Thursday, August 15, 2013

War Stories: Episode 1 - "College boy gets a job"

If you have two or more believers gathered in one place, that's a church, according to the Bible.  If you have two or more railroaders gathered in one place...that's not defined as anything special in the Book of Rules anywhere that I know of.  But I know what will happen.  You'll get stories.

Lots of people like to tell stories.  Railroaders are no exception, in fact, they are probably worse than most.  Lots of strange things happen on the railroad.  If you gather railroaders in one place with nothing to do for a while, the stories start coming.

This is my 35th year around the railroad.  I've told a few stories.  Some are dumb.  Some are funny.  Some are interesting. Some are commemorative. Some are just strange.

Here the first one. Enter at your own risk.

This is a Job Interview?

The fall of 1977 was the beginning of job interview season for the class of 1978 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.
Quad dorms at RPI after 1978 snow storm

 It was time to start job hunting.  If I didn't screw up the last 30 credit hours, I would graduate with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in the spring. The placement office had all sorts of employers lined up.  Conrail's Mechanical Department was one of them.  I was always fascinated by locomotives. Always.  For longer than I could remember.  My very first memory was seeing the Yankee Zephyr on display in Massachusetts.  My first career ambition at age 3 was "to make a locomovis."  This might just be the thing for me!  I signed up for an interview.

I had heard and read all sorts of horror stories about how railroads treated their college hire trainees to the point that I thought this might not be such a good idea.  Sending them off into blizzards to shovel snow.  Breaking strikes.  Laying ballast in the dead of night. Eating railfans alive.  I was pretty wimpy about taking abuse of any kind.  Still, what the heck - if I didn't try, I might regret it.  This was Plan A.  If I hated it, I could always go back to the Naval Ship Engineering Center in Philadelphia where I'd worked the past two summers.  They liked me.  And better yet, they didn't eat anyone alive. This was Plan B.

So, armed with Plan A and Plan B, I headed for the interview....and waited...only to find out Conrail had forgotten to send someone to keep the appointment.  Maybe the interviewer was in Chicago shoveling snow or munching on a railfan somewhere.  Either way, not a good sign.

However, soon after, I got a letter from Conrail, apologizing for standing me up and inviting me down to Philadelphia for an interview.  A good sign?  Since I was going home to South Jersey for winter break, I arranged the interview for early January.

I put on my best clothes and hopped on the PATCO High Speed Line for the ride into Six Penn Center.
PATCO station in Lindenwold NJ in the 1970s
 There I met Mr. E. T. Harley. He took me to lunch - Stouffers - in one of the other Penn Center buildings. Have no idea what I ordered.  He talked for an hour.  Solid.  I don't think I got 10 words in edgewise.  I'm not even sure what he talked about except he did mention the challenges the Mechanical Dept. had getting the equipment back in shape after years of deferred maintenance. And, very briefly that the training program included four months in Altoona/Hollidaysburg, four months in a terminal, and four months in commuter territory.

At the end of the lunch, he said, "Oh, by the way, we'll be sending you a job offer."

Wow.  That was easy.

Later, I found out Mr. E. T. Harley was quite the railfan back in his day.  Published pictures in Trains magazine and everything. An actual railfan thriving in the railroad culture.  Who'd a thunk it?  Plan A was looking better.  (Read about Tom Harley here:  - click download to read PDF.  Funny, he doesn't mention hiring me...)

A few weeks later, the offer came in the mail.  Mechanical Trainee.  $16,275 per year.  Start June 19th, 1978.

I took it!  Interesting times were ahead....

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