knew casually stood at the ticket window. He was clearly upset.

What's wrong?” I asked him.

You've got to do something about that crossing signal,” he complained. “Last night I came around the corner just as the lights came on and when I got to the crossing, that blamed Empire Builder nearly hit me!”

One day we saw our oldest son, now 4 years old, helping the section crew lining track behind the depot.   Pat rushed out to bring him in.

He's okay,” said the section foreman. "Don't worry, we will keep an eye on him."

Another day, a sound alerted me and I looked out the telegraph bay windows. I saw a pair of child's feet ascending the train order signal. When I went outside to investigate, both boys were well up on the semaphore ladder. I had to promise amnesty before they would come down.

A railroad yard was not a safe place for children to play. Yet they had to play outdoors. We recognized this was an accident waiting to happen. We enlisted the help of the second trick operator, and the three of us built a small, fenced yard behind the depot. It was across the house track but positioned so it could be watched from the kitchen window. We placed a sand box and a home-made swing inside the fence.      

The little playground helped, but Pat was never able to relax her constant vigil. We knew our children were in danger the moment they stepped outside, yet we could not keep them inside all the time. Pat had an internal alarm which was turned on every moment the boys were outside the house.

The only time one of our sons was in serious danger was when a toxic gas tank car blew a defective shut-off valve and most of the town had to evacuate.

This happened on a sleepy summer's afternoon. I was about to go off shift, and Pat was preparing an early dinner. Suddenly a pulsing, grating noise sounded an alarm for everyone in hearing. I looked out the back windows and saw fumes rising from a tank car of liquid ammonia, which was spotted on a track some 50 yards behind the depot.   

The wind was from the south, and the terrible smell of concentrated ammonia quickly reached into the station. I ran outside and Pat, holding our smallest son, met me on the platform.

Where's Dennis?” I shouted. 

He was here just a minute ago. I don't know where he is”.  We were frantic. Where was he?  We had to get away.

Then we saw him. He was playing near the edge of the gravel road which ran behind the depot.  The terrible gas fog was nearly reaching him. Without making plans, we threw ourselves into the car, and breathed our thanks when it started at once.

Hold your breath,” I said, “and I'll drive up beside him. Grab him quick and we will get out of here.”

Dennis was nearly unconscious as Pat reached and caught him. We drove swiftly to a small hill nearby and revived him. We were all suffering from tender throats and lungs.

From our place on the hill, we watched the fire department and the tank car owner repair the leaking valve. Soon the wind had exhausted the dangerous fumes. We returned home.

As we parked the car, we saw a strange sight. Half a dozen rats, nearly blind, staggered around in the vicinity. These were the rats which lived beneath the depot. I picked up a tamping shovel and dispatched them.  I rather enjoyed it.

Inside, in addition to the caustic smell of the ammonia, we could smell burnt food. The remains of our dinner was just cinders in a ruined pan. The smell of ammonia lasted for days.

Pigeon Sunday was always an exciting time for our family. Twice a month or so the Seattle Racing Pigeon Club shipped by express eight or ten crates of racing pigeons which were addressed to the GN agent at Odessa. The birds always arrived on the eastbound local on a Saturday afternoon. The waybill carried instructions to release the birds at exactly 7AM on Sunday.

The club preferred that all the birds be released at the same time, so we all worked at the release. We would wheel out the several express wagons bearing the restless birds, spotting them at the edge of the platform. At the stroke of 7AM, I would give a shout and the gates were opened. The birds would escape with a roar of wings and begin to circle the town. We watched in wonder as the flock widened the circle, then turned due west and vanished. How, we wondered, could they fly the 200 or so miles across the Cascade mountains to Seattle? Once there, how could the birds locate their own homes? A few didn't. Now and then a bird or two would desert the group and join with the flocks of free pigeons living among the elevators.

After they were gone, we knew that we had seen something very special. Pigeon Sunday was over except for a few feathers scattered over the platform, and nearly always, a few eggs had been laid in the crates. I would prepare the crates for shipping and send them out on the westbound passenger local that afternoon. Pigeon Sunday was over.  

