Oral Histories: L
Mr. Lange began to work for the Railway Mail Service in St. Paul, in 1956. He bid on the Chicago and St. Paul run and got the job, which he worked until he was surplused in 1959. Then, for a few months in 1960 he sorted mail on the Highway Post Offices, running from Madison to Eau Claire, but soon returned to the Railway Mail Service. He made several trips out of Kansas City, Missouri, and went on a Chicago-Savannah-Minneapolis run, Chicago to Sioux City, and Chicago to Owen. Two years later Mr. Lange was surplused onto the Chicago and Council Bluffs line, where he remained until 1967.
Gerald Lange (GL) Interview Transcript
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me what made you decide to work for the Railway Mail Service?
GL: I think it probably was the service. I got in the Army and then I wound up in the, over in Korea I wound up in the regimental post office.
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me a little bit about your schedule? The sort of hours you worked?
GL: I had a lot of different runs because they were doing away with it of course, you know. And first, basically there was a week on and a week off, was what it used to be. The first run I had was day run from 8 or 9 in the morning ‘til 8 o’clock at night making round trips from out of Chicago, you know.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember where you would stay or where you would eat?
GL: You mean when I was on the road like that?
GL: Yeah, we’d all stay in Chicago between trips, you know. And then when I went up, the first run I went up as far as Elway we just turned around there and went back to Chicago that same night, you know. Then otherwise I ran out of, later they ran out of Chicago up to Eskinado, Michigan, I stayed there over night.
INTERVIEWER: With the crew, would you go out to eat together and stay in the same place and that sort of thing?
GL: Oh, sometimes, but we were kind of on our own, you know.
INTERVIEWER: So was it a lifestyle that was difficult for you to get used to?
GL: No. It was pretty good, it was pretty nice just working.
INTERVIEWER: How about the conditions on the trains, I’ve heard that it was kind of rough sometimes.
GL: Well on the first runs I had I ran on the Northwestern out of Madison, into Chicago, they were doing away with that now and a lot of times we had lots of problems. If we had heat, then we didn’t have any lights. If we had lights we didn’t have any heat, sometimes. Yeah. But the other routes, I ran on the Siouxline out of Chicago up to Wall, Wisconsin, and it was an old train and everything but they kept it in pretty good shape because, you know, the age of the train, you know. Most of the other lines were pretty good about that, too.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have family at the time, when you were working for the RMS?
GL: No, no I was single at the time.
INTERVIEWER: So what about, did you get tested very often? Did you spend a lot of time studying?
GL: Yeah, yeah. See, that’s why we got so much time off. We got 60 hours work, actual work out there was considered an 80 hour work week, because we had time off where we’d have to be studying. And then of course… labels and stuff, supplies to paid for trips you know, too. You’d have to do that at home on your own, you know.
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me what your favorite part of the job was?
GL: Well, I liked to work on, most of the guys, I was too junior a guy to have a letter case, you know, so I usually worked on the pouch rack or paper rack. I liked to work those racks pretty well, you know.
INTERVIEWER: Was there anything you didn’t like about working with the Railway Mail Service?
GL: Well, not too much. Once in a while, let me… when they surplused me off one time and I didn’t have a regular job, I was still a regular, but they had to give me a job, you know. Well, they’d run me kinda, two weeks in a row and stuff like that. One time they sent me out on Christmas Eve out of Chicago. Got up to St. Paul and then had to find somewhere to eat, you know, then on the way back on Christmas night there wasn’t any mail, just rode back to Chicago. I got home, there was a specialty deputy letter that said, didn’t have to make the trip. That didn’t set so good.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever run into any dangerous situations, any train wrecks or anything like that?
GL: Well, you know there were a lot of them around that happened when I was on the road, a lot of guys. I was never in any one seriously, the only wreck I was in was one time, and this, I wasn’t working on the RPO I was deadheading on the train, and we hit freight train head on in front of the depot at Boyd, Wisconsin. We was only going 15 miles an hour and the freight train was stopped. We were supposed to go around them and they didn’t stop. But I was riding in the coach, not in the...
INTERVIEWER: Do you ever remember transporting anything unusual? I’ve heard a lot of people talk about money from the Federal Reserve, and animals, that sort of thing.
GL: Oh yeah, yeah. I had a little square box one time that said “human remains” on it, you know. Yeah.
Then in the early days we used to get bees, I didn’t like that too well, you know, whole hives of bees. Bees and chickens, you know.
INTERVIEWER: We’re also looking for any stories or memories you have. You know anything that sticks out in your mind, maybe something funny that happened, or you know, your proudest moment…
GL: Oh, I got so many I couldn’t begin to start with that. I wouldn’t know how to pick one out from the rest. One morning we got out to Omaha and our register clerk, the inspectors got him out of bed, they wanted, the banks in St. Louis wanted to know where their money was. Well he never got it in Chicago, so he didn’t have to worry about it, but...
Mr. Leidy began working for the Railway Mail Service in the depths of the Depression, the early 1930s. He only took leave to join the Navy during World War II, later returning to the service working the New York and Pittsburgh runs. Amid the construction of this website, Mr. Leidy passed away in 2009. His story was provided through the memories of his wife and two daughters.
Kenneth Leidy Family Interview Transcript
Susan Leidy (SL), Nancy Leidy (NL), Ruth Leidy (RL)
INTERVIEWER: When did Mr. Leidy work for the RMS?
SL: The story she told me, it was the depths of the Depression in the mid ‘30s that he started and there was and you know nobody had jobs and everybody was looking for work and he had recently graduated from high school. Or I guess it was he he would have been 20 in ‘34 so it was probably the early 30s, he would have started in ‘32 or ‘33. And they took a test, um and only the very top of the group were accepted into the Railway Mail because it was --jobs were hard to find and they were able to do that. So the class that he came in with were very um uh
SL: Intellectual, yeah they were very smart and they were educated and it was a very collegial group.
INTERVIEWER: That’s good to know.
SL: And he uh and then he took a break, he was in the Navy during World War II and then returned after the war.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know what lines he worked on?
RL: He worked on the New York and Pittsburgh.
INTERVIEWER: And do you remember how many days he would work in a row and how many he got off after that?
RL: Roughly I would say he worked 7 on uh he worked on 7 off 7. I can’t recall exactly.
SL: That’s my recollection, as well. Yeah, every other week.
INTERVIEWER: Was it difficult for you guys to have him gone one week and home the next?
RL: Yes, it was very hard with young children.
INTERVIEWER: Did you work?
RL: No, I couldn’t.
INTERVIEWER: And what did he do in his free time when he was home?
SL: Made a mess of the house with us.
INTERVIEWER: [laughs] OK.
RL: Put the kids in the play pen.
SL: When he was home he was home with us and it was great.
NL: It was just a way of life we, we always knew-- we didn’t think anything of it.
SL: We didn’t know we were any different from anybody else. I mean when he was home he was home 24 hours a day.
NL: When he wasn’t he wasn’t.
SL: When he wasn’t he wasn’t. We knew he would always be back.
INTERVIEWER: And how old were you as children, how old were you when he was working in the RMS?
SL: Do you remember, Nancy? I think I was in 2nd grade so I was like 8 when he stopped.
NL: Yeah I think I would have said I was about 12 so that’s not too different. SL: Yeah, yeah something like that.
INTERVIEWER: Alright. Did he ever share any stories or was he ever in any wrecks that he told you about?
SL: Ruth said you, you said he remember, he was not in, but he remembered a big accident, he was working when there was a big accident in Pennsylvania. Right, Ruth?
RL: Yes, I think it was at the, they used to call it the curve, I don’t know. Somewhere out in the mountains near Pittsburgh.
SL: Where a number of RPO guys were, um, were killed. And he remem—he talked about that but he was not involved in that.
INTERVIEWER: And did he ever share any stories about funny experiences on the trains or with his coworkers or anything.?
SL: Um, mostly jokes. [laughs] Lots and lots of jokes. They spent a lot of time of time apparently telling jokes and stories to each other. And he always came home full of jokes.
INTERVIEWER: OK. Was there anything else that you remember, when he was working, that was particularly memorable or anything that you, like about your experiences?
SL: Well, Nancy do you want to talk about the cards?
NL: Didn’t they have to keep taking more exams to keep progressing?
RL: All the time.
NL: Yeah, so I think this is part of, cause I remember him setting up a cardboard case with little pigeonholes in it with names of towns in Pennsylvania and he would know what post office they were associated with.
