Virgil’s Boy

William Trent Pancoast

     
   

There were fourteen of us on the section gang. I lived in Ohio and I was the only one with a high school diploma.  The other thirteen were from Fort Gay, West Virginia, and Louisa, Kentucky, two little towns separated by the Big Sandy above Williamson and Matewan. All the guys traveled to Marion, Ohio every Monday morning to begin their week’s work and shared two big old houses near the Erie Lackawanna yards. They shared expenses and cooking, took their meals together, went to work everyday, and waited for Friday when they could head for home. These were good jobs with union wages. Most years they got laid off for two or three months in the winter so they could stay home with their families.

This was hard, hard work we were doing, hours at a time tamping gravel beneath the railroad ties with stone forks. Before the tamping we hauled the ties up the cinder bank using tie tongs, two men to a tie. Sometimes you just really couldn’t get up the bank with two men, but everybody knew which banks those were.

            We were the only manual gang left in the state. We jacked the rails up and removed the old ties, clearing away all the rotted wood, replacing every other tie as standard maintenance. After shaping up the hole with a mattock and shovel we’d push the new tie in under the rail. You think it would be close to level and ready, but it never was. Guys liked to do their own prep work, then if they had to tamp too much it was their own fault.

            I wanted to be a spiker on the first day there, watching old Willie and Virgil methodically pound the square spikes into the creosoted hardwood. Observing their smooth, powerful swings, much like a golf swing in cadence and timing, I thought it looked like the place to be. When I finally got my chance, mostly to provide entertainment to the old hands one afternoon, I found out different.

            If you missed the spike and hit the rail, the rail might split. Spikers worked together in rhythm, one spiked over the rail, the two-inch diameter head of the spike mall clearing the rail by an inch or two. A good spiker never hit the rail. Or you could slide off the spike head and break the spike mall handle over the rail. A good spiker left a shiny spot the size of a dime on the rounded head of the spike. Spiking is not as easy as it looks.

            It was June 1970 in Ohio where I lived in Marion, not 100 miles from Kent State, where a cruel slaughter had just taken place. Two of my friends had been killed in Vietnam in the last twelve months. As we buried them and the country turned into this maudlin fucking place, hatred and ignorance simmering on the surface, I knew I didn’t have any better friends than those two. One of them had gone to Yale for a couple years and then just sat around drinking and smoking dope before he was drafted. He got blown up quick, ten days into his deployment. The other friend was a big, friendly farm boy with reddish blond hair who played tackle both ways on the football team. He could have gone to Toledo and played on scholarship, but he joined up. His brother was a SEAL, his uncle a Marine, so there he went.

            I felt lucky to get the job on the section gang. I made enough to pay my way at Ohio State where I had just finished my second year. I chose the section gang over the roundhouse at the Erie Lackawanna Railroad so I could be outside instead of in the dim, greasy machine shop.

I got to know all the guys over the first couple of weeks. Most of them didn’t have a lot of education but knew reading was important. I came to understand calling a hillbilly a sonofabitch was like calling a black dude a nigger, and Vietnam permeated the American landscape. It was on all our minds. Take Virgil, his oldest son had been killed in Nam the year before.

            Even before I knew that about Virgil, that he had lost his son, he asked me about college—how and when to apply. He wanted to know what I thought were good colleges and how hard college might be. He asked me what a kid should write in the autobiographical essays colleges required.

            When he finally got to the personal part, like how much college would cost, and whether he could afford it, I learned that his other son Andy had just finished his junior year in high school, and at Virgil’s urging, was applying to colleges. The boy didn’t want to bother with it, Virgil confided in me, but was doing as his dad asked.

            He was wide-eyed with the possibilities when I told him I could pay all my college expenses, tuition and food and a place to live, on what I would make that summer on the railroad. I told him they had made the right choice, applying to West Virginia colleges (Virgil was from the Mountaineer side of the river) since tuition was about half as much for in-state as for out-of-state colleges.

            “He’s got a girlfriend. They’re steady together all the time, and that’s fine with me and his mother. That’s how she and I were in high school. Keeps a young feller out of trouble if he’s got a girl. They’ll end up married, so we thought it would be best to be close to home. We’re thinking Huntington.”

