Monthly Archives: September 2009

Lunch Counter Jack

grandpa fireman

In honor of Labor Day, I’d like to introduce you to someone:  Floyd Clarence Oppelt.  My grandpa.

All my memories of my grandpa growing up where fun and full of life.  His laugh was contagious. He used to sneak out the barn and on my promise of keeping a secret, would smoke a Pall Mall cigarette.  If we were at my house, he’d smoke while feeding other Pall Mall’s to our horses. His multi-colored suspenders where a constant source of joy for me, as it was a constant game to sneak up behind and pull on those suspenders.  He was wise, happy and never met a stranger.  I’m often reminded by relatives how much we are alike.  I consider that a huge compliment.

After he died, I started to occasionally hear people refer to him as “Lunch Counter Jack” or just as Jack, and I actually think it took me a bit to realized that the comments were being made about my Grandfather.

Since his death, my grandma has written his biography, and in it she tells the story of Lunch Counter Jack.  Since then several other articles from Rail Road Journals have supported the folklore of his life.  I’d like to share it with you now, in an abbreviated version.

Apparently on the Illinois Central, a typical workday for guys working the train yard was 6 or 6 ½ hours, and then they could “tie up” (go home.)  Almost never in this time did people “Pull Beans” (go to dinner), as they would just rather go home.

If you were actually on the trains though, you almost never got a typical 20 minute break to pull beans, and you just had to go without.  My grandpa however was the type of guy who wanted to eat after 6 hours, as was within the guidelines of their agreement with the railroad.  Road guys also didn’t really have a 20 minute limit – they were given a “sufficient amount of time would be allowed for the purpose of eating.”

the Illinois Central 2500

the Illinois Central 2500

One day, when his train (the 2500, see above) was nearing Gilman, IL the dispatcher denied Grandpa’s request to stop and eat.  The dispatcher controlled all the power switches and at the time, Grandpa’s train was waiting for a thru signal as a passenger train went past.  When it was his time to go, Grandpa pulled only the power of the train onto the main track instead of the entire train as the signal required so he could ask again, and once again the dispatcher denied his request to eat.  For the following hour, the dispatcher gave the train a signal to pull forward, but it didn’t move, as Grandpa had walked down to a local diner and ate his lunch.  (I’m sure pie was included.)

Needless to say, the angry dispatcher called in a trainmaster, and pulled my Grandpa and his train out of service until they completed an investigation.  At the time, this was the most talked about and controversial investigation ever conducted on the Illinois Central line.

Grandpa set a precedent for labor rights on the railroad.  The IC line ruled in his favor and was reinstated and even given all his pay for the time he was off the line.  The “meal issue” was all because of him, and quickly his nickname went from just Jack to Lunch Counter Jack.   His story quickly spread the entire IC line, from Chicago to New Orleans.

As a kid, Grandpa had shot off his thumb in a hunting accident.  The hand signal for “going to beans” is a thumbs up signal.  After the whole Gillman incident, when a flagman would come on the train to signal to the crew that the train could stop for a break, they typically wouldn’t raise their thumb, as a jab to my grandpa not having a thumb.  This, of course, was an amazing source of amusement to my grandpa.  This fit perfectly with his sense of humor, and I’m sure the flagmen were well aware.

Lunch Counter Jack was my mother’s father.  My dad’s side of the family is filled with missionaries who came to the US before the Revolutionary War, and worked strongly for the causes of civil rights (and still do)… So to a few friends who make fun of me for being a bit of an activist – I can’t help it.  It’s literally in my heritage.

Happy Labor Day