Studio photograph of my parents in 1943. Taken in Charlotte, North Carolina,
where my father served as an MP (Military Policeman) in the US Army Air Corps
during World War II. The Air Corps became the US Air Force after the war.
This is going to be a bit of a departure from my usual topics. However, one day last week I got to thinking about fathers and the important role they play in their children's lives. I thought especially about my own father and how much I owe to him (and to my mother, of course).
My father was a simple, good, man. He was born in Ireland in the last few years of the nineteenth century, a fact that still surprises me. He was the third child and second son of a fairly prosperous farmer from County Longford.
It has been fascinating to me to find him among the rest of his family in the Irish census reports for 1901 and 1911. The first lists him as a toddler, the second dignifies him with the term for a schoolboy “scholar”. There too are his brothers and sisters and my grandparents and, in the 1901 census, my great-grandmother.
He was living in Ireland at a time of great turmoil and change. At the time of the Easter Rising he was just 18 years old. During the bitter years of the Black and Tan War he was in some way associated with Michael Collins, one of the most important rebel leaders, primarily because Collins was engaged to a local girl, Kitty Kiernan, and was frequently in that corner of Longford. He seldom spoke about this period of his life, perhaps because there were things in it that were painful to remember.
In 1927, at the age of almost 30, my father came to America, driven, as most immigrants were and are, by the hope of finding employment. He never talked very much about his life before arriving here, nor of the first years he spent in the US. I know he lived for a time with some cousins, until he was able to find a steady job.
The job he found was a tough blue-collar one, as it often is for immigrants. He was hired as a conductor on the New York City subways. At that time, in the early 1930s, the subway was not yet owned by the city of New York. Rather, it was the property of the various investors who had built the lines at the turn of the century. He found work on the IRT west side division, the second oldest line. This is the job he held for the rest of his working life, broken only by the two years he spent as an MP in the US Army Air Corps (which later became the Air Force) and a long vacation leave for a trip to Ireland when I was three years old.
The current job description of a subway conductor shows that there has been little change in the duties.
“responsible for the safe, timely and proper operation of the Transit Authority’s trains in
customer, yard and work train service. In customer service, they open and close doors,
make proper announcements to customers and set up the automatic announcement
system. While in road service, they interact with the Train Operator, Supervision and the
Control Center when necessary. They provide flagging protection service duties, such as
setting up flags and light signals and take other required measures for the protection of
workers performing work on or near trainways. They work as platform conductors in the
stations; patrol platforms; assist customers in safely entering and exiting trains, and assist
in the timely dispatch of trains from key stations. They operate hand-thrown switches in
the yards; make reports of unusual occurrences; and perform related work.
Some of the physical activities performed by Conductors and environmental conditions
experienced are: walking along subway tracks; stepping over rails (including live third rails);
ascending and descending from trains and catwalks to roadbeds; responding to audible
signals such as alarm bells, train whistles, horns and radio conversations; responding to
visual signals including distinguishing colored lights; using manual equipment related to
train operation; remaining in a standing position for extended periods of time; and lifting
Special Working Conditions: Conductors may be required to work rotating shifts including
nights, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays.”1
Just about the only thing in that description that seems new is the reference to the automatic announcement system. Everything else is very familiar, including those rotating shifts and weekend and holiday work. He usually managed to get Sundays and holidays off, but there was always the possibility that the phone would ring and he would have to go to work. I particularly remember one New Year’s Eve when the call came around 11:00 PM. He was needed to replace someone who hadn’t come to work so that the Times Square revelers would have trains to take them home. He quickly put on his uniform and left my mother and myself to somewhat glumly watch the ball descend on TV.
|Subway conductor at work today.
