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A Life on Track

It wasn't always a smooth ride, working the rail lines. But for former Pullman porter Babe Smock, it worked out fine.


SACRAMENTO — For Garrard Wilson "Babe" Smock Jr., this almost shining moment was just like a bump along the rails, or the brief curse of heavy weather: You hold tight and ride with the sway. It will be over soon enough and you're on your way, on to the next curve, the coming horizon.

This was supposed to be his moment. But when all was said and done, it didn't quite go off as planned. He wasn't really disappointed, though. "It didn't surprise me," he said.

In a lilting voice as elegant and burnished as our romanticized memories of first-class train travel, Smock recalls his 30-plus years as a Pullman porter and tells you that he saw "the good, the bad, and the ugly."

Still, taking in the crowds that descended on Railfair '99 here late last month, it was difficult to believe that trains and train travel ever faded from favor. Thousands converged on the Old Sacramento riverbank area to wander about what has become one of the largest railroading events in the country, if not the world.

Amid the gleaming, four-story high locomotives and the dining cars outfitted to the last egg cup, Smock, 81, waited for the festivities to begin. Having traveled 300-some miles from his home in Los Angeles, he stood proudly in front of a Canadian sleeping car built to Pullman specifications.

For 30-plus years, he'd fluffed pillows on a car like this, fetched extra blankets, miraculously divined more space where no one else could find another inch.

"I had them die on me, I had them born on me," he confided in a quiet moment. "I'd run to tell the Pullman conductor, 'Hey, we have a new passenger about to come aboard!' "

He did it sometimes without a nod, let alone a thank-you. For Smock and hundreds of African American men who crisscrossed the country on the nation's hot network of humming rail, it was life as a ghost, as an invisible entity.

They were "seen" only in their absence--or worse, when a mistake was made, a duty overlooked. Because they remembered things, these men were forgotten.

The value and import of these lounge, sleeping and dining car attendants often has fallen outside of history's margins, or are mentioned in passing merely as "color" in the more windy recollections of the life on the rails.

At Railfair, although he and the car had been tucked into a far corner of the California State Railroad Museum, Smock finally was to be honored for his service. This small salute was an attempt by museum docent Gracie Murphy to correct decades of deletions or oversights.

But the commemoration somehow didn't make it on Railfair's printed roster of daily events, and assembled in front of the sleeping car to honor Smock, there were only about a dozen people.

He nonetheless stood dutifully once again, answering questions about the car's particulars: dimensions, capacity, sleeping configurations, a porter's daily duties. Then came a series of speeches from various officials from Amtrak and the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a longtime labor and civil rights champion of railroad men. There was a quick reading of a proclamation from the office of California Sen. Teresa P. Hughes (D--Inglewood) honoring the contributions of the African American railman. Finally, it was Smock's turn.

In his moment in the spotlight, he said but a few words--about his past, about his future. "As I've said, I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly. The people of nobility, they're easy to spot. They will always call you Mister."

Providing Jobs and Controversy

There's an old, say-no-more aphorism, an adage traded among African American railroaders--"Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and George Pullman hired 'em." It's spoken without anger or remorse, peppered only with a bit of irony.

George M. Pullman, a farm boy with a few woodworking skills, got his first taste of the limitations of overnight passenger train travel--hard bunks, no sheets, pillows or blankets--as a young traveling contractor, and by 1881, he had built not only a profitable empire but also a dubious reputation.

"For all the accolades and nostalgia that have surrounded George Pullman and the Pullman Co. over the years," writes David D. Perata in "Those Pullman Blues: An Oral History of the African American Railroad Attendant" (Madison Books, 1999), "it must be recognized for what it really was: a finely tuned, big-money operation. . . . [He] paid his employees poor wages while controlling their income, rent, commercial trade and social lives."

"Travel and Sleep in Safety and Comfort" was the Pullman motto, but never, in the early years, did his employees feel even a remote sense of security on the job. But there was little room to wander. Employment prospects were largely limited if not nonexistent for black men in post-slavery America. Those who hopped aboard Pullman cars figured out how to make the best of the traveling life--not only satiating a traveling jones but making them celebrities at home.

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