My earliest memories are of trains. Our house in Capreol, Ontario was within sight of the CNR mainline to Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg. Every train that traveled across Canada, went right past the front of my house.
In 1940's and 50's, the highway systems were not as widespread or efficient as they are today. People and goods moved primarily by rail, whether it was across the county or across the country and almost everyone knew the train schedules as well as they knew the names of their closest relatives. Train time would invariably find many people gathered at the station to meet someone who was arriving on the next train, or to see someone off on the train. Many just came to be part of the excitement of the arrival and departure of the passenger trains.
I was born into a railway family, in a railway town and in a railway country. When friends and families got together, the women would gather in one room and talk about their planned train trip to Toronto to shop at Eaton's or the impending arrival of a sister from Winnipeg. They made their plans around what jobs their husbands could hold and what their scheduled days off might be for the next few weeks.
The men would gather in another room where one of them was telling of his most recent trip where he had been running on number 4's time and just barely got into clear at Tionaga, due primarily to the fact that the brakeman climbed up on top of the boiler, with half the train still hanging out on the main, and flagged the trans-continental passenger train with a burning red fusee as it came across the west switch doing track speed. Do you recall that trip, Mooch???
The railroaders told their stories to each other in such animated fashion that, in order to completely describe the story, they had to set their bottles of beer, or glass of whiskey onto the floor beside their chairs while they reached into clear air and grabbed for the brake valve, pulled the Johnson Bar up a few notches, or pulled the backhead throttle back as far as she'd go.
Sitting quietly on the floor beside my father, I listened to these stories....many of them told for the umpteenth time. Occasionally, when I was sure no one was looking in my direction, I pulled my dad's beer bottle to my lips and took a pull or two, setting it back exactly where I had found it.
During one such session, I had been listening to my father and Greg Coulson telling each other of their exciting escapades. When there was a short lull in the conversation while they washed the dryness from their throats, I decided to tell a story of my own.
"I have a story to tell," I said, my five year old's imagination working overtime.
"Oh yeah?" said Mr. Coulson.
"Yes," I said. I then proceeded to tell them about exploring in the tall grass behind our back fence where I found a dinner plate sized, flat stone.
"What then?" asked my father.
"Well, when I turned the stone over....I found underneath it.....a moose and a frog!!!!"
I had probably wanted to say that I had found a 'mouse' and a frog, but it came out 'moose' and a frog. But since I figured they were stretching the facts a little in their stories, I let mine stand.
Mr. Coulson downed the last of his beer and said to my father...."Since neither one of is going to be able to 'top' that story, I guess it's time to go home".
As soon as I was released from the school room at the end of June 1962, I hurried on down to the CNR offices at the west end of Young Street to ask for a job. I was just four months into my sixteenth year and was excited about the prospect of having a job, ...a real job that culminated in a regular pay check every two weeks. Apparently, I didn't have any problem with leaving my familiar surroundings; my clean bed, a summer at the cottage spent fishing, picking blueberries, swimming and being with my grandparents.
CNR was hiring men for summer work in Northern Ontario, and I was filled with the need for adventure.
Before I left the CNR offices, I had the job and was given an envelope with a rail pass and a formal introduction addressed to the foreman of the gang that was already working near Sudbury, less than 30 miles from home.
I went straight to Drago's Men's Wear on Young Street where I explained to Rudy Mazzucca, the proprietor that I was leaving to work on the gang and needed some work clothes and boots. Rudy opened my very first credit account and walked around the store with me while I picked out work socks, a couple of shirts, some underwear, a pair of boots and a new pair of green Hush Puppy shoes. Yep, they were green. Well, I thought they looked nice! And besides, I knew that we'd be travelling all across Ontario and have lots of opportunities to get into towns and go to dances and meet lots of girls, and well,....'nuff said, eh?
Before I knew it, I was on my way to an Extra Gang on the Bala sub, just south of Capreol.
An extra gang in the early 60's was made up of from twenty to forty track workers, supervised by a foreman, a couple of assistant foremen, enough kitchen staff to look after the culinary needs of the gang, a bull cook, who did all of the menial housekeeping chores on the outfit cars and a timekeeper who, as the title implies kept track of the hours each man worked, the charges he might incur against the company in the way of purchases at the company store, or commissary.
It was also the Timekeeper's duty to provide tables and chairs, along with suitable appies and ashtrays for the poker game that was held, in complete contravention of the company's rules every Sunday, our only day of rest.
