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.