            “I work during school, too,” I told Virgil. “Keeps me in beer money.”

            He shook his head at that. “Andy won’t be needing none of that money.”

            The more I talked to Virgil, the more I saw how alone he was in his quest to get his boy to college. Not many kids from the hills and hollers around Fort Gay went to college. Many of them went to Detroit or other industrial cities to seek their fortunes. If they stayed close to home, maybe they got on at the power plants on the rivers. Maybe on the railroad in Williamson or Huntington, or even came to Marion, Ohio, to work for the Erie Lackawanna. But in those days such prosperity usually came after they served their country. That was big. All thirteen of my hillbilly friends on the section gang had served, and it was a strain for Virgil to push his boy outside that tradition, especially during war. Needless to say, the body bags made a steady stream to the little funeral homes along the hollers and in the little towns of West Virginia and Kentucky. Their boys were proud to serve and they died in numbers to prove it.

            Deferments. Virgil questioned me at length about deferments. “So once he’s in college, he’ll be exempt from the draft?”

            “Yeah. We got that Nixon Lottery now, you know.”

            “Huh. He’ll be eighteen on July 5. Number 188.”

            “They may not get that far.”

            “They’ll get there. You watch. He wants to go to college anyways.”

***

            The weather turned hot in the third week of June, and the boss let us stretch our breaks out a few minutes extra under the shade trees along the right of way or in the shadow of the truck wherever we were working. On one of these extended breaks I realized JB, Virgil’s nephew, might be getting a little jealous about all the conversation I was having with his uncle.

            Virgil had been telling me about the summer job Andy had gotten, working a man’s job cutting right of way through timber for the power company. It was with an outfit that his football coach worked for the first two months of each summer. It paid over $2.50 an hour. We were getting four something on the railroad with our union wages, so $2.50 down home was good money, man or boy. Virgil was sure proud of Andy.

            We got a couple of sixty pound rail jacks out of the equipment truck before our break, and now JB sat on the base of one of them listening from a distance, like he wasn’t really listening, to me and Virgil. When we hit a lull in the conversation about Virgil’s boy, JB chimed in, “Whitey, I once carried two of these rail jacks a mile to the station. Do you think you could do that?”

            I looked through the steamy, hazy air at JB. He was dead serious about this claim of manhood superiority over me, and I looked around the group of six or so men within hearing range. They were all mostly looking down at the ground. Some pulled up a new stalk of grass to stick in their mouths, and not one of them cracked a smile or let on to hearing JB’s question.

            Now I was undoubtedly the weakest member of the gang. These guys all had the ropy forearms and muscular backs their lifetimes of labor had outfitted them with. But no one doubted JB was right next to me in the pecking order. He was one of the younger guys and still carried some baby fat.

“I guess if you could, I could,” I said, thinking that quick was the way to dispense with the situation.

            My answer cracked everybody up, bringing the guys from a distance to see who or what was being laughed at.

            “Old Whitey says if JB can carry two of these jacks a mile, well then, he guesses he can too.”

            This brought a new wave of laughter and left JB stewing. He poked his eyes over at me once, and I was waiting for that and shrugged real quick, but he looked down again right away. I didn’t intend to fuck with poor JB. He’d be taking my spot in last place in the pecking order when I left.

               Junior Thompson invited me to join them for a beer that afternoon after work at Deanno’s Bar. I had worked with him and Big Willie all day and we talked about beer a whole lot through the heat of the afternoon. We had a lot of laughs over the next weeks, stopping by the bar often. I liked these guys with their plainspoken view of the world.

               It was through these stop-offs at Deanno's I learned some of the more personal things about Andy. Junior’s wife was first cousins with Virgil’s wife, and they had always been close, sharing the details of their lives with each other. Junior was privy to all.

               It was intriguing to me when I heard that Andy was planning on signing up with the draft board as a Conscientious Objector. Junior shook his head when he told me that. A CO status wasn’t common in the mountains. Seems the boy had become friends with the assistant preacher at his family’s church, a young fellow who grew up in Charleston and was just out of Ohio University, and the young preacher had also filed for CO status when he was eighteen.

