The boy looked upwards, into the most astonishing face he had ever seen. A face of outsized features—a fleshy nose, huge brown eyes with veins slightly yellowed, a crown of tightly curled black hair. The boy raised his hand to point at the face, which smiled, and a big hand pointed back at him. For those long seconds that boy was the bravest man in Julian, and he knew it.
The moment ended abruptly as the boy’s mother yanked him to her side. She did it with odd vigor and he wanted to cry, but wonder overcame hurt, and he continued to stare, open-mouthed. The man had come in the door of Marchon Mercantile, taken in the proprietor and customers, and paused by the mail cubicle, with its wall of darkly gleaming brass mailboxes.
The other shoppers went out of their way to avoid looking at the newcomer. They scrutinized dry goods and cleaning products. They hefted paper-wrapped chuck roasts from the white metal meat-locker in the back. They exchanged words about the weather. But they noticed him, all right. A colored man, right there in Julian. Well-dressed too, with his blue shirt buttoned up to his neck.
It was late May after a wet March. The corn had been in the ground a month, and the terraced hills were covered with slender stalks as tall as toy soldiers, as tall as the trophies in the window of Marchon Mercantile. Winning more trophies, that was the normal thing to be talking about now, when the season was as young as the corn and as green with promise. Just last night the boys had gone up to Nebraska City and demolished the best team in Otoe County.
So it brought a sense of general relief when Jack Scarborough bounded in, barely glancing at the stranger as he shouted joyously, “Game over! Hornets rule the world!”
“Rule Otoe County anyway,” said Dave, wiping his hands on his apron.
“Great game!” hollered Nicholas Reilly, brandishing a new broom. “You showed those city boys.”
“Hush, Uncle Nick,” said Millie Littman, still clutching the boy to her skirts.
Jack got down on one knee in front of the boy. “We gave ’em a spanking, didn’t we, Timmy? Cause we’re the champions!” Jack ruffled his hair, and Timmy giggled.
“Season’s just started,” said Dave. “Let’s take ’em one at a time.”
Jack straightened up. “Now, Davey…” he began, but thought better of chiding his brother’s modesty. Jack was three years out of high school. Dave had done two tours in the Pacific and had been awarded a Bronze Star for valor. Tall and easy-going, Dave had come home just in time to buy the store from old man Marchon, who’d gone senile during the war. People kept telling him to hang his own name out front, but here it was 1950 already, and Dave still hadn’t got around to it. Didn’t seem much point, when everyone already knew him. And they did. As family man, as proprietor, as big-hitting first-baseman.
Jack pulled a quarter from his pocket and flipped it through the air, calling out, “Change for two bits?” He saluted Dave’s catch with a radio announcer’s twangy “And he’s out at first!”
People laughed, and Jack grinned. He wasn’t the best player. He wasn’t even second-best in his own family. Middle brother Ernie had been a genuine phenom before the war. But Jack had a different job. He was what people called a “character.” Stocky and cheerful as catchers are supposed to be, he kept his teammates loose, the home crowd happy, and the other off balance with his endless stream of inventive chatter.
Jack pulled open the top of the pop machine, slammed a dime in the slot, and yanked out a Dr Pepper. He drank half of it in one swig and gave a satisfied belch. But his grin faltered. The colored man was still standing over by the mailboxes, looking at him. Jack turned away and with dogged cheerfulness sang out, “Hey, Davey, how about when you gave that boy a shoe-topper? I thought you broke his nose!”
“Got lucky on that one,” Dave replied. “Looked like an error to me.”
“Error, heck! Pee Wee Reese himself would have kicked that ball.”
“Right,” laughed Dave. “Or Jackie Robinson himself.”
For a long moment, the only sound was the squeak of the swamp cooler hanging in the corner. Jack’s arms dropped to his sides. It had been awkward enough trying to pretend things were normal, and Dave had to go and say that.
The stranger was a big man of middle years, with close-cropped hair showing a few flecks of gray. He’d been there for a couple of minutes now, and apparently he wasn’t going away. Nobody knew quite what to do about him.
Having burst the bubble of invisibility, Dave called out to him, “Hiya there. What can I do for you?”
The man nodded toward the post-office boxes, and when he spoke his voice was quiet. “I came to check if any mail had come for me, by general delivery.”