This routine became complicated when we began to work a 6-day week.  I wrote the pigeon club and told the secretary that I could no longer release the birds on Sunday as it was my day off.  The secretary sent me two one-dollar bills for my trouble.  We handled the next Sunday, but then I refused to give up my day off for two dollars.  So ended Pigeon Sunday.  

Several years after the end of World War II, the War Department contacted the families of soldiers who had died in combat and interred in cemeteries in other lands. The families were given a choice. The bodies could be returned to their hometown or left where they were. Most opted to leave them, but some wanted their sons or husbands to be buried in the local cemetery.

At least one family in the Odessa area made this choice. The memory of the return of that hero is still clear in my mind.

The family and the railroad agent were notified that the soldier's body, accompanied by one military escort, would arrive on the eastbound local. The date was given of course, and I notified the local veteran’s organizations.

The entire community gathered to meet the train. The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars turned out. Flags were present of course.

I was there in a dual capacity; as a member of the VFW and as the station agent. The operator and I wheeled out two baggage carts, one for the body, and one for the usual mail and express. The body would be unloaded first of course.

It was a solemn moment as No. 6 pulled in and stopped. We spotted the express wagon and then came the dramatic moment when the baggage car door opened to display the flag-draped coffin. An army non-commissioned officer, immaculate in dress uniform, stood in the doorway. As the Legion and the VFW saluted, he helped us roll the heavy coffin off the train and onto the wagon. Everyone was strangely still. The escort and I, along with the funeral director rolled the cart away and some men from the veteran’s groups loaded the coffin into the waiting hearse. I could hear some members of the family weeping. There was a burial service the next day at the local cemetery.

We will never forget the winter of 1949-50. It began on January 12, 1950. Up to then, the winter had been normal, but on that date a fierce Arctic storm struck. A bitter wind blew the thin snowfall into drifts which blocked the roads. Two school children died while returning to their rural homes from school. 

The temperature dropped to well below zero and did not rise above zero at any time for more than thirty days.

The depot was not insulated of course, and there were cracks in the old building where the wind and snow could penetrate. The rear of the building was elevated, allowing the wind access to the floors.  The office was livable as we could just shovel more coal into the cranky old furnace, but was a bit cold in the living quarters, as the caboose stove and the single hot water radiator in the living quarters were sadly inadequate against this weather.

We wore layers of clothes. In the evening we huddled near the red-glowing caboose stove, wrapped in blankets.  We played checkers, listened to our small radio and the single station it could pick up. We invented new games to keep the children occupied. It was difficult, since going outside was dangerous.

The cracks around the windows, which in summer allowed small drifts of dust to accumulate on the sills, now admitted snow. Drifts of snow formed on the windowsills, and the floors. Sometimes in the morning, there would be a substantial drift of snow on our bed. We used all our bedding, and piled coats and throw rugs on for added warmth.

Confined to the depot, the days and nights passed slowly. We longed for the Arctic cold to leave. We grew tired of hauling coal.

One day I left the office and went into the house for coffee. My wife sat in a chair, tears on her face. She pointed silently to the floor mop which had frozen to the floor as she tried to clean it. I helped her free the mop, using some warm water, but the icy pool remained on the floor for days.

Our exposed water pipes froze frequently. I would crawl under the building, carrying a couple of flares, activate them and use the searing flame to thaw the pipes. This was dangerous business and we were lucky we did not set the depot afire.

Spring that year was especially welcome.

In stark contrast to that winter, we had some wicked summer weather. There were no trees to shade the depot, of course, and it could become oven like in the heat of summer. In the evenings, I would hook up a water hose and wet the platform, walls and roof. It probably did not lower the temperature, but it gave the illusion of being refreshing.

I had never heard of a sun kink until one hot summer day when the dispatcher called.

Odessa,” I answered.

Odessa, put out a red board east and hold that eastbound until further notice. There is a sun kink a couple of miles east of you.”

Stop displayed east”, I replied.

