Ronald Kesterson Interview Transcript
Ronald Kesterson: My name is Ronald D. Kesterson and I was a railway mail clerk on the Chicago, Gilman and St. Louis RPO, train number 21 and 22.
INTERVIEWER: Were you a regular or a sub?
Ronald Kesterson: I was a sub. I subbed first and then later on, I became a regular, yes.
INTERVIEWER: I know earlier you said that you ran on the Chicago-Gilman line. Were there any other rail lines that you travelled on?
Ronald Kesterson: Yes. When I was subbing, I ran to Minneapolis, Minnesota; I ran to Detroit; I ran to Buffalo, New York, to Evansville, Indiana, to Memphis. That was about it, I guess.
INTERVIEWER: How long did you serve as a Railway Post Office clerk? Ronald Kesterson: Probably about six years.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember which years?
Ronald Kesterson: Like '62 to I think '68, I believe it was.
INTERVIEWER: Why did you want to become a Railway Post Office clerk?
Ronald Kesterson: Well, that was kind of a story because I didn't. I was working at the Midway Airport in Chicago and they said they were closing it down and they were going to take all of the workers and go take us out to O'Hare which was a big old hangar and they said it was cold and everything else. And they offered some people the chance to go out on the mail trains but I declined because I thought it'd be hot and dirty and everything else and I didn't really want to do that. So finally, about a month later, I finally made up my mind, yes, I wanted to go. And I asked one of my bosses downtown, I said can I still get out on the mail trains? And he said, "No, no, that's too late. That was a month ago." And I said, well, I said, a friend of mine, we want to join the Railway Postal Clerks' Union if that would help to get us out. He said, "Just a minute," and he checked with another guy and he said, "Heck, no, sign them up." So that's what we did, we had to join the Railway Postal Clerks' Union but we got out of airplanes anyway.
INTERVIEWER: What exactly made you change your mind?
Ronald Kesterson: Well, because of the time off, there was a lot of -- its railway mail clerks, they -- my schedule at last was two on, three off, two on, three off, two on, nine off. So in other words, every three weeks, I had nine days off in a row. So that was the time off - it was really, really nice to have anyway.
INTERVIEWER: What types of jobs did you have on the railcar?
Ronald Kesterson: Well, I had probably done all of them, all except the clerk-in-charge. I was with newspaper. My main thing that I finally wound up working was Arkansas going south and Michigan going north out of St. Louis anyway, but I also had to learn schemes for Indiana, Wisconsin, Texas and Illinois and all those required you to pass an exam every year. They would give you little cards that had the name of the town on it and then on the back it told where the mail had to go, what town or what railroad and you had to go to Chicago and you had to get at least 95 out of -- they'd give you 100 cards at random and you had to get 95 out of 100 right or you couldn't keep your job. So it was, you know, a lot of times when you’re off, that nine days or three days or whatever it was, you had a lot to studying you had to do, yes.
INTERVIEWER: Why is it that you worked all of the positions except for clerk-in-charge?
Ronald Kesterson: Well, because usually an older gentleman did that and they always had their -- ones that had been there quite a while and they got to be the clerk-in-charge ones, yes.
INTERVIEWER: For any one of the jobs that you worked, could you walk me through a typical day on the railcars starting from when you first went in?
Ronald Kesterson: Usually went in around five o'clock in the morning. You had to hang all the pouches and sacks and get all the labels made up, I mean labels put in the pouches and sacks, get this everything lined up and then it wasn't very long after that that you had mails started coming in to start dumping it up and start working. And we usually left Chicago around eight o'clock in the morning and get to St. Louis, I think it was around one o'clock or something like that and then was there for an hour and turned around and headed back to Chicago. The duties on board was standing, you had to stand up the whole time and sort the mail and as fast as you could and as accurately as you could.
And then there was also times when I was like the paper clerk that you would work newspapers and parcel posts and then you had to do what they called a local which was when you went to the small towns, you would throw out a pouch of mail and then there was a catcher arm there that you raised the arm on the mail car and you caught the pouch and brought it inside the train. So in other words, you had to dispatch and receive at the same time. In other words, when you threw one out, you caught the other one.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever have any layovers, that stayed overnight?