“Just a jiffy and I’ll have a look,” Dave answered. “For that, I need to wear my postmaster hat.”
He took off his white apron and laid it over the counter. Once inside the cubicle, he put on a battered green visor, to nervous chuckles from the farmers. He leaned forward and addressed the stranger through the small window with vertical brass bars. “Now, what name would I be looking for?”
“Wallace,” said the man. “Jerome Wallace.”
“Wallace, Jerome,” Dave said, rifling through a small pile. “That be a normal letter size?”
“Hmm.” Dave looked up. “I am sorry.”
The man showed no reaction. “One other question, if you don’t mind.”
“Shoot,” said Dave.
“If I was to get it set up with the bosses, can you work it so my pay can be sent to an address in Omaha?”
“So you don’t want to send cash money through the mail, is that what you’re saying?”
“That’s it, yes.”
Dave scratched his head. “I’m not rightly sure how that’s done. I could maybe set it up, but I don’t know…” He paused again. “You’re with the gandy crew?”
“And you’re going to be in our town how long?”
Even the sacks of flour seemed be holding their breath.
Jerome gave a small glance around. “Until the section is done,” he said. “The foreman could give you a better sense how long we’re going to be in your town.” He slowed down the last two words, creating an emphasis that some townsfolk would find amusing and others would call something else. In any case, everyone was suddenly busy checking their merchandise.
Dave Scarborough took his elbows off the counter. “I could maybe get it set up,” he said again, soberly. “Best if I talk the foreman. Did I hear right, that’s Moose Burdock?”
“He goes by that.”
Dave gave a can-do nod. “I’ll bring it up with Moose when he comes in.”
There was a pause. It seemed a long pause, while everyone waited for the colored man to leave. But he took a step farther in, a board squeaking under his foot.
“Now,” said Jerome, “I might take a pack of that Doublemint Gum.” He pointed in the direction of the cash register. “That is, if you don’t mind to put your other hat back on.”
Jack erupted in a nervous giggle. Nick Reilly wore a mischievous smile. The farmers’ wives looked frightened. Did they serve Negroes at Marchon’s? As far as anyone knew, this was the first one ever to come into the store. There was a collective intake of breath.
The appearance of the colored man at Marchon Mercantile was, in fact, not entirely a surprise. The mess car and three faded yellow Pullman sleepers had been hauled in by a switch engine the night before and left on the side track. Those same coaches had been parked at Auburn, ten miles south, for the last four weeks. Before that they were in Falls City for a spell, and before that in Hiawatha, Kansas. Julian was the logical next stop on the main line to Omaha. Word had gotten around that the whole crew was colored. Not the foremen, of course, but still. People looked at each other, shrugged, and reckoned that must be the way the Mopac was doing things now. You just never knew. Since the war ended, change was in the air everywhere. And in Julian, change rolled in on the iron wheels of the Missouri Pacific Railroad.
Julian had been a train stop before it was a town. Generations were born, grew up, and died with the smell of cinders in their noses. In the 1940s, folks started hearing a new word: dieselization. The steam locomotives were being sidetracked into history, and in their place came powerful, reliable diesels. But the new engines were heavier, so dieselization also meant replacing the 90-pound rail with 115-pound rail all the way from Kansas City to Omaha. This was not a job for local crews. To tackle it the Missouri Pacific brought in a veteran system gang from the division in White River, Arkansas. The foreman was a white-haired man of thirty-five years’ experience, Mr. H. H. “Moose” Burdock, of Cedar Falls, Iowa. For assistant foreman and time-keeper, they tapped a roundhouse manager from Wichita, Ivan Tarp. The rest of the crew comprised fourteen men, plus a cook and a caller. Besides the cook, all of them hailed from Conway County, Arkansas. All but one.
Jerome Wallace had never wanted to be a gandy dancer. He was an Omaha bricklayer by trade, and a damn good one. He’d worked his way up from scrap boy to hod carrier to apprentice to journeyman. Laid the south side of the Timmons Building practically by himself, and that was tricky work, what with those cornices. He’d been doing all right, almost too good, it felt like. Married to Lucy, finally. Jerome Junior now four years old. Owned his own home on the north side. In one day, it all unraveled. He didn’t start the fight, and he never intended to hurt the man. Lies were told to the police. Now he was supposed to be grateful to Lucy’s brother, Malcolm, who worked for the Missouri Pacific and had managed to get him hired on and sent out of town with a decent-paying job.
