Last week’s front page article about students working for District 91 as custodians for the summer stirred up memories of a summer job I had 40 years ago. I was able to get work on a section crew on the Soo Line Railroad, fixing track between Manitowoc and Hilbert, Wis.
What made a lifelong impression on me was how hard the work was and the characters I worked with. First, the characters.
Art Langholz was the foreman. He was 60 years old and was built like Popeye-huge arms and a tiny waist. A confirmed bachelor, he lived in a room above Van’s Tavern and would cool his beer in the tank of the toilet.
Rayful Rusch was the assistant foreman. With a build Brian Urlacher could envy, Rayful was an alcoholic. One day he would be pleasant and respectful, and the next day he would be arbitrary and downright mean. I learned to stay out of his way.
Harry Pingle was about 50 years old. He wore the same outfit every day: overalls on top of work pants and a flannel shirt, with a railroad cap covering his balding head. Harry’s two front teeth were missing, which made his speech hard to understand. When the truck would hit a big bump in the road, the corncob pipe he smoked would inevitably fall out of his mouth, followed by expletives that none of us could interpret.
George was around 30. Several times a week he would inform us of another woman he had seduced. His wife and two kids would often pick him up from work.
Brian was 21 and a Vietnam vet who would tell us stories about the 47 Viet Cong he had killed while he was a machine gunner in the Army. I used to play baseball with Brian when I was in high school.
David Berkedal and I were the other two crew members. We were both pre-seminary. We didn’t say much that summer. We learned a lot.
And I’ll never forget how hard the work was.
When we found a cracked rail, we would have to change it. We would pull all the spikes with claw bars and then four of us, using a tool that looked like ice tongs, would lift and carry a steel rail weighing 1,000 pounds. When we were changing ties, we’d jack up the rail next to the tie and one of us would pull on the thing until it slid out onto the shoulder. When I would struggle with an obstinate tie, I would often hear Art or Rayful say, “Tommy. Pull hard, comes easy.”
Two weeks ago, a higher-up in our military allowed that the draft might be reinstituted. My father was drafted twice, once for WWII and then again for Korea. He hated war and I have a suspicion that he suffered from a stress disorder as a result of his experiences.
But my father, a Wisconsin Lutheran, also learned a little bit as a result of being drafted. He asked a Southern Baptist to be my godfather. When talking about Negroes my father would always say, “Some of them were the finest people I have ever met.” In that way, Sgt. Holmes received an education no one can get from books. It lifted him out of his narrow, parochial view of reality.
I think a universal draft, with no exceptions for future presidents, would be a healthy thing for many reasons. It would provide for our young people a grand tour of reality. Rich kids would clean latrines, and youth from the projects would have a chance to be squad leaders. What’s more, hard work and menial labor put a whole lot of things in perspective.