We've got Hans Undeberg from Lamona and also the Odessa section out there now. Just hold that train until we get word the track is okay.”

Right. I've got him stopped.”

Okay. Harrington has a red board against the westbounds. He's got a couple of 'em stopped there.”

The warning came just before I was to go off duty, and when I was relieved, I drove the few miles to the site of the problem. The section crews from Odessa and Lamona were there, standing well clear of the bent rails while the two foremen made plans for the repairs. I stood clear also and waited to see what would happen.

A sun kink occurs when heat expands the rails to the point where they have used up the space normally left for expansion. The powerful force of the heat then forces the rails to jump into a bend. So strong is this force that as the rails move, they carry the ties with them.

The danger of a sun kink is that the signal current running through the rails is not broken, and the signals continue to read "clear". Many derailments have been caused by this phenomenon.

Repairing the sun kink was a very dangerous project. Many trackmen had been killed or injured in the repairs, and they were extremely wary. The only repair possible was to cut off a few inches of the rail, but to do this, the rail had to be freed from its position. It was bent like a drawn bow, and if not handled carefully, it could spring free and smash anything or anyone in its path.

The two men had decided how to proceed. I don't remember just how it was done, but somehow cables were hooked to the ends of the rails and the men, still well clear of the bent rails sprung them free. The rails burst loose with tremendous force, throwing dirt and rocks in a great cloud. The plan worked. No one was injured, the rails were shortened and replaced, and the track was reported okay for service.

The station agent was responsible for the delivery of the twice monthly paycheck to all area railroad employees. This included the station forces, the two section crews, signal maintainer and helper, and lineman. Often there would be a Bridge and Building crew in the area, and during the spring and summer, usually there were extra gangs nearby. These were crews of 40 to 100 men, employed for the season. They were usually called Gandy Dancers, but I don't know why.

These men were picked up off the streets and hired. Many were alcoholics, ex-convicts, and so forth, while others were just men out of work and needing a job. They lived at the job site in railroad cars and were fed by gang cooks. Often, they were located at remote sidings.  Payday was a big event.

I remember a time when a huge gang was stationed at nearby Nemo siding, some 5 miles from Odesa. There were a hundred or more men in the gang. On payday, the men would be brought to town and would line up at the ticket window to receive their checks. A foreman or assistant would stand with them to identify them to the agent. As each man was paid, he would go to the tavern to cash his check. Payday night was good for the taverns, but with dozens of drunken men around town, it was bad for the community. Some of the businessmen complained to me about the situation.

I spoke to the roadmaster and suggested that on payday, instead of bringing the men to me, I could take the checks to the jobsite. This would be more efficient and should solve the problems of payday night.

So, on payday, just as I was relieved by the second tricker, a motor car was waiting, and I took the checks with me as a crewman transported me to Nemo.

Payday went off smoothly, and each man received his check. But our plan went sour. As we left to return to Odessa, we could see most of the 100 or so men marching alongside the track toward Odessa. Nothing really changed after all.

Hobos were a fact of life for us. In good weather, there were hobos around most of the time. Some would just show up from nowhere, others would be riding in empty cars set out by the local. They all had one goal, to catch a train east or west. Most of them would come in the depot and ask when they could catch a train. It was rare that a through train would stop at Odessa, except for a meet with another train, so transport for the hobo was usually the east or west local.

Trainmen were tolerant of these men, as they knew they needed to get out of town, and the town wanted them gone.  Often the train crews would help hobos find an empty car, or even wait a bit for a running man to get to a car.

Over the years, we got to know some of the hobos. We would see them every summer. We did not have many leftovers, but when we did, Pat was generous with them, and she fed many a hobo some kind of a meal.

One hobo we knew was "Old Silver". A courtly man, he had a mane of white hair. He was clean and apparently well educated. He would stop in at the depot and visit with me for as long as I was willing to talk. At other times, he might see the children playing outside and he would stop and chat with them for a few minutes. At first, we watched the hobos closely, as some were said to steal, but it was never a problem. We were never afraid nor concerned.

