All the Livelong Days

 

The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul

& Pacific had nothin’ and everything to lose

that summer in Missoula. Our job—the Catlin Street

crossing replacement—four men, water and tools:

spike malls and pullers, shovels and picks,

rail jacks, tie tongs and wrenches.

 

Shirtless under August sun, we dug and pried

at broken ties exposed below the rails, weathered

in creosote, sand and cinders. We scanned for tacks

to tell us the date a tie was spiked and tamped.

Like fingerprints or DNA, those tags were metal proof.

Drenched in sweat, we baptized the roadbed—

 

Track pranksters burned black as tunnels. Our hands

blistered and bled and cramped. Back on our feet,

bent at the knees, we begged for Christ or the lions

to be merciful if tongs didn’t bite. Our spines burned

till tail bones went numb. Half-done and lightheaded,

we broke for a drink. No one ever had to pee.

 

An old gandy dancer shuffled up in suspenders,

leaned on his cane. “You boys’re lucky!

When I was your age… didn’t have no goddamn machines!

That was back in 1929. Those days

you earned your pay! Snaked those ties out

full length! An’ guys standin’ in line to do it!”

 

Eyes down, we dug for Copenhagen cans

and wondered, “Was the old bastard blind?”

“You got the wrong railroad,” Billy said,

stuck a scoop under the Old Timer’s nose,

“they ain’t bought a new shovel since the day you quit!

Next year we’re goin’ back to steam!”

 

He squinted and glared, spit in the dirt,

stared us down one by one. We went back to cussin’

hardwood and steel, didn’t watch when he limped

away. I felt beaten and sore as this wounded

railroad, hoardin’ tie tacks cached in my pocket.

One, a 1929, would have made that old guy’s day.

 

Mark Gibbons

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