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Reason #44 for Attending College

A letter from my father to his grandson on his grandson’s 18th birthday.  Many lessons here on making a living and safety in the workplace.  As Clint Eastwood (Josey Wales) once told a soon-to-be-dead bounty hunter, “Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy.”

We make our living from the neck up or the neck down. Most of my injuries, aches and pains are from the years that I was employed from the neck down. A good example is my first twelve months out of the Marines.

My first job was with Ford Motor Company in Louisville. Among a group of six new- hires, a supervisor claimed me right off saying he need someone tall. I was assigned to spray undercoating onto cars passing overhead. The spray gun and hose weighed 25 pounds, not a problem for the first hour or so. The cars were passing by at a rate of 45 per hour and as I would follow one down the line to finish it, I would pass two while regaining my correct position. I was getting one car in three until the overspray I was breathing begin to make me sick. My work station was between two bake ovens, and the ambient temperature was around 95 degrees. By late afternoon I was spending most of my time throwing up and walking around in it. My supervisor, who passed by twice that day, told me that it would get better. It didn’t. At the end of day five, homesick, sick and 10 pounds lighter, I went home to look for a better way to make a living.

My next job was as a switchman for the L&N railroad. Winter was coming on, and I worked outside on the graveyard shift. I found out what cold really was the first week on that job. Leaping onto moving freight cars and clutching a frost-covered hand rail with two pair of gloves — often hanging over a sheer drop to the Barren River as the train jerked and lurched, caused me to wonder about my life expectancy on this job. As the new guy, I was expendable. I was often sent under a carload of wet sand with an ax when the sand was too frozen to come out of the 8 by 12-foot doors underneath the car. Two co-workers, one on each of my feet, would pull me free Just as 80 or so tons of sand came crashing down. Two weeks on the job and hanging on the side of a rail car going 14 miles per hour, I had instructions to hop off at a certain location. I didn’t like it but the alternative was to ride to Nashville on the side of this frost covered car. I jumped, and my left foot went between two cross ties. I was slammed down and stunned but not too stunned to realized that I has torn something in my ankle. My shift was completed with a serious limp, and the laces on my boot had to be cut due to swelling. I still have a weak ankle today as a legacy of that job. A month or so later, sitting on a cold rail in the dark wee hours of a very cold morning, eating a sandwich while wearing multiple layers of coats and hoods, I sensed rather than heard movement. A rail car was silently bearing down upon me — its engine a quarter of a mile away.  I was just barely able to fling myself out of the way. That night I decided that my job offer as a Firefighter looked good.

A few weeks after leaving the railroad, I read in the newspaper that a switchman had been killed, crushed between a rail car and a barrier at end of the track at the same place where I came close to eating my last sandwich. Since I did not recognize the name, I knew that this man had been my replacement. I could go on but you get the message. Go to college. Make your living from the neck up — while you still have a neck!

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