The Lady Brakemen


Eventually the dispatcher mellowed and treated her as near to equal with Big Smokey as he could, considering that he could not send her on the big main liners or assign her to flagging or moving baggage. She had one goal in mind: money. She did not care for the adventure or the fun of the railroad, nor was she there out of any patriotic motive. She did not care whether the men liked her or didn’t, so long as she had a chance to make money. She was not rude or angry. She just wanted money. She had been a cosmetics demonstrator at Woolworth’s, and without doubt she had worked just as hard and determinedly there as she did on the railroad. But the store closed after eight hours, and the railroad went on and on, gloriously, forever, and she strung herself out as long as she could wheedle a job—twenty-four or even forty-eight hours without going home, napping on benches, on station platforms, or in deadhead cars.

Well, when the train pulled into Bay Head Junction that day, it stopped as usual at the station to let off passengers and then it pulled into the yard, where it was switched to a siding for what my grandmother would have called “a lick and a spit” to ready it for the return journey.

The engineer stopped the train a short distance before the first switch. Mr. Keefer stood on the steps of the head car and watched us. The engineer, to our surprise, gave us a V sign as we walked past his cab. Smokey, on her stilt heels, teetered along three inches below my shoulder level. It was a big, heavy switch, and it was rusty. I tried to pull it up. Smokey tried. We tried pulling it together, my hands over hers. Then Smokey bent down and grabbed the switch with both hands, and I stood behind her and grabbed her at the waist. I pulled her, and she pulled the switch. We both fell over backward onto the track, but the switch had moved! A fraction. We went to the other side of the switch and tried kicking it up. I attempted to use my backside as a lever. It moved an inch. All the while we were groaning and grunting. Smokey lost her cap. I tore the shoulder seam of my jacket. Smokey took off her shoes. At last, kicking and pushing and pulling, we got the switch halfway up, then over the halfway mark. Smokey jumped on it. We both bounced on it. The switch went down, and we waited while the engineer moved the train ahead to the next one. He was grinning as he passed us. Mr. Keefer sent the flagman to throw the next switch. We were humiliated. We were surprised at how difficult it had been and were well aware that no one was going to let us throw switches like that as a regular thing.


“Why don’t they oil those switches?” I asked Mr. Keefer. “If they weren’t so rusty, we could throw them.” Mr. Keefer nodded agreeably. “Could be,” he said. “That could be.” But that was as far as he wanted to go with the matter.

“You’d think the men would want them oiled,” I said to Little Smokey as we counted our tickets.

“Not them,” she said good-humoredly. “They’re proud of their hernias. You got to have a hernia to be a real railroad man.”

There were two lady brakemen in the crew dispatcher’s shack. They had watched our moment of glory but were not impressed. “What do you think you’re doing anyway?” said one of them. “Next thing you know, we’ll all be working baggage! Who wants to throw switches anyway?”

Nevertheless, Little Smokey and I each bought a pocket-size can of 3-in-1 oil for the next opportunity—if it ever came.

The next day Peggy Sigafoos was waiting in the locker room at Penn Station. The railroad grapevine moves fast. Peggy was the trainmaster’s appointed lady’s rep. The men had union representation, but we were not permitted to join the union. We considered Peggy a gumshoe.

“Hear you and Smokey were having some fun at the junction,” she said, dimpling at me when I came in. She was fair-haired and square-jawed. She had a horseshoe-shaped mouth I did not like.

“Yes, it was fun.”

We went to the other side of the switch and tried kicking it up. I attempted to use my backside as a lever. It moved an inch.

“What’s up?”

“How do you mean?”

“You girls after something in particular?”

“They want to get to work the Washington trains,” said someone in the locker room who did not.

“That’s what it sounded like to me,” said Peggy. “But you know it can’t be done, don’t you?”

“Why not, if we can do the work?”

“You’re not allowed, that’s why. You’re only here temporarily. The men had a choice between working with Negroes and working with women, and they chose us. But they don’t want us here, and we can’t stay on indefinitely. That’s the way it is. Don’t rock the boat. I’m telling it to you straight: There’s nothing you can do about it, and you’ll get yourselves in trouble if you try. So quit throwing switches, got it?” She sucked in her dimples and looked older than her twenty-three years.