RL: They had to learn various states. He did Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania. He did a lot of states. Where all the mail went, they had to know all the states—all the cities, towns and whatever.
SL: And he would flip the cards into these cardboard cubbyholes as practice. And he was really good at it. It was fun to watch.
INTERVIEWER: Definitely. It’s really fun to hear about how fast everyone was.
SL: Oh yeah, he was really fast. Yeah
NL: And if you ever heard an obscure place and you wanted to know where it was you would ask him because he would know.
SL: He would know exactly, and probably the zip code and everything else.
NL: No the post office, it was pre-zip code.
SL: Yes, the post office. Yeah but um that and that and I would say, I know Nancy she shared this. Picking him up at the train station interestingly I have no recollection of of leaving him at the train station although I’m sure we did that too but maybe that was at night or something, maybe we were asleep I don’t know. I don’t have any recollection of leaving him at the train station but I remember very well picking him up at the train station every week and that was because we all really looked forward to that and that was wonderful to see him get off the train.
RL: And I would pack a picnic. And we’d go to the park and we’d have a picnic.
INTERVIEWER: Did he ever attend reunions after his time in the RPO?
RL: Yes, we went to Harrisburg a lot.
IRL: But he would complain that the other people there were old, they were too old. [laughs]
INTERVIEWER: Um, was he in a Union?
RL: Yes, I think he paid union dues. Maybe that’s how they had the clubs. They had a club in New York and a club in Pittsburgh where they slept, perhaps that was union. I don’t know.
Mr. Levy started his career in 1947 working in Buffalo, New York. Later, he moved to the West Side terminal in New York City. In 1949, he was appointed to the Boston, Springfield and New York line, where he worked until 1968.
Ed Levy (EL) Interview Transcript
INTERVIEWER: What made you decide to work for the Railway Mail Service?
EL: [laughs] You’ll die laughing. I was working for the Post Office at the time, and I was sent to a place out on Long Island City, PCC, it was called, Postal Concentration Center, where we shipped mail to Europe, for the servicemen. And I was dispatching trucks and they shut the light in my room and they threw me out of my room because some guy wanted to sleep there. And I found out he worked for the Railway Mail Service. So I immediately reopened the exam and I took it [laughs]. That’s quite a reason, huh?
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me a little bit about the typical day for you? Like your schedule, hours, that sort of thing…
EL: Well, the days, you bid on routes, on different routes on the line. We had 6 and 8s, you worked 6 days off 8. We had 5 and 9s where you worked 5 and were off 9. And we had what they call short stops which were 5 and 2, you worked 5 days and were off the weekend. But you bid by seniority and if you had a like a 5 and 9, you’d work Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, you were off Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and Saturday and Sunday and you started again on Monday. But you put in a lot of hours. You were away quite a bit, you know from home, we slept up in White River Junction, Vermont, Springfield, Massachusetts, Boston, depending on what route you were on, you know. And you had to learn quite a few schemes. On our line, the Boston, Spring and New York we had to learn, going south we had to learn either New York or New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and going north you’d learn Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and probably Rhode Island. So, it was quite a bit. Then you had to study what they called space allotment. How to purchase space, because this is what you had to do on the train. You had to buy space for storage. And the government paid for that. We turned in a report how much space was used, and of course we had storage space within the mail car but we also had to buy space to, you know to store the extra mail that we worked on the way up. What else… We got a higher pay than the Post Office did, we got one level higher.
INTERVIEWER: Was it a lifestyle that was difficult for you to get used to?
EL: At first, yes. At first it was difficult because I was away from home, you know, my wife was alone with a couple of kids, so it was difficult but after a while once you got into the routine of it, it was great. Because she worked and I was home for a whole week at a time, you know.
INTERVIEWER: And did, the crews always got along very well together? That’s what it seems…
EL: I didn’t hear you.
INTERVIEWER: All the crews, all the guys got along together pretty well?
EL: Oh yeah, yeah, very well. You had to, of course you were in close quarters and inside there was a 60 foot mail car, I think it was across, the width was I think about 8 foot, and you had a whole bunch of men in there, we had as many as 12 men, 13 men in there working, working the letter cases, working pouch tables, working paper tables, you know, distributing mail on the way up and on the way back.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think your favorite part of the job was?
EL: The time off, I guess, and the pay, increase in pay. Also we got subsistence while we’re working, we got 9 dollars a day for staying away, tax free. That was not put on our income tax. That was kept completely separate. It came in the check but when they gave you your ten ninety-nine at the end of the year, that was that included.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever run into any danger, any train wrecks or anything like that?
EL: Well, I was in a wreck, right outside of New Haven, another train hit us. Came in behind us while we were in the station, and quite a few of us got hurt, had to go to the hospital, but, we survived [laughs].
INTERVIEWER: Yeah. Did it stop you from working for a long time or did you get right back to it?
EL: Oh, maybe about, I was off for, let’s see, I had to go to the hospital on Staten Island and then I came back… I was off for about, 10 days I guess. And then I got back to work again and started all over.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember…
EL: We had a couple of robberies [laughs]. Oh yeah, somebody robbed, we handled registered mail, and when we, it seems that we put the mail out about, not my train, the ones who worked the opposite week. They put the mail out at New Haven, Connecticut, and somebody slashed, grabbed the pouch, slashed it because you know, it had a special lock on it, registry lock, and took out whatever was in there. What they were looking for was money that we used to bring down to Federal Reserve, like from the banks in New England, from New Hampshire and Vermont. We used to bring it down to Springfield, to Springfield, put the mail off there, and it used to go over to Boston to the Federal Revere. And so somebody robbed it, and everybody, they were given, the FBI was giving everybody a lie detector up at the New Haven office. They never found them as far as I know.
Mr. Lewis joined the Railway Mail Service in 1953 as a sub on the Abingdon and Jefferson Railway Post Office. He also worked a local from Bristol to Roanoke, and had a regular assignment on the Washington and Bristol line. He has experience on the Highway Post Offices, as well; he ran out of Bristol to Welch, West Virginia, and Pikeville, Kentucky.
Lawrence Lewis (LL) Interview Transcript
INTERVIEWER: What made you decide to work for the Railway Mail Service, initially?
LL: Well, I had a first cousin that was in the Mail Service and he talked me into it. That’s the reason, that’s the reason I was in there. His name was Otis Levins. Of course he’s dead now, been dead several years.
INTERVIEWER: What sort of schedule did you have on the trains?
LL: Oh good gosh, I don’t know.
INTERVIEWER: Did you work at night or during the day, or some of both?
LL: I worked day and night both. I was on trains from Bristol to Washington, DC, and I’d go up on, I’d leave Bristol around three o’clock in the morning, and get up there around eleven. Then I’d go to work 4: 30 the next day, come back on the train, get back to Bristol at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. So it was long hours, hard work, and dirty [laughs]. But I enjoyed it. It was a good job, good paying job, good insurance, everything with it.
INTERVIEWER: Was there anything you didn’t like about it?
LL: Well, yeah, we had to take examinations and we would take all the post offices and the states that we were running to and everything, and what we connected with different trains that we had to know how to work that mail right down to the last post office. We’d leave, say we’d leave Bristol, we’d work Virginia on the way to Washington. We’d work the mixed states mail, that would be all the mixed mail be thrown together, we’d have to work that all out into the states and cities and towns, the carriers and all that. It was a brain job. You had to know what train got the mail out the quickest.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever run into any danger?
LL: Oh yeah. Yes, we, once in a while there would be a wreck somewhere. They had one down here in Bristol one evening and a cousin of mine that worked with us, well he was on the train coming in, and so by the time he got through down there he had to turn right around and go back up the road on the next train.
INTERVIEWER: Were you ever injured? LL: No, never did get no injuries.
INTERVIEWER: Do you ever remember transporting anything unusual?
LL: No, not that I know of.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever see someone make a major mistake, or anything like that?
LL: No, the only thing that would make a mistake, in examinations that we had to take on post offices in different states, might make a mistake there. See what they would do, they’d give you a, what I’m saying… an examination and you did, we’ll say the state of Mississippi. You had to know all the post offices in Mississippi. Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia. And, trains we connected with, why we had to work the mail to them, and what we got from them, we had to work it into the cities and boxes and towns and all that. It was a brain job, is what it was. You had to know the states, what trains it served, what post offices they served, all that.
INTERVIEWER: Any other stories or memories you have from your time in the service?
