Archive for October, 2016

The Oreo Gang

October 25, 2016




They called us “the Oreo gang”, three white guys, four Black guys, working on the Kansas City track maintenance gang in the summer of 1980. Friday was truck wash day, where we’d knock off early and visit the local package liquor store. One of us would go in and get a six pack of Olde English 800, and put a six pack of pop on top. The pop went to the front section of the truck, where sat Albert and Kelly, two old Black trackmen, and our foreman Scott who was sort of a hippie. The back section got the beer, and soon a joint would be lit and we would cruise the streets of downtown Kansas City drinking beer and getting stoned after a hot day of putting in ties by hand and driving spikes “windmill” style, if you know what I mean, and hoping for some “sugar digging””, the term for soft soil instead of the craggy big rocks they called “pink lady”.

Kelly was considered something of an Uncle Tom (“the union don’t sign yo’ paychecks!”) and was teased mercilessly by the younger Blacks- “Drive, Kelly you turtle headed mother fucker!” (ok his head did look somewhat like a turtle’s), as our truck bounced along, tools rattling, smoke wafting from all doors.

I remember how lucky I felt when I went down to see my VA man (“Went down to see my VA man, he said “son don’tcha understand?” by Bruce Springsteen really happened to me) and was hired for a seasonal job with the railroad. Despite what some may believe, the early Reagan years were marked by recession and a farm crisis that rocked the Midwest.

When winter came I got back on at the steel mill where I had accumulated only four months seniority, and worked long enough for my insurance to cover my youngest of three boys’ birth; the Army had covered the other two. Then the mill closed and I went back to the railroad gang- but at the close of summer, they closed the Kansas City yard. I called the union, they said I could work in Iowa so I jumped in the car and drove to farm crisis country. I went to college on the GI bill every winter and searched mightily for a permanent job (a visit back to the VA man resulted in not exactly “son don’tcha understand?” but a variant: “You gotta show me something, all you have is fooling around on the railroad”, as if his work, at a big desk in a tall building, was real work and my digging and spiking and sweating was “fooling around”).

When I got to Iowa in 1982, there were many houses for sale. In the winter months I went to a community college .  I went to get free cheese from the county office and was told “why don’t you go back where you came from? We have our own unemployed people here!”. She still gave me the cheese, but it wasn’t a warm welcome.

I hated Sundays the most; that was the day you could count on that no job would be found. I became an expert in how the Iowa Job Service worked, and my veteran status put me in the front of the line, but there were still no opportunities. By 1984 the track work had dried up, and I taught myself basic electricity and got hired as a Signal Apprentice, but had been out of work for eight months. They shut off our heat. I had to go to Chicago to work. I left my family huddled around space heaters, carrying a pack of food stamps and a new Diner’s Club credit card I’d sent off for in desperation. In Chicago I learned that Diner’s Club cards were like meant for high rollers, and I couldn’t even pronounce “pate'” at the first restaurant I came to. It began snowing, and I had to climb under the little Chevette and bang on the starter with a tire iron to get the starter bendix to spring loose and start the car. It was a time for prayer let me tell you– one time I stole a tire and wheel from a gas station and I had the feeling that if I had the balls to steal it, it would fit but I would have to answer to God! It fit.

During that eight months I was off work, I wrote some poems and got third place in Iowa State’s annual poetry contest.One of the three I submitted was about living on food stamps, from a child’s point of view, and trying to understand the role of the police- mind you this was six or eight years before I became politicized. Neal Bowers was my teacher, a well known poet who deals with the South and the Civil Rights era, and he said he’s seen alot of student copies of this or that poet, but never William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweep”. I learned later this was a compliment whether he meant it so or not- (note, writers or musicians, if somebody name checks your work even in the negative, it’s a compliment), but the poem was written in a muddled, almost pornographic doggerel (which sums up  my poetic voice btw) that he felt would’ve

worked better in plain English. I said “No, this poem is a rant, this poem is angry, it is and must be a desecration of language”.

Ofiser Frendly

Ofiser Frendly wares blak shiny shoes

and a big shiny baj on his unform thats blue

He says if sum one trys to give you drugs just say no

if you see sumthin suspishus just call and let him no.

