[June 12, 2020] It seems that young men are always looking for adventure, making a few dollars to spend on the weekend and a way to get out of their parent’s home. It was that way, and my first job after turning 18 was working on the Missouri-Illinois Railroad.1 It was my first “real” job; full-time and regular paycheck, railroad union member, and hard work. While working my first summer in between college semesters, I learned about leadership, strong men, and working hard.
It was exactly 50 years ago this week that I started my job on the MIRR, and I was apprehensive about working with so many hard railroad men. Yes, only men worked there and typically over the age of 30. The reason was you belonged to the railroad’s union, and jobs were handed out based on seniority. Better paying and easier jobs went to those with the most seniority. Those like me got little in the way of overtime or cushy jobs, were regularly referred to as a piker or mannered (or some other derogatory term), were generally uninformed, effete, and clueless. I had heard the stories, and they were true.
The workweek was a standard 48 hours (six days per week, Monday through Friday). Regular workers got one week of paid leave per year, and after 20 years on the job, the vacation time increased to two weeks. Men of the MIRR got the job done. We believed that the Missouri-Pacific RR officers somehow looked down on us because the MoPAC owned the MIRR. And usually, this frustration was taken out on me. I never complained, ever. I made great money, enough to pay my way through two years of college life.
I learned a great deal about manhood. First, I learned that anyone who was mentally focused, paid attention to the rules (otherwise you just might get killed), worked hard, and had the right attitude, would succeed. Second, I learned that men must be tough and protect others who were not strong enough. We were Americans first, but being a railroad man was a close second; many veterans worked on the MIRR. Third, laziness and sloppiness was almost a sin. Too many railroaders were seriously injured or killed when in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a boxcar or caboose ran over them. If you were slacking off, one of the good-ole boys might whack you upside your head.
Railroading is a rough job, and the men who work the rails are tough hombres. I was 6’ 2” and 190 pounds at the time, yet I was small in comparison. These were big men, like those you see today on logging reality shows. Yes, I was a weakling relatively. But I was also a quick learner. Pay attention to the older men and watch them closely. True, I would never be like them, or maybe I would never want to be, but they brought a vital work ethic to the job that I can still admire.
Learning about leadership is crucial for a successful military officer. My time working on the railroad gave me insights into leadership that was impossible to gain anywhere else. In my first job as a U.S. Army Platoon Leader, I worked with some hardened Vietnam War veterans. The experience I learned on the railroad helped me, and those men gained my respect.
- The Missouri-Illinois Railroad, at the time, was wholly owned and operated by the Missouri-Pacific Railroad (see an earlier article on it: https://www.theleadermaker.com/leadership-missouri-pacific-railroad/