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Boomer: Railroad Memoirs.

Boomer is the autobiography of one of the first women brakemen hired in the early 1970s on the Southern Pacific line. After surviving the "derail" or probationary period, Niemann gets laid off from the Stockton, California switching yard because of her low seniority. The author seizes upon her new identity as a "rail" and becomes a "boomer," following the work to different railyards across the West and Southwest. She works for a few weeks or months at different yards, each with its own peculiar work rhythms and ethnic and racial tensions. After years of booming, Niemann has transformed herself into a full-fledged rail.

Niemann is the perfect "outsider-insider" to observe the macho world of railroad workers in the 1970s and 1980s. Not only is "Gypsy," her railroad nickname, a bi-sexual woman in a straight man's world, she's a Ph.D from Berkeley. Furthermore, an alcoholic for much of her railroading career, she quits drinking, which takes her that much more outside of her hard-drinking profession. As a result, Gypsy is perfectly situated to describe the occupational hazards and rewards of the vanishing world of railroading, the intersection of work and leisure in that world, as well as the experiences of women industrial workers in a formerly all-male craft.

What makes this such fascinating reading is that Niemann constructs her narrative to match her experience with the craft of railroading. Gypsy, like any beginning "brakie" was overwhelmed by the idiosyncratic details of railroading, and she shares the inner language of railroading with the reader. As "an old head" berated her, "I told you to hang three cars, let two go to the runaround, one to the main, go through the crossovers, and line behind. Now can't you read a signal, dummy?" (5). The terms became more understandable to the reader as Niemann becomes more comfortable in her role as brakie. By the end of the book, railroading terms are not an interruption to the story, but an integral part of it.

The transition to her identity as brakeman was necessary for Gypsy to stay alive. In her first experience as a boomer she notes she "didn't have the basic moves of the craft to where they were second nature. I had to think about them" (26). Her carelessness almost killed her as "some other crew had been shoving a long line of piggyback flatcars--silent floaters, on the track next to me.... My body decided to move. After it did, and the river of creaking steel went riffling past me inches away" (27). Further into her narrative, the danger of the work became a source for black humor instead of terror. She had shirts printed up that said "I survived Strang," a particularly unpleasant yard where the usual dangers were compounded by working on cars filled with acid and toxic chemicals. In her first day in another yard, she and her partner let a string of cars roll together without noticing "the lead car was a loaded tanker with an open hatch full of molasses." She worked the rest of the day in the stifling heat covered in the stuff and observed, "kind of a mild lesson.... It could have been a tanker of sulfuric" (148).

As one might expect with workplace tensions such as these, drinking was an integral part of the railroaders' lifestyle. It was also part of "getting your rest." As railroad workers were on call at any time of day, they never knew when they might be called in. As a consequence, they usually drank after work, even if work was done at 7:00 a.m. At any rate, that was the rationalization. In every town, there was a railroaders' bar where workers drank. Gypsy enjoyed the camaraderie with her fellow workers, but downplayed her identity as a bi-sexual. Consequently, she sought out gay and lesbian bars, but found her lifestyle and identity as a railroader isolated her from her other community. Ultimately, she quit drinking, which cut her off from the seemingly easy sociability of both communities. Unlike many middle-class transplants to the blue-collar world, Gypsy was not trying to recruit workers to a cause but was saving herself from her own self-destructive impulses. "The railroad transformed the metaphor of my life. Nine thousand tons moving at sixty miles an hour into the fearful night.... By doing work this dangerous, I would have to make a decision to live, to protect myself, I would have to choose to stay alive every day, to hang onto the side of those freight cars for dear life" (3).

Although Niemann overcomes her alcoholism, her middle-class biases are harder to shake. Boomer ends with a critique of the Reagan-era concessions forced upon the railroad unions. Niemann argues that railroads such as the Southern Pacific have undermined the carefully-constructed craft nature of the work, jeopardizing workers' and the public's safety in the process. The details of her argument are essentially correct, but are inconsistent with the rest of her account. Throughout the book, she shows railroading as dangerous, well-paid and intricate work. Railroad workers are shown as good workers, but hardly proud union members. Indeed, until the end of the book, Niemann never alludes to the union's presence in the work except in its role as maintainer of seniority rosters. Railroad workers are hard drinkers, frequently racist, as sexually insecure as any straight men, but not particularly class- or craft-conscious unionists. Niemann reveals her middle-class biases by trying to valorize workers' occupational culture as more deeply-rooted in class conflict than it was.

Despite this caveat, Boomer is a wonderfully readable and complex book full of rich occupational details and sharp insights into the malleable nature of social identity. An important work in the history of the industrial worker, Boomer would also make an excellent book to assign in a course on the changing identity of modern industrial workers.

John Hinshaw Carnegie Mellon University
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Hinshaw, John
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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