Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)
I spent considerable time over the past eleven years learning 19th century North American history and following up on every conceivable lead in my locomotive engineer’s collected letters and papers in order to write his story as he might have told it. Early on I recognized the common bond we shared: both of us worked for “hi-tech” corporations—he for the railroad, me for a leading manufacturer of microprocessors. In Age of Betrayal, Jack Beatty says that the railroads annihilated space and time. Intel, Apple, Microsoft, et al have taken this, ah, structural modification several giant steps further.
So, I got that part.
Last Friday, Gary and I went to the monthly meeting of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the National Railroad Historical Society, a very well organized and friendly group. Several members wore the classic pleated-high-crown, short-billed locomotive engineer caps of blue-and-white-striped denim from various lines, looking like they’d been “workin’ on the railroad.” Suddenly it hit me: close to half-a-century ago, I was “workin’ on the railroad!”
It was a clerical job: receptionist in the Law Department of the Southern Pacific at 1 Market St., San Francisco, from January 1965 through March 1966. I had two primary duties: answer phones and insert replacement pages in what seemed like miles of binders of statute laws on the shelves of the library in which I sat and in all the lawyers’ offices on both sides of the library.
It was not a demanding job and they didn’t mind when I read at my desk. A couple of the younger lawyers noticed when I chose The Octopus by Frank Norris, a tale of the conflict between the rapacious [Southern Pacific] railroad and San Joaquin Valley ranchers and farmers. They raised their eyebrows: “You’re reading that, here?”
My selection of reading material didn’t seem to matter; I was later reprimanded for knitting at my desk.