Love in the time of Hunter (an allegory)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, September 18, 2017

Karen noticed the change in Eric in late April. His normally cheerful, funny personality turned dark, sarcastic, bitter. He used to spend hours on weekends at the Starbucks near their brownstone in Brooklyn, happily engaged in the Times Sunday Magazine crossword puzzle or the latest issue of The Nation and Mother Jones. Now Eric snapped at the friendly young woman at the counter when she asked him to repeat his order for a double butterscotch latte. Even the Sunday crossword lost its appeal. "It's stupid," he'd say, throwing it in the trash compactor. Eric even curtly refused to go with her to a Hillary Clinton book signing in Park Slope, an event that would normally enliven the man she loved. With a heavy heart, Karen thought she knew what was tearing her husband apart. One night, after they'd gone to bed and he again abruptly turned his back to her to go to sleep, she gently put her hand on his shoulder. "Eric, we can't go on like this." She felt him shutter with a sob. "Is there somebody else in your life?" Silently, he nodded. Who, Karen asked? Eric sat up, looked at her and with anguish across his face and confirmed her worst fear. "Hunter!" he said, convulsing in tears. It was a scene repeated in thousands of investor homes.

The news in March that CSX had employed Hunter Harrison as its new chief executive, bestowing an $84 million signing bonus on him, had split America and its investors down the middle. Happy marriages turned into pitched bedroom battles. Old friendships cracked apart. Investors in the South seemed to like their native son. But they were in a minority, outnumbered by those along the east and west coasts who considered Hunter a repugnant brute. Yet nothing Hunter said or did seemed to faze his core investors—not even when he called his predecessor Michael Ward a "bottom-feeding slug who belongs in an SD70 crankcase" and ordered the railroad's law department—Yale graduates all!—to report for six weeks of yard conductor training in Grafton, W. Va., as a means of "knocking the sneers off their faces." He let it be known they'd get "some rock-hard calluses on their soft pink palms."

The last straw for Eric came when Hunter announced CSX would turn its part of the Water Level Route, between Albany, N.Y., and Cleveland, into a paved toll road for trucks and route the rail freight that once rolled across it via Baltimore. CSX stock, which had doubled since Hunter came aboard, redoubled on the news. And it made Eric and those like him want to scream in frustration. "That man has lost all moral authority to run the railroad!" Eric shouted at his wife, not caring that he had awakened their two young children. Come to think about it, she realized, kids at the $15,000-a-year preschool which Eric III and Caitlin attended were just as mad as their parents. One five-year-old who taunted the others by shouting "Hunter's going to hire you as track laborers when you grow up!" was pelted by designer lunch boxes and fled the room in tears. He never returned. 

"Can't the directors just fire him?" Eric asked. Karen sadly shook her head. "Why fire someone who is making you tons of money?" she said. Privately, Karen was conflicted. She knew she was supposed to hate Hunter; it was an article of faith among their friends that he was deplorable. But she could never quite understand why. Plus, it's hard to hate someone who breathes through an oxygen tube. Yet Karen wondered why chief operations officer Cindy Sanborn—everyone loved dear Cindy!—stayed on instead of quitting on principle.

As 2018 began, a paramilitary group of former employees, called "the antihun" for anti-Hunter, began smashing CSX yard offices in New Jersey and Pennsylvania with steel pipes and putting sand in locomotive fuel tanks. In February, Hunter told a reporter that Union Pacific CEO Lance Fritz was a "case of arrested development" and a "candidate for early retirement without a pension." More civic uproar ensued. Karen and Eric began sleeping in separate bedrooms.

All along, the east and west coast investors who owned a majority of CSX stock figured they could field a slate of directors for the May 2018 election pledged to fire Hunter. He gave them hope by calling his current board “a bunch of Bozos on life support.” But the anti-Hunters were bitterly divided. Easterners wanted Michael Ward back. Westerners favored retired UP boss Dick Davidson, a man of imposing presence. Neither gave them much help. As proxy votes were being solicited, Ward promoted his new book, What the Heck Happened? And Davidson, known in his new career as “The Singing Brakeman,” toured Idaho and Montana with his country music band. Together, the competing anti-Hunter director candidates got a majority of votes, but the pro-Hunter slate won by a plurality.

A month later, Hunter was gone. He announced that with the operating ratio at 38, his work was over. He retired for the third time in a decade. (UP stock soared on rumors Hunter and his oxygen were headed toward Omaha.) His anointed successor at CSX was dear, beloved Cindy. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief; railroading's long national nightmare was over. Then Cindy shocked the world by closing the A Line between Washington, D.C. and Jacksonville. Declaring it was time to "drain the swamp" of I-95 between those cities, she began paving over the right of way for another truck toll road. Rail traffic between New Jersey and Jax would run via Nashville. Cindy's new OR goal: 30.

Whatever this meant for railroading, the damage to Karen and Eric's marriage was beyond repair. Hunterism had even splintered their children; Eric III taped photos of Hunter and Cindy above his bed, and Caitlin defaced them with Magic Marker..

The takeaway: Kids, keep your parents on course. Parents, lighten up. Everyone, provide alternate story lines and endings.

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The author acknowledges Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márque and the Electoral College.

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