It was only supposed to be until things cooled off in Omaha, but Jerome knew how it worked. He might spend years living in retired sleeper cars, ripping and replacing rails, swinging that spike maul until his arms ached. And all the time worried sick about Lucy, especially with the things Malcolm was saying.
As Jerome left the store and headed back to the Pullmans, he looked around, shaking his head. This was the smallest town yet. A one-block main street with one general store and a one-pump gas station. The other storefronts were boarded up; he saw buckets and boxes through the few remaining windows. The street wasn’t even paved. Number two white gravel, by the look of it, from the quarry up by Ashland.
It wouldn’t be half so bad if only he could get home on weekends. But the foreman had them working nearly every Saturday, and in six weeks on the job he’d been able to go home just once. That was contrary to what the union had said when he signed on. He’d tried to get the other men riled up over this, with no luck. They welcomed the extra hours. It wasn’t as if they could go clear to Arkansas anyway.
And so week after week went by, with Lucy at home with JJ and the troubles mounting. If she couldn’t find someone to mind the boy, she might lose her job at the nursing home. She and Jerome had taken out a loan to fix the oil furnace just weeks before Jerome got sacked. The bills kept coming, and Jerome was having a devil of a time trying to get money home to Lucy.
Nowhere, Nebraska. He unwrapped a stick of gum and put it in his mouth. He called it the Doublemint test: when he came to a new town, buying gum was how he took the temperature of the place, sort of like the flow table test for wet cement.
He got to where Main Street met the side track. Straight ahead was the train station, a small building with a shallow peaked roof and generous eaves. To his left, a rumbling sound came from the grain elevator complex, along with a scrim of smoke. Jerome sniffed the air. Not smoke—dust. Dust from that wheat or corn or whatever they were moving around over there.
Jerome headed up the side track to where the crew cars sat. A new flat-car had been delivered, stacked with railroad ties, and the oily odor of creosote hung heavy in the air. Damn, he hated that stuff. It made oil slicks on your clothes, it burned your skin, and the stink didn’t come off in the shower. He was going to kill Malcolm. He remembered their last conversation, over a scratchy phone line. Malcolm’s sing-songy voice: “You tell them it’s right there in the union rules—you get two consecutive days off. Plus you’re entitled to free rides home on the Eagle. If you want to come home, that is.” And then the snicker, the implied nudge and wink, the attitude that infuriated Jerome.
As he walked the last stretch, Ice Cantrell hurried up to him, smiling a broad, gap-toothed smile. “Hey, Omaha, what you get?”
“Didn’t get nothing.”
“You went up that store for something. Let’s see.”
Jerome held up the pack of gum.
Ice walked alongside, too close. “Don’t tell me that’s all. I told you we got rookie rules. When the new guy goes uptown, he brings back something for the old guys, something in a bottle. It’s the a-rrangement.”
Ice liked big words, and he had a habit of drawing out the syllables to the point of sounding like a stage Negro. Jerome had to guard himself from mocking him. In clipped tones, he said, “We settled this in Atchison. I’m too old for games. The only rules I follow come from God, Mr. Mopac, and the BMWE.”
Ice moved closer and said in a menacing whisper, “Don’t see no Bro-tha-hood of the Maintenance of Way doing much for you out here, O-ma-ha.”
“Get off me,” Jerome said, shoving Ice back.
Ice stumbled. He faked a punch, and smiled mirthlessly when Jerome flinched. “You a rookie. That means you have no notion what trouble looks like out here. Un-for-tunate accidents happen all the time. You think about that.” Ice glared for a moment longer, capped it with a smile, and then peeled off toward a couple of the boys who were tossing a baseball.
Rookie, they called him. Jerome was ten years older than any of them, but he knew the score. The others had come up the hard way, position by position, nothing for free. This was a system gang, the top of the heap. It had been obvious to them from the first day that Jerome knew nothing of gandy dancing—he was here because he knew somebody. And they were right; he knew Malcolm. On top of that, from the start he’d put them all on edge, provoking the foreman with union this and union that.
