Primary Encounters

by Philip A. Waterhouse

West of the Mississippi, we were called gandy dancers,
slang term for railroad “section hands” the north east,
the same gut work in designated sections of rail traffic,
installing new creosoted log track ties, re-aligning and
leveling track with iron tamping bars, winters worst
digging out snowed-over or flooded crossings, then
energy draining humid summers, Willie, the French-
Canadian foreman, feeding us salt pills and laughing
about what they would do to our male section,
me also working the gut on college vacations both
hot and frigid seasons to help pay college tuition,
one particular winter, for dumb pride at keeping up
in good physical shape, turned down a chance to
work a ritzy resort, volunteered to go into a freight car
and pry at ice-locked Australian steer hides marked
for local tanneries, to loosen them for unloading with
the tamping bar until at Willie’s order, my safety’s sake,
literally slid out of the icy boxcar lucky to escape
the frozen knife-edge hides’ sudden loose shiftings,
landed at boots of wiser “hands,” one reaching down
said something in Canuck caused snickers, friendly.