In 1969, I was 18 years old. My father arranged for me to work for UP during one summer through our neighbor, who I was told was an engineer for the railroad. Not the kind that drove trains -- the other kind. So, I went from 84th and Pacific to 9th and Pacific in Omaha and met the crew at a little shack, down where the trains signal their turns. The rest of the crew were black and Hispanic. I was a white high school kid. I knew nothing. It took a while to fit in, and the key was to work like hell and show them I could do it.
Eventually we got along great. I swapped ham sandwiches on white bread for Mexican leftovers wrapped in tortillas - great stuff. They liked to give me peppers and watch me sweat. To this day (43 years later), I remember a foreman recalling, "his eyes watered, his nose ran, and his tongue hung out and beat his knees."
Since I told them I wanted to be a lawyer, they called me Perry Mason, which shortened into just Perry. That was my name the whole summer. They all forgot my real name. We built track in downtown Omaha, replacing lighter rail with heavier rail for the first time since the rail was first laid down. My recollection is that we were going from 90-pound to 132-pound rail to handle heavier loads. That was in the Old Market and all around downtown Omaha. Most of that rail is now out of service or gone.
One crew member, Chito, had 13 children. Everybody did what was needed to get him overtime to support those kids. I came to find out that my uncle, a general practitioner doctor, had delivered 11 of the 13, all for free.
I discovered that I liked hard work and being up to my hips in mud. I liked learning to drive spikes over a rail with a spike mall whose head was no bigger than the spike -- no small feat. I liked it that the foreman declared me the hardest working member of the crew. I liked being a member of a team that knew exactly what they were doing. No machinery. We bolted the rails together with giant wrenches, and bent the track around curves with jacks.
One highlight was that the Zoo was in our territory, so a hand-picked group got to go there to fix the track. It was like playing with toys, as the Zoo railroad was much smaller than standard. The foreman said we had to check out our work, so we always got on the engine and rode around the Zoo. Fantastic!
My UP experience changed me for the better forever. Now my daughter has a summer job at the UP. As I say to her, “It’s a great day for UP!”