Leroy Ward Interview Transcript
INTERVIEWER: Could you please state your name and your affiliation with the Railway Mail Service?
Leroy Ward: I’m Leroy Ward. I ended up my career on the Chicago and Memphis RPO.
INTERVIEWER: Were you a sub or a regular?
Leroy Ward: I was a regular.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever work as a sub?
Leroy Ward: Yes. Uh-huh.
INTERVIEWER: I know earlier that you mentioned one of the rail lines that you ran on. Were there other lines that you worked on?
Leroy Ward: Well, as I was subbing, quite a few. When I first started subbing I worked out of the Indianapolis terminal out in Indianapolis and I worked the Cleveland-St. Louis, which ran from Indianapolis to Cleveland back to St. Louis then back to Indianapolis and Chicago and Peoria RPO and then a number of HPOs out of Indianapolis that I also worked on. At that time they were just starting and they were driven by postal clerks rather than by the contractors, so the postal clerks go to the HPO, Highway Post Office, as they went along.
And from there I went to Chicago, transferred back to the Chicago office and obviously, I subbed on a number of lines there: Chicago-Gilman to St. Louis, the Chicago and St. Louis, the Chicago-Decatur and St. Louis, the Chicago and Evansville, the Chicago and Cairo, Chicago and Memphis, which was really in Chicago and Carbondale. And then I made regular on the Chicago and Memphis and I ended up my career back on the Highway Post Office in Carbondale and Springfield, out at Carbondale, Illinois.
INTERVIEWER: How long did you serve as a Railway Post Office clerk?
Leroy Ward: I started in 1951 and I ended up in 1968.
INTERVIEWER: Why did you want to become a Railway Post Office clerk?
Leroy Ward: Well, when I started it was considered a very good job. I think I went from 75 cents an hour to $1.78 an hour. Money was a big thing and good jobs were hard to find even back then. I’d just gotten out of service and had planned to go back to school and then this came up and so I just stayed with it.
INTERVIEWER: What were you doing before when you were making 75 cents an hour?
Leroy Ward: I was an apprentice printer for the newspaper.
INTERVIEWER: What types of jobs did you have on the railcars?
Leroy Ward: Oh, distribution, as a distribution clerk we did just about everything, letters, newspapers, just about anything that needed to be done. As they probably told you, one person helped everyone. No one was through with their job until everyone was through so everybody helped in, pitched and helped each other.
INTERVIEWER: Could you possibly describe a typical day on the railcars starting from when you first went in to work and then finishing your shift?
Leroy Ward: Well, on the Chicago and Memphis, we went to work probably about 4:30 in the morning and we left, if I remember right, about 7:30. So we went in early and, I don't know, dressed our racks which was hanging the sacks and labeling our cases and the mail was already there. We started working those as soon as we got there, and we worked pretty hard all the way down. It was about 25 or 30 miles across Kentucky from the Ohio River south but our goal was to get our mail caught up enough that we could take a little nap across Kentucky. That was our goal. And then sleep across Kentucky and then get back up and continue working in to Memphis. Of course then we had the night there and then we come back I think at probably one o’clock in the afternoon the next day and then we’d get in to Chicago about midnight and we’d make two trips then we’d go back at four o’clock the next morning.
It was a very difficult job, I’ll say that. It was hard work and of course this was before zip codes so we had a number of schemes to learn. At one time I was probably -- now I don't even know where I live, I don’t think, but one time I knew running for most the post offices in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and we had to learn the separations for Chicago city; there were about 4,000 separations in Chicago city. So it was, you know, without ZIP codes, it was a lot of memory work. We got to work six hours and 20 minutes, we got paid for eight hours so we can study and I think our family could attest that we spent a lot of time studying at home. We had a little, what they called a practice case. It looked just like a regular mail case, only smaller squares and we’d have the towns and writing on them, we’d sit and worked it just like we were working mail. We had to have at least 95 percent when we took our exam on it. Basically, it was a good job. It was a fun job, you know, we were just almost like family because we were together for four days and then the others, some of the other trains were six days but when we were working, we were together all the time. So we did enjoy it.
INTERVIEWER: Was there any one job that you liked doing more than the others?