LL: Um, no, nothing that I know of. I worked Highway Post Offices on the Bristol to northwest Virginia and to Pikeville, Kentucky, that was a big thing. It was rough. They beat you to death. You’d come out with blue spots all over you [laughs], bouncing up and down. What we’d do on that, we would pick up the mail in Bristol going through Pikeville, Kentucky, and we worked all the offices on that route, coming and going. The mail that they had, incoming and outgoing both. And you had to work that right down, right close.
Mr. Audrey Lilly started working as a RPO substitute clerk in 1936. When he became a regular, his route took him from Bluefield, West Virginia to Cincinnati, but he frequently travelled to Washington DC as well. His main responsibility while on the train was working with registered mail. Mr. Audrey Wilson passed away in 1967.
Audry Lilly Family Interview Transcript
INTERVIEWER: Could you please state your name and how you are affiliated with the Railway Post Office clerk?
Margie Lilly Arthur: My name is Margie Lilly Arthur. My father was a railway mail clerk.
INTERVIEWER: Could you please state your father’s name?
Margie Lilly Arthur: My father’s name was Audrey Wilson Lilly. We lived at Jumping Branch, West Virginia.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, and what types of positions did your father have as a Railway Post Office clerk?
Margie Lilly Arthur: As I remember, he started in the terminal in D.C. and I really don’t know how many years he worked there but I do remember that in 1949, he took our family to D.C. and showed us the sights as well as where he stayed. To get there, my brother and I would walk him from our house about a thousand feet to the U.S. route and he would get a Greyhound Bus, ride to Hinton which was the next town and get the train to D.C. He stayed there at least a month at a time. Other than that, I don’t remember about that part. I’m not certain the date that he started with the railroad but he did work from Bluefield, West Virginia to Cincinnati on the Norfolk and Western. As far as I know that was the only route he worked as a clerk. Some of the time, he was a registered mail clerk. He didn’t particularly like that I think because he had to have a weapon.
I know that he was a good clerk. I know that my brother and I on Sunday afternoons my dad would have these long strips with post office names on them. He put those in order that he wanted on the kitchen table. My brother and I would take one from each pile and then Daddy would take them to the basement where he had a giant sized paper cutter and he cut those between each name and those were the tags that they put on the mail bag in the little holder on the mail bags. That is my memory of what my brother and I helped him do.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know if your father was regular or a sub?
Margie Lilly Arthur: Well, I found a paper from the Civil Service Commission that is an examination as a substitute dated -- he took this examination, February 15, 1936, which was before he and my mother were married. But he was a regular. I don’t know how long he was a substitute but he worked regularly. He worked one week and then was off a week, and that was kind of a sticky point with some of the neighbors because they didn’t understand that he put in an 80-hour week, and he could take a week vacation and then be off three weeks. Because they didn’t understand, people thought badly about that at times.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned previously that he traveled between Bluefield, West Virginia and Cincinnati. Do you remember some of the cities that he traveled to in between?
Margie Lilly Arthur: No. No, I don’t. He was on the train that whole time and he spent the night in Cincinnati and then got back on the train and came back to Bluefield. So I don’t know any of that.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. Do you by chance remember why he wanted to become an RPO clerk?
Margie Lilly Arthur: I know one reason why he did and I don’t know whether it was a desire to do that or whether it was just something he felt that he could do. He had been a school teacher. In our county and probably most counties in West Virginia, when the politics changed, if you didn’t belong to the right party then you didn’t get a school. My dad being a Republican in a Democrat county, he did not get a school. But probably in 1936, because that was the year he and my mother were married, he did this thinking it would be a better job I guess, at least there would be some security in it. The school that he was supposed to have been assigned went to a Democrat.
INTERVIEWER: Earlier you said that your father was a registered mail clerk. Do you know any of the other duties that he had?
Margie Lilly Arthur: No.
INTERVIEWER: And what was the longest time he was away from home?
Margie Lilly Arthur: I’m thinking three months in D.C. Now, when he was, of course, was on the train, he just was gone a week at a time.
INTERVIEWER: How did he cope with being away from home for so many days at a time?
Margie Lilly Arthur: Well, he assigned my brother his duties before he would leave and between my mother, my brother and I, we kept everything going.
My dad was sick a lot. He had ulcers and, of course, back then they didn’t know what caused them, so he tried goat’s milk and anything else anybody told him would help him; of course, nothing did. He did, in 1959, have surgery for that and was able to eat anything he wanted until he passed away with a heart attack in ’67. I don’t know how he survived the work he did because he was down to the point he can only eat crackers, but he kept working and mother would make him jello and he would drink that. He had such an obstruction that nothing besides jello would go through, but anyway he coped. Probably his garden and we raised strawberries and he had a small apple orchard. Those were things that kept him busy at home and kept his mind off of his job I guess. But we didn’t have a problem coping with him being away. He was away and we just dealt with it. It wasn’t anything that anybody made big a deal out of. That was back before we had all the people talking about everything you do or don’t do affects you the rest of your life. That wasn’t the case back then because you must remember, I’m almost 70 years old.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know what type of accommodations he had when he was away?
Margie Lilly Arthur: He stayed in a hotel and I don’t know whether it was a railroad-owned hotel. It seems like the name, the Matz [phonetic] Hotel rings a bell with me, M - A - T - Z.
INTERVIEWER: Was there anything else that you used to help your father with to help prepare him for work?
Margie Lilly Arthur: The only thing we did was those strips that he had. We sorted those out for him. I don’t know. I don’t remember doing anything else.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever help to pack his lunch?
Margie Lilly Arthur: No, no. I never did that.
INTERVIEWER: And what type of things that he’d take with him for lunch?
Margie Lilly Arthur: He took a lot of peanut butter. As a matter of fact, he carried a jar of peanut butter with him and crackers and I found in his -- the case that, that was in mother’s attic I found his spoon and a paring knife that had his initials carved in it. So that was basically what he ate because he didn’t have any way to keep anything cold.
INTERVIEWER: What were some of the thing that you and your family did while your father was away from home?
Margie Lilly Arthur: We kept the garden. We did that and helped mother can a lot of the vegetables out of the garden. When we had strawberries because he was usually at home when we had strawberries, when we picked them, because that’s when he’d take an extra week off, we made jams and froze strawberries and that kind of thing.
Mother didn’t drive so we didn’t go places. She didn’t learn to drive until after he passed away. So we mainly just stayed around the house, of course we lived in a little community where everybody knew everybody and you didn’t lock your doors or anything. So we’d walk out the road, visit our neighbors and sit on the porch and just things like that. Of course, the kids all came to our yard to play because we had the biggest yard.
INTERVIEWER: What were some of the ways that he kept himself occupied on the train after his work was complete?
Margie Lilly Arthur: That I don’t know. I always thought that by the time he got to Cincinnati that he left the train and went to the hotel because there was not that much downtime because then he had to get back up early the next morning and get back on the train.
INTERVIEWER: How did he keep in touch with the family while he was away?
Margie Lilly Arthur: He called once in a while but not often. I don’t remember him calling often.
INTERVIEWER: What are some of your fondest memories of your father as a Railway Post Office clerk?
Margie Lilly Arthur: Coming home, when he would get home in the evening. When he went from Bluefield to Cincinnati then when he got back to Bluefield he drove home. When he got home, it was the happiest time because we were all so glad to see him, although he had only been gone one night actually. He stayed with us that night and got up the next morning and went back out, went back to Bluefield. So when he got home, Daddy was such a -- he was a happy man and he was a loving father, so we just enjoyed having him back home even for that short time but it was usually at dinner time by the time he got there and sometimes a late dinner because he’d picked up groceries on his way home.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any other fond memories of your father as a Railway Post Office clerk?
Margie Lilly Arthur: We enjoyed helping him on Sunday afternoon do those strips that we did. We got pleasure doing that.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know if he was a part of any type of special organization, group or union that was associated with the Railway Post Office clerks?
Margie Lilly Arthur: No, I don’t.
INTERVIEWER: While your father was away, did you ever associate with any of the other clerks’ wives or families?
Margie Lilly Arthur: No. We lived about an hour and half from Bluefield, so we didn’t know those wives. Now, he did bring a couple of the men home to stay overnight with us a time or two -- I mean one at a time but a couple of times. Well, one of the men and his wife came to our house one time. I remember a Mr. Crabtree, so we met them. But no, we didn’t associate with them because of the distance between us.