Our gang was comprised of about seventy five men, all told.
The gang was changing ties and I went to work with a shovel, tamping the new ties into place using broken slag from the nickel smelters.
It was the hardest work I'd ever done, and before the day was over, my hands and feet were bleeding and I was laying under a tarp on a push car. I had drunk too much ice water from the wooden barrel that was brought to the workers every half hour and I was suffering from sun, heat, and excessive ice water ingestion.
The next day, the gang was moved to Drocourt where it was more temperate and there were a couple of rivers nearby where one might cool off at the end of the day.
There was an empty field beside the track, and on Sundays, a bunch of the fellows would set up a baseball diamond and play ball for a few hours. Frenchy, the smallest man on the gang was awesome with a spike maul. He never missed the spike and would sink the spike right to the tie plate with no more than four swings. He was also the strongest hitter on the ball field. When it was his turn at bat, outfielders would sink back past the edge of the field and take up positions in the forest; not so that they might catch the ball and put Frenchy "out", but just to be able to see where the ball went as it disappeared into the branches of the big pines and maples.
It was while searching for the ball one Sunday that a cabin was discovered along a narrow, little used trail in the woods. I found fishing line and hooks in the cabin, which had not been equipped with a lock, as was the custom in those days. The following Sunday, instead of playing baseball, I borrowed the fishing gear and walked to the Magnetawan River where I caught some nice pickerel. We cooked them up in the cabin and had a nice feed of fresh fish.
Shortly, we were told that we were to be moved up north for a large tie program somewhere near Nakina.
The next morning a few men stayed behind while the rest of us went out to finish off the last of the work that was to be done at Drocourt. The men who stayed behind gathered up and secured hoses, cables and other gear that had been used during our stay and put it all away in 'stores' cars.
The last thing to be loaded onto a flat car was our two out-houses and they stayed in place until just before the north-bound freight that was due to pick us up....arrived.
Off we went on a long, slow trip that lasted all day and all night.
When dawn broke, we were being shoved to a spot in a siding called Caramat. It was really pretty country, but many miles from the nearest electric light...let alone the nearest single young woman!!!
Life at Caramat was much the same as life at Drocourt, except that a bunch of fresh recruits arrived soon after we got settled. A couple of them were from Frontier College and, after putting in a 12 hour day on the track, would teach basic literacy by candle light to some fellows at the end of our bunk car.
A few of the other new guys were tough fellows from Toronto who were just there to get enough time in to go back to the city to collect Unemployment Insurance. There were three in particular who were bad seed and they were led by a man named "Blackie". If you've ever watched the movie "Shawshank Redemption" with Morgan Freeman and Timothy Robbins, you're familiar with "the girls"...three really badass cons who liked to brutalize other men. Meet Blackie and his buddies.
One night, Blackie paid an unwelcome visit to a young man in his bunk and, holding a knife to his throat was about to ask a favour. At that moment, two young men from Sudbury, Larry Hautamakie and Richard Buyarski walked into the bunk car and, recognizing that something bad was afoot, pulled Blackie out into the darkness and beat him to a pulp.
The next day, Blackie took a swing at the gang foreman with a shovel and was immediately fired.
When we returned to our bunks at the end of the day, several of us found that we had been robbed and it was obvious who had done it.
My green Hush Puppies were missing!!!!
I ran to the foreman's bunk car and told him that our stuff had been ransacked and much was missing. He said it was too late because Blackie and his buddies had caught the train to Toronto that afternoon.
I figured if it took us all day and all night to get up here, they would take that long to get back, so I asked him to notify CN Police in Capreol that they were on the train with stolen goods, and I would be on the next train to lay charges against them.
To this, he answered that I would likely lose two weeks pay by the time it got to court and I got back to the gang. My ire was up, so I asked him for a travel pass and got ready to board the next train east.
CN Police officers met Blackie and the boys at Capreol and took them into custody. When confronted with my complaint that they had stolen my shoes, they denied it, saying that they had bought them in Toronto before going out to the gang.
The officers asked Blackie, who was wearing the green Hush Puppies to remove them and he did. The officer turned them over and....exactly where I had said they would find them...were my initials carved into the soles of both shoes.
Blackie was convicted and I returned to the gang with my shoes. And there must have been some sort of mix-up as well, because my paycheck wasn't short a single dime.