Leroy Ward: I guess I enjoyed all facets of it, just whatever. I mean, like I said the last job on train 2, I was just saying, from Memphis, I worked newspapers. At that time every little town put out a weekly newspaper on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and Wednesdays and Thursdays we would come up to Illinois and we’d load the car at one station and we’d take it in and the train, the car was small and we’d load, work all the newspapers and tie them out, put them out and send them to the baggage car. In each station we had to work the papers then tie them up, get them back out so we could start again because there just wasn’t room to work all that mail otherwise.
We’d get in the train at Memphis, the train had come up from New Orleans and it run right behind the engine, the diesel and it was always full of mail when it got to Memphis and very, very hot because it ran, the way I’ve seen it, I’d get in there in 120 and 125 degrees we’d get in the car. And the train was loading mail in Memphis and we loaded until it was off. I was doing nonstop local and the first stop was at Millington, it was just right at the north edge of Memphis and so we’d run to the door and throw it out and throw it all the way up the road. I can’t say there’s any one particular job I enjoyed more than another.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever dislike anything about your position like any small complaints that you just brushed off to the side and didn’t think twice about?
Leroy Ward: You know, I really don’t think so. I really enjoyed my job. I guess I’d still be there now; I’d have been there a long time if they kept the train running. It was all very, very interesting. It was never boring. There’s always something to do.
INTERVIEWER: What type of railcar did you work on?
Leroy Ward: Well, we had 60-foot cars and 30-foot cars. In one and two, you just had a 30-foot car and then eventually they got into a 60-foot car too; a 60-foot car was a full mail car. Several of the smaller lines just had 30- foot cars. In fact in Chicago-Indianapolis, they had a 15-foot car which was really a small mail car. Like I say, I worked about all of them and all the buses.
INTERVIEWER: I know earlier you said that you went from 75 cents an hour to $1.78.
Leroy Ward: $1.78 it was.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember what your ending salary was when you were at the railway?
Leroy Ward: No, I have no idea what I was making when I quit but it was much better than that. No, I don’t really know what I was making when I quit.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that for the amount that you did get paid it was fair for the amount of work that you had to do?
Leroy Ward: Well, looking back, it could have been but at that time, of course, it’s still the benefits. I mean I got to retire fairly young and, when we were first off we didn’t have health insurance but the retirement was very good. I mean it still is. I mean having been retired 24 years, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I never went hungry so I guess that made it all worthwhile, the time away from home. I didn’t spend the time with my kids like I probably would have liked to with my family but it all panned out in the end. I mean we’ve enjoyed our lives.
INTERVIEWER: What did you typically carry with you in your grip while you were on runs?
Leroy Ward: Well, of course we had all of our supplies. We had either papers clips or paper labels or letter slips and of course a couple of changes of clothes and we were required to carry a revolver with us at all time and a badge; nothing more than we usually had to but schemes and schedules, we had to keep our schemes and our schedules up and we had to carry them with us at all times. Other than that just a normal substitute carried -- to be away home for four to six days, probably not enough, probably we had our clothes a little dirty by the time it was over but there’s so much room back and forth.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember the longest trip you ever worked?
Leroy Ward: I don’t remember the exact hours. Probably one of the longest was Chicago to Harrisburg, Illinois and they had a derailment and we went on tracks and they had the section crew ahead of us chopping down trees to get the train through. I’m not sure just how long it took but I know it was a long trip for 300 miles.
INTERVIEWER: Could you by chance give me maybe an approximate length of time?
Leroy Ward: I would say maybe, it seemed to me 12 to 15 hours but it was just that one time and I really don’t know for sure. I know we got down there and turned around and come back but the train just went that far and then they hooked the engine on it and turned around and come back.
INTERVIEWER: While you were working as an RPO clerk, did you have a family?
Leroy Ward: Yes, uh-huh. Both my kids were born while I was working. They learned to live with it too. Their mom was a dad too for a while when I was gone but they turned out all right so I guess I wasn’t too bad.
INTERVIEWER: And that kind of leads into my next question. What were your feelings towards leaving your family behind on long trips?