INTERVIEWER: That kind of leads into the next question. When your father was home, did your family keep in touch with some of the other clerks, and if so what types of social activities did the families do together?
Margie Lilly Arthur: No, we don’t keep in touch with them.
INTERVIEWER: When he did bring some of the clerks home, was there anything special that you guys did or was it just simply dinner and sleep?
Margie Lilly Arthur: Simply dinner and sleep. Mother always fixed a special meal when they were going be there. This didn’t happen on a regular basis, it was just sometimes. But we just ate and sat around and daddy and mother and the clerk would sit on the porch usually and talk after dinner and then it was bedtime.
INTERVIEWER: What made this dinner so special compared to every other dinner?
Margie Lilly Arthur: I think she probably cooked extra things that she would not have cooked for us. I mean instead of having meat, potatoes, and a vegetable, we would probably have had meat, potatoes and fresh vegetables out of the garden, just more of them. She’d make rolls that were something special and she always made pies. Of course, she made pies all the time but she made pies especially when we were going to have company.
INTERVIEWER: Was there anything that you did not like about your father’s position such as him being away for long periods of time or just hazards about the job?
Margie Lilly Arthur: Just him being away. I wasn’t old enough to realize the hazards and I didn’t realize how hard they worked. But I did find in that case of his an envelop that had my mother’s name on it and it is a page out of the Bluefield paper dated October 29, 1967 which shows the train and all the mailbags loaded and then a man pulling a cart that’s loaded with mailbags. I knew the bags were heavy because he brought home an empty bag one time I remember, and I saw how big it was and it was heavy even when it was empty. But I didn’t realize what a physical job it was as well as the mental part until I saw these pictures.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember if there was anything dangerous that happened to your father while he was on the road?
Margie Lilly Arthur: On the road or the railroad?
INTERVIEWER: The railroad.
Margie Lilly Arthur: No, I don’t and I asked that question because he was in an accident coming home one time. Somebody was speeding and rear-ended him. He didn’t get hurt but that made him come home late. When he there’d been a wreck, it scared all of us because we were afraid that he might have been hurt. But no, on the railroad, no, I don’t know of anything.
INTERVIEWER: Did he ever tell you any stories of him hearing about anybody who got into an accident or dangerous situation?
Margie Lilly Arthur: No, no.
INTERVIEWER: What was your father’s attitude towards the positions he occupied with the Railway Mail Service?
Margie Lilly Arthur: He was very happy. He was treated fairly all the time. He didn’t have any complaints. Now, his last trip was handling catalogs and they were extremely heavy in those bags, but I have a picture of him. I’m sure you know that they had to study, the post offices in the states. I have a picture of him the last time he visited us before he passed away of him with our eldest daughter who was five at that time on his lap, and he has his box of cards of the states and he’s studying for an examination that he didn’t live to do. But his last visit with us, he told us that they were starting zip codes and he knew that his job was going to end. He was hoping to get a position in the post office in Hinton which was the nearest town to us.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, and did your father pass away while he was working on the railroad?
Margie Lilly Arthur: He was at home. He had worked on Monday and came home on Tuesday and was sick Tuesday night and Wednesday, so he didn’t go back to work. Mother finally talked him into going [indiscernible] to the hospital so he did that and he passed away as soon as he got to the hospital with a heart attack.
INTERVIEWER: I’m sorry to hear about that. Now, if he did and this is just a little bit of speculation, but just knowing how happy and satisfied he was of his position with the Railway Post Office, what do you think his attitude would have been if he transferred into a stationary post office?
Margie Lilly Arthur: He would’ve been thrilled. He would really enjoy that.
INTERVIEWER: Why would you say that he would have enjoyed it?
Margie Lilly Arthur: We’ll if he had been stationed in the post office nearest home, he could’ve stayed home all the time. But he was a people person so he would’ve enjoyed talking to everybody that came in the post office and it would have just a great job for him.
INTERVIEWER: The reason why I asked for a little bit more explanation on that part because a lot of the former clerks that I spoke with already have said, oh, I was extremely disgruntled going into the stationary unit and I wished they would’ve kept the trains on. Your answer was probably one of the few that has been, he would have been really happy about going into a stationary unit. So that was a pretty different answer from what I’ve usually been getting.
Margie Lilly Arthur: Well, I’m sure he enjoyed his job on the rail, on the train but being able to see people everyday and different people day in and day out, he would really like that.
INTERVIEWER: For the last question, is there anything else that you would have like to share with researchers about your father, the Railway Post Office, or just anything?
Margie Lilly Arthur: Well, I’m sure as far as being a clerk, I’m sure he was the best. He always studied for those examinations and always passed them with flying colors and I’m sure everybody makes a mistake now and then but I’m sure if he made any it was very few because he was an intelligent man. Like I said, he was social person. He would’ve gotten along with everybody he worked with.
Mr. Liszewski, of Dubois, Illinois, started his Railway Mail Service career as a sub on the Chicago and Memphis line. He eventually became a regular on the Carbondale and Chicago line. Mr. Liszewski retired from the RMS in 1967.
John Liszewski Interview Transcript
INTERVIEWER: Could you please state your name and affiliation with the Railway Mail Service?
John Liszewski: My name is John Liszewski. I worked for the Railway Mail Service from 1959 to 1967.
INTERVIEWER: What rail lines did you work on and which locations did you travel between?
John Liszewski: I mainly worked on the Chicago to Memphis which they also called the Chicago-Carbondale. That’s the main line I worked on.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever work on any other line?
John Liszewski: I just made one trip from Chicago to Evansville, Indiana and one from Chicago to St. Louis.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve already stated how long you served as a Railway Post Office clerk which is from 1959 to 1967. Now, what made you want to become a Railway Post Office clerk?
John Liszewski: Well, I’m from a little town called Du Bois. From this little town there were approximately three or four, five people that worked for the Railway Mail Service, off and on. So I just got interested in it and that’s what I decided I was going to do.
INTERVIEWER: What types of positions did you have on the rail cars?
John Liszewski: Well, I was just a clerk on there but we worked all different kind of states going each way. At the end, I made regular and worked the registered mail in Louisiana, State of Louisiana and going north I worked Chicago City in registered mail.
INTERVIEWER: Could you describe a typical day on the rail car, like what your schedule would have been like for the day?
John Liszewski: Well, we had a schedule where you work -- I left Carbondale to Chicago -- what you did you work six days and you’re off eight. So you make three round trips from Carbondale to Chicago then you have like eight days off.
INTERVIEWER: What about just your schedule during one particular day for one run?
John Liszewski: Well, let’s see, if didn’t fall back already, we’d leave Carbondale -- well, we’d go to work at Carbondale approximately if I remember, about 10 o’clock at night and we’d get to Chicago approximately 7:30 in the morning. Then we went back to work that evening at six o’clock and you got to Carbondale at 8:30 the next morning. We had a lot of idle. We started at six o’clock but the train didn’t leave Chicago until midnight.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever dislike any of the positions or jobs you worked on the railway? John Liszewski: No, I didn’t dislike any of them really.
INTERVIEWER: What type of rail car did you work on?
John Liszewski: It was a 60-footer mainly. They had a few 30-footers on the Chicago to Memphis but we had two 60-footers that we had on the train that I worked going south and then we used one going back north.
INTERVIEWER: When you worked on the railway, do you remember what your starting salary was? John Liszewski: It was about $2 an hour.
INTERVIEWER: When you ended your career with the Railway Mail Service, do you remember what your ending salary was?
John Liszewski: I’m just guessing. I’d say it’s probably $2.25.
John Liszewski: I didn’t end that, see we got -- they took it away and I got surplused to Centralia post office and I finished working there until I retired.
INTERVIEWER: For the amount of work that you did versus the amount that you got paid, do you think that the pay was fair?
John Liszewski: Well, at that time it was a decent wage for what everything else was paying around generally. My friend started working in a coalmine as a staff, they were making a little bit more money but I figured I had more job security.
INTERVIEWER: What did you typically carry with you in your grip while you were on run?
John Liszewski: Well, you had to basically carry everything that you needed for work which is ring knife, a thumbstall and I have my register supplies and I had to carry a revolver pistol. Maybe I carried a change of clothes in one compartment because at the end of the run, you took off your work clothes and put your dress clothes on. And I carried some food - food supply because we had a hot plate in the railroad car or you had to take cold sandwiches with you, something to eat along the way. Basically you had what you needed to use for your work.
