[Inspired by “Keep the Trains Moving” written by Erich Gaukel with photography by Jack Delano in the January/February 2019 issue of The Iowan]
It was bright and hot that day in 1943, that day when my foray into the workforce was made permanent. We were assigned to clean the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad’s H-class locomotive. It was a womanly job. Women were only allowed to do the work to which our delicate states were fit: sifting sand, sweeping, and wiping. The few men who remained were taxed with guardsmen or management. I didn’t mind too much, though.
We all wore dark, heavy denim overalls, men’s, so we tied twine around our ankles to keep the wide legs from flapping around and getting caught. Some women wore denim caps, and some of us wore handkerchiefs wrapped around our heads. My favorite was red. When I studied my soot-smudged face in the mirror after using the bathroom, the color cheered me a little. Our heavy work boots were men’s, too, and we wore extra socks so we didn’t blister our heels.
Even on cold days, the locomotive’s black metal soaked up the sun and became hot to touch. The smell of old oil stayed in our noses long into the night. We had safety goggles but mostly kept them on our foreheads because they dirtied so easy. Black seeped into our skin. No degree of scrubbing could get it out. It defined every line in our hands and became embedded around our nails. At lunchtime, we sat together while we munched on cheese and bread and drank from metal bottles.
I always sat next to Jackie. Our husbands had enlisted together. Her four children and my three played together most nights. Since our husbands left, we took turns cooking supper. It gave us a chance to soak some of the grime away in hot bubble baths. We met when Jimmy moved us to Clinton from Kankakee when he’d accepted the job at the railroad. Clinton was kind of a hub so there were plenty of jobs to be had. We bought the house next door to Jackie’s, a two-story with a basement, frequently down-wind from the corn processing plant. Jackie brought over cookies. We had windows above our kitchen sinks that looked out onto the narrow space between our houses. Most nights, we chatted while cleaning up after supper. Until her husband, Bill, grumbled about letting out the heat. So, in winter, our chats were short-lived. Jimmy grumbled, too, but it was in more of a teasing way than a you-better-shut-the-window-right-now way.
I missed Jimmy, more than Jackie seemed to miss Bill. She seemed like she would be content to have the war drag on forever, while I read the newspaper and listened to the radio broadcasts daily to try to figure out when the whole blasted thing might end. It was Jackie who talked me into applying for the railroad job. She said the men would be proud to have us helping the war effort and it would give us a little extra money. Of course, we were paid less than the men who used to do our same jobs, but it was something. Plus, she said, there was no use moping around the house all day while the kids were in school. So, I went with her and waited in line, thinking they probably wouldn’t hire me. But they did.
I liked the ladies I worked with. Sometimes we’d sing, until a supervisor came around anyway, then we’d stop. Apparently, his view was we weren’t bright enough to do two things at once. It was probably true for him, but we were used to helping our kids work long division while cooking supper and washing the clothes. So, it was okay, and I knew when Jimmy got home, I could go back to my old life and finally maybe keep some polish on my nails.
That day, I was assigned to be the wiper, using a long metal rod attached to a hose that spewed high pressure steam used to clean the engines. I rather liked it, watching the dirt disappear as I swiped the steam back and forth. Many times, I tried to think of a way to invent a similar device for home use. I thought it would do wonders for fingerprinted – or artwork covered – walls. Of course, I’d have to dial back the power some or it would take my paint right off, too.
Everyone knew that Jackie and I were close. When I saw her walking toward me that day with Dave, our supervisor, on her heel, I knew something was wrong. Dave reached down and cut the main water supply to the wiper. Jackie stared at me with red eyes. I waited, not wanting to hear it. She pulled a folded up thin, yellow paper from her bib’s front pocket. Her hands shook. My hands shook as I read it. My Jimmy was gone. Not in combat, but an apparent heart attack in his sleep. They would send his body home as soon as they could. I was advised to have arrangements made. Though I’d done my best to put it out of my mind, I knew it was possible Jimmy might not come back. But the thought it might be like that never crossed my mind. Jackie took the paper back and put her arms around me, guiding me inside to start my cemented life.
The war ended and so did the railroad job. Bill came home and Jackie and I drifted apart. Probably because as the years accumulated, I remained always on someone’s payroll and she had to stay home. First, I was a store clerk and then, once I learned shorthand and how to use a typewriter, I became a secretary. Until yesterday. Until my doctor told me my cancer had spread too far. It was eating me away from the inside out faster than they could attempt to scrape it away. So, I called my boss and came home. It was finally time. I painted my nails, sat in Jimmy’s old recliner, and waited.
Jodie Toohey is the author of nine books, five novels (four historical fiction), three poetry collections, and one non-fiction book. She is also under contract to write a local restaurant history book for Arcadia Publishing. When she’s not writing, Jodie helps authors, soon-to-be authors and want-to-be authors with her Wordsy Woman Author Services business. She also serves on the board of directors for the Midwest Writing Center, a local non-profit dedicated to promoting the literary arts.