Although I thought my career at the CPR was going to be over about five minutes after I punched the time clock for the first time, I thoroughly enjoyed my almost four years there.
After “punching in” I went into the room where Slim Norris was sitting behind his typewriter. Slim’s job consisted of typing lists of the freight cars being loaded that day, showing their identification numbers, at what berth they were located in the shed and to where they were destined. I never did learn why I was put in Slim’s care, but he outlined my duties (which you will see in a moment were pretty simple) and then proceeded to tell me that I was a bit of a hybrid. Although I was a freight office employee, I also answered to the hierarchy of the freight shed crew, who were not office employees. He then introduced me to two or three of the shed foremen who were working at their desks in what I now learned was called the “shipping” office.
Then my heart sank into my stomach as I saw an older man approaching the office door. Slim noticed me staring and said, “Oh, good, here comes the big boss, the General Foreman.” The problem was that the “big boss” was the guy whom I’d been aggravating and arguing with at the Leaf-Boston game exactly one month earlier. Then Slim introduced me to Bill Hunter, who, instead of firing me on the spot, simply shook my hand and said something like, “I hope you’re a dependable worker, young man.” He clearly did not remember me. As I got to know Bill over my days in the shipping office we often talked hockey. It became clear that Bill argued with someone different at every Leaf game, so there was no reason for me to stand out, but it was certainly an adrenaline rush to see him walk through that door.
Normal freight office hours were eight to noon and one to five. There were no breaks for coffee and smoking wasn’t allowed in the office. There was an afternoon shift from two until all the waybills (documents that traveled with the freight) had been typed and dispatched with the trains, which was usually between nine-thirty and ten at night. My shed boy duties consisted of walking from the Simcoe Street end of the freight shed to the other end to pick up bills of lading for all the freight loaded on the hundreds of freight cars that came and went during the day. The freight shed actually ran two blocks to Peter Street; there was a walkway over John Street connecting what in effect were really two freight sheds. I would take these documents back to the shipping office and distribute them among the rate clerks who calculated the freight charges based on weight, type of goods, and destination.
The freight office was unionized, so all jobs were awarded on the basis of seniority, taking into consideration situations where special skills were needed. For example, you couldn’t apply for a secretarial job if you couldn’t type; but if a person who could type only fifty words a minute was senior to one who could type a hundred, the senior one would get the job if he or she wanted it. Because there were well over a hundred employees in the office, vacancies were being posted on the bulletin boards all the time. And I, like everyone else, checked the new postings every day. If no one applied for a job within a particular number of days, management could fill it with a new hire or a transfer someone from another department of the railway.
There were three low-level jobs which didn’t get posted and which management could fill without reference to seniority: Shed Boy, 2-Sheet Clerk, and Filing Clerk. About two weeks after I started work as Shed Boy, Mr. Thorpe called me up to his second floor desk (his desk and his secretary’s faced the rest of the office, which was completely open so that Mr. Thorpe could see about seventy-five employees seated at their desks). He told me that I was being promoted to the 2-Sheet desks, where I’d be joining two other 2-Sheet Clerks and that I’d be getting a raise to about $150 a month. He went on to say that as soon as I showed the ropes to a new Shed Boy the following morning I should report to Mr. Craig, the Senior Supervisor on the second floor.
2-Sheet Clerk was a mind-numbing job. For eight hours a day, five days a week, all I did was sort the number 2 copy (hence the title 2-Sheet Clerk) of waybills, identified by six-digit numbers, into their numerical sequence. To maintain my mental health I began to work out ways to make the job less boring. For example, I would imagine the number on each waybill I handled to be a sports statistic, such as goals, assists and penalty minutes; or homers, RBIs and runs; pretending that each one represented one of my seasons in the big leagues. Another tactic I used was to estimate how many 2-sheets were in a handful, sort them, and then see how close my estimate was. Given a bit of thought, there were some ways to lessen the boredom.
After about three weeks on this job I approached Mr. Craig, a dour Scot, and asked for something more challenging to do. He suggested I remain on the 2-sheet desk for another two or three weeks, saying that “the extra experience” would do me good. I told him that after that time I wouldn’t really have two or three more weeks’ experience, but rather one day’s experience twenty-five or thirty times over. He gave me the standard dour Scot’s stare over his reading glasses, but then agreed to move me to another job.
Although the pay for the new job (one of two mail clerk positions) was only about five or six dollars a month more, the work was far more interesting. In 1954, intra- and inter-railroad correspondence was primarily by telegram. There were two reasons for this. First, it was very fast; and, second, it effectively cost nothing because all the railroads had their own telegraph systems. The main part of my job was to enter a record of all outgoing and incoming telegrams in a huge ledger; and it was the incoming telegrams that made it interesting.
Incoming telegrams arrived continuously throughout the day, and after entering the information (to whom it was directed, who it was from, and a brief note of the contents) and assigning a reference number, I had to deliver them around the office. Some of the telegrams had no specific addressee so I had to read them in order to determine to whom they should be delivered, and if that wasn’t clear I’d discuss the contents with one of the supervisors. This gave me a good understanding of the various jobs in the office.
There were only about half a dozen private offices; most of the hundred and fifty or so employees worked in large open spaces on the first and second floors. After about ten days I was on a first-name basis with just about everyone who worked there. I was also responsible for controlling incoming and outgoing registered mail in a similar fashion. But it was with the incoming telegrams that I did the first of six things to improve my lot.