INTERVIEWER: What was the longest trip that you ever worked?
John Liszewski: The longest, well, the longest was from Chicago to Memphis when I was a substitute. It was a little over 500 miles. Most people on that run, they make two trips and then they were off nine days. They were pretty long days. You’d start at five o’clock in Chicago and you didn’t get to Memphis until five o’clock in the evening or a little after.
INTERVIEWER: While you were a railway postal clerk, did you have a family?
John Liszewski: I got married after -- I was working for the postal service about five years, so yes, I had a wife and my daughter was born the same time that I was still working on the train.
INTERVIEWER: How did you cope with leaving your family behind on long trips?
John Liszewski: Well, I was kind of lucky because we only lived like 40 miles from Carbondale so I would get home, in between I wasn’t gone the whole six days. The trip up to Chicago but then, I’d come home and rest -- made every trip. Between every trip I was able to get home.
INTERVIEWER: How did your family cope while you were away?
John Liszewski: Well, I was a newlywed and she was and we just lived through it. I don’t know. She never complained about it but I guess when you’re young, you can handle some of that stuff. Some people can’t handle it but she did.
INTERVIEWER: Could you please tell me what some of your fondest memories are of working on the railway?
John Liszewski: Well, my fondest memories it was enjoyable work, you always have a challenge to get the mail worked and after it looked like you -- you could you see what you got done and there’s pride in that.
INTERVIEWER: Do you still keep in touch with any of the former railway clerks?
John Liszewski: Yes. There’s a few that still -- we get together usually, once a year and have lunch and then reminisce over old times.
INTERVIEWER: Did the post office ever issue you anything for your safety or for the position you worked other than a revolver?
John Liszewski: Not really. Well, they issued -- we had to have a key to unlock the mail pouches and a register key because that was a different lock on the register mail but I had to turn that all in whenever we got surplused.
INTERVIEWER: Were there ever times where you were in a dangerous situation while on the railway?
John Liszewski: I was never in a dangerous situation, never in a wreck or anything like that.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever hear of anybody experiencing anything dangerous while on your line or perhaps on a different line?
John Liszewski: Well, before my time there was always talk about robberies and that but when I worked out here, I never heard of any on any other lines or anything.
INTERVIEWER: For the robberies, did you have any other information that you would like to share, just kind of like a story that you heard?
John Liszewski: Well, there was always -- even when I was working there was always, you know, bad situations that arose. I had a brother-in-law that worked on the railroad, too, he’s passed away, but he was on the train working mail and one night they hit a car with eight kids in it on a Prom night and killed all eight of them. That’s about the worst situation I can remember.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever face or witness any type of racial discrimination as a Railway Post Office clerk?
John Liszewski: Not really, we only had like three or four colored people that worked with us off and on but we did
-- wasn’t that many that worked at that time.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever hear of anybody who experienced any type of racial discrimination?
John Liszewski: Not really. Everybody was pretty good to each other. They always make that -- not to accept, well, I mean, I was a young guy and at that time most of the men that worked out there were older people but they didn’t tell anything against about me, you know, being young. They took me -- just helped me out the best they could.
INTERVIEWER: Were you a member of any type of outside organization, such as a union or club that was affiliated with the railway postal clerk?
John Liszewski: Well, we belonged to the postal union for the post office, APWU I think it was.
INTERVIEWER: What did you do while in the union?
John Liszewski: I wasn’t involved in it, I was just a member.
INTERVIEWER: Was there anything that you ever wanted to change about your position whether a small thing or a large thing?
John Liszewski: Not really. I never had a problem, never did. Just kind of went with the flow.
INTERVIEWER: What do you miss the most about being a railway post office clerk?
John Liszewski: Well, after I had to be working in a stationary unit, I miss the time off because I could say you worked one week and you’re off for a week so you had a lot of time to do something at home and be around your family and stuff. After working in a stationary unit, you kind of knew that you had a better job and what that was.
INTERVIEWER: For the last question, is there any other information that you would like to make accessible to researchers about your experience with the railway post office? And this can be anything from an interesting story, fun facts, colorful anecdotes?
John Liszewski: Experience, I can’t recall. I’d say that everybody kind of worked together and the ones that played cards, they always got the mail up quicker so they could deal a few hands of cards so that was a good crew to work with.
A native of Chicago, Illinois, Mr. Lowell started working out of Chicago for the Railway Mail Service in 1959. The main lines out of his terminal ran to Kansas City and Port Huron, but he subbed on several lines while awaiting regular assignment. He ran from Chicago to Buffalo, New York City, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Evansville, Memphis, St. Louis, Omaha, Council Bluffs, Dodge, Iron Mountain, and Grand Rapids, until 1966.
Greg Lowell Interview Transcript
Greg Lowell: My name is John G. Lowell. I go by Greg, and I was a PTS clerk for the railway. They call it PTS; that was the Railway Mail Service. And I ran in section two of the Chicago mobile unit and that consisted of Port Huron to Chicago, Chicago Fort Madison, Kansas City, and I don’t know what else because that's the main ones. But I subbed for a long time also and that was the desired way to go that most guys wanted, most young guys anyway, didn’t want a regular assignment because you can make more money subbing. You can work as many hours as you could get and had the opportunity to run -- I think we can run in 13 different states pretty much out of Chicago.
Anything headed out of Chicago, we could run off, and that would be started from Chicago, St. Louis and then Chicago, West Liberty and Omaha, then Chicago Fort Madison, Kansas City, Chicago and Council Bluffs then Omaha. When I went to Ford Dodge, a couple went to Minneapolis and a couple of small ones that went like one went to Clinton, Iowa; one went to Madison, Wisconsin and Chicago and county [indiscernible] Chicago went to a county in Michigan - Iron Mountain up in there - and then the Bluffs in Chicago went to Detroit and when we got into Lake Shore which is New York Central. I can't think what the name of the RPO was, but it went to Buffalo, one that went to Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh and Chicago. And one went to Memphis, Tennessee, Chicago-Memphis, and one went to Evansville, Indiana, and one went to Cincinnati.
I think that there may be a couple more in there but you could get the amount of runs that you are subbing versus there was no -- subs didn’t get any overtime in those days but you had extra pay for working on the mobile unit and the trains. We were at a higher level than the regular mail carriers. We were level five and they were four.
And I think when I started, I started out at $2 an hour which is almost impossible now. But for every I think it was every 42 minutes of your work, you got 60 minutes pay and it ended up -- sometimes if you worked it right, you can get 80 hours a week and that made for a pretty good paycheck.
We got per diem which was I think after eight hours on the road. You got for every six hours you got $3, I think. And by that time you got through with that, it was like working with no income tax because you’d get enough per diem to pay your income tax. So, you're like working tax free nowadays which would make a difference.
INTERVIEWER: How long did you serve as a Railway Post Office clerk? Greg Lowell: I think from '59 till '66.
INTERVIEWER: And what made you want to become a Railway Post Office clerk?
Greg Lowell: Well, I got out of the service at that time. I got out in '57 and there was a recession then. It's like up and down like we have nowadays and you really couldn’t find work down there so I got a lead from our mail carrier. He put me to the local postmaster there in Bloomington and I interviewed with him. He said I think I can give you a job or whatever for a railway mail clerk, and he sent me up to Chicago. I took the test and then passed the test and everything, got hired and went up there to work in the main post office till we got a little bit of training. And I had a couple of months and they're trying to assign you to a section, the mobile unit and I got into section two. That's the one I end up working for.
I subbed mostly on that section but you could work out of the transfer clerk in Chicago and somebody was always calling in sick or fill a vacancy so that way you can run on any line that’s headed out of Chicago. It was kind of exciting in a way because you never knew where you were going and you never probably see these guys again so it's like starting a new job every time you go to work. And after you’ve worked a while and you get the reputation of being a good worker and sometimes you run with different crews and they know of you and you make friends. INTERVIEWER: And what positions did you occupy on the railcars?
Greg Lowell: Well, they just called it a distribution clerk and you could have any job that you were filling the assignment for. It could be handling the registry keys on there, it could be handling weather case, it could be handling the newspapers and pouch rack and whatever they worked on there. But being unfamiliar with it, the area that they were going in, usually you just helped out what you could. But on the RPOs, everybody working till everybody was caught up and so when one guy was -- he got caught up, he helped the next guy. Everybody helped everybody; it was a lot of camaraderie there. That's what made it a good job and it was all guys so it would be kind of like being on the service, military service.