Leroy Ward: Well, you hate to do it but I mean, you know, you have to make a living for your family. Like I said, when I took this job I had planned to continue my education and I didn’t so I didn’t have the education to do anything much else so I just stayed with it. There were times you hate to leave but it was something that you had to do. I mean it’s one of the things that I guess responsibility but it was a good life, we enjoyed it and -- INTERVIEWER: What was your family’s attitude towards your job? What did they think?
Leroy Ward: Well, I think they realized it had to be done. I never did hear them complain so I think my wife kind of liked it. Every time I’d come back, the living room will be painted a different color, the furniture would be moved and so she had the house to herself she could do what she wanted to do without worrying about me, so I guess maybe it was good for both of us to be away awhile.
INTERVIEWER: What were some other things that your wife did to keep herself busy?
Leroy Ward: Well, she worked fulltime too, so that and the kids, well, she didn’t have a whole lot of spare time, except to rearrange furniture and such as that. Of course she managed to keep the yard and the grass cut and everything. So she was a hard worker too, she got us through it all right.
INTERVIEWER: What are some of your fondest memories of working on the railroads?
Leroy Ward: Oh, I think probably some of the friendships I made. We still -- in fact about four years ago I started -- we hadn’t seen each other for 35 or 40 years and I got together a little reunion and so the last four years we had about 20 of us get together in May every year for one day just to get together. So there have been some lasting friendships and friendships that have been renewed since I started this. That’s just one of the things that we just, I don’t know, just everything was a lot of fun, we enjoyed life with each other.
I was looking at pictures the other day and one of the best things -- I guess maybe not one of the best things but one of the things that on a Saturday night when we leave Chicago, mail was a little lighter and someone was always designated to go to the deli and buy fresh meat and everything and have a spread. On Saturday night, we always had the spread that we never -- any other time we just carried our own lunch but someone was always designated to buy food and we’d have a spread on Saturday night because things were just a little slower and had a little more time. So that was always a fun evening to have a little time to really relax and eat without worrying about anything.
INTERVIEWER: Did the post office ever issue you anything for your safety or for the position that you worked?
Leroy Ward: Yeah, they gave us safety glasses, goggles if we’re doing nonstop local. That’s the only safety thing we had. About half the time, if you're doing nonstop local and it was hot and sweaty, which it was a big part of the time, you couldn’t wear them anyway because you’d put them on and they’d just steam up and you couldn’t see so you had to -- there’s a little glass seal when you do the local train and the mail off -- would catch it by crane.
You had to depend on that because the goggles were practically useless because, you know, unless the weather was decent because -- and that got to be quite hard too, the local, time to pick out a landmark so as you -- and at nighttime it was altogether different but it was part of the job, it was something you had to do.
INTERVIEWER: Were you ever put into a dangerous or bad situation while on the railway?
Leroy Ward: No, I don’t think so. We were never even involved in a serious accident of any kind that I know of. INTERVIEWER: What about, did you guys ever hit any cars or --?
Leroy Ward: You know one time is the only time I ever remember hitting a car and I have no idea, usually by the time we got stopped, it actually would be way behind us so we would never really know what happened anyway but that’s the only -- I just remembered one time of hitting a car.
INTERVIEWER: Did you guys ever find any type of stowaway on the train cars trying to rummage through baggage or steal something?
Leroy Ward: No, we didn’t. We used to have a lot of these. At one time, they used to send baby alligators. We used to have a lot of fun with those, we’d get them out and play with them before we put them back in the box which probably was -- it was unsaid but it was one of the things that -- there used to be a lot of live animals, a lot of chickens. I remember one time a box of chickens busted open and before we got it closed, there probably -- I don't know how many had ran back across the car and the wind and catch them -- when the door and the wind come through the door, they just sweep them out on the side. But there were a lot of live bees. We had bees and all kinds of live animals at one time we shipped through the mail.
INTERVIEWER: Did the bees ever get out?
Leroy Ward: Well, they would buzz around. They never – stay away from there. I guess they probably shipped the queen bee; being there and they’d be buzzing around but they never bothered anyone. They just stayed close to the container if they were out of the container. I don’t know of anyone who ever got stung with them.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever hear of any of the other clerks who experienced a dangerous or bad situation?
