Following orders

When I started as a Laborer at the railroad, I spent the first few weeks working with a senior member of the railroad. Bill had been with the company for over 30 years, and had figured out how to make his job as easy as possible. One of the policies the railroad had was to do a pre-trip inspection on any piece of equipment. Each piece of equipment had a check list that needed to be filled out every day before using it. Being caught operating machinery that did not have its daily inspection resulted in discipline. This morning we needed to use the old forklift. We headed over to the lift and pulled out the checklist. Bill read out “Seatbelt?” I replied “Check!”. “Tires?”, “Check!”. “Oil?”,”Check!”. Coolant?”,”Um, it’s low.”.


Well, we can’t run the forklift with low coolant, but that’s easy to fix, right? Just add water. Well, this is where it got interesting.  A normal person would just drive it over to the hose, and top off the radiator. However, the railroad is not a normal place. Bill wandered over to the trash can and pulled out a used paper coffee cup, one of the small 8oz paper cups. He then meandered over to the water spigot, filled the cup, and sauntered back to the forklift, about 100’ from the faucet, and poured it in the radiator. He then handed the cup to me, “Here, you do this, I am going to go get a coffee from the break room”, and he shuffled off.

Well, I was the new guy, and he was my trainer, so, I took the cup back to the spigot, filled it up, walked back to the forklift, and dumped it in. Huh, this was going to take a while. Good thing I am being paid hourly. A few more trips, and I still couldn’t see the water level. On my way past a different trash barrel, I saw a 16 oz coffee cup. Bonus!! I quickly grabbed that one, and immediately doubled my productivity. Finally, about 15 minutes and about 2 gallons of water later, it was almost full.

Right on schedule, there was Bill on his way back with his coffee, moving slowly so as not to spill his drink. When he got there, I told him that I thought that was about the dumbest thing I had ever done. He just smiled at me. “You can’t start the forklift until the checklist passes. You don’t want to get in trouble.” I wish I could say that this was some sort of initiation for the rookie, but this is the way Bill did his job daily. Oh well.

The forklift now running, we set off to do our similarly redundant task of filling a tote with lube oil from tank A in the shop, which was full, and taking it out to the tank B in the yard, which was empty. When both tanks were empty, they would get another delivery of oil, but only to tank A, and the process would repeat. Sometimes we moved too much and tank A would become empty before tank B, and we would pump oil from tank B, and bring it in to tank A.

The tractor with no reverse

I grew up around equipment. Trucks, tractors, implements, snowmobiles, etc. Old stuff. I was driving an International 100 tractor at age 7, I had to scoot down in the seat in order to depress the clutch all the way. I learned how to double clutch a standard transmission on a 1937 Ford farm truck. I drove a Farmall H tractor around the yard, it was a tricycle version, and I loved to lock one break, turn the wheel all the way over, and just spin around in the gravel driveway. Dad wasn’t a fan of that move. I drove Willy’s Jeeps around the yard. Those were similar to the H tractor in that reverse was all the way to the left and up, instead of the normal to the right and down position. By the time I was in my teens, I was able to drive just about anything. We had a big yard, and I spend hours driving in circles, attempting to go fast enough to get through all the gears in the Willy’s and the 37 Ford. It was easier in the Willy’s because of the low range.

shift pattern
When I was 15, I ended up getting a job on my Uncle’s vegetable farm. He was aware of my ability with equipment. The first day I showed up, as I was waiting for him to come out of the office there were 2 farm hands by an old International 505 tractor. They were migrant laborers from Puerto Rico, and weren’t speaking English. One man was on the tractor, the other was standing next to it. The man on the tractor has got it running and was now attempting to back it away from the barn. He would try a gear, let out the clutch, and the tractor would go forward. He would try another, and the tractor would go forward. Meanwhile the man on the ground was laughing at his inability to get the tractor to back up. After about 6 attempts, the men traded places, and the process repeated itself, with the tractor going forward every time, and the man on the ground laughing at him. Just then my Uncle came out of the office and noticed the 2 clowns trying to drive the tractor. He looked at me and said, “Go get on that tractor and bring it around the back of the cucumber shed.”. So I shrugged my shoulders, and headed over to the tractor. The two men looked at me, this new kid, and gave up the driver’s seat. They looked at each other as if to say “This ought to be good”. I climbed on, put the gear shift to the left and up (the normal position for reverse on these tractors, at least that’s what I hoped) and backed up. I then shifted to 3rd gear, and loped off towards the cuke shed, leaving the two men speechless.

I was feeling pretty happy with myself until I got to the cuke shed and hit the brakes. It turns out this particular tractor didn’t have any to speak of, and managed to run over 2 sections of 6” aluminum irrigation pipes worth about $200 before I stopped. My uncle wasn’t too impressed with that.
I worked on and off at the farm for the next 3 or 4 years. They never did fix the brakes on that tractor.