How did you get your first job? Since arriving to the U.S. in 1963, I worked many part-time jobs in order to put myself through school, but I got my first full-time job in 1966 when I learned from a classmate about a position at the company he was working at.
What was the title of the job, and where did you work? I was hired as a laborer, known in railroad jargon as a gandy dancer. I worked along the railroad tracks starting from St. Louis toward Cape Girardeau, Mo.
What kind of company was it? It was a railroad company, the Missouri-Pacific.
How long did you work there? I worked there during the summer of 1966, and the next summer I was hired in the same position, but for the Kansas City Southern Railroad in Kansas City, Mo.
Tell us a bit about the job. Today, machines lay, align and repair rail tracks. But in the 1960s, I was part of a 30-member crew that laid, repaired and aligned the rails using heavy tools and muscle power. This back-breaking job required teamwork whether we were replacing ties and missing plates and spikes, aligning rails, or clearing brush.
Working in a two-person team, we secured the new ties with a steel plate nailed down on the tie with 7-inch spikes, or crampons. We hammered the spike alternately and in a tight rhythm that required speed, precision, focus and trust.
Track alignment required a unity of movement, too, in that we lined up on one side of the rail, wedged in our lining bars and leaned in on cue to move it. If even one person was off, there was a jarring sensation of failure against the rigid rail. But when we moved in unity over several repetitions, the rail moved neatly — or danced, as it's been called — and it was a beautiful feeling.
The work was made easier by singing ... so that we coordinated our movements in time to the music as we shuffled along the rail prying and pushing, which also gives an image of a dance. The speed and cadence of the song matched the nature of the task. The singing helped relieve boredom for the workers, too.
What did you love or hate about the job? As a full-time job, I had guaranteed 40 work hours per week and a paycheck. Also, even though my aspirations were different from my coworkers, I appreciated that they looked out for the safety of each other, and they had a high work ethic. They didn't tolerate laziness among themselves or each other.
One of the things I disliked the most was working long days in extreme heat. The bunk car wasn't air conditioned to the point that it was difficult to sleep at night, and work days meant we traveled 2-3 miles, then walked back to the bunk car.
Carrying a 200-pound tie off the track wasn't only hard work, but it meant you had to think quickly when it was balanced on your shoulder. Once, I found myself face-to-face with a rattlesnake. Instinctively, I dropped the tie and ran, but I got little sympathy from an angry foreman who called me a "sissy."
In retrospect, because of that work experience, I can appreciate more fully the tremendous contribution the railroad made to the building of this country. Unfortunately, the railroad is often romanticized, but the work was physically demanding. Yet, within the working ranks, there was an esprit de corps and respect and care for one another that I find inspiring to this day.
How much were you paid? If I recall correctly, I was paid $2.80 an hour plus overtime. I only worked overtime if there had been a derailment, which happened on occasion and which was very dangerous work.
What do you do now? After 30 years of doing biomedical research, managing patient-care programs at Walter Reed Army hospital and teaching in medical schools, I decided that it was time to give back to the country I love by encouraging young people to follow their dreams and build successful lives for themselves.
If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of advice, what would you say? I would say try to get a decent job that pays a decent wage and use that experience to get a better job next time. Have a good attitude, things could be worse and tomorrow they will get better. Don't spend your money but save it for your education. Learn from that job because it will teach you something. The money that I earned that summer allowed me to pay for most of my expenses as a full-time, out-of-state student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and start a family with my bride of 45 years.
Jorge Ribas, Ph.D., is president/CEO of the Mid-Atlantic Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Inc.
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