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  • Writer's pictureMoving America

Railroading Is In My Blood

Well, since I don’t have Rockefeller in my blood I suppose this might be a decent alternative. Sometimes working on the railroad feels like just a job until you find things that remind you that it’s more than that. I came across my great-grandad Dock Keene’s employee cards, and it’s funny what two old cards can do. Something so simple that we might toss now without a second thought were not only kept by him but passed on.

Those two cards brought back to life my grandfather’s stories that he’d share about his father. Dock was a brakeman and conductor on Norfolk and Western‘s Pocahontas Division and lied about his age to hire on. He was actually 17 and worked until they made him retire at 70. Back then 70 was when you got booted; now you can retire later as long as you pass their physical. Back then there were no hotel stays and no Hours of Service Law. So my grandfather got a kick about telling us how they’d sleep in the caboose and cook on the train. I took a minute to think about that. All those years later and I was doing the exact same thing.

The rule was you’d be the cook until someone complains about the food. Remember back then it was more than just the engineer and conductor. So this one guy had been cooking for a while and was getting tired of it so he took a whole bunch of salt and added it to the beans that he was making for everyone. One of the guys eating them goes “these beans are salty.” He catches himself, looks at the guy cooking, and goes “just the way I like them.” My grandfather told us that story hundreds of times, pausing right between those lines, and laughed every single time he told it.

Now one thing that I find pretty interesting is that my grandfather never knew Dock’s real name. For as much as we southerners love to talk that never came up in conversation. I found it in a vital records search a few years before he passed and informed him that Dock was born Bunyan Mayes Keene.

So I’ve learned that I might need to keep my employee cards, that I may need a nickname to go by, and that I’m glad Mike never had to cook for me when we were working together.


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