As a young man I worked a couple of seasons on Canadian Pacific railway gangs in Saskatchewan. Replacing ties, replacing rails, replacing ballast, and so forth, on spur lines and secondary lines. Even a main line occasionally. A lot of these lines are now gone, along with the grain elevators they went by.
I’ve done a lot of different kinds of manual labour in my time, but working on these gangs was by far the toughest. There were a lot of tough manual labour jobs. Pounding spikes with a spike maul, for instance. But one quickly learned how to let the spike maul (a hammer) do the work for you — swinging it over your head, sliding your right hand up the handle as it descended, and using your hand-eye co-ordination to drive the spike down.
There was “cranking,” as we called it, which was running along beside a train of hopper cars filled with new ballast. Hefting an iron bar, you opened the hoppers at the bottom of the cars to spill ballast alongside the track or between the rails. The first time I did this job, I made it 100 yards before collapsing. But as you kept at it, you developed the wind and stamina so that you could run alongside the train, opening and closing the hoppers, even climbing up on the train for a ride until it was your turn to open another hopper.
There was tamping with a big iron tamping bar (you develop great upper body strength); pitching new creosote-soaked ties off the top of a flatbed car with big tongs; carrying those big steel rails up the railway embankment (“all together now — yo heave!”), and trotting alongside all sorts of crazy roaring machinery while foremen, assistant roadmasters, roadmasters and other “white hats” shouted instructions and insults at you. It all got to be quite bearable, and even fun.
But of all these jobs, there was one that never become fun, or even bearable. It was the worst job, and that was shovelling up the ballast from the bottom of the embankment to the top. The ballast was between the sizes of marbles and golf balls, so you couldn’t really just scoop it up. You had to worry the shovel into it, then you could either try tossing it up from your bent-over position, or waste several movements to stand straight, and pitch a meagre shovelful of ballast to a higher elevation. No matter what, it was a back killer.
On the railroad gangs, we called the shovel the “Goon Spoon.” (That’s our word of the day! Though more like a compound noun.)
It was a punishment detail. For really, what purpose was there in shovelling ballast from the bottom to the top. It was a look-busy kind of job, and you were instantly assigned to it if a) the foreman didn’t like you, or b) he thought you were f— the d —, the term we used for standing around idly, or trying to catch your breath. I ended up on the Goon Spoon a lot.
This was fitting, because for all of my life, the Goon Spoon has been part of it. As a boy growing up on a farm, I would try to hide out of sight and earshot when it was time to shovel grain into an auger, cleaning out the almost empty granary. I wasn’t one of those strong, milkfed farm kids who could wrangle horses, pitch straw bales with forks, or heft the Goon Spoon like it was child’s play. I was the opposite.
There were all those long, long seasons of treeplanting, where your entire life revolved around the Goon Spoon. Not only are you wielding it eight hours a day — a quick ticket to metacarpal tunnel syndrome — but you’re doing it in the pouring rain, while blackflies, horseflies and mosquitos puncture your hide in all sorts of places.
Just think, I spent 10 seasons in Canada’s bush, Goon Spoon in hand. It’s enough to make a fellow dream of a desk job, and head back to school (again).
But for me, there was no escape. The Goon Spoon follows me wherever I go. It is my doom. It’s like that joke where you end up in H -, and Satan offers you the choice of Door No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3. I’ll pick the door that requires the Goon Spoon, for all eternity! (The punchline to that joke, by the way, is “All right, coffee break is over, back on your heads.”)
This occurred to me the other day, as I set out to shovel the snow off my sidewalk, which wends its way for long metres around my corner lot. As usual, I had left it too long, and the deep snow was crusted and frozen. No sweeping it off like my neighbours do, catching it at first snowfall. In Canada, you can never be free of the Goon Spoon.
I armed myself, with not one but two Goon Spoons — the snow variety for scooping it away and a spade for breaking it up. Outside I went, with my Goon Spoons. I had a brief fantasy of a ghostly ballast train pulling up, which I could hop up on and be borne away — except, of course, it would take me to some place where the white hats would have me scooping up ballast with the Goon Spoon.
But what should greet my eyes — one length of my sidewalk was snow-free. The neighbour in his Christmas kindness had made a pass in front of my house with his fabulous new snowblower. And as I stood there agog, who should hove into sight — not the mystery ballast train, but an entrepreneur with a plow, hired by our household, who cleared the other half of the sidewalk.
It was like a miracle. A Goon Spoon-free Christmas.
I’d like to wish all the Townsman/Bulletin readers a most pleasant New Year. May your 2018 be free of sore backs and Goon Spoons.