Sunday, October 21, 2018

How We Work: A Reading List

One of my big themes with my modeling -- and my history -- is understanding something about what the Santa Clara Valley was like in the 1930s. What was it like to work in the canneries, or harvest an orchard, or switch boxcars of prunes? The stories I found tell me a bit about that... as well as the fun of drilling burned tomato paste out of an experimental boiler, or rolling tree stumps back up to Summit Road to avoid pissing off an angry neighbor.

I'm interested in how folks work in general, even if they weren't working in the Valley of Hearts Delight. I've come across a lot of great books about how engineers, or railroaders, or cannery workers work.

There's a lot of gems in those books I've read, so they're worth sharing. Here's my list so far. I'll add to the list as I remember more.

If you're also interested in this sort of thing, I'll point out four great reads.

First, Ignition: An Informal History of Rocket Propellants. It's not a railroad book, but it's full of explosions and toxic gases and poor choices. Although there's a fair amount of chemistry in the book, there's more about the rivalries between different research groups (Aerojet remembering to keep two chemists at different sites to avoid personality explosions), danger (grad students hiding lab apparatus to keep their advisor from blowing it up again), customer relations (Navy admirals unwilling to have fuels that react with chlorine on their ocean-going fleet), and when the best safety equipment is a pair of running shoes. Most importantly, he showed the death of an academic discipline; by 1970, every possible chemical that was energetic enough and cheap enough to serve as rocket fuel had been discovered. There was nothing left to research.

Ignition was out of print for years, and the best copy I had was a photocopied PDF. Rutgers recently re-printed it; if you like explosions, get a copy.

Second, Linda Niemann's Boomer: Railroad Memoirs. Niemann was one of the first women brakemen on the SP; when she got laid off at Watsonville Junction, she decided to become a boomer, traveling around the SP system wherever there was work. The book's a combination of her stories about working for the Friendly SP as well as her attempts to figure out her life when she was changing towns every six months and figuring out how to sleep when working insane hours expected for railroad crews. Boomer highlighted to me how little we really understand of the railroad crews when we operate a model railroad: the exhaustion, odd hours, crazy management, and isolated work sites.

Third, James Curry's Metallurgist for the Empire Star Mine and Newmont Exploration 1932-1955, Plant Manager for Calaveras Cement Company, 1956-1975. oral history about his time working at the North Star Mine in Grass Valley and running the Calaveras Cement plant at Redding. If you're curious what it's like to run a rail-served industry, Curry's stories might give you a hint.

Finally, there's Carol Lynn McKibben's book on Monterey cannery workers, Beyond Cannery Row: Sicilian Women, Immigration, and Community in Monterey, California 1915-1999. McKibben talked with many cannery workers; she heard the stories about why the women chose cannery work, which jobs were interesting, child care, and how the first generation of Italian immigrants became American.

There's plenty more on the full list; I'll add to it as I remember books worth sharing.

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