Packard, Frank L. The Night Operator. Toronto: The Copp, Clark Co., Limited. 1919, pp. 320.
Packard’s 9th published book and his second of four railroad books. The Night Operator is a collection of 10 short stories, all dealing with the Hill Division, that were previously published in The Popular Magazine. The Hill Division was that section of track connecting the East to the West through the Rocky mountains. Big Cloud was its centre. Big Cloud was a rough town as if formed the hub for the labour that went into carving the track through the mountains and it continued to be the hub from which the construction camps and bridge gangs were provisioned. Permanent trestles were being built to replace the temporary ones. Cuts through the mountains were being trimmed and cleaned up, approaches and grades were being straightened and lessened all to make the route through the mountains safer and faster. The town was a haven of dives, gambling halls, and bars. Mention of prostitution is curiously absent from the stories but I think we can all safely assume that it was present.
It is the world of Big Cloud that I find the most interesting. It’s a hard world. The men do tough work for not a lot of pay. If you were single you lived in a boarding house. Meals would then be prepared by the house keeper and eaten communally. Laundry would be sent out. The married men would live with their wives and children, if any. To make ends meet the women would take in laundry or clothes to mend. There were no other real options for them. The men worked long hours at back-breaking labour for small wages. If you got sick you didn’t get payed. If you were injured you lost your job. Most everyone seems to be perilously close to destitution. And all of this was prior to the great depression of the 1930’s. It was a world that very much seemed to be a “Life’s a bitch, then you die” sort of place.
1. The Night Operator. Unknown, c1912.
An injured Toddles, a newsboy who desperately wants to be a railroad man, prevents two trains from colliding.
2. Owsley and the 1601. The Popular Magazine 1914 Jan
Explores a mystical connection between man and machine. This is a frequently reprinted story with the most recent reprint being in Classic Trains magazine, 2002.
3. The Apotheosis of Sammy Durgan. Unknown, c1912
Durgan’s carelessness is always getting him fired. On one occasion his carelessness prevents a train disaster.
4. The Wrecking Boss. The Popular Magazine 1912 Dec 15
A brutal and brutish man descends further into drinking until redeemed by a train wreck. “The Wrecking Boss” as made into the film “The Crash” by First National Pictures. When the film was released it was found to have very little in common with the original story. Packard’s agent and publisher sued the movie company but were unsuccessful with the suit.
5. The Man Who Squealed. The Popular Magazine 1913 Dec 15 (as The Squealer)
An old crook tries to turn it around.
6. The Age Limit. The Popular Magazine 1914 Nov 7
MacCaffery is forced to retire because of his age. How will he provide for his wife without a job?
7. “The Devil and All His Works”. The Popular Magazine 1913 Oct 15
A rather useless young man, Noodles, grows to hate Regan. Noodles finally shows some sense during a station fire. My least favourite tale. It is overly sentimental and predictable. Noodles is a trouble maker and his father is a rather useless old man getting by on the kindness of others. Noodles tries to seriously hurt, or even kill, Regan. Noodles saving of Regan from the fire would not have been necessary if he hadn’t been trying to injure him previously.
8. On the Night Wire. The Popular Magazine 1913 Dec 1
Dan McGrew’s past catches up with him. He only keeps his job by the grace of Charlie Keene, the kid, who hates him.
9. The Other Fellow’s Job. The Popular Magazine 1913 Feb 15
A train wreck cures Jimmy Beezer of his envy of the other fellow’s job.
10. The Rat River Special. The Popular Magazine 1914 Apr 1
Martin Brodley falls from the straight and narrow. He gets a chance to redeem himself and prevents a wreck.
Railroad Stories from July 1934, reprint’s the story “The Age Limit” from The Popular Magazine, Nov. 7, 1914 as
“Sixty Years, and Out.”
Most of the railroad stories are about individuals who, when the time comes show the true strength of their character. They may have been shiftless, useless buggers or they may have been crooks but when the emergency arises they rise to the challenge. The stories are generally moral and hopeful. They are full of second chances and individuals grabbing those second chances and making the best of them. It’s all about doing the right thing when it counts.
This is the tested in battle approach to life. How can one’s worth be known until it is tested? It was a common view in Packard’s stories and a not uncommon view at the time. The world was at war in Europe and men were literally being tested in battle. Those who broke were seen as having week characters.
There are many problems with this kind of philosophy. If no emergency arises then the untested remain shiftless, useless or criminal. The testing process, figuratively at war or literally at war is a pretty rough one. In the context of Packard’s stories there is an assumption of the inevitability of train crashes. When the crash happens, who will rise to the occasion. It’s pretty grim that people die and property is destroyed almost so that the metal of individuals could be tested.
After the emergency is dealt with the story ends so there is no real knowledge that the individuals have actually changed their ways. They may well return to being useless buggers, now riding on the coat-tails of the one valid thing they have ever done.
The Night Operator was published by George H. Doran Co., New York and Copp Clark Co., Toronto for the Canadian edition. Hodder & Stoughton printed the UK version. A.L. Burt produced the reprint version for the North American market. None of the North American publishers included edition information, so first editions are tough to determine. Doran firsts may include the initials “GHD” on the copyright page, but they were not consistent with this. I know of no way to determine a Copp. Clark first.
Inexpensive copies of The Night Operator are readily available on-line. For those who don’t mind reading from a screen, the Internet Archive has a copy here.