Commentary

I've been working on the bridge gang...

My hometown Teague now has a connection to billionaire Warren Buffett. Well, sort of.

The railroad that runs through Teague and has been one of the cornerstones of that town's economy is being purchased by Buffett and his Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) changes crews in Teague in the runs between Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth.

When I was growing up, it was known as the Fort Worth-Denver and Burlington-Rock Island Railroad (FWD-BRI) and was home not only to train crews but to maintenance crews as well. Since the 1930s, many Teague young men desired the seemingly more adventuresome and definitely better paying jobs that involved moving a train up and down the tracks — engineers, firemen, brakemen and conductors. Once someone got one of those jobs and built seniority, they had security, great pay and lots of benefits.

Bridge gang jobs were less romantic than train positions, paid less but with good security and excellent benefits. Young guys, just out of high school and maybe in college coveted these jobs for summer work when the railroad did short term hiring.

If the bridge work was too far from Teague for daily commuting, gang members lived in bunk cars on sidetracks in very small towns. A railroad freight car would be remodeled to accommodate eight workers by dividing it in half with a connecting door in the separating wall. Each section contained four bunks, a cook stove, a five-piece dinette set, a sink with hot and cold water, plus a semi-enclosed area that included a commode and a shower stall.

When the gang finished a job in or near one little town, a train would hook up the bunk cars and tow them to the next job site.

Today, with mechanization and automation, fewer crews with less people are needed and one crew can cover hundreds of miles rather than the 200 miles for which the Teague gang was then responsible.

In 1956, that bridge gang job was welcome since my previous summer was spent at the Teague brick plant, one very hot job paying a whole $1 per hour. The bridge gang labeled a beginner an apprentice carpenter and paid a whopping $1.75 per hour. It helped pay for my sophomore year in college. Bunk car living led to such interesting places as Dobbin, Iola, Richards, Shiro and North Zulch with an occasional single day foray to Corsicana or Waxahachie.

Working conditions weren't great, but they beat standing on top of a "cooling" brick kiln pulling off the covering. Of course, there was still heat, lots of manual labor, creosote, some danger and no small number of characters.

Two other young guys and I were stuck in one end of a bunk car with the gang's resident wino. He kept a half-gallon jug of Mogen David wine in a paper sack hidden in a cardboard box under his bunk. At precisely midnight, when everyone including the foreman was supposed to be asleep, he'd light an unfiltered Camel cigarette. The first drag was accompanied by a coughing fit followed by the rattling of the paper sack and chugging a few swallows of "cough medicine." For good measure he kept another jug hidden in the shower from whence he emerged after work each afternoon almost as dirty as when he entered but relaxed.

One gang danger involved hanging on scaffolding under a very high bridge. A worker stood on a 12-inch-wide board held by heavy ropes tied to the outside-the-rail portions of the crossties. The worker used large wrenches (about 15-18 inches long) to tighten the nuts on bolts holding the bridge infrastructure together. One slip of the wrench...

My dad called it character building and urged me to never "back up for a paycheck." I called it college financing plus experience. Later, I'd get to write about the characters — and the wino was only one of them. I relished the paychecks and put them to good use despite admonishments to do otherwise from experienced gang members.

Perhaps this bit of history will help Buffett solidify his decision to purchase BNSF.

Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper publisher. He can be reached at wwebb@wildblue.net.


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2009-12-03 digital edition



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