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The Seldom Willing: A railroad inside my head

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, January 21, 2013

It’s not true what they say of Kansas: That it is flat. Okay, central Kansas is flat, say, from WaKeeney east to Salina. But western Kansas flat? Definitely not. Call it gently rolling. However, western and central Kansas were both definitely empty this Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Empty of cars of Interstate 70, empty of people, and empty of Union Pacific trains. So how does one stay awake while tooling east at a steady 81 mph, hour after tedious hour?

I did it by plotting a novel, the working title of which is “The Seldom Willing.”

I am not new to writing novels. I’m just new to finishing them, never having completed one. My first attempt, some 30 years ago, never got as far as this one, which at least has a title. But I do remember the opening sentence: “Some days you just wake up in the mood for love.” Pretty good, eh? In that opening paragraph, on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve Saturday morning in east central Illinois (read: Champaign), a young train dispatcher is caressing the warm thigh of his comely girlfriend, bringing her to wakefulness in his bed, when the phone rings. It’s the bad habit of railroaders to always answer the home phone, and before even thinking he does, and his morning of idle lovemaking is ruined. The chief dispatcher in on the phone and wants him at work, right now. Trouble is at hand.

The reason this novel never got finished is that the very first sentence is also the very best, and the storytelling goes rapidly downhill from there. I think I have the first six chapters of the manuscript somewhere in our bedroom. I’m not interested in finishing it, or even rereading it, beyond that first sentence, which is—admit it—not bad for starters.

However, “The Seldom Willing” has legs, and I’m not talking about those of the dispatcher’s girlfriend. No, it has a beginning, it has an end, and it has a growing cast of characters who came to life inside my head today on I-70.

It’s a railroad story, set in this century. The railroad is the Kansas Division (well, of course!) of the Central Pacific Railroad. The Kansas Division had its beginning in the 1880s as the South West Kansas Railroad. Its founder, Hoyt T. Gibbon, was a scoundrel who secured a federal land grant and created a company he secretly owned to build the cheapest possible railroad from Kansas City toward Colorado at the highest possible cost, he pocketing the difference. His railroad ran out of steam, so to speak, in eastern Colorado, boxed in by the Santa Fe Railway to the south and the mighty Central Pacific to the north. It finally reached Denver and promptly went broke, acquiring along the way its nickname, The Seldom Willing. It finally is bought at auction by the CP and becomes a sleepy agrarian division of its parent.

Fast forward to 2000. The beloved CEO of CP dies at home, reading that day’s Wall Street Journal (did the Journal bore him to death?). No successor is in place, so the board promotes the VP marketing, Davidson Jackson, for the time being. To make his mark on the railroad, Jackson decides to spin off parts of the underperforming Kansas Division and abandon the rest (steel scrap prices being high).

This puts him in mortal conflict with Sam Spearman, the 85-year-old, skirt-chasing owner of 20 grain elevators along the Kansas Division. Spearman is a World War II veteran who fought alongside Senator Bob Dole, the state’s favorite son, and has political connections in Washington just as good as those of Mary Cousins, CP’s attractive and persuasive political fixer and head lobbyist. Spearman is determined to maintain the rail connections for his grain, Central Pacific’s intentions be damned.

That’s the backdrop. The entertainment value of this novel, and the fun, is the cast of characters who inhabit the Kansas Division. T.B. (T-Bone) Pettigrew is a senior dispatcher from the train order era who erupts in expletives upon learning of things going wrong. Jodie Yarborough is a 5-foot-0 engineer and mother of two who comes to work with the Book of Rules and Holy Bible in her grip and wants Pettigrew fired for taking the Lord’s name in vain. Bobby (Booger) Benson is a young, nose-picking conductor who likes a mid-evening call to work because it means he’ll have a full night’s sleep on the job. Ed Whitfield is the patient, philosophic division superintendent who hangs on past retirement age because he doesn’t want to give the vice president of operations the pleasure of replacing him. And the VPO is Heinz Henry, a Harvard MBA who knows all the numbers and the processes of doing business and think himself worthy of running Central Pacific but never knows where his trains are. And finally, for comic relief (as if you needed more), I present young trainmaster Jerry Jenks, whose ambition is to take every engineer and conductor out of service for rules violations, thus proving to VPO Henry that’s he’s tougher than superintendent Whitfield, who he yearns to replace.

So this is the beginning of “The Seldom Willing.” I think I know where I want it to end up, have some ideas of how to get there, and have faith that these characters I’ve created and others to follow will help get me to the finish line.

True, there’s some filling in to do, a fictional route map to create and all of that. But folks, this didn’t exist six hours ago. If Interstate 70 across Missouri and Illinois and western Indiana is as devoid of interest tomorrow as the western two-thirds of Kansas was today, the book could be written by the time I get to Indianapolis.

In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts and suggestions and, especially, ideas for people to bring to life on this railroad I’m calling The Seldom Willing.—Fred W. Frailey

Tags: Midwest
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