Misadventures on the Railroad
by Thomas C. Fleming, Jul 29, 1998
Fred Turner, the chef on the Southern Pacific dining car where I went to work in 1927, was a onetime professional boxer who said few words to anyone.
Fred was one of three brothers from Salt Lake City, who all came to San Francisco and worked for the railroad in some capacity. They had all tried to be prize fighters when they were young.
Joe, the eldest brother, became a local favorite in the featherweight class. He had a fearsome punch, and knocked out opponents larger than himself, which caused most fighters in his weight class to avoid him. In order to obtain a fight, he often had to fight men as large as middleweights.
Fred followed his brother into the ring but lost interest early, and went to work for the Southern Pacific as a cook, where he rose from fourth cook to chef.
The story was told that when Joe was just a third cook, the superintendent of the Southern Pacific commissary in West Oakland once became so excited during a fight that he shouted from ringside, "Knock the bum out, and I'll make you a chef tomorrow!" Joe knocked him cold. Evidently the superintendent kept his promise, for Joe, who was then a third cook, was jumped over the second cook and promoted to chef.
Fred never did think his elder brother was much of a cook, but Joe kept his job until he retired in the 1940s.
The white steward was the head of the crew on the diners. If any of us had a friend among the passengers, we would tell the steward, and he would always allow the person to get a meal free, after all the paying guests had made their way back to their cars. I had two friends who let me know the day before they were traveling, and I used my prerogative. My friends were summoned, and provided with a waiter who attended and served them, just like the paying guests.
On my first trip back home to Oakland from Los Angeles, Fred Turner and the second cook filched some eggs, butter and ham, which they put in their bags, along with some of the prepared cornmeal, biscuit and hotcake packages. It wasn't done in a wholesale manner. The third cook asked permission of chef Turner: could he take a few things? Permission was granted. Since I was new, I did not say anything, nor did I take anything.
A chef I worked with later was Jerry Wright, whom everyone called "Uncle Jerry." He was a troubled man -- extremely angry, it seemed, at all of the world -- who argued constantly with the steward. He was the only cook I ever saw who lifted french fries right out of the frying pan with his bare hands. Uncle Jerry consumed large quantities of bad booze. Sales of alcohol were legally forbidden, and customers with overwhelming thirst had to buy that awful homemade stuff from bootleggers. One took chances on his life if one consumed some of the stuff that was sold then.
Many of the rail workers made heavy use of the bottle. One waiter, George Watson, who told everyone to call him "Papa George" and addressed all the younger workers as his nephews, was boozed every time he came to work, and always brought a pint with him. How he managed to walk down the aisle of a swaying dining car with a trayload of food always puzzled me, since it appeared that he was always staggering. I still wonder how he was able to function. But he did.
Advertisement from Cosmopolitan magazine, 1902, for the Overland