"We work like dogs, live like dogs and eat like dogs," one laborer explains, half in earnest, half amused by his words.
About the work part, he is in earnest. Under the gaze and guiding hands of the dogs, the mammoth track-laying machine they affectionately call "The TLM" creaks and shudders its way along old railroad tracks, uprooting rusty rails and old ties as it moves, leaving new timber and track in its wake like a giant slug's glistening exodus from Atlantic City.
About the living part, he is amused. Like the railroad gangs pushing toward the Pacific more than a century ago, the TLM crew lives as a virtual knot, eating together, entertaining each other at night and bunking together in seven trailers mounted on flatcars called "camp cars." It is close-quarters living, a world where privacy goes as far as the foot of your bunk and the makeshift curtain fashioned from a bedsheet.
Overseeing this crew of 110 workers and $10 million worth of earth-eating
machinery is Mike MacAdam, 31, a man who describes himself as "project engineer," but who might better be called simply "the dog boss."
"Along the Northeast (rail) corridor they call us 'the job killers,' " MacAdam says of his crew, explaining that the nickname derives from their ability to accomplish, with 100 or so people, a task that once would have required a thousand pairs of hands.
Crawling methodically across New Jersey's middle, the crew is helping to clear the way for an Amtrak train that will speed blackjack players and commuters back and forth between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. New Jersey Transit will run other trains on the line.
As they lean into the wind or seek shelter from the sun in the shadow of the TLM, the track dogs are the embodiment of manual labor. Shirts stained with creosote, gloves black with oil, their face muscles grimace under skin tanned and tough as leather. They cluster around the TLM with a mixture of pride, awe and skepticism, as if the task before them were impossible, just as the thought of laying a railroad through the wilderness must have seemed to those 19th-century gangs.
Until the train makes its first scheduled run in the spring of 1989, MacAdam and his crew are renewing their own 57-mile corridor of wilderness and aged track on which the old Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Line once ran.
"This is a dream come true for us," MacAdam says. "We're used to working right next to Amtrak's freightliners that slow down to about 80 m.p.h. when they go by us. . . . But here you're out in the middle of nowhere. It's like a vacation."
A vacation. In the dead of winter, when a tired track dog's hands grow stubborn as rocks in the icy air, the TLM and its crew will keep forging ahead. Rain, snow, under any conditions, the track dogs are kept moving, says MacAdam.
"You know Charley, the hurricane?" asked Robert Badyna, 25, of Willingboro. "We knew him personally."
Much like the crew of a sailing vessel, the TLM crew has a distinct hierarchy. There are foremen and operators, $12-an-hour track dogs who command the respect reserved for officers on a ship. There are laborers, cooks and truck drivers - "track pups" many are called - who draw the same backbreaking, mundane and dirty duties that would be meted out to seamen.
And in their camp cars - as cramped as the hold of a wooden ship - friendships are made, contests won and lost, families written to and dreams chased away by the sound of 5 a.m. alarms.
There are men like MacAdam and Otis Hargrove, 48, a foreman from New Haven, Conn., who have been with the TLM since it was first put into operation in 1978. There are others who have signed on with the crew only since work began in New Jersey earlier this month.
"It's part of history," says William Stepanski, a laborer from Bayonne, N.J. "I'll be able to tell my grandkids about when I was out there and Mike MacAdam was dogging me, cracking the whip." Stepanski eyes MacAdam and the two laugh in unison.
Daniel Goodness Mussington, 55 and the father of 10, whose deep Caribbean accent was honed on his native island of Antigua, has been with the TLM crew since its inception. As a camp-car attendant, Mussington is charged with cleaning the crew's camp cars, which are parked, for at least the next 30 weeks, on a railroad siding in Winslow Township.
It is a job that Mussington, nicknamed "The King" because of his long gray beard and his claims to royal ancestry, approaches with a romantic fervor, the attitude of a man whose forebears were seamen.
"I love working with the TLM crew," says Mussington. "They give me a chance to see some of the smaller towns. I feel like a sailor. I go from town to town and city to city. . . . Wherever TLM goes, I go."
Even though crew members can commute home, or eat and find recreation elsewhere, many choose to live in the camp cars, take their meals in a nearby dining car and engage in pastimes among themselves, challenging each other to horseshoes, setting up checkerboards and card games in the evening, jogging or listening to spirituals and studying the Bible.
Surprisingly few of the men, says MacAdam, have been lured toward the glitter of Atlantic City. "No one's been lost to the casinos," he says. ''But then, they only stay open till 4 a.m., and these guys don't have to be at work until 6 a.m."
Given the physical demands of that work, many of the men order their lives around the day's meals.
"I love it. I like to see people eat and enjoy themselves," says Rickey Blair, a 6-foot-7 cook from Philadelphia who has been traveling with Amtrak crews since 1978.
Blair, a former North Carolina high school football star, will tell a visitor proudly that he learned to cook from his grandmother. "She used to do domestic work and she taught me how to cook and bake," he says, spooning plates full of sliced roast beef and macaroni and cheese.
Does he get complaints?
"I always get complaints," Blair says, "because the guys just like to complain. It's their nature. But their plates are always empty."
With 10 men housed in each trailer, the quarters are pinched and opportunities for disagreements plentiful. But MacAdam says it is rare when a fight erupts among TLM crew members. "The last fight I can remember was in 1980," he notes with a historian's pride.
Probably the most wearing thing on the men, even more than the work itself, is the separation from their families. While many of the TLM crew have seven or eight years' experience with Amtrak, they still rank low on the seniority list and must take work when they can get it. Most of them commute home on weekends, traveling to New England, Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia.
For a few diehards, Amtrak's three-day weekends offer opportunities to pursue other jobs. Charles H. Martin, 30, a TLM veteran from Westport, Mass., is one such crew member. When Martin leaves the Amtrak crew on Thursday night, he heads north to board a lobster fishing boat on Friday morning. He will fish for lobster until Sunday afternoon, return to port, jump in a car and drive back to Winslow by Sunday night.
"The travel gets to you," he observes drily.
Still, the TLM crew is used to travel, although it is usually at a painstaking, half-mile-a-day pace, as the track-laying machine drags itself over the landscape.
By spring, MacAdam and his crew should have completed their work, and the job of installing crossing signals, switches and other equipment, plus building depots for commuter stops along the line, will begin. Then, sometime in the spring of 1989, when the more than $100 million project is complete, a group of dignitaries will board the train nicknamed "The Gambler's Express" and chug across New Jersey, seeing the same sights that the track crew saw months before.
As much as MacAdam and some of his crew would like to make that maiden voyage, it is doubtful they'll be aboard.
By that time, notes the track dog boss, "We'll be long gone."