I recently completed editing my great grandfather’s autobiographical manuscript about his life as a railroad man in the early 1900’s. It was inspirational to read his words and be a part of something he started to write so long ago. He wrote everything in longhand and, in turn, my great aunt would put the words to the typewriter. Correspondence was by snail mail so each leg of the writing was done over weeks and months rather than the minutes we enjoy in today’s electronic world. There was no spell check, just a dictionary. Errors were erased and retyped, or the page was just pulled out of the typewriter and thrown away.
Research, and his manuscript, have taught me a lot about the railroad business of the early 1900’s. It was a mix of brutality and joy with a little despair mixed in. Grand-“Pop” was a civil engineer who found the lay of the land and supervised the workers to lay the track, and with this unique perspective he wrote about events that happened nearly a hundred twenty years ago. He loved this work that it took him through hostile lands both here and abroad. He fought swamps and deserts, along with rebels and farmers. He went so far as to be a founding father of a small town just so a railroad station could be built there. He had moxie.
I am working on my own novel based on some of his stories. I find it challenging to try and put words into his mouth for fear of painting him with the wrong palette. Even after reading and transcribing his memoir, I still worry. To put words in his mouth brings him back down to the human plane when, to me, he is larger than life. I ask myself if he would say something like what I’m writing? How would he look at his men after they berated a Chinese laborer? What did he actually say to them? What would he be thinking as he lay nearly frozen to death in the north woods? How did he get across the muskeg, on foot, so many times?
My great grandfather passed away in the late 40’s. To know him and what he might say is lost to time. I hope that the character I have created for him lives up to him at least a little bit. Only when I join him in the afterlife will I know who he really was. So, until then my imaginings will have to do.