INTERVIEWER: Could you possibly describe a typical day on the railcar?
Greg Lowell: Yeah. You can go to work whatever time you were assigned to be there and you can go down to the train station that was heading out of. In Chicago, they had the Union station and the South Street station at that time, terminal station and the Illinois Central station which a lot of these trains have changed now so the stations are gone, terminal stations are gone, Illinois Central is gone. I think Union station is there and the Illinois Western Station is there - different names now.
Then you can get on the train at that time and tell the supervisor or the clerk-in-charge what you were there for and either assign you a job to do, asking your qualifications if you're new to the area you were going to. If you’ll work going to Michigan or something, if you knew the state of Michigan, you had to know schemes and know the different states. Usually, my states were Michigan because I was running out of Port Huron in Chicago - assigned to that mostly and -- because when you sub, you take -- I had Illinois. At that time, it was two sections [indiscernible] where all the post offices go, to what trains they’d go to. Now it's sectional centers, with sectional centers everything went through. So, if you were qualified on Illinois and Michigan and Iowa and Indiana and Wisconsin which you had to learn eventually, every six months you had a new scheme to throw and you have to be qualified on that. If you didn't pass it, you didn't keep the job.
That time we had to get, I think it was 97 out of 100 when you took the test. And if you didn't pass the test, you can come back another 30 days or something. But almost everybody passed the test because you had to study on your own time. Anybody who's in the RPO, they usually knew all the different states so it could be useful to whatever crew you're working with. Everybody worked out there. It's just there were no slackers and everybody helped everybody else, and it's just a bunch of hardworking guys and made it enjoyable because everybody worked. And if they didn't, you caught a sub out there that didn’t put 100 percent into it, they usually write a little note about it on the thing. We had one supervisor that wrote this man is not qualified for this type of work; somebody came out and didn’t do a good enough job and you’d never see the guy again.
INTERVIEWER: And out of all of the jobs that you experienced, which one did you like the best?
Greg Lowell: Well, when you run with a certain crew, you get to know them and you enjoy it. Everybody -- there’s a lot of different characters out there; they did at that time. Some were good and some were not so good, made it hard for you but on the whole, I think everybody was pretty decent. They’d show you around where you’re going to stay and you get up there because you always had to stay in a hotel. They had the rates of the hotels. At that time, it was like $2 or $3 a night. They'd give you a room. Like in Kansas City they had couple of hotels, pretty decent, right downtown, you stay there and it's just a sleeping room. And somebody will show you around, you pal up with somebody else that's in that crew and you can go out, eat and head and go back at the same time pretty much, catch the train back. Most of them, you had an overnight layover or day layover, while the night trains you slept the day and went back to work that night, going back on the other train.
INTERVIEWER: And was there anything that you ever disliked about any of your positions?
Greg Lowell: Disliked? One time, I made a run to Memphis and that was in the summertime and I end up in the back and those cars weren’t air-conditioned spaces. It was a very hot job on the summertime especially if you're running south and east so they ran with the doors open and that was the only air that you can get to stay cool. And of course every time you passed a crossing, the dust would come in and you’d be squinting all the time. I ended up getting Bell’s palsy out of that one trip I made down there. I came back, I had to carry the milk that I was drinking for my lunch and every time I’d take a drink, it would come running down my chin, kind of had a hole in it. And then I found out that I had contracted Bell’s palsy by squinting the whole day before, so a nervous disease and it can -- you can get -- some people get that from straining all the time like that.
When I got back to Chicago, I told the clerk-in-charge that I would really have to go up to the dispensary at the main PO because there's something wrong. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. They went up there and they were going to send me to the marine hospital and I was up on the north side of Chicago up on Marine Drive I think about 4200 north. And I said, no, I'll just take sick leave, and I went to a federal doctor and had to lay off for a couple of weeks and they gave me cortisone shots everyday for a couple of weeks till it finally went away and haven't had it since. But it was from the squinting all day long and the dirt in your face and all that kind of stuff.
That's what they told me.
INTERVIEWER: Is there anything else that you disliked about your position?
Greg Lowell: No, I enjoyed it. When I had that, they’ve had to throw me off that night. I just stayed out there 40 years. I think the limit was 41 years and nine months to get the full retirement, and they did away with it because airlines started taking the -- airlifting the mail.
But at that time when I was running on the Port Huron to Chicago, they had a train that went up there at night. At that time, they printed the Wall Street Journal at one place and that was in Chicago. Nowadays, they set up a computer to another town. The same way with newspapers and they print them all over the place, like the Tribune is printed in Danville and every place else in Illinois. That way you don’t have to send the copies; they can make the copies right there.
But anyway, the train that left Chicago that night and late evening, we had to wait for the Wall Street Journal to get there for the state of Michigan. And anybody that had a subscription to the Wall Street Journal in the state of Michigan, upper and lower peninsula, got it in their mailbox the next morning because all the connections that we made across the state, we’d catch a train that’s going the other way and we put the mail up for them. It was really something. And they would hold the train up for that Wall Street Journal because that's how much clout they had. INTERVIEWER: And what type of car did you normally work on?
Greg Lowell: It was a 60-footer, what they call a 60-footer. They had 30-footers and 60-footers but the train I ran mostly on was a 60-footer. They carry a lot of mail. We had letter cases in there and a pouch rack on one end where they sort the mail that they took on. In Chicago, you start out with a whole load of mail from Michigan and they break it down back in the pouch rack and the guys would work the letters in the middle. The other end, they had newspapers and a few parcels and they'd sort those, put them up for the towns. They were made up along the way.
INTERVIEWER: And earlier, you mentioned that when you started out, you were making approximately $2 an hour. When you ended your career on the Railway Mail Service, do you remember what your ending salary was? Greg Lowell: Yeah, I think it was around probably $6. And right now, you'll probably laugh at that but if you get to recall, that would be about pretty much in the '60s. And at that time if you made $10,000 a year, that was pretty good money. And now, I think probably your regular mail guy probably makes $50,000 a year if he gets a little overtime in there. They don't start out at that but I think the guy now probably makes $20-some an hour.
Everything was just like --
Some of the guys I worked with, when I went out there, I was 22 years old and when I got out, I was 30. I was there about mid-20s. The guys I worked with, they had started to work on that train in 1933, some of them, and they were telling me at that time if they ever got a job making $2,500 a year, they thought they were really taking in the chips. And so that’s how time has changed. Even then, let’s take for instance American Express card, to get an American Express card it was $5,000 a year. Now, it's probably $35,000 or $40,000 that would have been your income. We were at $0.5 or $0.10, cigarettes were maybe a quarter a pack if you smoked, and gas was probably $0.25 to $0.30 a gallon, and a car was $2,000 to $3,000 - average car. I remember I think in the late '50s, you can buy a Corvette for, list price was $4,000. So times changed, money changed and it all goes up.
INTERVIEWER: So I guess it's safe to say that what you were paid, you thought that it was fair for the amount of work that you had to do?
Greg Lowell: Yeah. We thought it was fair. There’s always somebody makes more money but the average Joe six- pack if you made $100 a week or $125 a week that was enough to raise a family on because everything was a lot less money. The house, they cost $250,000 or $300,000 now; was about $20,000 to $21,000 then, and everything was relative, including what it costs now for a car and a house.
INTERVIEWER: Right, okay. What did you typically carry with you in your grip while you were on runs?
Greg Lowell: Well, you'd carry change of clothes and underclothes and a toilet kit, a Dopp kit so you could shave and clean up and all that. And probably you'd pack a lunch. Throw that in there, too. And you can get something on the way back at the local restaurant, whatever it takes to get on the way back, and there's always somebody on the train that made coffee, everybody chipped in for that. Some of the best coffee I ever drank. And they made an old pot that’s never been cleaned out and they just dump it out and then rinse it out, throw in some more, just put it in there in a stove in the back and a little lavatory, a sink and a toilet in there. It was all guys so you only needed one. And drinking fountain with ice in it that kept the water cold and a little hot plate or a steamed container where you turn on the steam and make the coffee. And they put the water in there, throw the grounds in there and then boil it then throw a cup of cold water on top of it to settle the grounds and that was probably the best coffee you'd ever drink, not like today.
INTERVIEWER: Was there anything else that you carried in your grip?