Ronald Kesterson: Well, the only layover I ever had was like going to Detroit or to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Most of them are just a turnaround job, yes.
INTERVIEWER: Was there any one position or job that you liked doing the most?
Ronald Kesterson: No, it was all enjoyable. Like I said, we had a great bunch of guys because they would all chip in and work together as one. It wasn't like that when you got your job done, you were done. When you got done with your job then you went and helped someone else. There was a lot of camaraderie that way that got everybody together and everything.
INTERVIEWER: Was there anything that you ever disliked about any of your positions, and this could be a small complaint that you even brushed off to the side?
Ronald Kesterson: No, just sometimes when I was first subbing, I worked with some guys that were not very friendly and of course, you didn't like to say you were a substitute and they didn’t like substitutes because they thought that you weren't working as good as they would. I think most of us subs showed them that we could work, but there were a couple of times that some of the people that I worked with weren't very nice to work for. INTERVIEWER: What type of railcars did you work on?
Ronald Kesterson: The one that I worked on was a 30-foot mail car and 30-foot baggage car and the windows didn’t open and you were supposed to keep the door closed and no air-conditioning in the summertime. You had heat in the wintertime but no air-conditioning in the summertime and it got pretty hot in there during the summertime.
INTERVIEWER: When you worked on the railways, do you remember what your starting salary was?
Ronald Kesterson: I don't know for sure right now. I know we were supposed to be, I think, a level above, like a level four or five, something like maybe a level five, something like that. But I don't know exactly what the salary was, no.
INTERVIEWER: But from what you do remember, do you believe that your pay was fair with the amount of work you had to do?
Ronald Kesterson: Oh yes, yes. We didn’t get any overtime but like I said, we started at five o'clock in the morning and went and wound up around 8:30 or nine o'clock at night. That was a long day but you didn’t get overtime for it but like I said, it was compensated to you in the days off that you had. And then usually, what they did every year, you would be so many minutes a day deficient so at around Christmastime, they would have you work either one or two more days to make up for those minutes that you were deficient. But usually, the trains that I ran on, we weren't very likely to be late going in Chicago because our engineer was from Chicago and he had to get his train back in Chicago on time because he had to unhook it and get it to the roundhouse and get on his electric train home. And if he missed his train, he had to wait an hour so he wasn’t going to be late. There's one time we left St. Louis 45 minutes late, arrived in Chicago 10 minutes ahead of time so they do run.
INTERVIEWER: What did you typically carry with you in your grip while you were on runs?
Ronald Kesterson: Just extra clothes and shaving equipment and stuff to take baths with; sometimes, you take a little snack for something that you had. We got a little refrigerator on there so you could take some sandwiches and stuff with you but like I say, for two days, that's about what we did, yes.
INTERVIEWER: What types of snacks did you take with you?
Ronald Kesterson: Well, we had a little hotplate and a refrigerator and a lot of times, we'd have these little -- I would take anyway like the little Vienna sausages or we would take cream of mushroom soup and have it with like tuna and heat both them together. You'd have cream of mushroom soup and tuna and you eat that together. And a lot of times, we would take fresh vegetables from home like cucumbers and tomatoes and stuff from home, but that was mostly like either sandwiches or ham sandwich or, you know, something like that.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember what the longest trip you ever worked was?
Ronald Kesterson: Yes, I do. It was one through Buffalo, New York, me and a colored gentleman was in a box car and we dumped parcel post all the way and we went by. He said, well, we couldn't be right the postal area [sounds like] we're at. You could tell by the sound of the rails and everything else that we were going by through Cleveland. And so he opened the door and looked out and saw the lake there and headed on into Buffalo, New York. And so I said, well, we got to Buffalo and I said, well, I'm going to get a bite to eat and go to bed. And the black gentleman says, no, you just go and get a bite to eat because the train goes to New York City and turns around and comes on back and we got to be on it. So that was probably about a 28-hour trip, roundtrip all the way.
INTERVIEWER: And you didn’t get a chance to sleep on that trip? Ronald Kesterson: Nope.
INTERVIEWER: Wow. While you were working as a Railway Post Office clerk, did you have a family? Ronald Kesterson: Oh yes. I had my three children, yes.
