I stamp the snow off my boots as I enter the CNR yard office in Transcona. I have just come back from about a two mile walk checking three tracks in the main yard for my chief clerk. I know he didn’t really need them checked but he hated to see me sitting in the yard office just because I had efficiently and quickly completed my checking assignments for the whole shift. He had sent me out into the snowy night because he could. I suspected that he didn’t like me but I couldn’t figure out why. All the other chief clerks thought I was a great worker and often specifically asked for me.
For those of you who don’t know, checking means walking beside a railway track from one end of the yard where there is a switch to the opposite end of the yard where there is another switch. It is these switches which the switchmen (unique choice of name) throw open when they are “breaking”up a newly arrived train by shunting cars into assigned tracks. It is a car checker’s job – that would be me on this night – to then at different times throughout the day record the cars on a specific track. In this way the chief yard agent will know where any particular car is at any particular time.
With a board clutched in my left arm and a checking sheet – basically a long manila tag sheet with ruled lines on it with dimensions of 30 cm by 10 cm – bound to the board with elastic bands, and a switchman’s lamp clamped tightly under my left armpit, I walk between the adjoining tracks and check the cars on my left side. I record the car’s origin e.g CNR, CPR, B&O, ATSF, etc. and its identifying number. By looking at the first three numbers, one can identify whether a car is a box car, an automobile carrier, a gondola car, a flat car, a cattle stock car, a horse stock car, a hopper car, a tank car, a caboose, or a work train car. I also record whether it has any Bad Order tags on it – these are B/O tags signifying that there is a problem with the car and that it should be taken to the car repair shop in the yard. I also register whether it is loaded. Boxcars have special metal seals on the doors if they are loaded. Other cars you simply bang on the side or check the car to see if it is loaded with any material with any raw materials or any load on a flat car. Sometimes I will check two tracks at a time making sure I enter the car numbers on the right corresponding sheet.
I had done this all evening and now I was looking anxiously at the clock. I had asked my chief clerk if he could let me go fifteen minutes early so I could catch the last black and white bus back to Winnipeg. It left at midnight and from where I was in the yard office, it was at least a ten minute walk to the small shack where the bus sat idling.
My boss was being a complete “dick-head” because he said if he let me go early, he would have to let everyone go early. I had told him everyone else here lived in Transcona. I was the only one who needed to catch that bus. He smiled without humor and told me, “Tough!”
Asa I sat there fuming, he noticed that other staff members were giving him the evil eye. Finally with a great show of largess at eight minutes to twelve midnight, he said that I could go.
I ran out of the building and with my parka flapping, my switchman’s lamp bouncing on my arm, and my boots slipping and sliding on the packed snow, I ran for the bus. As I neared the bus shack I could see that the bus had already left. Great! I was stranded. I could walk back to the yard office and spend the night sleeping on a chair in the brightly lit office or I could “suck-it-up” and walk the thirteen plus kilometres back to Maryland Street in Winnipeg.
Afraid I might do something rash if I went back to the yard office and the chief clerk was still there, I chose to walk home. I followed Pandora Street to Plessis Road and then followed Plessis south to Dugald Road. The cold started to set in but the snow had stopped falling. I followed Dugald Road until it merged into Marion Street. All the walking kept me warm inside my WWII army surplus parka. It was heavy but not very warm. It was the exertion of the fast walking that was keeping me warm.
There was little or no traffic. Because most of the area was industrial there no city buses running at this hour. Marion Street got me through St. Boniface and across the Red River on Main Street to Broadway. I followed Broadway Avenue up to Langside Street. I was now only a handful of blocks from home.
But I was starving from all the exertions of the day plus the long hike from Transcona. I must have walked thirty miles that day and my “supper” had been skimpy and hastily thrown together. I had almost enough money for a Salisbury House Big breakfast. I knew the three employees who worked the midnight shift and I knew that they would give me credit until I could pay them back.
I walked in and made for a space at the counter.The three employees I knew were working. I called them Larry, Curly, and Moe because they were a lot of fun and always pulling pranks on each other or on steady customers they knew. The place was almost full. There were people who had stopped in for coffee or a late or early breakfast or for simply a Mr. Big Salisbury nip; policemen – no policewomen on the street back then – some cab drivers, the usual number of late party-goers who were “putting a lid” on their night of drinking, plus a few “street people”. Street people back then were the social outcasts of the time Some were gay, some were transvestites, some obviously had some mental incapacity. But at the Sal’s House after midnight all were welcome and all were accepted for what they were and no judgements were made or questions asked.
Occasionally some forgot the unwritten rules for behavior and were reminded. If they didn’t want to mind the unwritten rule, they were asked to leave. Refusal meant that the police would be called or often the police were right there and the problem was quickly solved and everyone could enjoy the warmth and the good food of the House.
I ordered my breakfast, wrote out my IOU, and fell to with a very ravenous appetite that only a teenager can conjure up. Eventually warmed up from the food and several cups of coffee and after being “picked on” several time by either Larry or Curly or Moe, I left the warmth and security of the Sal’s House and made my way home to my bed. it was 4:30 a.m. It had been a full and interesting day.