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I write novels for teens and adults. Visit me here & on my website http://www.jenniferarcher.net

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Memory Lane Monday--My First Publication

This pot of flowers sat at the entrance to our hotel on a recent trip to Santa Fe. I just like it and thought I'd share.

Monday. The beginning of a new work week. A good time to take stock of the past before looking ahead to the future. Drumroll please....ta da! Here is my first published piece of writing. The article appeared in the May 6, 1988 issue of The Ranger, Amarillo Community College's newspaper. (I sincerely hope my writing skills have improved since then!)Some of you who know me might be surprised to know that the woman profiled in this story is my mom, and that I am the "one-year-old little girl."

Which leads to my question of the day: Is there some element of your past (or your present) that doesn't often come up that might surprise your friends and/or acquaintances?


“One day as I stood in the check-out line at a grocery store in Cleburne, Texas, a woman whose husband was in a railroad track gang was also in line. She was telling someone where she lived – a small boxcar standing on some nearby railroad tracks. She had small children with her. I remember feeling sorry for her.”

So said Joan, Amarillo homemaker. But that was Joan before her life changed almost 30years ago. Observing her today, at ease and relaxing in her ordinary, middle-class suburban home, it is not easy to imagine that she also once lived that very different railroad lifestyle.

In February of 1958, Joan, a stenographer, and her husband Charles, a machinist in the Santa Fe Railway Shops, were a typical young married couple. They and their two small daughters had just bought and moved into a brand new 1,600 square foot brick home in Cleburne. Their six-year-old daughter attended first grade at the school nearby while Joan’s mother stayed with their one-year-old little girl. Six months later things changed. In September of 1958, Charles was laid off from his job. Unable to find work in the area, he began to consider a job offer with a new Santa Fe welding plant.

Because of the expense, time and facilities that would be needed to ship the rail to its destination, the Santa Fe Railway made the new plant a “mobile” facility. Set up inside train cars, the facility could be relocated at different times to the different areas that needed the rail. Of course, this meant that the employees and their families also would have to be moved. Living quarters would be provided, along with free rent and utilities for employed men and their families.

The Santa Fe redesigned old passenger cars for living quarters for the employees, converting them into homes comparable to trailer houses. The “coaches,” as they were called, sat directly on the railroad tracks. Families learned they were to move two to four times yearly, usually to small towns. Explaining the need for the mobile housing, Santa Fe officials said it would be difficult and expensive for the families to find housing after each move. “The coaches seemed to be the best alternative,” Joan recalls. When a move was to take place, the families would secure their furniture inside the coach, then an engine would hook onto the train of coach cars and pull them to their new location.

After a lot of discussion, the couple decided that Charles should take the job and move by himself to San Bernadino, CA. where the facility was located at the time. He would live and work there for a while before they would decide whether they should sell their home in Cleburne and move the entire family.

Three months later, Joan made a trip to see the living arrangements for herself and to meet some of the families who had already made the move. She remembers seeing her future “home” for the first time.

“It was 81 feet long by 9 feet wide and included a kitchen, living room, two bedrooms and a bath. The walls were unfinished steel and were mustard yellow throughout. There was no carpet or curtains, only brown linoleum and brown window shades.”

Then she met a couple who had lived in a coach for three months. The two couples had a lot in common and got along well from the start. “I saw their coach and I realized that it might not be so bad,” she recalls. “Our main concern was how moving around so much would affect our kids in school and in other ways,” she says. She was also concerned about leaving her lifelong hometown, her new house and her job to enter into a situation with so many uncertainties. “We just weren’t too sure about how it would affect the family,” she remembers.

Nevertheless, her husband had not been able to find a good job elsewhere and there seemed to be hope for advancement if he stayed with the new job. “It seemed to be a way for him to better himself down the line,” she says. There was also rumor that the facility would settle permanently somewhere soon.

With a lot of anxieties and hopes, Joan and Charles decided to make the move and live with the hope they would be able to have a permanent home soon. Unfortunately, permanence did not happen as quickly as they had thought. Joan and her family lived in the coaches for 10 years and moved 22 times in that time span. During those years, they rearranged walls in their home, put up sheetrock and paneling, painted, installed a regular ceiling with storage, put down carpeting and put up drapes and curtains. The couple also added two more daughters to their family. Of course, two more little people created a space problem in the already cramped quarters, so Charles built doublewide bunk beds in the children’s bedroom to help solve the space problem.

“Approximately 15 other families lived and worked under similar circumstances,” Joan recalls. “When you’ve got a number of people in the same boat as you’re in, you always feel you can make it.” She said there was a lot of closeness between the families who lived in the coaches. While at times that closeness presented inevitable problems and there were arguments and differences of opinion, she misses it and the helpfulness of the families. “We had a lot of fun together,” she remembers. “We took care of each other.”

Joan recalls both good and difficult times with smiles and laughter. She recounts one difficult incident when a problem occurred with one of the two diesel-oil heaters used to heat their home. “I remember one year in LaJunta, Colorado when the temperature dropped to 25 degrees below 0. The oil going into one of our heaters froze. Charles was up half the night thawing out the heater and keeping us warm. Ice and frost formed on the walls,” she remembers. Explaining that their third child was only a toddler at the time, she smiles and remembers, “The baby would crawl out of bed over to a wall and scrape the frost off of it.” Joan said her husband used a blowtorch to thaw out the oil lines outside intermittently throughout the night for two nights. “During the day it only got up to 0, but the sun was out and it felt warm,” she laughs, shivering at the memory.

In discussing how the unusual living situation affected her children in school, she states, “The older two made very good grades. Better than the younger children who started school after we returned to Texas to live permanently.”

Their nomadic lifestyle offered some benefits. “The entire family enjoyed traveling and seeing places we might otherwise never have seen.” They also learned some valuable lessons, she said. “Living like that made me realize that you can’t judge people by where they live.”

Does she miss the traveling life? “No, but miss it or not, I found you can make a home anywhere.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, Jenny, how interesting!