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January 8, 2014     Feather River Bulletin
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January 8, 2014
 

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Bulletin, Record, Progressive, Reporter Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 15B BRAT, from page 1B engineers could take their greasy, sodden clothing to wash. After all, no self-respecting engineer would make his wife wash such filthy gear; and, believe me, filthy it was. Just spending a minute or two around one of those soot-belching iron horses was enough to cover you, head to foot, with grease, oil and just about every imaginable kind of dirt. Often there would be four or five engines lined up to go in the roundhouse for maintenance. One time the roundhouse foreman forgot to fill a boiler with water as an engine was being fired. It blew up, seriously injuring a couple of workers and causing thousands of dollars of damage. The foreman was fired unceremoniously in spite of more than 35 years of service. Due process? Are you kidding? Another place for kids to explore was the freight house or shanty. The kindhearted foreman, a guy named Hance, would allow Tommy and me to go underneath the building in the crawl space on hot summer days. Mysteriously, a couple gallon jugs of Dad's Old Fashioned Root Beer or some other goodie would inevitably come rolling down our way. What better use for salvage goods that were damaged in transit and were going to be destroyed anyway? Onetime we consumed over a gallon and a half of root beer. The next day my mother asked me whyI was getting up so much in the middle of the night and whether or not I might have the flu. Now I get up for other reasons. To this day I cannot stand the thought of root beer. Not everything was idyllic in this rambunctious railroad town. Bars outnumbered churches. I believe there were four or five on Commercial Street alone, not to mention two houses of "ill repute" east-of town. One was called The Seven Steps, the other The Green Lantern. Pug and I would sneak down through the pine forest to the edge of town and situate ourselves with a good view of the entrance to these infamous places. Pug had a cheap pair of Boy Scout binoculars. One day we saw a prominent railroader, whose name will go unmentioned, entering The Green Lantern. Pug looked.at me quizzically and asked, "Does hia wife know?" I got the distinct impression that most rail towns had whorehouses. In fact, a certain wag, well known for his risqu8 and hard-hitting railroad humor, described the town of Winnemucca as "Sinamucca." And then there were the hobos and the gypsies. The hobos had a little tar paper, tin and cardboard village on the north side of the river. Most of them were only temporary residents, riding the rails from town to town searching for work. Banish the thought of calling these hobos bums. Many earnestly sought jobs even at the height of The Great Depression. I remember occasions when a hobo would come to our house and knock on the door, asking directly, "Food for work, ma'am?" My mother could not resist their plaintive pleas, making them at least a peanut butter sandwich. The gypsies were a . different story: Their encampmentwas also on the Feather River, a little further out of town. They came in caravans of canvas-covered wagons often drawn by horses just like you see in the movies about Dracula and Transylvania. Their reputation was that they were all thieves. Whether true or not, the sheriff, not one to mince words over constitutional niceties, would issue an edict allowing them to come into town only on Friday afternoons between 4 and 6 to shop. Evidently no civil libertarians rose to their defense. One day a neighbor said she saw a wagon that had a bear tethered to the back. If you looked at the bear the gypsies would try to charge you money for the mere act of looking. Bold, those gypsies were, and very proud, too, as they steadfastly refused to camp anywhere near the hobos. The caste system had its infinite variations. One of the busiest times ever in the history of Portola railroading was World War II. Troop train after troop train passed monotonously through, taking thousands of young men over to fight in the Pacific campaign. A very enterprising friend of mine suggested that since the trains all stopped in Portola, we make up a bunch of sandwiches and sell them to the troops: So we slapped a piece baloney between two pieces of white bread with a dab of mustard and mayonnaise, establishing quite a thriving little business. Our price was 10 cents a sandwich. I remember some poor soldier, destined for who knows what fate, leaning out the window and saying, "Hey kid, don't you think 10 cents is a little stiff for a lousy baloney sandwich without lettuce?" Au contraire. I like to think we were contributing to the war effort. After all, anything must be a relief from GI rations. There are many other aspects of life in a rip-snorting railroad town in the 1930s and '40s that left indelible impressions on a young man seeking his way. One of my most lasting memories concerns the language and dialect Of railroaders. Let's call it "Portolaise" or "Raflspeak." Although not rising to the level of a true folk language similar to "Boontling," spoken in Booneville, it did come close, being virtually unintelligible to outsiders. In addition to a wild array of unique and sometimes wacky nicknames, railroaders had a heavy lexicon of slang. For instance, an engineer was a "hog head" or "hogger," a switchman a "reptile" or "snake," a cop a "bull." Cars The Western Pacific Railroad Inc. sponsored a semiprofessional baseball team called the Portola Railroaders. The team later changed its name to the Solons to match the second-hand uniforms donated by Sacramento's Triple-A team. hauling livestock were not, as you would expect, livestock cars, but rather "pig palaces," coal trains "black snakes." The caboose was a "brain shack" and a locomotive did not have headlights, but rather "eyeballs." The railroaders called themselves "rails" and anybody who had a high priority for train assignments was a "pool." Woe be it for anybody not from Portola; they were all "tourists" from "down below" or just "below." If you were going to San Francisco, you merely stated you were going "below." Those pitiful characters who ardently desired to become rails, but failed, were called "foamers" -- a sort of rail paparazzi. What a lowly job it was, too, if you did make the grade, only to be assigned a "goat," i.e., switch engine. A favorite phrase I must share, risking disfavor, was, "go to beans." This meant "eat lunch." The restaurant in the old depot at Portola was called the Beanery. Most every rail town had a beanery. Beans must have played a major role i,n these early railroad years. One wonders what it Was like having to ride 112 miles on the High Line (Fourth Subdivision) with members of the crew having just dined in the infamous Beanery, especially in winter when the windows to the cab were closed tight. Curiously, Paul Henry Jenner, no lover of the noble legume, was the engineer on the very fn'st High Line revenue train from Keddie to Bieber in November 1931. The use of common English, too, was often fractured. For instance, the word "don't" often prevailed in place of "doesn't," i.e., "He don't know anything (or nothing)." Ain't was probably the most-used word in the English language. A husband was an "old man," a wife was an "old lady" and everybody's name was invariably preceded by the simple three-letter word "old" or "ole": "old" Ray, "old" Jimmy, "old" Mr. Johnson, "old" Mrs. Murphy, etc. Even a mother, God forbid, was an "old lady"; a father an "old man." I remember my mother constantly correcting me and Dad. Although we both knew correct English, we deliberatively avoided it. Cultural bonding required no less. After all, this rail town was a kingdom in its own right. This drove poor Mom nuts. Portola railroaders of that era (i.e., the 1930s and '40s) definitely had a strong liberal bent and broad-minded view of the world. Many of them had traveled far and wide to big cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Reno, Elko and Salt Lake City. There, many of them had been exposed to a plethora of ideas and ethnic differences. As a matter of fact, having had to fight so hard, as we mentioned in our last installment, for the rights of workers, they voted Democrat almost universally. I can't remember a single instance before a decade or so ago that Portola went Republican. No political ax to grind, folks, just stating a fact. As a result of this broad-minded atmosphere with its expansive acceptance of all types of people and philosophies, Railroad Brat himself benefited. When I moved to San Francisco later and enrolled in high school, my best friend was African-American. We were constant companions for three years, playing baseball night and day. I was bereft of all stereotyping. So, too, was the case when I went to the University of Colorado. Jerry, also African-American, and I became the first integrated college dorm roommates in the university's history. Remember, a variety of ethnic types had helped build and run the railroad. There were the Chinese, Mexicans and southern Europeans, of course, and we often forget the Sikhs and Hindus, among others. In fact, the rail cart actuated manually was called a gandy dancer. Some attribute this name to the Indian name Gandhi (as in Mohandes Gandhi, a Hindu), although much controversy is acknowledged regarding its precise origin. The impression that Portola, a railroad town through and through, was a compassionate and broad-minded place was brought homein the middle '50s when I returned for a visit and noticed that the United Nations flag was hanging in the high school science lab. Although I'm no politician and was not meant to be, I do know one thing for sure: Portola had heart. . Many do not realize that the Western Pacific Railroad Inc. sponsored a semiprofessional baseball team during this era. They were called the Portola Railroaders, later the Solons, and consisted of railroad employees as well as young college baseball players recruited to come up and play for the summer season while holding down menial railroad jobs. Many of them came from leading universities like UC Berkeley. The team name change was attributable to the fact ttie players wore out their old uniforms, inheriting hand-me-downs from the old Triple-A Sacramento Solons, now the Rivercats. Play took place on a baseball field behind the high school that consisted of bare earth riddled with pot holes, rodent tunnels and nary a blade of grass in sight. You can imagine the bad hops this rugged terrain induced. Any decent infielder would sport at least one black eye per season. A player of particular notoriety was Johnny Lusar, a powerfully built first baseman who was a locomotive engineer. He not only had the physique of Mr. Universe, but was the spitting image of Lou Gehrigo The team was particularly active during the war and played such powerhouses as Tonopah, Fallon, Hawthorne and Herlong, to name a few. Admission was free and because there were very few seats most people remained standing. And, yes, there @ere no iPods or ringing cellphones. It was not unpatriotic to play baseball during World War H because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself had decreed that even Big League baseball should continue to be played since it was good for the nation's morale. You hisfory buffs may take note of the fact that it was during this era that baseball teams started playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the beginning of the games to show their patriotism. This doubtlessly assuaged any extreme sense of guilt. The day after a big Sunday game, we kids would all run up to that same diamond and pretend we were hog-head slugger Johnny Lusar. When baseball season was over and winter was upon us, there was ice hockey. The Feather River, then unfettered by the Frenchmar and Lake Davis dams, provided expansive frozen surfaces for home-brewed games. In fact, the Western Pacific used the freezing of this river to harvest ice to refrigerate cars for perishable goods. The ice deck was east of the old girder bridge and dam. Our tools of engagement were a shaved pinecone and modified broomsticks. I often See Brat, page 16B I TM Students will learn: * Technologies & skills needed for online work * Types of Online work & platforms * How to establish & manage a virtual office or freelance career Bus 180- Virtual Entrepreneurship Thursdays from 4pm- 7pm Class starts Jan 16th Call 530-283-0202 ext. 600 to register or email aschulz@frc.edu for more info TM 570 Golden Eagle Ave. Quincy, CA for more inf,) visit: www.frc.edu/admissionsandrecords River College