INTERVIEWER: How did you cope with leaving your family behind on long trips?
Ronald Kesterson: Well, like I said, the good part about it was the time that you were off and when you were home because like I said, you had time off, when you were off work that you could be home and catch up being with your family and things that way.
INTERVIEWER: How did your family take it while you were away?
Ronald Kesterson: Well, I thought they’d done real well. I mean we had some things that I missed like ball games and things like that, you know? Of course, you couldn’t go to all of them but most generally, most of them I went to.
INTERVIEWER: What were some of the things they did to keep themselves busy? Ronald Kesterson: Like my children?
Ronald Kesterson: Well, I had them mowing loans and of course they helped around the house doing little jobs that they always -- you know, kids should have little jobs to do and I'd either have -- like one would take out the trash and one would do this or that and so it kind of kept them busy. And of course, when they had their school and then they were in sports so they kept pretty busy.
INTERVIEWER: What about your wife, how did she take your job, did she like it?
Ronald Kesterson: Oh yeah, yeah. Like I say, it was good to have the time off to be home that way because some of the guys that worked on some of the trains would be gone for like a week at a time but I wasn't gone that long because of the schedule that I had.
INTERVIEWER: What are some of your fondest memories of working on the railroad?
Ronald Kesterson: Oh, I don't know, just the camaraderie with the people and meeting people along the way that you would come in to the train station or something and you greet somebody and they'd ask you, you know, where are you from, and just the kind of camaraderie with visiting of people up and down the railroad. And I got to ride a lot of times with the -- when we would get back up to Gilman, Illinois, the engineer told me if I wanted to come on up, I could ride in the engine. So a lot of times, I'd get my work done and I'd go up and ride in the engine with him and that was kind of a big thrill to get up and sit with the engineer and the brakeman when I rode in the engine up there.
INTERVIEWER: Do you still keep in touch with any of the former clerks?
Ronald Kesterson: Oh yes, I've got a couple right here in my area that I contact with and then we have a group here that I didn’t realize that they're on it but there's a group from Southern Illinois that meets the second Tuesday after Mother's Day everyday and then they always have kind of get-together which was all -- all this was kind of after I found out through the Eastern Illinois University.
INTERVIEWER: Did the post office ever issue you anything either for your safety or for the job?
Ronald Kesterson: Well, we were supposed to carry guns but I didn’t want to carry a gun because I had two young boys at home and hear all the stories about how the children get into your guns and whatever and have trouble with them. So I refused to take the gun but then they never pushed you so I never had a gun, no.
INTERVIEWER: Was there anything else that they supplied you with for the job?
Ronald Kesterson: Oh yeah. They supplied you with your -- like, say, your gloves and they had the supplies, of course the supplies that you had which was like the labels that every week you had to make sure that you had the date stamped on them so that if your label had something wrong with it that they would know who to contact to find out what went wrong.
INTERVIEWER: Were you ever put to a dangerous or bad situation while on the railway? Ronald Kesterson: No. You mean as far as train wreck or anything? No.
INTERVIEWER: Train wreck -- did the train that you were on ever hit any cars or attempted robberies, just any weird incident?
Ronald Kesterson: The train that I was on, we did hit a lot of people in cars and trucks and we killed a lot of people, yes, because when we left Chicago like during the school year, we would have three engines, this combination mail car and baggage car and one coach. And then there would be anywhere from 12 to 14 coaches behind that which carried school kids down to Springfield, Illinois that went to Lincoln's New Salem manor. And so when we got to Springfield, they would unhook those cars and so we left Springfield, we would have three engines, a combination mail car and baggage car and one coach. So you got three engines and two coaches, two cars. So that's why I told you earlier that they left St. Louis 45 minutes late and got to Chicago 10 minutes ahead of time, they could make up a lot of time and the train would really go fast and a lot of people when they go cross the crossing, they thought they could beat the train and they couldn’t. I mean there were a lot of situations that, yes, we did hit people.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever experience like any type of robbery or just --?
Ronald Kesterson: No. The robberies, I think, were well over with by the time I got on it. In the old age, yes, there were robberies because the trains carried a lot of money and everything else, but they were nonexistent that I ever heard of any train robberies when I was out there, no.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, and then this kind of leads to my next question. Do you remember any of the stories that you heard about the robberies before your time?