The window beside our bed opened out onto the station platform. In summer, when it was open to catch the night breeze, we would often hear hobos make their beds beneath that window. Now and then, if they were loud or unruly, I would shout out the window at them. Other than that inconvenience, we were never troubled by the presence of hobos. Oh, there were the drinkers, and we watched them too, as there were a few who would drink themselves into a stupor. We would have to watch these men to see that they did not injure themselves by falling off the platform or falling asleep on the tracks. 

Hobos were just a part of the scene. We accepted them as that and treated them with the respect due another human.

One day the telegraph wire came alive with some surprising information.

SA, SA SA Q” it cried. Odessa. Odessa. Odessa. Spokane is calling. I answered, “SA”.

Here's a long one, SA, single copy.”

And I copied a telegram that brought some excitement to our town and our family.

The famous Clyde Beatty circus was coming to little Odessa. The circus would play for the weekend in Spokane, and then move on to Wenatchee. Needing a place to stop over and feed the animals, the circus people decided to stop and play two shows in Odessa.  Wow!

The news got around quickly. My telephone rang constantly. That same day, the circus advance man came to check out the track room, unloading facilities, as well as to secure a vacant lot not far away to set up the circus. While he was there, he handed me four passes to the show.

Impatiently we waited for the big day. Everything was set for the arrival of the circus train. Half the town, and certainly all of my family stood on the platform as the train slowed, then pulled past the depot.

The switch was thrown, and the train backed in on the "house" track. That is the name of the track that runs behind the depot, allowing small lots of freight to be unloaded into the station warehouse. Every station has such a track.

This was a very long train. Thirty or more cars. It would fill the house track, and a storage track which connected.  When the train was in place for unloading, the cars which held the lions and tigers was spotted just feet outside our kitchen window.

The unloading began. What incredible excitement! Real elephants were unloaded first, ten or more of them, and they were put to work pulling circus wagons, hauling the big top and many other chores. They tromped back and forth behind our house. We had elephant droppings in our parking lot. Our sons were in an advanced state of excitement.

Pat and the kids attended the afternoon show, and we all went to the evening show.  The whole town, no, the whole county was there.

Late that night, while we were abed but not asleep, the circus people worked to load the train again. We could feel the ground shake as the elephants performed their duties, and the voices of the workmen as they finished the business of loading the train. It would leave early the next morning.

I had to prepare the tickets providing for the movement of the train. This was a once in a lifetime task, and I certainly did not know how to make out a ticket for an entire train.  Eventually, I had to call Spokane or St. Paul for help. The business manager came in to pay the fare. He was carrying several heavy money bags. He insisted on paying the fare in silver dollars. There was something like 180 of them. I gave him the passage papers, and he boarded the train. Soon it vanished over the horizon to the west. It was gone, leaving only some circus-type debris behind.

I counted the silver dollars before I took them to the bank for deposit. I was short one dollar. It came out of my pocket. Small price to pay for all that fun.

Many of our customers were farmers. They shipped milk and cream and other produce.  Each day we would have a dozen or more cans of milk and cream to load on the eastbound local. These cans were very heavy, especially the ten-gallon ones.

Almost every shipper who brought his cream can to the depot took it directly to the warehouse and loaded it on the baggage cart, then came into the waiting room while I filled out the shipping form.

When they picked up the empties, they would just help themselves, waving at me through the window as they left so I could record the delivery.

Because of this traffic, we became acquainted with most of the area farmers.  Often, they would bring farm goods and leave them with me as a gift. Eggs, vegetables, cream, fruit, things like that. Who could ever forget that cream! Usually it was a pint, sometimes a quart jar.  The cream was so thick it had to be spooned from the container. It could be knifed on a slice of bread like butter.

 “Do you folks like chicken?” one lady asked me.

Chicken! You bet we like chicken.”

Well next time I come in, I'll bring you a couple.

And so, she did. But these chickens were living, squawking birds. She had tied their legs together and opened the office door and handed them to me.

Hope you enjoy them,” she offered.

Uh, yes. Thanks.”

