Chapter 11, segment 2 of 2, 'The Railroad, Part 1'
After several months, Mizuko was still the sole breadwinner for the family, even though Kazuichi had long since recovered from his illness. Once spring arrived, fishing for trout in the nearby streams and rivers helped supplement the family’s meals with much needed protein. But even so, it was difficult to feed her family of four on her salary alone.
Brought up as a privileged man during the Meiji era, Kazuichi would not lift a finger to help with baby Yoshiko nor participate in any domestic chores, leaving them to Chiyoko and Mizuko to do after she returned from working in the sand house.
He believed in the preeminence of the male in a Japanese family. Like Mizuko’s father Kichinosuke, Kazuichi’s word was law and not to be questioned.
He commandeered Mizuko’s wages when she was paid, and often used the money to finance weekend gambling sessions in town.
Mizuko and Chiyoko decided that Kazuichi needed to be put to work to protect the family’s finances. The opportunity came when Mizuko’s co-worker Carlo decided to quit his job and join his eldest son in Denver, Colorado.
Mizuko met with the rail yard foreman and suggested that he employ her ‘friend’ Kazuichi as Carlo’s replacement. Impressed by her exemplary work ethic, the foreman agreed and Kazuichi joined Mizuko in the sand house the next day. Unfortunately, Kazuichi was not as productive a co-worker than the elderly Italian he replaced, and Mizuko had to work doubly hard as a result. Another incident however, doomed their working partnership at the sand house.
“Mizuko-san, I’m here,” Chiyoko whispered loudly.
Mizuko, waiting impatiently after hurriedly eating her homemade lunch of rice, pickles and cold fish, turned to a low window in the near wall of the sand house. Chiyoko stepped forward and quickly handed her half-sister Yoshiko through the open window to her stepmother.
You’re late,” said Mizuko.
“I couldn’t help it,” explained Chiyoko. “The foreman and some of the workers were standing just outside your door talking, so I had to wait.”
Mizuko unbuttoned her work shirt and lifted her cooing daughter to her breast. She sighed with relief as her milk started to flow. As she had everyday for months, Chiyoko stood waiting patiently outside the window for the mid-day ritual to be completed.
Suddenly the main door of the sand house swung open and Yamada-san, the rail yard foreman barged in.
“There’s been a change in the schedule, they’ll be four locomotives instead of two on the two-thirty…,” he froze in mid-sentence at the sight of one of his workmen nursing a baby.
“What, who, what is going on here?” he stammered.
Mizuko quickly handed the puzzled baby back to Chiyoko, than turned away to button up her open shirt.
“You’re a woman, a woman!” exclaimed the foreman, a stocky middle aged Japanese man.
“Well I’ll be god-dammed, I never,” he continued.
“You can’t work here....., you’re a woman! This is man’s work. If anyone catches wind of this, it’ll be my job. You’re, you’re fired!” he shouted.
“Wait!” Chiyoko called out, quickly assessing the situation. “My mother is your best worker, right?”
Yamada-san turned and seemed to notice the pretty teenager for the first time.
“There is a way that she can keep working for you without any problems,” she continued.
The shell shocked foreman stood speechless, so Chiyoko forged ahead.
“I have heard a lot of complaints recently about the bad food the men are being offered. They are so angry that they’re all talking about going on strike!” she proclaimed.
“That is none of your business, girl! Charlie, er, who is this?” the flustered foreman demanded.
Mizuko reacted to her pseudonym by looking from the foreman to her energetic stepdaughter.
Before Mizuko could find her voice, Chiyoko added, “Her name isn’t Charlie, it’s Mizuko. I’m her oldest daughter Chiyoko, and this is my sister Yoshiko,” she said holding up the drooling baby.
“Listen to me please. I’m telling you the truth. Mizuko is a great cook with years of experience. I know she can nip this riot in the bud if you give her the chance.”
Yamada-san realized that what this young girl was telling him could be a way out of two dilemmas.
“Can you really cook?” he asked Mizuko with a hint of desperation in his voice. Mizuko nodded her head, the beginnings of a smile on her lips.
“She’s the best!” chimed in Chiyoko.
The foreman considered Mizuko and her de facto agent for a minute then threw his hands in the air.
“OK, OK, get cleaned up and report to the kitchen car and we’ll see what you can do.“
“You,” he said looking at Kazuichi, who had been watching the entire interaction with his forearms resting on the top of his shovel. “Get to work!”
With that the foreman turned and stalked out of the sand house shaking his head and muttering to himself.
In the next few days with Mizuko in charge of cooking, the mood of the work crews began to change. After a week, talk of any work stoppage because of bad food vanished. Realizing that Mizuko’s cooking prowess was all that Chiyoko had promised, the foreman became one of Mizuko’s chief supporters.
Mizuko quickly became a popular member of the work crew, both while on the rails and at the main train yard. She had spent her time in America largely in the company of working class men, and further enhanced her standing with the rail gangs by trading quick comebacks and bawdy stories with the best of them.
Tom Koga was the respected foreman of Deer Lodge ‘extra gang’. The extra gang was comprised of thirty Japanese men who were employed year-round to maintain the Milwaukee Road railway across the mountains of Montana and parts of Idaho. They were an elite work group, required to do the toughest, most dangerous jobs around the clock.
Once Mizuko gained Koga’s friendship, the rest of the men followed suit. Including the yard work crews, up to a hundred and fifty issei toiled for the railroad. Koga-san was one of a handful of married men with families. Happy, his eldest child, was just a little younger than Mizuko’s daughter Yoshiko. As the girls grew to school age a close friendship, especially during the long traveling repair trips the work gangs undertook, developed. Koga’s wife, Yuko, was one of the few women with whom Mizuko could interact.
Mizuko’s self-deprecating humor made the long days pass more quickly for everyone she met. She joked with Chiyoko that when rail workers first saw her they were subject to a niku bikkuri, a double surprise. In a world largely devoid of women, if she was initially seen from behind; her lean but feminine figure was sure to surprise the men that were conditioned to see only men on the job. But when she turned to face them and they saw her self-described ‘homely’ visage, they were sure to be doubly surprised.
Regardless of how they felt about her appearance, the men respected her for her hard work, and were very thankful for the tasty meals she served up.
In a way, her cooking expertise was also responsible for a wave of petty thievery in the rail yards. More than once she returned from her outdoor wood ovens empty handed, because light-fingered rail workers had absconded with her freshly baked bread before she could retrieve it. Her culinary skills turned otherwise honest men into thieves.
After a fourteen months of back-breaking labor in the Sand House, Mizuko transitioned to a job that sustained her and her family for the next six years.
The good life in Montana had begun.
end of Chapter 11, segment 2 of 2, 'The Railroad, Part 1'