Ronald Kesterson: No, but I know my grandfather was a railroad detective on the Pennsylvania Railroad and the postal inspectors couldn’t catch this guy who was taking the bag down that the mail clerk in the town would hang up. And they could never catch him so my grandfather laid in a culvert for about three nights dressed as a bum, a hobo and when the guy went up to cut it down, my grandfather shot over his head and told him to drop it. The guy dropped it and there was an article in the paper down here about that, how my grandfather had caught this guy that was going to rob the mail office off of the mail train.
INTERVIEWER: And then did you ever hear any stories of other clerks experiencing rather dangerous situations? Ronald Kesterson: No, because like I said, the only thing, the other thing was, I wasn't on it one time but they had a train wreck up by Kankakee, Illinois with all these school kids on and the train had jumped the tracks but it didn't turnover or anything else. It just jumped and the case stayed remaining up and those kids that got hurt were the one that broke windows trying to crawl out the windows. But other than that, no, I don't know of anything dangerous that I ever heard of any of them talk about, no.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any other stories about your grandfather [cross-talking]?
Ronald Kesterson: Oh yeah. My grandfather had a lot of stories with -- a railroad detective. He was from Terre Haute, Indiana. They had an instance where a box cart had got broken into with a lot of canned goods on it. So my grandfather and another railroad detective started going up down through the alleys dressed as bums, you know, like bums and they were looking through garbage cans and find out who was using a particular brand of canned goods that was stolen. So finally, they did find one family that had been using a lot of the canned goods and so they kept watching and they found out that they had it all stored in a separate garage someplace. So they made an arrest on that and got the guys to go to jail.
And then my grandfather said they had a train wreck over there somewhere in that narrow [sounds like] area and they figured it was some kids probably playing on the railroad tracks so they went to school and they started giving safety talks. And when they got done, my grandfather told me, he said he got with the principal and said I want to see that one little boy and send him back to the class. When they got a hold of him, he said yeah because he could tell how nervous he was and everything else that he had something to do with it. So yeah, they got hold of the boy that put actually a piece of railroad tie in the switch track and which caused the train to derail.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever face or witness any type of racial discrimination while you were a Railway Post Office clerk?
Ronald Kesterson: No, none whatsoever. I worked the downtown Chicago and I worked at Midway Airport and on the mail trains and never found that at all. Like I said before, everybody had their job and everybody got along and if you got through and all done then you helped somebody else or they helped you to get your job done.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever hear stories of other clerks who may have experienced it or witnessed it? Ronald Kesterson: No. No, because I think everybody, like I said, got along real well.
INTERVIEWER: Were you a member of any type of outside organization such as a union or a club that was affiliated with the railway postal clerks?
Ronald Kesterson: The Railway Postal Union is all.
INTERVIEWER: What were some of the things that you did with the union?
Ronald Kesterson: I didn’t know -- all we did was paid our dues because like I said, I don’t remember them having any meetings or anything like that that I know of anyway, but I know we just paid our dues and, well, like I said, was glad to have the job and the pay was good and the time off and everything was excellent so --
INTERVIEWER: Was there anything that you ever wanted to change about your position?
Ronald Kesterson: No. Like I said, the only thing was that we're kind of distraught because they took the trains off and when they took the trains off, we had to go to different -- you know, some of them went to a different post office and I had to go to Decatur which was a 60-mile drive from my home which was not very good after all this time that you had some time off and everything else and now you had to work nights which was like 3:30 in the afternoon to midnight which then you didn’t get to see a lot of your kids and stuff in sports and things.
INTERVIEWER: What do you miss the most about being a railway postal clerk?
Ronald Kesterson: Oh, like I said, just the camaraderie with the people and with just the group that they got together now, it's kind of nice to get together and hear some of the stories that they've got and talk about old times. I guess one thing we used to talk about was when we'd get out of working, we'd go to maybe have a beer or something and we reworked the mail that night. In other words, we talked about what we did all day long and things like that so --
INTERVIEWER: And then the last question - is there any other information you would like to share with the public about your experience or position with the Railway Post Office?