               Some of the information Junior shared was firsthand since Andy and his girl Doreen were frequent visitors at his house. He recounted one evening when Andy blurted out, “Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam is all I hear. At the store, on the job, at the Dairy Queen in the evening. So and so’s going, been, wounded, killed.” All the killing had gotten to the boy, Junior said.  He hadn’t been able to see any reason he should go half around the world to go kill people who never did nothing to him. After what happened to his brother Allen, sure, he wanted to go to Vietnam and kill every sonofabitch there, Junior said. But the more he thought about it and talked to the preacher, Andy knew the “enemy” was nothing more than a bunch of kids just like his brother that a different government had given guns to and pushed out in front of other kids from other countries.

               At least this is the way I pieced together what Junior had told me.

***

            The summer stayed unwelcomely hot, and the pattern of my friends’ lives on the section gang lay bare before me as the weeks came and went. Their routine never varied: eat, sleep, work, go down home on Friday afternoon, return to Marion with the sunrise on Monday morning. There were always stories—Grover lost his paycheck in a poker game before he even went home, Big John got drunk and got in a fight and spent the weekend in jail, or there was   talk of illness. Cancer seemed to be present in every man’s family. They suspected it was from the strip mine runoff throughout the Tug and Big Sandy watershed, but they all supported mining of any kind. They often mentioned in conversation the Farmington explosion of 1968 and earlier disasters in West Virginia and Kentucky and the conclusion was always the same. They had to have their coal mines. They would bury their dead on a Saturday and go back in the mine on Monday. The 1969 Coal Mine Safety and Health Act made it possible for them to continue to believe in the precious black stuff.

            Virgil was off work on July 6 and 7 after Andy signed up as a Conscientious Objector, but word made its way to Marion before his return on Wednesday the eighth. His boy was a coward. A Communist. A pansy ass. A draft dodger. The preacher had counseled Andy to help the boy remain steadfast to his commitments to himself, Doreen, and to God. No one on Earth could judge him, the preacher taught. No one could decide things of this nature except for a man deep in his own soul. It was a decision between him and his God. A man’s countrymen were just that. They had nothing to do with his soul.

            Virgil was quiet, kept to himself all that Wednesday. He got to the station as we boarded the truck, and I scooted over and saved him a spot when I saw him coming with his black metal lunch bucket across the cinder parking lot from the train house. The trains were numerous and busy that morning, chugging and snorting and whistling as they coupled and uncoupled, and it was a good thing to have the noise because Virgil didn’t have to talk to anyone.

            When we got to the job site, Virgil got a mattock and a stone fork out of the rack, and hoisted a rail jack onto his right shoulder. JB stood with another jack hanging heavily at his side. I saw what Virgil was doing and grabbed a shovel, mattock, and a pair of tie tongs and stood beside him. He never acknowledged my presence, but he let me help him pull out the first ties when the rail was clear and the spikes and tie plates had been pried up and removed by JB.

            Virgil worked as hard as I’ve ever seen a man work. By 7:30 his blue chambray shirt was soaking wet. He went until nine o’clock like that, me helping him pull out the ties, then him clearing out splintered, rotted pieces of ties and loosening the cinders and gravel with the mattock. I mostly stayed out of his way, just helping him as best I could get the old ties out and the new ties in. He let me help with the stone tamping since that was a horrible shit job no matter what your state of mind. He and I had talked enough about Vietnam that he knew I wasn’t going to be judging Andy for anything to do with that war.

            He seemed to settle in a little at the break. The other guys didn’t bother to look his way any more. By lunch the guys were occupied. One of them found a bee hive hanging in a little stand of honeysuckle along the right of way and was plotting to take it home, the usual poker game was underway in the back of the truck, and right before lunch was over Virgil looked at me and said, “He still needs to go to college.”

            We worked steady that afternoon, like working people work, one tie at a time, knowing that the job would never be done. That’s the thing about work—it’s never done. Pace is everything. There’s always more to do just like you’ve just finished. A worker who doesn’t get this can go insane.

***

            It started raining as we got off work at 3:30, a heavy rain, and it kept up all night. In the morning the creeks were swollen to their banks and the rain continued. We hung out in the meeting room for an hour, then a few of us dashed across the black cinder lot to one of the Erie box trucks, got the door up, and sat inside. Several of the guys played five-card stud on an upside down spike crate. About 10:00 I ran back across the lot to the meeting room and ate my lunch. The boss called it at 10:30. We got our four hours of show up pay.