I tried to give them to Pat. Nothing doing. We would worry about them after I got off work, she said. So, I took them to the basement furnace room, thinking to leave them there. But it seemed cruel to leave them with legs tied, so I released them and closed the door.

After work, we took a butcher knife and entered the furnace room. What a mess! I hadn't thought about that possible outcome. This was where we kept the jars of fruit that Pat had canned. Many were tipped off the shelves and broken. The floor was splashed with spilled fruit, broken glass, feathers and what not, especially what not.

Pat gasped as we opened the door. “Oh, what a mess. What are we going to do? How can we clean this?”

The chickens ran, flew, cackled as we tried to catch them. Finally, I found a burlap grain bag and managed to capture one, then took it behind the depot and beheaded it with the knife. Oh, what a bloody mess. We repeated the process with the other chicken. Ugh!

After dunking them in hot water, we braved the smell of wet feathers and plucked them, clenched our teeth, cleaned them, cut them in ragged pieces. 

We had planned to have chicken for dinner that night.

Do you feel like eating them tonight?”  Pat asked.

Uh, no. Let's wait a few days.”

Never again would we have anything to do with preparing live chickens.

Another time, the wire chattered. “SA SA SA Q” Odessa Odessa Odessa, Spokane.

I answered, “SA”.

Long message, 4 copies.”

And the message told all railroad personnel in Odessa that the next day, President Eisenhower's special train would be going through town. Section men, signal men, and the lineman were instructed to go over their territory and make certain everything was in order.

A special train with just an engine and one car would precede the president's train by 15 minutes, making sure the track was safe. Ike, we were told, would wave from the platform on the last car.

Later, the word came that, he was tired and would be sleeping. Our local state senator sent a telegram to his political party in Spokane, pleading that Ike make an appearance. Yes, Ike would do it!

A crowd gathered. Well, maybe 50 people, but that was a crowd in Odessa. The scout train passed. Then we heard a thrilling whistle. I had been told that the diesel engine pulling Ike's train had been equipped with a new whistle which would sound more like the old steam whistles. It did.

The engineer whistled the crossing and applied a bit of brake. The train slowed. Waving from the back platform was the familiar smiling face of Dwight D. Eisenhower. We all waved back.

All line operators and agents disliked Western Union. Handling telegrams was a huge nuisance. It was more than that. More than an inconvenience. When the telegraph called “SA SA SK” (Spokane Western Union calling Odessa) I answered with reluctance. Incoming telegrams were nearly always big trouble.

The contract the railroads had with Western Union required that all messages addressed to people living within one mile of the station had to be delivered or phoned. But in those days, people did not send urgent telegrams if they could telephone instead.

I answered the wire. “SA”.

Here's one.”

It was addressed to a family living 5 miles out of town. They had no telephone. The message read, “Come at once. Mother is seriously ill.” 

Now, the rules said that I could collect delivery charges for urgent messages that had to be delivered beyond the one-mile limit. But this meant sending a service telegram to the origin station and notifying them that there would be a service charge and naming the amount. The originating station then would contact the sender and send a telegram back authorizing the delivery and charge.

This might take days. So, I made plans to deliver the message. Now, I had to get permission from the train dispatcher to lock the station for an hour or so.

I called him and explained the situation. “Can't let you go, Odessa,” he said, "that westbound is out of Harrington and I will need you to copy orders for him".

Now what?  Often, I would know the party. I might call a neighbor who would deliver the message. Sometimes I might call the pastor. Sometimes my wife would go. We did whatever it took to get the message delivered.

Talk about “neither rain nor sleet nor snow....”, well this applied to line Western Union offices too.

It was a rare message that could simply be delivered by telephone. That's why we all disliked to hear “SK” calling us.

We were to charge about a dollar a mile for delivery if out of the one-mile range, free if within. Many of those telegrams within the limit were to people who lived 3/4 mile from the depot, at the end of a long, muddy road, and they nearly always kept one or more vicious dogs in the yard.

Oh, yes, I usually made a commission of about a dollar and a half a month from Western Union.

