Wednesday, December 23, 2009


In February, 1967, I was working as a section laborer on the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railroad, with my childhood friend, Chris Rhoads. In the mornings we drove about 22 miles out the Pasco-Kahlotus Highway, then drove down a gravel road toward the Snake River to the railroad section shack headquarters. I don't remember the name of the section, but we were down river several miles from where the Lower Monumental Dam is. Our foreman and the other member of the gang were a couple of old alkies from Kahlotus. Our job was primarily to cruise the rails of the section in a little motorized cart, hauling a trailer with the tools, and check the track for rock slide damage. The tracks were a couple hundred mostly vertical feet above the river, with another fifty to a hundred vertical feet above the tracks. As in any canyon, there were many little side canyons that were crossed on small, and not so small trestles. Our other main job was to replace the old ties that were on both ends of the trestles. The big tie crews, with the big tie replacing machines did all the track between switches and trestles.

Chris and I were nineteen years old, and we considered ourselves to be in pretty good shape. It was the norm that one man could replace one tie in an hour. This meant we had to dig around and under the old tie, remove the spikes and plates, pull the old tie from under the rails, slide and align the new tie under the rails, replace the plates, tamp the shit out of the ballast to make sure the new tie was secure and in place, and then drive in the spikes. The old guys did this job in about fifty minutes, then rolled a cigarette, and had a cup of coffee. They probably replaced an average of seven ties a day. I think on my best day I might have replaced three or four. Chris was better than me, and he usually did one more than I did.

Some days we worked our butts off, at least I did, albeit inefficiently; and other days we did nothing except cruise our section for the inspection, and build little fires to try to get warm. It was colder than a well diggers ass in that canyon with the temperature in the teens and the constant wind, we probably had a wind chill in the minus twenties. Some days it was so raw and cold that the foreman kept us in the shack. If I hadn't brought a book, there was always old porn magazines to peruse. Most days Chris and I rode in one car, but occasionally we would both need to drive. Once on the curvy gravel road down to the canyon, we would play like one of us was a moonshine driver being pursued by the other that was the revenuer. We would be fish-tailing around sharp corners with the canyon below and certainly there were not any guard rails. To be immortal and nineteen again would scare me to death now. There was a reason that I never thought I would live to be as old as I am now

About April I decided I would move to Seattle. I had friends living there and going to U of W. They had the great fortune to be living in a fire station on an old Navy hospital that had been converted into a TB Sanatarium, and a state care center for the warehousing of “special” citizens. The fire station had two vintage 1940's fire trucks, a hose drying tower, an office for the chief, two rooms and a bathroom next to the trucks for two old somewhat special men, Bob and Leroy; and six dorm rooms, bathroom, and day room for the younger men. Most were college students, but a few of us were working and saving money to go back to school. I moved in when one of the guys graduated, and then there were four of us from Pasco, one from Kennewick, and I can't recall who was the sixth. For going to one hour training sessions every week, and staying in the station and being on fire call every third night, we received our room with weekly maid service, and meals at the hospital cafeteria that was about two blocks from the fire station, and used by the hospital nurses. And, this was 1967, the summer of love! We had it made.

The call outs for fires were rare. Usually it was for a trash basket fire, or one of our “special” patients would pull the fire alarm so they could see the fire trucks drive through their grounds of the hospital. I do remember one time in August when it was really hot for Seattle, and several of us had just returned from swimming in Haller Lake, and were sitting in the day room drinking a beer, when we got an alarm that was a real fire in an old school about a quarter mile from the station. This old wannabe fireman named Pat was our weekend chief. He was a wannabe because he was too short to be a real fireman, but he did a lot of our training. Anyway, Pat called out the type of hose lay we would use, and we were hooked to the hydrant and pouring water on the flames a good twenty minutes before the county fire fighters arrived. Everybody involved said we did really well as volunteer fire fighters. What a rush! I was really full of myself that day, and later that evening when I had a date with a UW coed.

By the following spring, I moved out of the fire station, and over to Magnolia Bluff; but my place was taken by another guy from Pasco. I think we controlled three or four of the rooms. It wasn't too many years later that the hospital was closed. Modern times eliminated the need for TB Sanatariums, and the warehousing of the special patients was no longer in vogue, as they were placed in smaller foster care homes. I am so glad I had friends that had gotten into that fire station, and had invited me to move in with them. It was an experience I will always cherish.

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