Me and Bernie tryd to tuch his gun

but he sed no it mite go off and hurt sum one.

The teecher thankd him for cummin to speak

and sed the PTAd lik to have him nex week.

Daddy lost his job at the meet paking plant

and sed he was tird of bine gas with the chanj bak from food stamps.

He broke ten windows in our howse

I dont know why

but he lookd lik he was about to cry.

I aksd him to be nic and play by the ruls

after all thats what Oficer Frendly sed wen he cam to my skul.

Daddy sur was acting funny that day

he fild the car up with gas and drov away didnt pay.

Ofiser Frendly cam noking at our door

and he wasnt kwit the sam as he was befor

He took Daddy away to jale

Mommy had to call Grandma for munny for bale.

Daddy sined a paper sane hed bin iresponsble in the past

and for too yeers he wouldnt rite any more bad checks or steel any

more gas.

The skul cownsler started takin to me

she said you can trust me Iv got a mastirs decree.

She sed peenut butter and chips wernt too nutrishus

and aksd if Mommy and Daddy were on drugs and I sed no

I’d call Ofiser Frendly if I saw anythin suspishus.


Here is another poem I wrote about the railroad, part of the three I got the prize for:


What Old Men Do When They Tell Their Wives They’re Going to Walk the Dog

Old men come down to the depot just to see what’s still there,

the switch lock, the train orders, the dispatcher’s chair.

Yellowed papers hang from clipboards of a grander time, when

the Rock Island Rocket ruled the main line.

She breezed through town at a hundred miles an hour,

with a hearty “Highball!” from the man in the tower.

Picks and shovels once held by artisans of track

now stand covered with cobwebs in the gandy dancer’s shack.

All that remains is a weathered shell, broken shed

and dreams of legends in an old man’s head.

And that is my railroad story, just a footnote or prequel to the strike wave of 1994 when Caterpillar and Firestone and Staley strikes rolled across the Midwest. It was as if it had all happened to some other person, and indeed it did, because change only comes with class struggle. How did I learn this?

After a bout with a bleeding kidney, which I dared not claim as work related for fear of being a “marked man”, I had been off work for nearly three months waiting to get an angiogram  that would clear me for work. Just before the phone got disconnected I was called for interviews at both Amtrak and Firestone. Since the Amtrak job was in Chicago and my wife didn’t want to move, I went and got the job at Firestone. After only two weeks, we went on a two week strike that resulted in my gaining the same amount of pay I’d been making at the railroad, and I didn’t have to move!

Seven years flew by, I was divorced and on strike again, this time for what was to be 27 long months. About 3 months in, a Socialist Worker’s Party member came to our picket line. He offered to buy me coffee at Village Inn, so we went there and began talking about the strike. “Why don’t the other unions come and help us stage a big rally and chase out the scabs?”, I asked, as he seemed to carry an air of expertise on these matters. “I mean, our union president should get on the phone and call the other union presidents, and…”, then he gently interrupted, “you uh, might find this hard to believe, but they really don’t care that much”. “what do you mean, they’re always talking about solidarity…”. “Yes, true, but those guys are not going to give up their cushy jobs for you. Those guys spend more time hanging around the bosses than they do guys like you. They have an office, the bosses have offices, they talk to each other, relate to each other. They are just figureheads” “W-w-hy can’t they just pick up the phone and call the other unions?”, I stammered. “Who’s he gonna call?” he replied. “He’s just a figurehead, you are the union. Besides, union contracts come due at different times, it’s not like we could all walk out at the same time”.  “Why that’s terrible! Somebody’s gotta do something about this!” That’s when he looked at me as if down the barrel of a gun and said, “there’s only one person who can do anything about this and that is YOU”.

We talked some more, and I didn’t ask him to elaborate, there was no need. I knew what he meant although it would take years to fully digest, or rather incorporate the full meaning and truth of that one sentence. Not only did he mean me personally, he meant me as the rank and file, as part of a mass of conscious workers, fighting for freedom from  class domination.