            It rained all Thursday night and by Friday morning all of Ohio was experiencing flooding. We got in the truck and headed out past the switching yard to a siding we had worked on a few weeks ago. There was about five or six hours work left there. It looked like an easy day of finishing it up.

            Just after lunch came the news about the washout over past Ashland, Ohio, about 50 miles east of Marion. When it became apparent we were going to the job, we finished up the last few ties and headed back to the meeting room. As I climbed the stairs behind Virgil and JB there was an excitement in the men’s voices. When we got settled upstairs and Harry, our boss, laid out the maps, I saw why.

            He explained this was voluntary because we would be on the job site for up to 72 hours. Then he explained the pay. We would be on the clock the entire time, with a two hour paid break for food and rest every twelve hours, regular breaks in between the long breaks. Pay would be time and a half all through Friday night and Saturday, with double time starting at 12:00 a.m. Sunday.

            We all got home and packed, a change of clothes all we needed since the railroad would have a tent serving meals around the clock—sandwiches, steaks to order, soda, and coffee. The back of the truck was open now as it was late in the day and hot. The smokers rolled one cigarette after another as we traveled east on Route 30 to Ashland. JB finished rolling one and offered it to me. I took it even though I wasn’t a smoker. The home grown tobacco had a strong, bitter taste. I didn’t draw too deep or inhale much. I held the cigarette like a pacifier, sticking what looked to me like a joint between my fore and middle fingers. Every now and then I took a hit.

            When we got there, trucks were lined up and dumping fresh gravel and cinders for the two dozers along the creek below where the railroad bank had washed out. There was one automated gang setting up on the part of the track that was good before the washout. They set their spiking and cutting machines onto the rails. A hundred men carried tools and equipment up and down the track beside the good set of rails. None of them could do much until our gang started laying ties and rails to provide the support for the automated gangs.

            We got out of the truck and Harry, who had ridden in the cab, was waiting for us with a scribbled list. He broke us into groups of three and told each group what tools to get. I would be with Virgil and JB, and as I hoisted a rail jack onto my right shoulder, JB grabbed another one. Virgil handed me a couple of tamping forks and I followed them along the washout. Guys along the way stopped their work and nodded, a few gave relaxed salutes as if we were in the military. “Guess the work can start now,” Harry said to a group and there was much laughing and goodwill at the truth of it. Our bunch of hillbillies was there to go in front of the machinery, make the repairs possible. Without guys who knew how to do it the old way nothing could happen. I was proud to be a part of that. The guys didn’t let on, just crunched along the cinder bed like we were going to a right of way on a Monday morning over around Marion.

***

Saturday evening, our break came at 4 in the afternoon. I was exhausted and didn’t know how much longer I could go on. I had the option after the two hours to clock out and go uptown Ashland where they had some sleeping rooms for the guys who needed them.

I heard a girl holler, “Daddy. Daddy!” I looked at Virgil and saw a big grin cut across his stubbled face. Past the food tent stood his wife and young daughter and Andy and Doreen. He quickened his pace and said, “Come on along, Whitey.”

            I said I was tired but he tugged my shirt and said, “You’ll be alright once you get some food in you and sit a spell.”

            I followed along and it was then that I noticed Doreen. Her beauty was stunning. A brightness, an aura, emanated from her. I tried not to stare. I looked away and saw that other men were doing the same. Some stared on dumbly. She talked excitedly to Virgil about some happening up their holler and then turned her attention back to Andy. She put her arm around him, drew him close and kissed his ear.

Andy had about him the same extreme energy. He was animated and excited to be a part of this miniature family reunion. He talked with Virgil about the football team. Coach had told him he would be alternating plays at tailback to go along with his linebacker role. Their first game that year was with a big Huntington high school. They usually got trounced, but neither he nor Virgil would accept that possibility. I had played linebacker too and we laughed about the beating linebackers take every game. “My neck still hurts,” I told Andy and that made him rub his neck. In hushed tones, Virgil and Andy talked about Andy’s CO status. Doreen’s dad had a problem with Andy over that, and Virgil said he would run into him at the American Legion Hall Saturday and talk to him.