What the job description cannot convey, of course, is the actual sense of working. In summer the heat in the subway tunnels is infernal (and this was largely before the trains were air conditioned), in the winter it can be freezing during the periods in which the trains run in the open, as most subway lines do for some part of their runs when outside Manhattan. It can be hazardous, not just from the obvious dangers mentioned in the job description, but from the violence that exists just below the surface in any crowded city. The conductor is in a fixed location, a small cab in the middle of the train. At every station he (or she) has to lower the window of the cab and lean out in order to see each end of the train to ensure that no one gets caught by a closing door and dragged by the train. While thus exposed, they can be subject to attack. My father occasionally came home from work with bruises from thrown objects and once was delayed for hours due to having to have stitches to a long graze on his forearm where someone on the platform had knifed him just as the train began to move. Another time he had gashes on his face from being attacked by someone wielding a broken bottle. Happily, these instances were rare and none were very serious.2
My father’s normal shift began in the early morning, well before the start of the “rush hour” that would see the great majority of office and factory workers traveling to reach their jobs. So, he would have to get up between 3:00 and 4:00 AM. As I grew older I would sometimes wake up at that hour and see that the light in the kitchen was on. When this happened I would usually get up and visit with him as he ate breakfast and prepared food for his mid-morning lunch break, usually a simple sandwich and a thermos of hot tea with milk and sugar. Then he would be off to work and I would return to bed since there were still hours to go before I had to get up for school. When I was in high school I would sometimes be able to catch him on one of his morning runs and ride with him on my way to school. I think those short visits made him very happy. They made me happy too.
|My father and little me, aged around 7. Taken at the Belvedere Tower in Central Park, one of our favorite haunts.
Like many Irish men and women of their generation my parents married later in life. My father was 49 when I was born and my mother was 38. I was in my second year of college, aged 19 when my father retired. It ought to have been a comfortable retirement as his union, the Transport Workers Union (TWU), for which he and others had fought very hard during the 1930s, had wrested decent provisions from the city, when the city took over administration of the subways. But, it wasn’t to be. Within a few months of retiring he began to show the symptoms of what turned out to be lung cancer that had metastasized to the brain. Barely 12 months after retiring he was dead. My mother, who was totally broken by his loss, developed leukemia within two years and died 11 years later of its complications.
|With both my parents at Grants Tomb a year or so later.
As I thought about him and his dogged daily effort to get up in the wee hours every morning, winter or summer, to work at a job that is little considered by those he served, that could at times be dangerous, I realized that he did it to ensure that I would not have to endure such conditions. In a sense, he did it so that I could be one of the unconcerned public, so wrapped up in my own affairs that I do not see those men (and now women) who are his successors in the same job. And I realized too that there are still hundreds of thousands of men and women whose lives are ruled by the very same clock, who are getting up in the small hours and doing the same kind of thankless jobs in order to feed and educate their families so that one day their children can have a better life. It’s a humbling realization.
So, let us praise those fathers (and mothers) who do the hard, unsung, unglamorous jobs of this world out of love. And let us honor them as they deserve.
Thank you, Daddy, from my heart. I still miss you very much.
© M. Duffy, 2018 and 2021
1. Job description for Subway Conductor, from New York City MTA website www.mta.info
2. 2021 Update:
The dangerous aspect of subway jobs was driven home early last year. A number 2 IRT train was deliberately set on fire by a presumably deranged individual in the early morning hours of March 27, 2020. The operator (once called the motorman) and the conductor on that burning train assisted the passengers in exiting. While the conductor, some passengers and some firefighters were injured, the operator died of smoke inhalation. He was 36 years old, and left behind a wife and two children. This is the kind of thing that terrified my mother whenever my father was even slightly late in arriving home. My heart goes out to the family of that operator who was just doing his job, a job that is virtually invisible to the passengers. And I am especially sympathetic because that train route was the one to which my father was assigned for most of his working life.
Many of the people who kept the city and the country functioning during the darkest days of the pandemic of 2020/2021 are the same as my father in their dedication to doing what has to be done. They got up every day, knowing they risked exposure to the virus. Their jobs can't be done from home on the net. They kept public transportation, food production and delivery, mail and packages moving. They staffed the hospitals, doing the doctoring, the nursing and the lab work and keeping the facilities clean and functioning. We owe them much and deserve our praise, our gratitude and a raise in both their compensation and their dignity.