Leroy Ward: Well, we’ve had -- I don’t remember now how many but certainly different ones that when we were working in the station in Chicago and they go to switch the car and they hit it pretty hard. I know a couple of them that were hurt pretty bad over that, but right now, I can’t even remember their names but I do remember a couple. There were times when they hit the car pretty hard and if you weren’t prepared for it, it’ll bounce you around and I know --
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever hear of any serious accidents even from older clerks that may have told you something?
Leroy Ward: No. One time when I first started on the Cleveland-St. Louis, they were talking about they had met a freight train that had a load of steel and then somehow they had an accident or something and one of these bars of steel, big, had come up and come down through the roof of the mail car. Luckily, there was no one standing there when it hit but it did come right down through the roof of the mail car. No, I don’t remember really too many bad accidents that we were involved in.
INTERVIEWER: What about attempted robberies, did you ever hear of stories of thieves trying to rob the train?
Leroy Ward: Oh, I’ve read literature about it years ago but in my lifetime I don’t remember ever hearing of any - no. At one time, I wasn’t on the train at this time but they used to pay all the military in cash and they threw the -- the Chattanooga [indiscernible]. They threw it off; they didn’t stop there at that time and the money flew back under the train. I know when they came to Centralia they were still picking money up from underneath the train. So after that they started stopping there, and of course we were supposed to have our guns loaded, but every crossing between Chicago and -- ran through they have the MPs out to guard the crossing and I could never figure out why. If they put that many people out, they could just send someone to Chicago and pick up the payroll. But we carried the payroll down for a number of years like that on the train.
I never did hear of anybody trying to steal anything. We did have our -- maybe someone told you about that one time. I was working Alabama going south and there was another crew, a crew out of Memphis and crew out of Chicago. We worked the same jobs. At one time as we were coming north, the crew going south when the train stopped at Carbondale some of the guys got off at Carbondale and as soon as one boy got away from the train, the inspector stopped him and opened up his grip and he had been taking the -- there’s a charity out of Wallace, Mississippi and people just sent cash. He never talked to anyone else as far as I know but they opened up his grip and he had envelopes in there with cash for Wallace, Mississippi. Of course we never saw him again.
And then the train got to Memphis when I was going to north. The guy who rode in Alabama opposite me, as soon as he got away, they opened his grip and he had mail for Selma, another charity in Selma, Alabama - the same thing. And these two boys, two guys were taking at that time, you know, just a little dollar here and dollar there and they just put a few in their grip along the way, I guess, and they got both of them and I never saw of them. As far as I know they never talked to anyone else. I figured I was pretty fortunate because I was working just the opposite at the same time they -- but that’s the only, the only theft that I really knew of, was those two guys that were taking dollars here and a dollar there.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever face or witness any type of racial discrimination while you were a Railway Post Office clerk?
Leroy Ward: No, we didn’t. We didn’t have too many blacks in our crew but, no, they were treated just like everyone else.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever hear any stories of clerks experiencing racial discrimination?
Leroy Ward: No, really I didn’t.
INTERVIEWER: Were you a member of any type of outside organization such as a union or club that was affiliated with the railway postal clerks?
Leroy Ward: Yeah, Postal Transportation Clerk Union. What they called a Line Committee which would be a union steering -- once I got posted in, I was on the Line Committee for them for a while.
INTERVIEWER: What types of things did you do for the union?
Leroy Ward: Well, we met but actually we didn’t have the authority to do anything. We just made suggestions and if they wanted to do it, fine. If not, well they didn’t. We were just there as a committee to make recommendations I guess more than anything else.
INTERVIEWER: Was there anything that you ever wanted to change about your position?
Leroy Ward: No. I guess the only thing if I could have done it all along, it would be fine but no, it was -- I enjoyed just everything. I really can’t think of anything I disliked about it, other than the fact that you had be away from home. Sometimes the exams got kind of, if you didn’t really study you’d kind of worry about them sometimes. That was it I guess.
INTERVIEWER: What do you miss the most about being a Railway Post Office clerk?
Leroy Ward: Oh, I think probably the fellowship because like I said, we were a family and I think I miss the people that I worked with. It’s altogether different in the post office than it was out there. We’re just more a tight-knit group. Like I said, everyone worked together. No one’s job was done until everybody’s job was done so it was altogether different. I found that out when I went into the post office. The first thing I noticed was I was working and they were all standing there watching because I was used to working fast and hard and the clerks weren’t used to that so they just stood back and let me do it. It was a different job than most jobs.
INTERVIEWER: For the last question, is there any other information you would like to share with researchers about your experience or position with the Railway Post Office? This could be funny stories, pranks that you did on one another, interesting things that you saw on the road.
Leroy Ward: Well, I remember one time we had, of course the foreman was always the senior man on there and he always had a little extra to carry and he had an extra little bag he carried for all of his foreman supplies. People started putting LA locks in the bag and he never said a word, he’d just pick it up and carry it. One time they load it up completely and he jerked, and he jerked about three times and then he jerked real hard and he jerked the handle off his grip and he just kept right on walking with the handle and never said a word. He just -- one of the things he just -- a lot of things went on that everybody enjoyed. Like I say, I enjoyed my career. I started out on the Highway Post Office and end up on the Highway Post Office.
INTERVIEWER: Were there any other funny memories that you can recall?
Leroy Ward: Oh, let me see, I don’t know offhand. People were always playing practical jokes on one another.
INTERVIEWER: What kind of practical jokes?
Leroy Ward: I’m trying to think. I know we went to change clothes in Memphis one time and my boss wore glasses and he had a tight T-shirt and he bent down over his head and got to his glasses and couldn’t get it down and I started making fun of him and he made me a remark any other SOB on the line would have said a word you got to tell everybody about it. I don’t know, we just -- I can’t really think of any. Well, like I say, I told you about the alligators they used to try to -- they’d get out of the box and somebody slip it down into the mail and they’d be working the mail and once he reached down and grabbed a package of mail then there was that little baby alligator in there and you manage to drop it in a hurry.
No, really, I can’t. Probably if I’d stop and think but I can’t think of anything, really practical jokes right now that --
INTERVIEWER: Were there any sights that you may have seen on the road that you probably wouldn’t have been able to go to if you were working at a stationary post office?
Leroy Ward: Well, no. You mean I don’t do -- we spent -- especially when we went to Memphis, we could go in the evening time if there was anything going on in there and we were there in the evening for that. But everything else, probably I would have done at home - things. We were there from five until all night long so anything going on in Memphis in the evening, we could usually go and see. But that’s about the only thing that would have been different because the other times, we usually didn’t have time for anything like that.
INTERVIEWER: What was the weirdest thing that you ever saw in the mail?
Leroy Ward: The weirdest thing? Well, I don’t know. I would say probably the time that the box of chickens got lose and they were -- before we gathered them, they were about -- I don't know how many went out the door because we always worked with the doors open. It was too hot to work with the doors closed.
Maybe one of the things I shouldn’t tell, but most of us never carried bullets in our revolver. We just strapped them on and carried them like that. It’s all my luck to deliver registered mail to the Chicago Post Office when we got off the train to Chicago, and I called off to take the registered mail up there with my unloaded revolver on and there were three guys out there with sawed off shotguns to escort me to the post office. I felt kind of stupid then riding along with those guys who wanted to look out for me without any bullets on my gun. I guess kind of like Bonnie and Clyde I just went along with it. It was just one of those things that I guess we felt too safe because we never had any experience with anybody trying to rob us, so we felt safer without any bullets in our gun. In that way there was no danger of an accident.
INTERVIEWER: Are there any other stories that you have?
Leroy Ward: Oh, let me see, I don’t know. I guess maybe one of the first things I learned which strictly maybe shouldn’t be told but when I first started going to Cleveland, our foreman, he said, “Boy, do you know how to play poker?” I said well, I had played. And he said, “Well, if you get in a poker playing crew, you get the best crew on the road,” because like I say, everybody chipped in and helped and any number of times, we used to -- I’ve seen us slow down. The train will be slowing down going into the station. We’d sit down and just played one hand of poker before the train stopped. So if you got into a crew like that, well, they -- it’s especially hard to -- so they can sit down and play. We didn’t play too many but every time we get a chance, we’d sit down and I had a little bag with my poker money in it. In fact, I still left it there, it’s still in my grip with my poker money in it. But that was one of the things that people had done. I mean it didn’t take up a lot of time but if they had just a few spare minutes, well, that’s what they’re doing. I can’t really think of anything different.