Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Life on the Tracks (redux)

This is a story about my father, Jerome Orkin.

I still remember hearing him tell it himself when I was much younger. In fact, I still vividly hear his voice at certain points in this retelling. I have endeavored to keep certain aspects of the story fairly sparse to prevent my ‘writerly’ sensibility from ‘filling in the holes’ and thereby compromising the purity of the details and events. This is not my story. It’s his. I consider it an honor and a privilege to present you with this brief glimpse of a life well-lived.

I first posted “Life on the Tracks” to “Orkin’s Law” back in 2012 but I decided to revise, expand, and repost it in honor of Dad’s 80th birthday, which was on December 26, 2016. He left us on October 30, 1992 and not a single day passes where I and the rest of my family doesn’t miss him.

Throughout my daughter Julianna’s life, I have spoken of him to her. I like to think that through my memories, as well as those of my mother Carol and my brothers, that despite never having met him, she has some sense of him, who he was, who he endeavored to be. Sometimes, I like to imagine what a blessed, beautiful thing it would have been for them to know, appreciate, and help each other in this life.

Though my dad was certainly not meek, this did not preclude him from being gentle. This gentleness, this inherent compassion and warmth of spirit, as well as his playful sense of humor, would undoubtedly have formed half of a bridge that would have fit quite harmoniously against the one Julianna has created herself thus far in her young life. Hers contains a complementary gentleness, a huge, loving heart, and a gracious sense of humor (albeit one with sparks of subversive mischief scattered in the mix).

Elements of my story, ‘The Lost 95’ touch on related feelings, thoughts, and some fairly high-end metaphysical suppositions regarding such a relationship (among other matters), but suffice to say, the very thought of my dad and my daughter sitting in a diner having breakfast together, just the two of them, never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

And now, the tale...

A good portion of my dad's adult working life was spent as a trackman for the Long Island Railroad. The guys he worked with frequently (and unwittingly) provided him with verdant source material for entertaining vignettes he would share with us around the dinner table, the heart of our home. Though generally soft-spoken, even reserved in public, Dad had a wonderful sense of humor and was a fine storyteller.

As funny as many of those stories were, they didn’t change the fact that life on the tracks entailed a lot of difficult, physical work, some of it life-threatening. Despite his caution, Dad was injured more than once on the job, on one occasion breaking his arm and leg after being hit by a railroad tie, the long, square, wooden beams that anchor the metal train rails in place.

During bad winter storms, he would be called in the middle of the night to help clear snow and ice from multiple train platforms and miles of track. Refusing such “invitations” was not a viable option. Even outside of the tacitly mandatory nature of these calls, Dad’s deep sense of responsibility with regard to taking care of his family prevented him from turning down most any opportunity to make overtime pay. Though our family wasn’t destitute, we still really benefited from any extra money he could make. Further, having grown up very poor himself, I think he was more driven to provide for us than he otherwise would have been.

Sometimes, after receiving one of those late night / early morning calls, Dad would be gone for two or three days, grabbing a few hours of sleep as he could on the school bus-style vehicle he and his crew used to get from site to site. If we got hit with a particularly brutal stretch of winter storm weather, he might return home for a day off (most of which he, by necessity, spent sleeping) followed by few days of “normal” work hours. Then, he’d be gone for another two days.

On one occasion, he brought home a strange pair of black gloves, stiff and shriveled like the hands of an old corpse, far too small for him or even for me, as a kid, to wear. I remember examining them in wonder as he told us they had indeed been his gloves. At some point during his shift, he had gotten some sort of industrial strength de-icing solution on them. As a result, they started shrinking so fast, he’d just barely had time to strip them off before they would have constricted around his hands to excruciating effect.

Summer had its share of difficulties as well. He and his crew tangled with bees and hornets, poison ivy and nettles. They had to remove the bodies of animals hit by trains. They spent every working day completely exposed to the sizzling sun, the heat absorbed, amplified, and mercilessly radiated back out through the metal rails.

On the lighter side, we would often tease Dad about his annual workman’s tan: chestnut brown from the waist up, bone-white from the waist down. At one point during his time working with the LIRR, his work zone enabled him to frequent a deli where my then teenage cousin, Donna Reese worked. She always gave him a free cup of coffee and of course, all efforts on his part to explain why she did that were met with sarcastic responses of, “Riiiight. She’s your ‘niece.’” with implied air quotes. 

On a side note, I remember him finding it amusing that the LIRR's central office would periodically receive irate phone calls from daily train commuters complaining that the trackmen were "standing around doing nothing!" whenever they saw them. Such well-meaning Good Samaritans clearly didn't take the time to think it through and realize that it's pretty hard to work on train tracks when there are tens of thousands of pounds worth of train cars rolling over them.

On another side-note (last one, I promise), I remember coming home from school one day to find Dad standing by the kitchen table skeptically regarding the cover of a record album my brother Milton had purchased that day. This seemed a little odd to me since he had fairly eclectic musical tastes but glancing over, I quickly identified the source of his consternation. The artist was Bob Dylan, which wasn't an issue. The name of the record: “Blood on the Tracks.” 

Because of the intensely physical nature of the work, turnover among LIRR trackmen was pretty high. Further, Dad, along with many of his coworkers, was periodically moved to other crews due to redistribution of work or other factors. As a result, he encountered a lot of different guys on various crews over time and many of them knew of him even if they’d never met him personally or worked directly with him. By the venerable age of 35, Dad was sometimes referred to as “The Old Man” or “Pop” (a term he disliked so much he didn’t even let his kids use it) by a great many LIRR trackmen.

Dad wasn’t a “life of the party” type of guy but he was nevertheless liked, respected, and trusted. His “titles” were generally used with good-humored respect but there were a few trackmen who didn’t exhibit the good will toward him that he deserved. Sometimes, they were condescending. Sometimes, they viewed his experience and “old age” with arrogance and treated him accordingly.

On one such occasion, one of the bigger, younger guys he didn’t know well challenged him, saying, “You wanna lay track with me, Pop? Think you can keep up?”

Dad wasn’t a proponent of this kind of testosterone-driven, beers-with-lunch braggadocio and he wasn’t easily provoked to rash action, but he had a lot of pride and a refined moral compass, a desire to see things set right.

He considered the request and responded, “Sure...”

The younger guy smiled, eager to put The Old Man in his place.

“But we work at my pace, not yours,” Dad informed him.

The trackman confidently agreed, assuming the pace didn’t matter, and they got to it. But by the end of that long, hot summer day, Dad’s cocky coworker got schooled with a rather forthright lesson in humility and common sense.

You see, the thing was, The Old Man wasn’t the strongest guy on the tracks and he wasn’t the fastest. But he didn’t have to be.  He could swing a hammer All – Day – Long.

In this story, we find a timeless message about the value of consistency and durability over flash & bang theatrics. There will always be someone stronger, faster, smarter, funnier, richer, more attractive, more charismatic. But at the end of the day, I’d much rather be the tortoise than the hare.

Thanks for the lesson, Dad.

And thank you for reading.