July 1, 2004: Headlines: Railroads: Trains: RPCV John Krauskopf has passionate interest in railroads

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: June 2004 Peace Corps Headlines: July 1, 2004: Headlines: Railroads: Trains: RPCV John Krauskopf has passionate interest in railroads

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RPCV John Krauskopf has passionate interest in railroads

RPCV John Krauskopf has passionate interest in railroads

RPCV John Krauskopf has passionate interest in railroads

C&NW's Jai Alai League
Jul 1, 2004 - Trains
Author(s): Krauskopf, John

From the time I was young, I have had a passionate interest in railroads. I kept my youthful passion for trains as I grew up and joined the Peace Corps, where I also developed a professional interest in cross-cultural communication. My dad liked to tell a family story about a curious cross-cultural incident which occurred in a railroad setting, thereby touching on both of my major interests.

My fathers step-uncle, a Mr. Schrader, worked for the Chicago & North Western Railway just before World War I. At the time, large companies were deeply involved in what was then called "industrial welfare," which sought to take new immigrants and rural farm folk and blend them into a harmonious, Americanized workforce that could live happily, responsibly, and most of all, work reliably. Mr. Schrader's job title with the C&NW was something like "Recreation Director." he handled company relations with several railroad- sponsored YMCAs. he organized softball teams from various company units in the Chicago area and made numerous other arrangements to encourage recreational opportunities for C&NW employees.

The North Western was then building Proviso Yard, an immense hump yard on the west side of the Windy City which would assume the major responsibilities of sorting cars at the railroad's namesake and most important city. In 1917 and 1918, a large percentage of young American construction workers joined or were drafted into the U.S. Army and were sent to France. The resulting labor shortage caused the C&NW to recruit several hundred men from Mexico to keep the multi-year Proviso Yard project moving.

After the Mexicans arrived and began work, Mr. Schrader was asked to tend to the recreational needs of the new employees. Eager to help these recent arrivals but unable to speak Spanish, he communicated through Alfredo Gomez, a straw boss who spoke some English. he asked Senor Gomez what sports the men enjoyed. Gomez answered, "One thing the men really miss here is a facility for the traditional Mexican game called jai alai."

Mr. Schrader knew nothing about jai alai! But he did some research and discovered that the game is similar to handball, with a long curved wicker basket strapped to each player's wrist called a cesta, in which they catch and throw a hard rubber ball about the size of a baseball called a pelota. The game is played in a three- walled court, or fronton, 55 meters long and 17 meters wide, with walls 13 meters high.

Building something this size seemed to be a pretty substantial project, but he was under orders to do something for the Mexicans. Fortunately, one thing the C&NW had in abundance at Proviso was construction material, namely, concrete. Mr. Schrader located an unused plot of land near the edge of the railroad property but not too far from the yard tracks, and deemed it a suitiible site for a fronton. While the structure took shape, he sent away to Mexico for the cestas and pelotas. After all of the equipment was assembled and the fronton completed, he looked forward to seeing this exotic game played for the first time.

And no one showed up to play. Mr. Schrader couldn't understand it. Disappointed because the expensive facility remained unused, he sought out Alfredo Gomez for an explanation. Gomez confided, "Senor Schrader, these men do hard physical labor. Sometimes they work as long as 12 hours a day. At the end of this time, they are much too tired to play a strenuous game like jai alai. They don't want to play the game; They want to bet on the game!"

Determined to salvage the investment, Mr. Schrader contacted the railroad's agent in Mexico who recruited a group of semiprofessional jai alai players. The C&NW put them on the payroll, but these newcomers worked with their cestas instead of picks and shovels. They played their fast-moving game several times a week until the major construction effort at Proviso was completed. Their compatriots watched from the open end of the fronton while indulging in their preferred recreation, betting, and at the end of each game redistributed ownership of the C&NW payroll dollars they had just labored so hard to acquire.

My father said that at least through the f 94Os - more than 25 years later the derelict fronton was visible from the road skirting the edge of Chicago & North Western Railway's most important classification yard. Many people who drove by and noticed that huge concrete structure probably wondered what railroad use it might have had. They would have been surprised to learn that the stark concrete form was, in effect, a lasting monument to cultural mz'scommunication.

- John Krauskopf

Copyright Kalmbach Publishing Company Jul 2004

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Story Source: Trains

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Railroads



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