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October 10, 2012

Riding the Rails for Change

Norman M. Covert

Railroad Days in Brunswick is a natural fit for me, thus last weekend was a must event. The obligatory roundtrip ride to Harpers Ferry aboard the MARC train was gilding on the lily that Brunswick has become.


The Saturday throng at this annual two-day event was young, old, enthusiastic, amicable, amenable and overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. I didn’t expect the political angle to emerge amid the working trains rumbling past, the pulled pork sandwiches, hula hoops or Moon Walk.


However, visitors to my static 1950 GMC/Locomotive display clutched yard signs, including those for Roscoe Bartlett (R., 6th) and Republican senatorial candidate Dan Bongino.


Parents and children enthusiastically grasped the miniature U.S. Flags we offered touting my veteran’s organization’s efforts to educate school children on its history and traditions. We tried to keep politics out of our message.


At the Post 96 American Legion model train layout, one lone Barack Obama supporter asked one of the American Flyer hobbyists if he wanted to trade his “Romney/Ryan” sticker for an Obama one.


“No,” said the Baltimore senior, “I think you are in the wrong place.”


It underscored the assertion of former Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill (MA) that “all politics is local.”


This presidential election season outshines all other contests in Frederick County it seems. On Saturday while attending an earlier Kiwanis fundraising breakfast, I spoke with a couple of candidates, none of whom mentioned going to Brunswick to work the crowds.


“I’m trying to get some help knocking on doors,” said one candidate, who aside from the inner circle party elite, was not seeing a groundswell for his school board candidacy.


Running for office is hard work with visibility and name recognition a vital ingredient, experts contend. It takes wearing out shoe leather and putting your name before the voters. The candidate may have shown up in Brunswick, I just didn’t see him.


Part of my childhood was spent investigating the massive Dawson City Yard at the Port of Newport News, VA., where the C&O Railroad staged bulging hoppers, their coal poised for shipment to European ports. I never ascribed any political significance to the shining steel rails nor understood the economic impact of the sea of coal as I walked across the 34th Street Bridge to school.


My dad, granddads, assorted uncles and cousins were all railroad union/brotherhood men and the pre-1960s version of Democrats. They walked to work from their homes near the tracks, cutting their tradesman’s teeth dumping coal into colliers, skippering one of the workhorse tug boats, or repairing the box cars, hoppers and their huge “trucks,” which rode the rails in a spider web link connecting coal producers in West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.


The multiple railroad brotherhoods were all powerful, but did not hamper profits, so such men as Collis Potter Huntington, founder of both the Union Pacific and C&O, played the game.


When election time came around, granddad wore his union button on his cap and one or more of his grown children would be recruited to work the polls in support of the union candidate of choice.


I can’t tell if there is a union candidate or not in any of the 2012 races; it hasn’t been a good four years for trade unions under President Barack Obama. Public service unions got his nod, but many have seen massive drops in membership and at least one court has ruled unions may not spend money in support of a candidate without consent of the members.


The United Mine Workers in West Virginia, fully behind Mr. Obama’s 2008 candidacy, have declared against him in recent months. It is an obvious decision considering the economic disaster wrought on the coal industry by the Environmental Protection Agency, its declarations spelling an end to coal-burning industries, including our regional electricity generating plants.


It strikes me that Mr. Obama’s dilemma may parallel the mess my dad created at the C&O loading dock circa 1945. He was operating the huge contraption which lifted hoppers and emptied the coal into the hold of the ships. Somehow, he managed to dump an entire load of coal on the pier and it took hours to shovel it all up.


I can’t imagine Mr. Obama having enough shovels to clean up the mess he has created the past four years. One sensed a unified resolve in Brunswick that their votes could amount to a power washer to set things aright in America.



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