Greg Lowell: Yeah. Everybody had a gun. You’re issued a pistol, a revolver and usually a little like Smith and Wesson, the little two-inch barrel like a Detective Special, .38 caliber and they'd give you ammo for it, too. And every six months, you'd have to go up and take a gun test. I think it was every six months. Like now in the main PO in Chicago, the turrets on top of that -- there's one turret on top of the main PO in Chicago that was a pistol range and you had to qualify on that and they’d be all there counting on your qualifications. And you had a conceal and carry permit that you kept with you all the time. You carry that gun with you anywhere you went and matter of fact, I still have the permit, I didn't turn them in, dated 1960. I don't think you can get those in Illinois anymore but it was issued by the government.
INTERVIEWER: And what was the longest trip you ever worked?
Greg Lowell: Let's see. The longest I ever had to be away was like maybe night and you'd come back the next morning -- not the next morning. You stay up there the next day and then you come back the following night on the next train -- not the next train but on the return part of your assignment. So you'd be away, let's see, you go over there one night, stay up there all day and you come back the following morning. Then you'd have a day at home or a hotel or wherever you're staying depending on your head out. The head out is where your train, your job starts and ends.
A matter of fact, a lot of guys didn't live anywhere around it. We have one guy on our crew that lived in Tennessee. He’d come up here and stay up here a week and then he had a week on and a week off. That was the good part about being on the RPO. If you had a regular case, you'd have a week on and a week off pretty much. Some guys have five days on, nine days off. That was probably the choice job because most people have another job besides so you'd end up working two jobs. Maybe one guy was -- lot of farmers on there, they worked as a farmer in their week off and somebody else working when they're -- their family worked when they were gone.
And some guys have those side jobs or little businesses that they own and somebody else ran it when they weren’t there.
Some of the guys were salesmen. One guy sold farm equipment every other week and tried to get a job on the -- matter of fact I was going to get a good job on an armory car on the week off but the guy said I can't hire you every other week. He said if you find somebody that works the other week for you, I'll put you on. But you'd have to have a job where you can pick up and work a week on and week off.
But also, if you didn't work you got to -- you made enough that you could survive that way but you'd make twice as much if you had another job; but you can get a lot of stuff done around the house, I'll tell you that. It’ll be [indiscernible] didn't have to do much.
INTERVIEWER: And while you were a Railway Post Office clerk, did you have a family?
Greg Lowell: Oh, yeah. I have a wife and the two boys were born while I had the job. And it was a tough assignment at that time because I'd be gone overnight like that and she was an RN and she worked at the hospital when I got back. So we kind of took care of the kids and alternated and you’ll work it out if you have to, you can do things that you have to do and we didn't have anybody to help us take care of the kids or anything. We just do what we have to do and everybody got by. It’s kind of like now, people coming and going all the time, the wife works and so is the guy but usually they have day schools and preschools and all that kind of thing. And if they had it then, we sure didn’t know about it. We raised the two boys like that and they all turned out okay.
INTERVIEWER: You just answered my next question, which was, how did you cope with leaving your family behind on long trips? What are some of your fondest memories of working on the railways?
Greg Lowell: The people that you meet. As a matter of fact, everybody -- I had met a lot of good friends out there and kept in touch over the years. As a matter of fact, I'm still in touch with a friend of mine from out there. He passed away I think seven years ago but I still kept in touch with his wife. She just wrote me a letter the other day because my wife and I go and take her out to lunch maybe once a year. She lives in another town and she just told me that today she’s 91 now. She's very active and she lives with her daughter up there. So a little get-together, take her out to lunch. Mostly these guys were on World War II that I worked with and so was he. Of course about all of them are dead. I was in my 20s when I was out there and most of the guys that I worked with are in their 40s and 50s. We got old and they’re dead one or the other.
INTERVIEWER: And are there any that you still keep in touch with that are alive?
Greg Lowell: Well, just some of the guys in this [indiscernible] a matter of fact, we just headed off to the Illinois Railway Museum out there on Union, Illinois and the man that puts out the Elgin News, that's kind of a newsletter they put out once a month, clerks have subscribed to it and everybody writes in to it to keep up with all the guys that are dying because they are and it's like World War II. You don't know how many died over there. I think it’s a couple of hundred or something like that.
But anyway, they just had this thing here a few weeks ago and the guys had it through this paper. He called me on the phone and asked me if I’d come up there. If they had enough guys, we could all work the [indiscernible] around back and forth on this little rail line and they catch the mail from a crane on the side, and people watch them how they used to catch the mail and you can board this railroad, RPO car. I think it’s a 30-footer and you can see how it worked. And the guys that are the old clerks so worked the car and I think they have one down in [indiscernible]. Right in the middle of the town, they have kind of like the railroad days down there and they got guys that worked the car and showed you how -- if somebody wants to get on there, they'll show you how they used to worked the mail and the car and all that.
Kind of interesting if you’ve never been up to Union, Illinois, it’s open every day. And you can go up there, it’ll cost you $8 or something to get in but there's a world of things to see up there, all the different trains. You can ride on some of these cars and they’ve got a place to eat up there. Of course, a souvenir shop and you can buy all kinds of train paraphernalia, RPO stuff. It's just something to see. A lot of people go up there. It's worth the trip especially if you got kids, they’ll never see that any place else.
INTERVIEWER: Right. I know earlier you said that the post office issued you a .38 revolver. Was there anything else that the post office issued you for your safety or for your job?
Greg Lowell: Oh yeah. Our registered mail has a certain kind of a lock on it and it’s got a number inside that turns every time you open it. So you know when you get this pouch that’s got this lock on it, it contains registered mail which is probably the safest way to send anything to somebody that is with any substance. It's a way of insuring the mail for -- you can probably insure $100,000.
People send money through the mail like that. They'll send the cash. We used to get sacks of cash on the train, just being the money bags. You'd have one bag, say, another bag $25,000 or something in cash and they just put it in the money bag and they tag it and seal it in kind of a register pouch and we deliver it like up there in Michigan. They pick it up maybe, say, at Lansing, you take it up to some bank in Port Huron and they knew that they need the cash for something. That's how they send money through the mail. They knew the connections and the train’s running so probably a safe way, if we could send it for maybe $10 or whatever it cost to send it up there and they’re going to it in a few hours.
Anyway, we had a key for that, a big long key, maybe about four-inches long and it’ll only open the register locks that the post office had. We also had a key to open up these little locks that they put on mailboxes. Every time the train would stop -- not every time but certainly how they had a mailbox there were people could drop mail off at the train station and drop it in there, and the guy would get off the train, he'd run over there and we used to call that robbing the box. He’d go over there and pick the mail out of it, take a sack with him, pick up the mail and then take it back to the train, post mark it and send on where we're supposed to go. Even the RPO cars, some of them had a mail slot on the side where people drop mail in the train stop. People that were in the know knew that that stuff existed so they would use it.
I had manuals that you had to have, you had the schedule you got to keep up. They send you changes for it all the time to all the different trains that run out of Chicago. You have a little book that you had to keep up and also on the scheme so you know where the mail went. They had a little book that you had to keep up for that. There’s a little small notebook, maybe about 4x7 or something like that and a little binder that they’d come out with the changes and you keep it up so you'll be up-to-date on the trains and on the highway post offices and where the stuff went and what time. That was all part of your job.
INTERVIEWER: And were there ever times where you experienced a dangerous or bad situation while on the railway?
Greg Lowell: Yeah, a lot of them. You run into a lot of cars. Not a lot of them but that happened occasionally, probably four or five times a year or something like that. You'd hit a car, or somebody decided to do away with their self, they jump in front of the train and then, they hit somebody, they had to wait till the coroner comes or somebody gets killed so they have a delay with the train. Then usually, the [indiscernible] comes over there and washes the blood off the front of it. Some people -- I was just in Chicago the other day, there was a guy that jumped in front of the train, metro guy killed himself, makes a big mess. We’d stop and we'd be like this second or third car in line next to it, you’d have a good chance of seeing all the gory details there, pieces of skull laying out there and that sort of thing. If you had a stomach for it, you could jump off there and go take a look because you’re going to be sitting there till the guy came and everybody got a little handle. It's part of the routine, I guess. INTERVIEWER: Right. And did you ever hear of anybody experiencing anything dangerous on your line or perhaps on another line?
Greg Lowell: Yeah. On our line one time, we had also a 30-foot car that went up there, came back from Port Huron. That was what they called the fast train. It got to Chicago in record time and it didn't stop at all those stations, only the main ones, and they were building some factory up there. This train, it was a passenger train of course and had maybe four or five cars on the back of it plus the RPO which is a 30-footer and they went pretty fast. Some guy had to track the trailer, load of I-beams that he was taking to this factory and it was like middle of the morning, like 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning.