 Andy and Doreen together looked like they were the future of the world.

            We had fried chicken and potato salad under the big old maple tree where Virgil’s boy had parked the truck. He and Doreen sat on the tail gate and the rest of us sat in folding chairs next to a little table where the food was spread. The food perked me up as Virgil had promised, and I observed Andy and Doreen. They were so at ease with each other, young people in love obviously, and I thought of what Virgil had said about young men staying out of trouble when they meet their lifelong love early in life. I flashed my own experiences, picturing nights careening down back roads in a carload of drunks or running from the cops when they got wind of our up-to-no-good exploits. Watching Andy and Doreen made me happy.

 I laid down on one of the quilts they had placed under the maple. When I woke an hour later, it was time to go back to work. Virgil’s wife and daughter were up front in the pickup and Andy and Doreen were in the back under the truck cap on the mattress they had thrown in for traveling. I shook Andy’s and Doreen’s hands and stood at the passenger side giving my thanks to Virgil’s wife and daughter for the great meal. Ginny, his daughter, had made the potato salad, and she blushed when I said it was perfect. I left Virgil at the driver’s side door and walked back to the tracks.

We worked all night under the generator-powered lights and by Sunday noon I knew I couldn’t go much longer. But by 2 pm the job was close to being finished. We were ready to head for home to rest up for the coming week of regular work in Marion.

 

I went back to Ohio State that fall. The Friday after Thanksgiving I took off from my job pumping gas in Columbus and drove down to Fort Gay to visit Virgil and his family. When I got there I learned Virgil’s boy was living in the shed on his grandpa’s hillside farm. He and Doreen were no longer a couple. He had quit the football team. I overheard more of Andy’s story as I stood outside with JB and the smokers. Doreen’s dad had forced the breakup, all because of Andy’s CO status. I knew that a sin of great magnitude had occurred and hoped that Hell was real so that whoever had caused the end of this couple should rot there.

When I saw Andy I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He had lost twenty pounds and hadn’t shaved in several days. He had a dazed look about him and the energy I had seen just a few months earlier was gone. I spoke to him twice but he acted like he did not hear me, like there was nothing in this world he could talk about with me or anyone else. I felt sad seeing him so beat by the things that had happened to him and wished there was something I could do. Andy’s sadness made this a sad Thanksgiving for everyone.

It was a warm day for November, and some of the Florida windows on the closed-in front porch were cranked open. The men all sat out there talking and looking out at the tight valley and the steep ridge in the distance. I had expected they lived in a cabin, but the house was a one story ranch Virgil had built himself the year before he went railroading in Marion.

It was still an hour or so before we ate, and one of the women leaned through the doorway to the porch. “Who wants to go get butter?”

Nobody moved. JB finally said, “I’ll go.”

He got up and said, “Come on, Whitey. You can go with me.”

I was intrigued by the beauty of the creek we followed down out of the holler to town and the mountain backdrop. I could see why folks didn’t want to leave their homes down in the hills, like the guys working in Marion.

JB was apparently over his jealousy, and in between pointing out landmarks in a land he obviously loved, he helped me better understand the situation with Andy and Doreen. That look on Andy was the real look of depression and disillusionment. The timber company had fired him in July and he was working in a little grocery store owned by one of the church members. He rode his bicycle to work. He had quit the football team because of the taunting over his decision not to go to war. He got in fights over it because he was still a proud young man, and one day, standing bloody across from a bloodied former friend in the alley behind the school, Andy dropped his hands and shoulders and walked slowly to his truck in the student parking lot. That was his last day at school. That night he moved out to the shed, away from all he loved and all who loved him. 

“What brought it all about,” JB said, “was that in October it came out that Doreen was pregnant. They wanted to get married. But Doreen’s dad put an end to that idea. He put the word out at the American Legion Hall that his daughter wasn’t marrying a draft dodger.”

            “Then around November first he took Doreen to a doctor in Pittsburgh and she had an abortion. That took the life right out of her. Last I saw her, she looked like the world had come to an end and she’s the only one who saw it happen.

