Sunday, July 08, 2007

Book Review: On the Rails

I heard an amazing statistic from Lex Green over at ChicagoBoyz the other day. He said that he has over one thousand books that he has not read. I have heard stories about what a reader Lex is and I absolutely believe that statistic. I have, I would guess, approximately one hundred or so that I own that I have not read. When I say "read" I mean from cover to cover, not scanning them.

I have decided to start to winnow this pile of literature down and my first choice was a book I picked up a while ago, a paperback I grabbed out of a bargain bin at a large bookstore. IIRC I paid something like .50 for it.

The book is called "On the Rails: A Memoir" by Linda Niemann.
Since I was a wee lad I have always been fascinated by trains. I remember as a small kid I would be thrilled to come upon a train crossing in front of the car. I would count the cars, as well as reading where they were from. The Milwaukee Road, Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, etc.

I hold a fascination with trains to this day. I still count the cars.

"On the Rails" is a book about what life is like working on the railroad. Ms. Niemann was a real life hippie, who graduated with a Ph D in English. She was living in a commune. Eventually she got divorced and needed to get out of there so decided to get a job working at the railroad yards in California.

The tale is extremely interesting. She goes over a lot of the workings of a railyard, how physical the labor was and how there is a lot of politics involved. The workers with seniority could always "bump" the newbies.

There are many stories about towns in very out of the way places, some of which had restaurants set up just to feed the rail workers. One of the towns was Carrizozo, New Mexico. Look at this photo and tell me that Carrizozo isn't in the middle of nowhere.

Another town she went thorough was Clovis, New Mexico. Astro and Snakeye were both stationed there at one time, I believe. I recall one of them (I am not sure which one) calling it "Blowvis". I have never been there so can't form much of an opinion, but I am sure it is probably a couple of bars, a couple of restaurants and some fleabag hotels. I can see why railroad personnel, as described in the book, use drinking as one of their main recreational activities.

But I have always thought that the desert and other remote places like this have their own beauty and Niemann describes this beauty in breathtaking detail. Having that doctorate in English certainly has its advantages.

Also described in detail are her many relationships on the rails, with men and women. Some of the descriptions are quite explicit, so this isn't one for the kids.

There are some sub plots as well. Niemann struggles with trying to make sure her ill mother is taken care of while she is away. The largest struggle she has is against addiction. Niemann started her drug habit living in the commune area and took it with her on the rails. After being on the rails she does manage to quit drugs, but substitutes copious amounts of alcohol in the place of the drugs. Eventually it all comes crashing down on her and she decides to start out on the twelve step program and is pretty successful with that.

I am leaving out a lot here, but would be spoiling some of the book if I went into too much further detail. If you have an interest in the rails this is a perfect book for you. As I said, some of the themes are fairly mature (lots of drugs, sex and alcohol) so you may want to make sure the kids don't get their hands on it.

It is a very easy read, only about 220 pages. Neimann is an exceptional writer and keeps your interest. It is like reading her diary - she holds absolutely nothing back. This book is a wonderful summer read, and was a refreshing break for me. I typically read military history but the blood, guts and sorrow of that wears on me a bit at times. I am glad I had this book in my pile.

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