That was around the curve and there wasn't any crossing the headlights or anything, just a regular crossing and this guy, he didn't know the train was coming. He pulls out there with the tractor trailer load of I-beams and of course the guy couldn't stop the train and they hit the van and derailed, turn them all over. I just told a friend of mine, I said, why don't you get sick or something, take off so I can run for you? Because I was subbing at the time. He happened to be on that car and one guy has his back broken and this friend of mine was in a hospital up there in Michigan for a month because he got shaken up pretty bad, broken bones and a lot of bruises and cuts because they left the rails and rolled downed on the track and the engineer and the fireman, the head fireman at that time, they were both killed and all the cars derailed I guess. That was a big mess.
But all the clerks survived. They were shaken up and injured and that but they all survived. This guy, I happened to be on the RPO going back the other way when he walked back, when he got off the train to come back home. He says, well I hope you're happy now. Because I was running for him. It was a joke. I said I didn't mean for that to happen. They all survived so that was all that counts, but the guys up in front, the engineer and the fireman did not. Trains going like 70 to 80 miles an hour and hits a bunch of I-beams on the back of a truck. That's like running through a brick wall or worse. That was the only wreck that I know of that we had on that line.
It happens every day, you see these train wrecks and somebody gets hurt. [Indiscernible] passes train a bunch anymore. Certainly the RPO cars, I'm sure if it went nationwide back in those days they probably had a few of them. When I had a run on the one that ran to Evansville, Indiana one time and that was back in that Cuban missile crisis, and unknown to us, they had missiles on the car in front of us. That was because I was a sub, I would go back to go get the coffee and I think at Kankakee or someplace where they stopped. So I jumped off of there and ran to the coffee shop and got the coffee and I’m running them back because I had a gun belt on with a pistol strapped to my side and I’m carrying this paper bag and I'm running like crazy up here and there's this marine standing there armed with a rifle. I didn't know what he's standing there for and he didn't know what I was running for.
So he’s ready to do something because the missiles were on the car in front of us. Nobody knew it till up to that time and then we all found out about it where they were taking them down to Florida for the -- in case something happened when they had those missiles over there in Cuba. Castro and Khrushchev and all of them, you know they had that Bay of Pigs thing. And it was all a hush-hush deal but it's scary when you get involved with something like that because you’ll get shot for no reason.
INTERVIEWER: Did you face or witness any type of racial discrimination while you were a post office clerk?
Greg Lowell: No. Everybody got along with everybody else. Like I say, it was a lot like the military and everybody's over 21, you just don't do that stuff. You know the drug situation wasn’t like it is today, that’s got a lot to do with it. In those days, you could walk down probably any street in Chicago and not have to worry about a thing. A matter of fact, one night as I walked all the way from 3300 West where I was staying down to the main post office and that goes through a lot of different neighborhoods. It can go from the Italian neighborhood; you're walking down the street at night because I didn’t start work till 10 o'clock. You’ll walk in the Italian neighborhood, the Mexican neighborhood, the black neighborhood and other than dogs, you didn’t have a problem in the world.
Nobody will -- you just didn’t have to worry about that.
They got all this drug stuff going on in some places; you wouldn’t go down there if you had to. Like I tell you, my son is a stunt man, sometimes they work in these neighborhoods in Chicago. The police go down there to guard them while they're doing something. The cops told him -- he said if you guys weren't down here, we wouldn't even be down here. That’s how bad it gets.
INTERVIEWER: And did you ever hear of anybody who did experience or witness racial discrimination while on the railcars?
Greg Lowell: No, I never did.
INTERVIEWER: And were you a member of any type of outside organization such as a union or club that was affiliated with the railway postal clerks?
Greg Lowell: Union or club, no. At that time, I don't think they had a union. No, definitely not because when I got surplused from the RPO, I went to work in north suburban which was brand new at that time also and the union was just forming there because I knew the guy that was starting the thing up. I think that went about 1971 or something when they had the -- it went from the post office department to the postal service. It used to be just the post office department. I think it was '71 when they went into the USPS. They called it the postal service. I never saw any. I mean there could have been some but I never saw any. There were a lot of guys, a lot of white guys you can't get along with, but we all just learned to live among each other. We had black guys in the crew sometimes and most of the, 99 percent of them were all right. We laugh and joke with them. Like I say, a lot of it was like in the military, you just learn to get along.
INTERVIEWER: And was there anything that you ever wanted to change about your position with the railway?
Greg Lowell: Do you mean the postal service?
Greg Lowell: No. I enjoyed all the time I was out there. It was kind of like being in an elite group because you just were and it's kind of like a marine as opposed to a sailor or army guy or something. A lot of esprit-de-corps by working that part of it because you got extra pay, you got extra benefits and it was kind of fun riding a train; it’s a different kind of a job. Like I said and I heard that said by many mail clerks, if they're still out there, had been out there, all the time I could stay out there [indiscernible] it had a lot of benefits.
INTERVIEWER: What do you miss the most about being a Railway Post Office clerk?
Greg Lowell: I don't really miss anything. It's just part of your life that you go through and there were good times and I'm sure there were bad times. You don't remember the bad times. I like the camaraderie, I like the guys. I'm assuming they like me and we all got along. And it’s like any other job, you stay there long enough, you get to know everybody and it's enjoyable. I'm sure there's got to be some bad times there but like I say, you don't remember those. I forget that stuff.
INTERVIEWER: And for the last question, is there any other information you would like to make accessible to researchers about your experience or position with the railway post office? And this can be anything from an interesting tidbit or a funny story.
Greg Lowell: No, I think I told what I thought was a funny story, that interview there with Nancy Pope. I kind of wish I didn’t afterwards because they’ll probably never use that on the -- I saw the interviews with one of the guys I was with up there at the reunion up to that railway museum but that was only his. I thought well, maybe you didn't put mine on there because a little tidbit I put on there about -- it was about a practical joke that we used to play on each other.
We were working mail from Canada. They had Canadian RPOs, too, and they would send their mail over to us and Port Huron is right across the river from Sarnia, Ontario, and they have an RPO over there and it comes through a tunnel underneath to Port Huron and then they put on the American mail car and they put the Canadian mail on there. Well, a lot of times they would have items in Canada that came through the mail that probably would get over here but by the time we get it here, it would be pretty beat up. The packages were coming down too some time; had women's panties and nylons and stuff like that. You didn't know where to put the stuff. What are you going to do with it? Are you going to toss it in the garbage? We used to try and hide it in somebody's suitcase so when he went home, the guy usually gives his -- his wife will tell him, give me your dirty clothes, I’ll put them in the wash. Some guy that's really handpicked [indiscernible] nylons and one of them in his grip, and he’ll give it to his wife and she'll catch that. What’s this? And he's like in trouble. I said that today in the interview that Nancy Pope gave us and that's what I said. I wish I didn’t because the other guy looked at me as was like, why did you say that? Well, to each his own.
INTERVIEWER: All right. Is there anything else that you would like to share?
Greg Lowell: No. I think I pretty much spoke my piece with that. Right now I can't think of anything but I'm sure I'll think of something some other time. I wish I’d thought of it, then. That's just one of those things. But it was a lot of fun, I enjoyed the job and everybody that I talked to who has been in that type of service, would say the same thing, I'm sure. That's one thing they would always hear, pretty much the same comment from everybody, it was a fun unique type of job from when they started it till now.
I read this book this guy wrote down there in South Carolina or whatever, about the RPO service and as a matter of fact, I even bought the book. It really was nothing like we have up here because you know, where they stayed.
The first thing, there were no blacks in that crew because it was all segregated at that time.
When I was in the army, Harry Truman had just -- Korean War was over and he just had segregated the military. When you go through that -- there was a station down in Texas, probably in the mid-50s and they had colored waiting rooms, a guy couldn't go in the barber shop and stuff like that and restaurants where they couldn't go in. It’s just a whole different world. A lot of resentment then and still around because you can’t blame them. It’s just one of those things. You know, I didn't have any slaves so don’t say nothing to me. That's part of living. I guess you touched on that a little bit, race relations; it's after being in the military, you just learn to get along. That's all.
INTERVIEWER: Well, is there anything else that you would like to add?
Greg Lowell: No, not at this time. I can't think of anything.