Ronald Kesterson: Well, I think my experience with the railway postal service was, like I said, the camaraderie and getting along with people and trying to get the job done as quickly and efficiently as we could. It was the start of my career; I wound up working in 18 different post offices throughout the state of Illinois. I finally wound up to being a postmaster at a level 22 office which I started out as a level 15 and worked my way up and did all kind of different jobs with the post office. My father was a rural mail carrier and I have subbed on a rural route, I've done city route carrying, I've worked on the postal service’s Facer Cancellers that faces and cancels the mail. I've custodianed for them, I've done officer in charge and director of finance and just different jobs that I've had that all through my career that I've really enjoyed what I've done with it. I've put in 41 years with them.
INTERVIEWER: Wow. While you were on the railways, did you ever see anything interesting such as scenery, cities that you saw that you may not have seen before?
Ronald Kesterson: Oh yeah, there was a lot of interesting things that you could see. I mean, like I said, the scenery was real pretty from a train in different areas like going to Minneapolis, Minnesota was up through along the river up there. You could see the rail line went along the river and it was beautiful to see that. But a lot of times, you didn’t have time as to look at scenery because you were working, but when you did -- I remember one time when I went to Detroit and I was posted to escort the registered mail to the post office and so I did. I got over there and the guy said, okay, now, we signed for them, now you can go on back the train station. I said, well, that's great but I don't know where train station is at. And he said, well, didn't you watch where you were coming from? I said how could I see? I said was in the back of this truck and they pulled the door down and there was nothing I could see after that, you know. So they finally found a way for me to get back anyways, so. But I didn’t get to see much of Detroit, no.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any funny stories that you may have had from other clerks such as any pranks that you used to play on one another?
Ronald Kesterson: Oh, they always played pranks on one another. Well, yeah, there was one that I played on a fellow, in his grip. He was from Chicago and he was always complaining about it being too heavy. Well, everyday, they had what they called these LA locks and everyday, I would put three or more of them in his suitcase, you know, his grip. And finally, one day, he said, "Man," he said, "I can hardly carry this thing it's getting so heavy." Well, he got to digging and when he found all them locks and he looked over at me and he said, "Now I know why it got so heavy." Oh yeah, everybody was always pulling some kind of a prank on one another.
INTERVIEWER: Were there any other pranks that you remember?
Ronald Kesterson: Not at this time, I don't know.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember seeing any odd things in the mail?
Ronald Kesterson: Seeing things in the mail?
INTERVIEWER: Or weird things in the mail?
Ronald Kesterson: Oh yeah, there were like cremated bodies that would come through in packages and things like that. Of course, you never saw it because everything was always, you know, but you could tell what it was because it would say from a mortuary or whatever and then going to a funeral home so you knew what it was.
INTERVIEWER: Anything else that was kind of weird that you saw?
Ronald Kesterson: No. Only when I did work at Midway Airport, they had a bunch of little baby alligators that somebody was shipping and they got all busted loose and went in and got loose in the mail there. But other than that, no.
INTERVIEWER: Oh goodness. How did you catch them all?
Ronald Kesterson: Well, they just rounded them all up. A lot of people would do because they're little bitty -- little baby alligators, you know, maybe about like six inches long or something like that so they weren't really dangerous or anything at that time.
INTERVIEWER: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Ronald Kesterson: No, I don't. I know -- like I said, I've been up to the Smithsonian and went through part of the exhibit. I do remember the little dog Owney that everybody talked about. I remember seeing him out there but a lot of this -- oh, I have one story I could probably tell you about some of the mail clerks.
Like I said, we were supposed to be accurate and everything else and this one fellow, he didn’t know Missouri very well so he had to like -- I think it was a line called the St. Louis and Monett rail line, the railroad went through there. And so anything that he didn’t know, he would just give to them. Finally, they wrote him a note back and said, hey mister, we go through the state of Missouri, we don't tour it. In other words, they were telling him, hey, we go from one point to another point, we don’t go from -- you know, up and down the lines looking for where all this mail that you give us that you don't know where it goes to. But some of that they get wrote up about and then, like I said, they would call it de-merits and everything else they got.