            “But the worst part is that her dad had Andy arrested for rape. She was only 17, a year behind Andy in school, and Andy had turned 18 in July. Her daddy and the sheriff are old hunting buddies. Put the boy in jail and it’s all been downhill from there. Andy’s out on bond now. He’ll likely do prison time. Maybe you’ll see Doreen. She works part time at the Dairy Bell, where we’re going.”

            In the store a few minutes later, I looked around, hoping for a glimpse of the beautiful girl I had seen a few months earlier. There was a girl working the cash register and another behind the big cooler full of sandwich meat and cheese, but neither was Doreen. JB elbowed me a minute later and pointed to the cooler, keeping his finger by his side so only I could see it.

The girl had chopped dull hair in place of the waves of shiny black hair that had spilled to her waist in July. Black pouches cupped under her eyes, which seemed permanently glazed. There was no trace of a smile.  Doreen looked defeated, just like Andy. They were, like true lovers always, I now realized, the source of each others energy and happiness.

“Hi, Doreen,” I said.

She looked up from the meat slicer and I could see she recognized me. “Did you have a good Thanksgiving?”

She nodded and smiled grimly. I wanted to go behind the cooler and reach my hand to her and take her away back to Andy. This was Romeo and Juliet, set in Fort Gay, West Virginia. What had started as a thing of great beauty had been tarnished and destroyed by scared little men, men who followed the rules of nations and not the eternal rules of God and the universe. But there was nothing I could do.

JB had gotten the butter and other items he needed and was finishing at the checkout.

“I hope I’ll see you again,” I said cheerfully to Doreen, and she gave me that grim smile again, her eyes squinting as if to hold back the tears.

We got in JB’s pickup and followed the river. “Tough stuff,” I said.

“The world’s too sad for any of us sometimes, Whitey.”

I could only nod. I pictured Andy and Doreen as the couple they had been in July at the washout. When we started up the creek, full from yesterday’s rain, it caught my eye, and I watched it all the way to Virgil’s.

***

            When I left the Saturday after Thanksgiving I had the feeling Virgil simply wanted me to understand his family’s plight, that if I understood it would somehow make things better. I hope it helped in some way that I did understand. My prayers weren’t fancy but God had to have gotten my message. I went back to school and thought often of Andy and Doreen and Virgil and the rest of his family. I didn’t communicate with Virgil the rest of the year. I met a girl and with school and work I didn’t think I had the time.

I returned in 1971 for my summer stint on the Erie Lackawanna Railroad. The guys nodded when I came out of the stairwell at the gathering room, a nod like what they gave one another in morning greetings when they bothered. A minute later JB sat down on the bench beside me.

            “Where’s Virgil?” I asked.

            “He won’t be here. Wanted to stay down home with his family.”

            “So he’s not coming back?”

            “No.”

            “How’s Andy doing?”

            “I should have maybe called you, Whitey. Andy killed himself right before Christmas.”

            I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I once again pictured the boy and Doreen the summer before at the Ashland washout, holding hands like the lovers they were, happy to be alive.

            Harry, our boss, banged a toy drum one of his grandkids had given him, striking it once with the wooden ball on the end of a black stick to get our attention. He explained what we’d be doing that day, the safety conditions of this particular stretch of track, that two switches fed into it.

            I sat quietly in the box truck as it bounced down the cinder right of way just west of the station. I already had a mattock and shovel picked out. I was going to dig some tie beds. They would be just the right depth and width and the ties would slide in just right.

            JB must have seen what I was up to because he was right behind me with a rail jack and gravel fork and tie tongs. I worked steady till the first break, soaking my blue chambray shirt like Virgil had that day last July, sweating out the poisons from within, the poisons of war and hatred and ignorance. I could never get all the ties put in, never be finished, but I worked that day like it was possible.

     
   
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William Trent Pancoast's novels are Wildcat (2010), Crashing (1983 and 2015), and the recently completed Valley Real Estate, a novel set in the Tug River Valley of West Virginia in 1897. His recent fiction has appeared in Revolver, Steel Toe Review, Monkeybicycle, Night Train and Fried Chicken and Coffee. Pancoast retired from the auto industry in 2007 after thirty years as a die maker and union newspaper editor. Born in 1949, the author lives in Ontario, Ohio. He has a BA in English from the Ohio State University.