I’d often wondered about the holes in the warehouse floor.

I asked one of the section men. “What in the world are those holes for?”, I pointed to a dozen holes which had been drilled through the wooden floor planks. The holes were an inch or more in diameter.

 “Well, that's a story”, he replied. “Years ago, whiskey for the local tavern was shipped by rail in wooden barrels. One day a shipment came in and was stored overnight waiting for the drayman to deliver. There were four or five barrels as I remember.  Someone must have seen the barrels and got an idea. When the agent unlocked the door the next morning, all these holes had been drilled from underneath. I can't remember whether he struck the whiskey lode or not.”

One Sunday, when I was playing for the town baseball team, I broke a leg. That was not the real concern. We had no medical insurance, nor sick pay.  I was to be in a cast from hip to bottom of foot.

Pat visited me in the hospital.      “We can't possibly miss a month's work,” I complained.

I know it. I've been thinking about that. What if you did the telegraphing, the train orders, the tickets, and kept the accounts while I did the things that needed legs?”

We decided we could do it because we had to. Need is a powerful motivation. “Sure,î I said.  

I’d been in the hospital for a day or two.  “Have the relief man call the chief dispatcher and tell him I will handle the job tomorrow morning. Warn him not to tell the chief that I will be wearing a cast though.”

And, with Pat's help, I crutched my way to work the next morning, and every morning for several weeks. Pat and I made a team. We thought that for her to handle the heavy baggage carts and load the ten-gallon cream cans might be a problem, but sympathetic railroaders and customers lent a hand and we got by.

She was only needed at critical times and could spend most of her time managing the household and caring for the children.  She knew the train schedules and came in to work the trains. If I needed her in a hurry, I just thumped my crutch on the floor, and she came running. You do what you have to do.

Now and then, friends would come from out of town and spend the night. Lacking bed space, they would sleep on the make-down daveno. It was located along the wall nearest the platform. That meant that passing trains were within 30 feet of where our guests lay sleeping. At night, that would seem like they were sleeping between the rails.

We had adapted to the sound of trains and never heard them. If one of our sons made a sound, even a small sound, one of us would hear it, but the passing of a huge train did not disturb our sleep.  But the guests. Oh, my, the stories they had to tell in the morning. The first oncoming train would strike terror, and they would lie awake all night waiting for another train to crash through the wall. But our guests were usually young couples like us.  Many of them returned again.  Years later, the trains passing were a topic of laughter.

The night the train almost failed to stop is one of my most vivid memories. 

It was 2AM on a moonlit autumn night.  I waited on the platform, along with 20 or 30 people who had come to see two people off on the train. I was filled with importance as I looked in the window and announced, “He's in the block. Should be here in about 8 minutes.”  I set about placing the baggage cart, filled with the couple's luggage next to the track. People were hugging and saying their goodbyes. The headlight appeared; the exhaust of the heavy steam engine thundered in the darkness.

Wait a minute! There was no sign of the engineer slowing the train. In a panic, I separated myself from the cart and waved a frantic stop signal with my hands. The engineer saw me and applied the air brakes. The train slowed, then stopped. The rear car was well past the station, and the train began to back up.

The young man, a local farmer, had come in a week or so earlier. Harvest was over and it had been a good one. He decided that he and his wife were going to fulfill a long-time dream and take a train trip to the east coast and back. He and I worked long to get the travel schedule set to please them. They were going first class over a dozen different railroads. I worked into the night making reservations and preparing the two-yard-long tickets.

Eight passenger trains passed through Odessa each day, but only Numbers 5 and 6, the Spokane-Seattle Cascadian stopped. An exception was provided in the timetable. Passengers who were bound for St. Paul or beyond were entitled to board the train at Odessa. It was a flag stop for this situation.

The rules provided that the person on duty at the station would display a white and a green lantern on the platform. This would inform the engineer that he must stop. This was not practiced as it was a problem to clean and fuel the lanterns, and in a high wind they would blow out. We would simply send a telegram to the conductor and engineer of the Western Star at Wenatchee, telling them to stop at Odessa for either Pullman or coach passengers. I had done this, of course.

