Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sadie and the Nottoway #7

Nottoway #7, 2003

Sadie Cook tended the Nottoway #7 railroad bridge for forty-one years, from the age of steam right up through diesel electric. Women didn’t tend bridges when Sadie started out. And to be honest, Sadie originally went off to learn to be a nurse. But during the Second World War, even though most railroad workers were relieved of the obligation of military service, most of the young men in Sadie’s rural hometown, and all of the bridge tenders, enlisted just the same. Considering the shortage of available skilled bridge tenders, and the fact that Sadie had pretty much grown up watching an uncle tend this very bridge, she was the logical solution.

Once she settled into the job, there was no moving Sadie from the little bridge tender’s office that rode up and down the parallel towers each time the bridge lifted and lowered. She seemed well suited to the job. Her nursing training made her a meticulous keeper of records of times and trains. She never married, and used to say the bridge was more reliable than a man any day. She never complained about working the night shift, when most of the long coal trains on the Norfolk line rolled down from the coalfields of Appalachia to the port. She had her pick up truck, her dog Prince and a vegetable garden behind the small house she inherited from her parents that was the envy of town.

Once she achieved seniority following the war, the only thing Sadie ever asked for from the railroad was that she have her weekends off. On Friday’s, Sadie would pack Prince into the pickup and drive up to Lynchburg “to shop.” But it was widely rumored that despite having had a brief dalliance with a local boy in high school, she was really keeping the company of Joy Lee Raeford, a childhood friend who taught at the women’s college. Whatever their business, Sadie could be counted on to be back in town on Sunday morning, and to trade in her striped railroad coveralls for a flower print dress to teach Sunday school to the little children and sing in the choir at the Calvary Baptist Church.

During the week, Sadie and Prince were fixtures on that bridge. Prince liked to howl at the passing trains. For years, trainmen would swear it was Sadie singing to them. One fellow even wrote in to the company newsletter calling her “the siren of the Nottoway.” Her little office was neat as a pin and decorated with pictures of young girls, whom her few visitors and the dayside bridge tender always thought were her nursing school classmates or the high school pictures of her Sunday school charges. It wasn’t until 1991, when a group of protesters tried to kill a retired doctor who was performing abortions in Lynchburg that it was learned that Sadie had been his Saturday assistant for more than 20 years, and that the tattered pictures that adorned the bulletin board of the bridge tender’s shack were in fact “Sadie’s girls,” whom she had lovingly walked through many tough hours and without remorse given the gift of a second chance.

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