The railroad spirit and apple pie

The railroad worker has his own special psychology. His sense of control over the long trains, his feeling that he occupies a strategic position in industry, his meeting with many new scenes and people daily, his relative freedom on the road from the spying presence of the boss, his realization that he is a member of a strong labor union — all combine to give him a sense of sturdy independence. He has written many glorious pages in labor history.

In the 10 years that I spent as a railroader I got to know well and to admire the militant spirit of the railroad workers. Let me illustrate it by a simple story — the tale of a piece of apple pie — which at the time it happened tickled my sense of humor and class spirit.

I was working west out of Chicago as a brakeman on the Northwestern. We were held at a small place with a “meet order” and, while waiting for the train that had to pass us, we all went into the lone local restaurant to grab a bite to eat. In the crew there were five of us: the “hoghead” (engineer), the “con” (conductor), the “tallow-pot” (fireman) and two “shacks” (brakemen). We also had along with us the Division Superintendent, an officious bureaucrat.

The six of us sat down together. For dessert we had some particularly appetizing-looking apple pie. The one pie was cut in five pieces and on top sat an extra piece for the sixth man. As the waitress put the luscious pie on the table she remarked, “I was lucky to find the sixth piece, it’s the last we’ve got.”

As we ate, we workers chatted among ourselves, the “Super” eating without a word. He gobbled his food and was the first to reach the dessert stage. Whereupon he shoved his knife under the double-decked section of the pie, put the two pieces on his plate and began to wolf them.

I was amazed at this proceeding and so were the rest of the crew.

What unspeakable gall. When the Super took the two pieces of pie he knew quite well that one of us would have to go pieless. I thought to myself, “What a boss-hog, what a true representative of the Northwestern Railroad company, in fact, of all the employing class.” The workers looked from one to another in rising contempt and anger. Finally, “Slim,” our “boomer” hind-end brakeman, solved the situation in the traditional railroad worker’s aggressive spirit. Quite unabashed by the Super’s reputation as a bureaucratic tyrant, Slim called out to the waitress, “Say, sister, bring us five portions of tapioca pudding, there’s only enough pie here for the Super.”

All of us workers laughed loudly. The Super’s face turned red and he left the table without finishing his pie. He also found some excuse for not traveling farther on our train. Within a couple of days the whole division was laughing over the incident. It was surprising how much class feeling could be evoked by just a piece of apple pie.

— Foster’s 1907 story comes from his classic book, “Pages from a Worker’s Life.” Foster’s stories have inspired other workers to write about their experiences. They make fascinating reading. Got your own stories? Don’t hesitate to write them up and send them to the People’s Weekly World. About 500 words is the right length.

rwood@pww.org.