Retired Pullman porter looks back on career

His office was a fast-moving train on the Santa Fe Railway. And while some people complain about being on-call 24/7, Belton Calmes’ reality was a lot harder — working 17 hours a day, cooking food in the kitchens for affluent guests on board the slee

His office was a fast-moving train on the Santa Fe Railway. And while some people complain about being on-call 24/7, Belton Calmes’ reality was a lot harder — working 17 hours a day, cooking food in the kitchens for affluent guests on board the sleeper cars built by George Pullman. For 30 years, Calmes worked for the Pullman Co. Amtrak recently honored Pullman porters as part of National Train Day activities. "On meager salaries and tips, they raised families and sent children to college," an Amtrak release states. "They worked hard under extreme conditions but always treated customers like royalty. They were goodwill ambassadors for the railroads. They were proud men. They were Pullman porters." The numbers of living Pullman porters are diminishing. But at age 92, Calmes who lives in the Chicago area with his wife, Cleo, is spry with a good sense of humor. Asked about his three decades on the train, he says "I liked the job, I stayed until I retired. At times, it would be harder than others." Riding passenger trains these days is, well, basic. A lot better than a bus but no white linen or fine china. Those niceties were the norm in the "golden age" of rail travel, which owes a lot to George Pullman. The Chicago entrepreneur’s idea of turning uncomfortable chair cars into sleeper cars was a big success, and in 1867, he created the Pullman’s Palace Car Company. As for the porters, they were the heart and soul of the business. Originally the Pullman company hired only African-Americans so that by the 1920s, 20,224 Blacks worked as porters and at other jobs — a huge share of the African-American labor market. But working conditions were harsh with porters expected to work more than 400 hours a month on low wages to get full pay. The workers formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union in 1925, which went on to play a significant role in the civil rights movement. It also meant a job with high prestige and financial stability. Calmes signed on with the Pullman company as a chef/cook in 1948, after serving in the Army during World War II in the Pacific campaign. He’d grown up in Mississippi but moved to Chicago after the war. "In Mississippi, they didn’t want you to learn how to read or write," he recalled. With limited options for minorities, working for Pullman "was one of the best jobs Blacks had back in those days," Calmes said. "That was one good thing about the railroad people. They had to respect Blacks. That made the work much better." Calmes was on tap for three meals a day, making gourmet spreads for the passengers, many of whom were celebrities traveling west to California from Chicago. While "some folks were selfish and disrespectful," he made a lot of friends, meeting boxing icon Joe Louis, "he was nice," and Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor, "I’ll never forget her outfit." But along with the glamour were days of intense work, intermingled with train delays and occasional derailments. Calmes was hospitalized after one accident coming into Denver when a broken rail uncoupled the train but returned to work nonetheless. "It was best for you to go back," he said. Calmes’ philosophy about the job was that, "it was as hard as you make it." His goal was to provide for his family in Chicago. "I had four kids. I wanted to give them an education and send them to school. All of my kids went to school," he said. In his 90s, he’s still an incurable optimist, explaining, "I always look for the best." ______ Copyright 2009 Associated Press, (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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