The dislike was mutual. Their Arkansas accents sounded ignorant to Jerome. Some of them, like Delran, seemed genuinely slow-minded. But it was more important to be strong than smart. The new rails were 39 feet long and weighed 115 pounds per every three-foot. That was 1,495 pounds a rail. And Delran, Jerome had to admit, held rail tongs like he was holding a fishing pole. He moved so smooth, it was like he was dancing.
That was where the name came from. The caller, Charly T, gave Jerome that lesson the first day. On their way to the site, Charly fell in beside him, limping like always. “Gandy dancers,” he proclaimed. “Taken from the male of the goose species, known as the gander. That bird has a fine mating dance to attract the female of the species, known as the goose.”
When Jerome actually saw them doing it, with Charly T singing the cadence and the men moving together like they were in some old-time movie, he was appalled. Did those southern boys think they were still on the plantation? No self-respect among the lot of them? Jerome swore that as long as he had this god-forsaken job he would never, ever, act in such a degrading fashion in front of fellow human beings.
But Jerome had been wrong, dead wrong, and he got humbled fast. It took about twenty seconds of lifting his first rail to realize that the dance was anything but clowning. It was an absolute necessity if the men didn’t want to drop 1,495 pounds on themselves. Twelve men on a rail, three sets of tongs at each end of the 39-footer. That came out to 125 pounds per man—as long as the weight was balanced. Either you got precision or you brought that rail down on you and everybody else, with mashed feet and broken legs. No matter what kind of grudge you had against another man, when the rail was moving you worked together. You didn’t even breathe out of time.
Charly T had gotten his limp from a dropped rail. Turned himself into a caller to keep his job with the crew. Otherwise the company would have made him a watchman or crossing guard at half-pay, like they did with all the other men who got busted up working on the railroad.
So Jerome learned to dance almost as well as the next man, and to appreciate the coordination and power in moving and setting rails. Cantrell was the one who made him wary. With the diamond-shaped scar on his cheek, “Ice” was no stranger to trouble, and Jerome wanted none of it.
He saw Sam sitting five feet off the ground on a crooked tree branch, reclining with his nose in the pages of a small book. Strange kid. But Sammy had some brains in his head, even if he didn’t know what to do with them.
“Jerome,” Sam called out. “What’s rue?”
“I told him,” Cook shouted, swinging down from the mess car. “I did.”
Sam read slowly from the book, “With rue my heart is laden, for golden friends I had.”
Delran started snickering and called Sam a sissy. Sam was the youngest of the crew, and the only other rookie. Jerome had been shocked to learn that Sam was just sixteen. The kid was strong—you couldn’t be otherwise in this job—but he was skinny, a boy who’d shot up to his man height but was taking longer to fill out his man shape. There was something childlike in his face, too, a face as delicate and beautiful as a girl’s.
“Rue,” Jerome said slowly. He felt a protective affection for Sam, though he tried not to show it. The kid got picked on enough without being the Omaha troublemaker’s friend.
“Cook says it’s a sauce, but I can’t feature that.”
“It makes perfect sense,” Cook said impatiently, waving a wooden spoon. “What’s that other word, laden? It’s like ladle.” He demonstrated ladling. “When something is close to your heart, that means you like it. The man approves of his sauce.”
“I don’t know…” Sam frowned.
“What’s the next line, Sam?” Jerome asked.
Sam’s eyes went to the book. “For many a, uh, many a rose-lipt maiden, and many a light-foot lad.”
“No,” cut in Cook. “I believe you’ll find it’s r-o-u-x. It’s Cajun for sauce.”
“But that’s not what’s here,” Sam protested.
“That ain’t my problem, now is it?” Cook said. “I know what I know.”
Cook was from New Orleans and never let anyone forget it. As far as he was concerned, the rest of them were hogs at a trough. Cook had even more contempt for the Arkansas boys than Jerome did, and he didn’t try to hide it.
“When I get back home,” Jerome said, “I’ll look that up for you.”
“Thanks, Jerome.” Sam hopped out of the tree and stopped to stare down the tracks at the elevator complex. “That place on fire or something?”
Jerome shaded his eyes from the late-afternoon sun. “It’s dust. We used to get something like that off the dry mix at the cement plant. Only here it’s from grain, most likely.”
