My Railroad Community by Barbara H. Wicks

 

Most people’s perception of the railroad is usually being blocked at a crossing by a train. You’re running late and the train is stopped. I was part of this railroad community for thirty-six years. For me, it was a lifelong career that gave me opportunity, confidence, friendships, support and experience but also brought along sacrifice.

In January of 1979, I had a four-and-half-year-old and a newborn baby and was separated from their father.  I went back to work as a file clerk for Brown and Root in the Galleria area after four weeks of maternity leave.  One of my friends was talking to me and telling me that her husband worked at Southern Pacific railroad and he had seen women working there which was very uncommon at that time and because people were unwilling to work the hours that job demanded.  Two of my friends and myself went downtown to apply.  They were called back right away but did not go to the interview.  They finally called me in June of 1979 and thus began my railroad career. My life would never be the same.

I went for my interview at Englewood yard that is between Wallisville Rd. and Liberty Rd. which was a rough part of town here in Houston. I was a 21-year-old Hispanic women in a male dominated work environment. I went in with my pretty high-heel shoes, white skirt, and sleeveless flowing floral blouse. I looked around the office and thought to myself how old, yellow, and dirty it looked.  Mr. Frazier interviewed me, he was short man with a chewed up cigar in his mouth and carried 300 pounds to my 109 pounds.  The first thing he says to me is, “You won’t be wearing those shoes around here and secondly, we don’t want to hear your baby is sick and you can’t come to work. You want to work with men then you’re going to work with men.” I did not ever call in to say my child was sick in thirty-six years and my work attire had changed to lace up leather work boots, jeans, tee-shirts, and rain gear.

It was very hard in the beginning, I would check tracks and sit out on a log stump that had fallen off one of the train cars and cry with the smell of sulfur and diesel all around me seeping into my clothes and hair. I would watch big rats scurrying across the tracks as I walked by. I was so lost. I didn’t understand what was going on and the railroad lingo. It is a language all its own.  When I would go to pick up my girls from my mom’s house, she would ask me how work was and I would tell her it was hard but I kept going.  All for my daughters.

I was told I would work weekends, holidays, all shifts, out in the rain, cold and heat. Several years had gone by and my oldest daughter asked what we were going to do for Easter and I told her nothing because I had to sleep and work that night.  After a while my daughters quit asking about holidays. I still remember to this day, the disappointment in her little round face. I missed birthday parties, graduations and lots of holidays. I worked midnights most of my railroad career, so I could take my daughters to school and pick them up. They never rode a school bus because I was always there.

I was hired as a clerk, that meant you did a little of everything, from walking tracks, checking numbers, janitor, working in different yards throughout Houston that serviced some of the industries around the city.  As a tower operator, I worked in a tower and controlled the signals and switches, coming in and out of the yard. One day, I was checking cars around the depot area, I had a clipboard and pen I was looking down, when all of a sudden two individuals popped out of one of the open box cars.  I got so scared and nervous that I stopped. I felt my heart stop beating and my blood drained from my body as I stood not moving.  One of the men asked me what I was doing. I was able to talk and said with confidence that I was checking cars for the railroad and I started walking away.  As they passed me, one of the men said “That is why they are sending women to the army… they aren’t afraid of anything.”

I have seen people die in front of me in accidents. I was working up in one of the towers with several other people when there were two cars coming out of the respective tracks and were going to collide.  One of the switchmen ran to apply the brakes to the end of one of the cars and somehow got pinned between them and was rolled.  The yardmaster next to me was screaming to let the cars go but the switchmen could not hear. I started shaking and did not stop until long after I was in bed.  The switchman was airlifted to the hospital but he did not make it. He was a father, husband, and friend.

I was assaulted one night, while I worked by myself in a tower controlling traffic coming in and out of the yard.  I noticed an individual when I drove up, standing across the street where there was a beer joint that was closed that night.  There was a train coming in on the main line next to the tower when I heard someone knocking at my office door.  It was pretty routine to have a train pull in and the conductor would drop off at the tower and order a ride for the crew back to the yard office.  I opened the door and knew I had made a mistake, I tried to shut the steel door but the man that had been standing across the street pushed the door open and I flew across the room onto the floor. I have never been so scared before and I felt like I was going to die.  He pulled me by my hair and tried to get me into the bathroom. I started talking to him and told him that the train that just pulled in had a crew that would be coming upstairs. He got scared and asked me if I had any money. I only had ten dollars. That made him angry and I gave him the keys to my truck to diffuse the situation. He left and I locked the door after him. I called everyone on the radio to come help me. I was safe. I had a few scrapes and a lot of bruises but those would all heal. The emotional trauma of that night took much longer.

In the middle of my career, the Union Pacific Railroad merged with the Southern Pacific Railroad and I became a train dispatcher. Things changed. I had a lot of stress and responsibility for the train crews and people working on tracks to keep them all safe and alive. There were people that did not make retirement due to illness, accidents, and life’s challenges.

I thanked my heavenly Father every day for that job and for keeping me safe.  When I had my youngest daughter, I prayed and told God I would work hard so that I could support both of my daughters and now my oldest daughter Angelique and my granddaughter Celeste have both graduated college and Angelique is pursuing her Master’s degree. My youngest daughter Stephanie has two beautiful sons and is a paralegal at a successful Houston law firm. I missed a lot of birthdays, holidays, graduations and family gatherings to keep my promise to work hard and raise my girls, and that makes every struggle that I went through worth it.

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My Railroad Community by Barbara H. Wicks

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