A few months ago, I had the opportunity to move a lite engine from customer to customer. I like moves like this because they are different from the normal everyday work of a local road switcher. This move was no different from normal railroading, other than this yard bird caught my attention. It was an old U.S. Army EMD SW8 with its original number and livery poking through the faded paint.
My father-in-law is U.S. Army (retired), a bit of a railfan, and he loves this sort of thing. I wrote down the locomotive’s info. and made the move from plant-to-plant. Long after the train was put to bed and I was home, I decided to do a bit of research on this locomotive wondering if it had ties to my father-in-law’s Army career.
To my surprise, I found out this lonely yard bird was a veteran — not just a transportation corps veteran, but a Korean War veteran. This locomotive has been halfway around the world and in a major conflict and is now retired, shifting coal to provide power to southern Maryland, still doing what it was made to do — railroading.
During this health crisis, I look back to my military career as a U.S. Navy Corpsman and also at my current career. Like this yard bird, many railroaders’ paths crossed both in military and railroad service. These two things make us more versatile in the worst of situations, especially in crisis, and more capable to cope with what the railroad throws at us.
Because of this, we can set an example to our fellow railroad workers and our community. Our military backgrounds in discipline, self-reliance and basic medical care are literally life-saving. Our railroad skills of planning, job briefings, safety, situational awareness, and being tasked to fix anything so that the job gets done make us adaptable in any situation. Both careers together make us unstoppable, no matter what life throws at us.
Living in the D.C. area for 20-plus years, I am unfazed by major incidents locally. I’ve been through numerous blizzards, crippling weather and one minor earthquake. Presidential inaugurations, protests and disruptive visits from dignitaries occur frequently. I’ve lived through the D.C. sniper and September 11th attacks — both instances so close that I had shopped at the Home Depot visited by the snipers and had smelled the Pentagon burning 14 miles away.
In all these events, I was essential personnel — tasked to come in both in a medical role and as a conductor. Since 1997, I, like many of us, know that when you are called there is no voicemail or marking off. This coronavirus has caused this to happen again, and it’s now our time to shine.
This crisis may create panic. However, we have what it takes to get through this. We are prepared for long hours, days away from home, and anything thrown at us. We are also nomads who go where the work is. A lot of us are scattered throughout our divisions and stay at different terminals. We can use this to our advantage. You may be able to find needed items that are in short supply at home, in abundance at other locations. They also might be near the terminals or hotels we lay over in.
As union members we can be ahead of the game with our wide network of resources. Members who are coming to another terminal can get with each other and pool resources. If outlying members can get paper towels and home terminal members can get mac and cheese, trade with each other so both benefit. Schools are closing and lots of our loved ones are teleworking now. Helping keep our home fronts happy and safe will take a load off while the carriers are working us harder than ever in this national state of emergency. Getting rest is important, and it’s going to be potentially harder and more stressful. If you live near a fellow member and can help with childcare or other things, let them know. This too will help with a lot of stresses we have. When laying over if you are able to go out and get supplies, go as a crew so you both can get items if your home needs them and there is a limit to get them. Only get what is needed and don’t hoard — this helps no one.
Lastly, if you like hot lunches or get things from the gas station, make sure you’re prepared for those possible closures. Bring non-perishable alternatives so you are not stuck without food at work or away from home.
As always, we are a crew, so look out for each other if you can. Most times we are the only ones who look out for us. We must keep this up by showing unity through this crisis and beyond.
Get to know your local community and your neighbors. They may not know you or your background or even who you are. My neighbors are mostly government workers who only know my odd hours or that I’m the guy who shovels everyone’s walk in a bad snowstorm. With social distancing they know that I’m still working keeping our country moving. I’ve offered to search other stores for provisions that they may need on my way to and from work. Our trash service was delayed, so while having conversations six feet away, I said I was getting in touch with the trash service to plan on an area away from our homes to stage trash if there is a future disruption, remembering my military sanitary training.
As railroaders, we all have this training and these skills. We know when to use them. I had an old timer tell me, “We are not paid for what we do, we are paid for what we know. You must be a proactive conductor, not a reactive conductor.”
Now more than ever I understand what he meant. Use your skills and training to better our workplace and community in this crisis. Be prepared, vigilant and safe. Please look out for each other in this national state of emergency. And absolutely do not put yourself in danger under the guise of a national emergency. We all need to come home the same way we came into work.
With this and all the amazing things I’ve done over my railroading career. I’m really proud that I can provide service to my country once again even if it’s in a small roll like this. This is an amazing time to be a railroader both in great moments and in hardships. We are the nation’s backbone in transportation. We ship more freight in a day than a trucker does in a lifetime. And for over 150 years we have been supplying this nation with its needs. Through two world wars, the 1918 flu pandemic and numerous other hardships, railroaders have come through. We will not let our nation or each other down.
Be safe, brothers and sisters. We will overcome this. Nothing stops a determined union member.
Johnny R. Walker,
Secretary, Maryland State Legislative Board and Legislative Representative, Local 610 (Baltimore, Maryland)