Sam’s big eyes stared at him unblinking, his head nodding a little, like a boy to his daddy. If Jerome and Lucy had got married when they should have, they might have a son this age. But there had been money problems, and then came the war. Anyway, Sam had more on the ball than the rest of them, even if he was shy and peculiar, always carrying that little poetry book around.
“There’s a whole mess of buildings,” Sam said, pointing at the grain complex. “But that one tower stands up so high. Why’s it so tall? They must do something important there. Look how it shines. What is it, Jerome?”
“It’s for storing grain, before they ship it out in rail cars. But don’t you go snooping around there. It’s not your business.”
As Jerome turned away toward the bunk cars, Ice sidled up to him again, smiling. This was his ingratiating side, but the mission was the same: he wanted Jerome to go back to the store for beer.
Jerome said no and added, “Anyway, it looks like a dry town to me. Go ask them yourself.”
“Naw, man, I told you how it is. Ice comes round, all they see is the scar. You’re lighter. You’re good at all that ‘sir and ma’am’ talk. You from around here.”
“Omaha or whatever.”
Jerome climbed into the bunk car. It was late-afternoon hot, but he lingered anyway. He got out his pen and two sheets of lined paper from his locker. He sat on his bunk. He looked at the top sheet, where he’d already written “My Dearest Lucy” but had not continued. What was there to say? He sighed, and after a time he began to write.
“Another Saturday, and Burdock had us working again past two. I agree Mrs. Randolph is not the best for JJ. If your mom and you worked out your schedules maybe you could hand off the boy between you. As to Mr. Prosser at the bank, if you can just explain. Let them know we have the money. I know Malcolm says I could get home if I want to, but he’s wrong. He thinks being here is some kind of holiday and I’m gambling or what have you, but I promise it is not the case. Today I went to the store in town, but the man said he didn’t know how to send money. I swear to you I am trying my utmost to get home to you by every means…”
Part of my family lore is a story from the early 1950s when the Missouri Pacific Railroad parked workers’ bunk cars in Julian, Nebraska (population: 200), for a period of weeks or months. The young men of the rail-repair crew were all African-American; the town was all white. My oldest brother, who was then a small child in the town, has faint memories of a pick-up softball game between the workers—or gandy dancers, as they were called—and the local farm boys, followed by a picnic hosted by the local families: a friendly and festive event.
From the first time I heard that story, in the 1970s, I thought it would make a great book. A nonfiction book, that is: a real-life account of a life-affirming incident shining against the shameful and sorrowful history of race relations in America. That ambition sat with me for forty years, while I completed a Ph.D. in English and moved through my career as an English professor at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. Finally, in 2010, I made this story a sabbatical project and returned to Nebraska to do research. My extended family is well known in those parts; my father ran the grain elevator for forty years. This gave me access. I followed up lead after lead, interviewing close to one hundred elderly citizens. I went to Chicago to consult the archives of the track-workers’ union, BMWED. Then I went to Arkansas to interview some of the last living African-American gandy dancers.
In three years I accumulated a wealth of information. And I became aware, with great frustration, that I had come to my project too late, that far too many of my best informants, including my own parents, were no longer living. The memories of those who still lived were fragmentary and inconclusive, offering only the tiniest bits of corroboration of a possible softball game, a possible picnic. Inevitably, I also encountered racial prejudice. Too often, when my questions turned to the gandy dancers, my white informants’ response was “What do you want to know about them for?” followed by something like “They liked their liquor.” Reluctantly I came to the conclusion that my material was insufficient for a work of nonfiction. If the story was going to be told, it would have to take the form of an historical novel based on true events.
From 2013 to 2017 I worked on the novel. Many of its characters are based on real people. The more mean-spirited of my aged informants were re-imagined younger, becoming the novel’s antagonists. The generous and open-minded among them became the protagonists. I also took creative liberties. The softball game rises to an epic confrontation, and the picnic becomes a sumptuous outdoor feast. But, to be honest to the history I had uncovered, the menace of white supremacists had to be real, creating a constant threat that this jubilant event would turn into a terrible tragedy.
Jon Volkmer lives in Telford, Pennsylvania. His fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Maine Review, Texas Review, Cimarron Review, and other journals. His books include a collection of poems about grain elevators and a young-adult biography of Roberto Clemente.
Embark, Issue 12, April 2020