As the train backed up, I knew I was in trouble. I had not followed the rules. Surely, I would be reprimanded or docked time.  But as the rear car passed, the conductor stood on the step. 

What's the matter with that fool?” he shouted. I thought he was talking about me. But I breathed a sigh when he added, “I know the head end had the message to stop because I checked with him at Wenatchee before we left.” Oh, Glory be. I was saved. 

The young couple boarded the train and the conductor gave the head end a high ball. The engineer whistled off and the big train left town. We watched the marker lights vanish. The group on the platform thanked me for stopping the train. My status suddenly changed from goat to hero. 

The two “Fast Mail” trains, Numbers 27 and 28, carried Railway Post Office Cars, called RPOs. These cars were a wonderfully efficient way to handle mail. Each car was a post office in itself. Mail for towns and cities enroute was delivered and picked up in pouches.

For Odessa, the pouches were normally only partly filled, but during the Christmas season, their bulk increased.

One memorable winter night, I happened to open the door to watch the attendant in the RPO toss off the pouch. It was just a few days before Christmas, and as happened, the pouch was filled so full, it was shaped like a basketball. It was too heavy to toss, so the attendant shoved it out the door with his foot.

The second trick operator was new. It was her first night on the job. I had warned her to take shelter behind the telegraph bay when No. 27 passed. She forgot.

The platform was slick with new snow, and the pouch struck with predictable results. It bounced. I screamed a warning and the operator fell flat. The pouch barely missed her but struck the side of the station with a crash and rebounded beneath the wheels of the speeding train.

Oh, my! The wheels cut through the mail pouch, and the wind from the train created a blizzard of Christmas mail. Envelopes were scattered as if by a tornado. I told the operator to call the section foreman for help, and I began to pick up mail. It was an impossible task.

The section crew made an attempt to salvage mail but, in the darkness, and snow, they had to give up. The following days, they continued to find mail. Some was picked off the undercarriage of the train in Wenatchee. Some we found after the spring melt. Some was never found, of course.

There was never enough money. We often thought that if the time ever came when our bills were all paid, we would be the happiest people in the state. We had bought some items of furniture from the local combination funeral parlor and furniture store. We were in the process of paying that bill for the entire time we lived in Odessa.

The only purchased entertainment we allowed ourselves early on was to see the weekly movie. We could afford to buy only one ticket, so we took turns each week. One would see the movie and the other would stay home with the children. But the entertainment was shared when the movie-goer would come home and relate the entire plot. 

We found odd jobs. I always had two months' work every harvest working for one of the local grain companies. My shift at the depot ended at 3PM and at 3:15, I was working in the grain company office. We worked until midnight or so every day, seven days a week. The money was always welcome, but we ran short on sleep.

Railroad accounting was cumbersome and primitive in those days. Each station was independent. The Agent was responsible for keeping his own accounts, collecting and remitting money, balancing all accounts four times a month. This was tedious and time consuming.

For accounting equipment, we had a pencil sharpener and a supply of pencils. The ability to add long columns of figures, multiply, and divide mentally was essential.

Learn to add by making units of ten,” an old auditor told me. He spent some time teaching me the technique and I was forever grateful.

Our goal from the time we arrived in Odessa was to return to Chewelah. It seemed the incumbent Agent would never retire. He was well into his middle 70s when I got the word, in the form of a letter from his daughter. "Dad is retiring!”  she said. "He will give up the job on September first. " 

This was in 1953. The bulletin arrived, and I submitted my formal bid. It was to be 15 days of waiting and hoping. Would I have enough seniority? Yes! The job was mine. I ordered a box car, and it was spotted behind the depot. We loaded all our goods into it and shipped the car to Chewelah. Meantime Pat was there, looking for a place to live.  She found one, a run-down rental for $35.00 a month.  It was a palace to us, and we moved in.......but that is all another story. Maybe it will be told another time.

1 comment:

ramp said...

I very much enjoyed reading this mini-memoir. Thanks for posting!