The Columbus Free Press


Part 45

Misadventures on the Railroad

by Thomas C. Fleming, Jul 29, 1998

Fred Turner, the chef on the Southern Pacific dining car where I went to work in 1927, was a onetime professional boxer who said few words to anyone.

Fred was one of three brothers from Salt Lake City, who all came to San Francisco and worked for the railroad in some capacity. They had all tried to be prize fighters when they were young.

Joe, the eldest brother, became a local favorite in the featherweight class. He had a fearsome punch, and knocked out opponents larger than himself, which caused most fighters in his weight class to avoid him. In order to obtain a fight, he often had to fight men as large as middleweights.

Fred followed his brother into the ring but lost interest early, and went to work for the Southern Pacific as a cook, where he rose from fourth cook to chef.

The story was told that when Joe was just a third cook, the superintendent of the Southern Pacific commissary in West Oakland once became so excited during a fight that he shouted from ringside, "Knock the bum out, and I'll make you a chef tomorrow!" Joe knocked him cold. Evidently the superintendent kept his promise, for Joe, who was then a third cook, was jumped over the second cook and promoted to chef.

Fred never did think his elder brother was much of a cook, but Joe kept his job until he retired in the 1940s.

The white steward was the head of the crew on the diners. If any of us had a friend among the passengers, we would tell the steward, and he would always allow the person to get a meal free, after all the paying guests had made their way back to their cars. I had two friends who let me know the day before they were traveling, and I used my prerogative. My friends were summoned, and provided with a waiter who attended and served them, just like the paying guests.

On my first trip back home to Oakland from Los Angeles, Fred Turner and the second cook filched some eggs, butter and ham, which they put in their bags, along with some of the prepared cornmeal, biscuit and hotcake packages. It wasn't done in a wholesale manner. The third cook asked permission of chef Turner: could he take a few things? Permission was granted. Since I was new, I did not say anything, nor did I take anything.

A chef I worked with later was Jerry Wright, whom everyone called "Uncle Jerry." He was a troubled man -- extremely angry, it seemed, at all of the world -- who argued constantly with the steward. He was the only cook I ever saw who lifted french fries right out of the frying pan with his bare hands. Uncle Jerry consumed large quantities of bad booze. Sales of alcohol were legally forbidden, and customers with overwhelming thirst had to buy that awful homemade stuff from bootleggers. One took chances on his life if one consumed some of the stuff that was sold then.

Many of the rail workers made heavy use of the bottle. One waiter, George Watson, who told everyone to call him "Papa George" and addressed all the younger workers as his nephews, was boozed every time he came to work, and always brought a pint with him. How he managed to walk down the aisle of a swaying dining car with a trayload of food always puzzled me, since it appeared that he was always staggering. I still wonder how he was able to function. But he did.

Advertisement from Cosmopolitan magazine, 1902, for the Overland
Limited, which ran between Chicago and Oakland. Thomas Fleming
made several trips on this train as a cook in the late 1920s.
Despite the claim in its ad, it was far from being
the "most luxurious train in the world."
The Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and Chicago & Northwestern railroads operated a luxury train called the Overland Limited, which ran between Oakland and Chicago. I made about four trips on that train as a cook. You stayed overnight in Chicago, and got back to Oakland a week after you left.

Some of the waiters I worked with had a wife in California and a girlfriend they kept in Chicago. That was going on all the time. One of the chefs -- whose name I shall refrain from using -- was caught when he was getting off the train in Chicago, with a whole ham and a couple of chickens in his bag. He was going over to his girlfriend's house. The Southern Pacific ordered him to work his way back to California, and fired him.

Of course, his wife found out the reason, and it infuriated her that he did it for his girlfriend. In my five years working for the railroads, he was the only one I knew who got caught stealing and was fired. He was a good chef, too, because afterwards, he went to work cooking at a big white restaurant.

I heard that another man on the dining car crew had one of his sons waiting alongside the railroad track in East Oakland, and when the train was passing through, the man would throw off a ham or chicken to him.

If the Depression had not created a situation in which I could no longer work steadily because of an absence of seniority, I might have remained a rail worker. No doubt I would have been a chef cook, since I had been promoted from dishwasher to third cook very quickly, and was next in line to be promoted to second cook when I left the railroad in 1931.

Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Fleming. Email.
At 90, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3, including postage, and a 90-minute cassette tape of his recollections of black life in Florida, Harlem and Chico from 1912-1926 is available for $5, including postage. Send mailing address or call 415-771-6279.

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