Don’t be surprised if you hear Joe Varro humming “I’ve been Working on the Railroad.” He knows the tune by heart. In a series of vignettes from his memoirs, he relates some grand stories of his experiences as a switchman in the last glory days of steam engines in Saskatchewan.
He started as a labourer in the Regina rail yards at age seventeen, but due to the manpower shortage of World War II, was promoted to switchman the next year. On his first assignment, as a nineteen-year-old greenhorn in 1945, he was in charge of two inexperienced switchmen. The assistant superintendent cautioned him that damaged stock could easily be replaced, but not arms or legs.
Varro describes the dangers of his job, and the tragedies that can befall the careless or the unwary. After two fatal accidents in a space of eight weeks, he went home and prayed, realizing he could have been one of them.
In 1949, Varro had a near-death experience himself. While crossing a set of tracks in the dark, he tripped, fell forward, and lay sprawled across the tracks, right in the path of an oncoming locomotive. The engineer was able to stop – right over the spot where Varro had tripped. The crew said they were afraid to look under the engine. They found Varro on the other side, dazed and in shock, but alive.
Railway work meant outdoor work – in all kinds of weather. “In 1946 the blizzards went on day after day, week after week,” Varro recalled. For the first time in the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the main line between Regina and Moose Jaw was blocked for two days.
Varro’s sketches adorn his book. He got an early start as an artist. In his mid-teens, much to the chagrin of his father, he painted a nine-by twelve-foot mural of a Mikado 51 steam engine on the side of the summer shed. He progressed to drawing Saskatchewan landscape scenes on the sides of box cars. “They were like huge 12 X 20 foot canvasses just waiting for someone to draw on them,” he said – a temptation too hard to resist. He went on to become a high school art teacher in British Columbia.
A glossary explains the meaning of terms such as boomer, frog, gandy dancer, and hot box. Varro also reveals the habit of railway workers to use nicknames, such as Hot Shot Sid, Slippery Smith, and Split Second Kelly. Varro’s own nickname was Kokomo Joe.
Love of the railway is in Varro’s blood, in his bones, in his very soul, and it clearly shows throughout his book. Once a railroader, always a railroader.
THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM