Like local history? I love it. Some years ago I found an intriguing little book at the Rocklin Library: A Baggage Car With Lace Curtains by Kay Fisher, a native of the Sacramento area. Kay’s husband, Bill, worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad starting in the nineteen-forties, and their story gives a whole new meaning to the idea of work-life balance.
Bill and Kay Fisher had only been married six months when Bill took a job as a signal maintainer, fixing railroad signals all over Placer County. Prior to that he ran a printing business, running up posters for various local events. He wasn’t making much money so the signal job seemed like a lifesaver. Problem was, though, it required Bill to be away from Kay six days a week, an arrangement neither one of them were crazy about.
It didn’t take long before Bill and Kay decided to make a change. Instead of Bill commuting home once a week, Kay would come live in the outfit with he and Thatch, who was Bill’s helper at the time. Sounds great, right? They could travel around, Kay and Bill wouldn’t be separated, and it would be an adventure. Sure, it would be different and weird, plus they wouldn’t have a real bathroom, but Kay figured as long as she could get her favorite programs on the radio things wouldn’t be too strange. So after she and Bill loaded up their Buick with their bed, various necessities, groceries, and Kay’s pet canary, Bucky, they headed off to the rails.
Nothing could have prepared Kay for her first sight of Car 713. A converted baggage car, it was all kinds of rustic and screamed bachelor pad. Kay found a girly calendar hanging above the desk and promptly drew a mustache on the model.
There were plenty of adjustments to be made. Kay, Bill, and Thatch had to use an outhouse when nature called. It was a fancy edifice with a paper dispenser, but it was still an outhouse, and Kay nicknamed it the Dream House. Every time they would move to a new location they would pack the Dreamhouse onto the toolcar.
Kay had to learn how to stoke up the coal fire in the water heater so the car could have hot water, as well as do the same in the stove. The coal was messy and got all over the floor each time, but Kay got used to it. While water had to be conserved because the tank only held so much, it was at least pumped into the car. Kay couldn’t always get good radio reception because Car 713 had to be parked in some very out-of-the-way spots at times, but she made do.
Oh, and speaking of radios, the train people went through a lot of them because they were always getting smashed for one reason or another.
Another adjustment was constantly having to pack up and move. It wasn’t simply a matter of stoking up the engine and rolling down the track; towels had to be stuffed in between stacks of dishes, the water tank drained, cabinets locked, and furniture secured. Kay and Bill couldn’t ride in the car while it was being moved, either. When it came time to go, they would take Bucky, hop in their Buick, and meet the train at its new destination.
The biggest hardship was the isolation, and people being people, not everyone handled it in the same way. Kay met folks on all points of the spectrum. Some thrived, some were very matter-of-fact, others were bone-weary. Still others couldn’t stick it out for whatever reason, and one rather infamous woman named Dora was never sober.
Fortunately, Kay and Bill were able to make friends all over the line. The different railroading families would get together and play cards. They were also able to give the young couple pointers about the practicalities of railroad life. One of the women even gave Kay some sourdough starter, much to Bill and Thatch’s delight.
Still, Kay hated life in the outfit. She was not above spewing a few cuss words when things got tough. However, she found motivation for sticking it out when she saw how much Bill liked it. It helped that Bill hung some dime store lace curtains in the bedroom, too, and they got a dog named Monday. With the coming of Pearl Harbor, Bill’s job became even more important.
Amazingly enough, A Baggage Car With Lace Curtains couldn’t find a publisher. House after house turned their noses up at Kay’s book because they didn’t think it would work with “today’s market.”
What, were they kidding? Kay’s book is a fun read. She captured details so well with a big dash of humor, as if it all happened yesterday. The book could have used some very minor editing but it’s paced beautifully and ends all too soon.
In the end, the Fishers decided to self-publish, and the book was a tremendous success among railroad buffs and history lovers. Kay wrote in a later edition that she and Bill made many new friends as a result of Baggage Car, and naturally they did a lot of meetups across the country.
Plenty has changed since the book ended. Car 713 was scrapped decades ago. Southern Pacific has now merged with Union Pacific, and most of the original depots are gone, many replaced by Amtrak stations. Railroading personnel and their families are now housed on special boarding cars that are more like motor homes, and it’s a safe bet no one needs a Dreamhouse because everyone has a real bathroom.
There’s not much information out there about the Fishers except for what’s contained in Baggage Car. I don’t know what happened to them after the book’s events closed. From what I can tell, Kay and Bill stayed in Placer County, possibly settling in Colfax, and both of their sons went on to work in the Southern Pacific Signal Department. After retirement the Fishers stayed active, traveling around by rail and seeing their friends, old and new.
Beyond that, there’s no info to be had, not even obituaries. As far as history is concerned, Kay and Bill exist in a time gone by. Thank goodness they chose to record their unusual story.
Another post is on the way tomorrow. Thanks for reading, everyone…