.....................................................................War Stories.........San Jose & Santa Clara Valley.........Wx4 Card Catalog

You and I are viewing very different photos - yes we are!

You are looking at Caltrain #43 - me, the rails

David Rector seemed to specialize in dusk and dawn photography. Of those that we have seen, this is one of his best, a shot of Caltrain #43 passing San Jose Yard recorded just after sunrise at about 7:18 AM on a chilly November 29, 1983 morning. Gorgeous!

With all due appreciation to the beauty of his photo, I nevertheless see something different. It has to do with the scattered lengths of rail laying between Southern Pacific's San Jose Yard tracks #1 and #2.

David Rector, Wx4 Collection

Barely visible in the photo under SP's Newhall Tower in the distance, is a collection of worn out track machines in the process of (hopefully) being revived by members of an extra gang for another day's work on track #1. I was one of the men struggling to instill life into those recalcitrant devices.

As the train passed, Foreman Frank Pacheco was in the process of receiving his marching orders from his boss, Roadmaster Ron Measures, whom Frank and the other foremen called Papa Gallo. Foreman Pacheco was a man from the old school who conducted himself with dignity and his gang like an elementary school class: he called out anyone who engaged in idle chit-chat while working. There was old school method to this. It was pretty easy to become injured during a moment of distraction. Even as it was, my raw inexperience caused me significant injury twice during my mere four months' tenure in maintenance of way.

Frank's gang was a mishmash of veterans - all hispanic men who migrated from Mexico decades ago - along with three victims of the deep 1980 recession on furlough from other departments - Ron, a clerk from Pacific Motor Trucking, Mike Dolynick a San Jose carman, and me, a trainman. Mike and I were partners on a spike driving machine, and the three of us were the ones who disrupted class with the chitchat. The Hispanic gentlemen largely kept their heads down and did their work without comment. With many years of conditioning behind them, these nearly-elderly men could outwork we young transplants into the ground without breaking a sweat.

Early-on I came to understand that they had successfully endured decades of hard labor because they knew every trick of the trade. If you think that track-work does not require many skills…don't. For instance, right off the bat I learned that I did not even know how to use a simple shovel correctly. Subsequently, I was taught how to drive spikes with a maul without breaking a handle (a cardinal offense) and figuratively, my back. Some of the machinery could take months of practice to adequately master. It could take years to become a top flight operator of a laser track aligning machine.

Given how dismissive many rails were of their bottom-dwelling stature in the railroad hierarchy, it is natural that trackmen tended to return the favor, especially towards trainmen and enginemen as lazy whiners, which indeed many of them were. Thus we three newbies were under scrutiny, but especially me. Just before I arrived, the roadmaster had fired one of my fellow furloughed brakeman due to laziness. But once the men saw that we did not consider ourselves above them or the work, they admitted us into their fraternity of underlings, and moreover, went out of their way to show us the ropes, despite the language barrier.

Until the last few weeks, the gang foreman had been a Minnesota Swede named Mark Hennessy. Mark, a very personable, intelligent fellow who later became Caltrain's head track guy, had their respect because he had originally hired out as a track laborer for Chicago & Northwestern, and could do the work. That he could drive two spikes simultaneously with two mauls helped to generate respect.

About 20 minutes after #43 passed, we were at work at this very spot. Note the general lack of spikes on #1 track. Mike operated his half of the spike driving machine, while I, as I had done for some time, drove spikes on my rail by hand faster than the nearly useless machine could do. I lost 25 pounds during my first month.

It took morethan a month for our tiny gang with its decrepit machines to replace ties and lay ribbon rail on the approximately one mile of track between switches, partly because two big time freight train derailments at San Jose depot diverted our attention. Truthfully, I don't think that I enjoyed running locomotives later in my career any more than I did pounding spikes amid this very humble and agreeable group of men.

With the work done, the gang was disbanded. Foreman Pacheco bid in the Sunnyvale section foreman job, and I followed. It was not so pleasant, because our first order of duty was destructive - to take up the rails in Sunnyvale's small yard. Less than a half decade before, I had switched those tracks at length on the Sunnyvale Local.

In February I found out that I could hold a huge-paying trainman job in Tucumcari, NM. This was during the overhaul of the line to El Paso, so I wound up doing several stints on work trains, where I occasionally pounded a few spikes just to keep my hand in. My experience also made my non-working hours more convivial, because I spent a goodly part of them drinking with the track gang at a certain bar in Santa Rosa.

So, yep, you and I are observing different pictures. - EO

Foreman Hennessy photographed me here operating a spike puller. It worked nominally better than the spike driver.