There was a steady stream of telegram delivery boys bringing wires to my desk. Apparently, previous clerks tried to identify, code, and deliver them as they came in, with the result that they were always behind. Without consulting anyone (I guess this was when I first learned it’s often easier to get forgiveness than permission) I decided that I would enter the information as the telegrams came in, but that I would only deliver them during the last fifteen minutes of each hour. The result was that there was never a backlog of more than a few wires, whereas before I started on the desk there would often be dozens stacked up because the previous clerks spent most of their time walking around the offices. A number of the staff reported to Mr. Craig that I was “the best mail clerk they ever had” and told him about how I changed the system, for which both he and Mr. Thorpe congratulated me.
The next thing I did was to go shopping. Only the more senior people in the office wore shirts and ties, and even they didn’t wear jackets. I figured if I started to wear a shirt and tie it would help me stand out from the crowd, so I bought three white shirts and three ties and was never seen without a shirt and tie for the rest of my tenure at the railroad. Although no one ever said anything about my attire, I’m sure it helped.
Then I stumbled upon the third reputation enhancer. One day as I was delivering Mr. Thorpe’s telegrams to his desk, he and Mr. Henderson (whose title was Accountant, but who was clearly equal to Mr. Thorpe in the overall scheme of things) were looking carefully at the top sheet of a memo pad. It was blank. Apparently the original copy of a memo had been sent without a carbon paper having being inserted in the pad so that the only record they had was the impression made on the next sheet by the author pressing hard with a ballpoint pen. They could make out some of the information, but the bulk of the impressions simply weren’t deep enough. I asked them to let me try to work it out. I took the pad back to my desk, emptied my pencil sharpener on it, brushed the lead and wood off, and presto, the entire memo was clearly legible. I took it back to Mr. Thorpe. I don’t remember what was in the memo, but it was clearly very important to him because he was visibly relieved and more than hearty in his praise. I actually overheard him say to Mr. Craig, “We have to keep an eye on that MacInnis boy, he’s going places.”
My fourth opportunity came about on a Friday afternoon when I was riding in the messenger car that carried waybills and mail from the freight office to the three west-end urban and suburban railway stations in the greater Toronto area, being Parkdale, West Toronto, and Lambton. I was accompanying the auto messenger (as he was called) to Parkdale where I was to pick up a package and take the streetcar back to Simcoe Street. Near King and Dufferin streets a teenager, while rushing to catch a streetcar, ran right in front of our car and got hit. Our driver was so shaken up that he had to take the rest of the day off, so it was left to me to write up an accident report for internal use. The CPR lawyer who reviewed it was sufficiently impressed that he contacted Mr. Thorpe and asked if I could be transferred to the railroad’s Claims Department at Union Station. Mr. Thorpe asked me if I wanted the transfer, but also said that because the Claims Department was fairly small, and the work very repetitious, he felt I would be happier right where I was. So I stayed at Simcoe Street.
The fifth step was to improve my typing skills. I had bought a small, portable typewriter when I was grading eggs at the Morell Co-op and was able to type using one finger on each hand. Noting the number of jobs at the CPR that required various levels of typing, I taught myself to type using three fingers on each hand. I wasn’t sufficiently proficient to fill in for a secretary, but I became proficient enough to be able to do many of the jobs that required some typing skill.
One day while delivering a telegram to Mr. Henderson (the accountant) I asked him what night or correspondence courses were available that would help me get ahead. He suggested I enroll in a Traffic Management Course that was offered by correspondence through LaSalle University in Chicago. I did, and made sure that Messrs. Thorpe, Henderson and Craig knew about it. Little did I realize the importance this sixth step would eventually have on my professional life. At this point I decided to try to take advantage of what I hoped was my enhanced reputation.
With a staff of well over a hundred and fifty, there were always people away sick or on holidays. There was a cadre of three or four “Relief Clerks” who filled in when people whose jobs had to be performed daily, such as cashier, receptionist, billing clerks and rate clerks, were away. These relief clerk positions were union jobs and subject to seniority. They were very popular jobs because of the variety provided, but also the minimum monthly pay was around $250, and if the person you were filling in for earned more, then you received the higher amount. As a result no one with less than five or six years experience had much of a chance of being a successful bidder when one of those jobs became available. Relief clerks’ assignments were decided by the chief clerk and the supervisors; but if all the relief clerks were already on jobs, any willing, qualified worker could be asked to fill in, especially when an employee was on vacation because the supervisors preferred having one fill-in employee for the whole two or three weeks rather than shuffle relief clerks in and out. Relief clerks were considered more valuable as fill-ins for employees off sick for just a day or two. As a fill-in, just like the relief clerks, you were paid the wage of the person for whom you were filling in.
I approached Mr. Thorpe and asked if they would be willing to give me a chance to serve as one of their fill-in guys. I pointed out that because I had to review all incoming telegrams and registered mail I was very familiar with the general goings-on in the office. I told them I had picked up a lot about the various jobs by asking questions of the people to whom I was delivering telegrams and registered mail. I also pointed out that I could type fairly well. He said he’d discuss it with the Supervisors and let me know.
The next day he told me to spend a few days working with Chuck Snyder, whose job was Statistics Clerk, and who was about to go on holidays for two weeks, to see whether Chuck thought I could handle his duties while he was away. After a couple of days he told Mr. Thorpe I could do the job and I became Statistics Clerk for two weeks. After that I had similar experiences as a C.O.D. clerk and a Special Debits Clerk. I was never back on the mail desk. For the next three years, until I resigned at the end of 1957 (to become a radio announcer) I was what would today likely be called a designated hitter, working at just about every job in the office except rate clerk (for which special training was required, and which was a lifetime career), and never making less than $267 a month, which was a lot of money for a teenager in the mid-fifties.
Next week, my short-lived career as a radio announcer.