Tales of Tehachap's Past: John Alexander
by Adam Bailey and Susan Palm
John Alexander (bottom left) with his father and siblings 18 months after his mother’s death.
A Tehachapi local and a man who has worn many different hats, John Alexander’s life has been filled with change. As the world transformed around him, John took on new roles and pushed himself to stay in step. John’s journey to Tehachapi may have been long, but it was never boring.
Born on July 30, 1938, John was the fourth of five children. With the passing of his mother in January of 1941 his father hired Anna, “a good Christian woman looking for a job” to raise the five children and run the house. Anna was 69 when she moved in. The Irish woman had experienced many changes in her own life. In 1872 her family followed a covered wagon from Ohio to Nebraska. At the turn of the century she graduated from nursing school, then went on to run a small hospital and an orphanage. Her experiences were the stories that John grew up on.
John led a Tom Sawyer like boyhood, spending his time playing outside, riding his bike, earning extra money setting up pins at the bowling alley and when the traveling circus came to town he would earn his ticket by helping set up the tents.
As a boy, John wasn’t interested in school, but that would change later in college. He joined the Navy right out of the 10th grade, receiving his GED three months before his class graduated. For John, the Navy built self-confidence. In fact he excelled in his new life as a service man. John’s commander even singled him out to tell him how well he had scored on all his tests. “I didn’t know how smart I was until I got into the Navy,” laughs John.
Leaving the Navy in 1959, John picked up whatever work he could find. He did odd jobs, worked in restaurants, was a cook at the Campbell’s Soup Company. He even worked on an assembly line making TV dinners for Swansons. “There were about 50 older women with scoops in their hand to shovel the food into the trays as they go by,” remembers John about Swansons, “and you’ve got one person magnificently in charge of everything and she’d reach down and goose that machine and it’d go faster and faster and faster. Once you got the speed up we really cranked ‘em out.”
John Alexander in the Navy.
During WWI by federal law the 57 railroads were combined and made into one company, the Railway Express Agency, which was the forerunner of companies like Federal Express and UPS. With the help of his uncle, John secured a job with the Railway Express Agency in Omaha, Nebraska. He quickly moved up to Railway Express Messenger. “Anything could be shipped by trains,” John explains, “wild critters and pets to gold and silver; especially things like black gunpowder that were considered safer on the rails.”
With a sister in Los Angeles and a brother in San Diego, John transferred to the West Coast. He attended college part time eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in business pre-legal from CSULA in 1972.
As a Railway Express Messenger, John’s job involved coordinating and transferring packages to other trains at the correct junctions along the route. He stayed with the shipments and guarded the loads with a 38 police special (with Wells Fargo stamped on it) that he was assigned to carry.
John remembers one time when they had to throw a man off the train, “I was just a 23 year old kid at the time and the conductor didn’t know who the heck I was,” said John, “He saw me on there and thought I was the guy and he was trying to put me off the train.” John says he looked at the conductor and shook his gun, the conductor, seeing the gun, realized that he was supposed to be there. When asked about carrying a gun at such a young age John replies, “ Hell, four years earlier in the Navy I was carrying a real gun!”
John was the youngest member of the Railway Express Messengers. Most were in their fifties or sixties and a couple were in their late eighties. “People had 40 or 50 years on a train,” John remembers, “One guy in LA was 93 when he retired.”
The Railway Express Agency went bankrupt and closed in 1976. “It’s all gone. No one knows my history,” John states simply, “I am the last of the Railway Express Messengers. The very last.”
John worked in real estate for a couple of years after leaving the railroad. He then moved to Tehachapi and opened Value Furniture Warehouse just a couple doors down from Kelcy’s Diner. After two or three years in the furniture business John switched directions once again and accepted a new role and a new challenge. He became a substitute teacher in Tehachapi and the surrounding area
In 1995 he began to work for the prison in Lancaster as a teacher. He then moved on to teaching at LA County Juvenile Hall for almost four years until he found an opportunity to be a Special Education teacher for the LA County school district, all the while commuting from Tehachapi. He worked in Special Ed for twelve years until he retired last summer.
With a smile John says, “Jack Palance said to do one thing and do it well. I learned that too late in life.” But how many people can step into as many roles as John has and do them all well?
John obviously inspired his children to also excel. One daughter, Katy, has a teaching certificate and specializes in Family Life. His other daughter Claudia received a degree from Berkeley in Special Education. Paul, his son, earned a degree from the University of Redland and is what John calls a “computer nerd” living in Riverside.
John met their mother, Hortensia – the love of his life –, in October of 1966. They married seven months later. “I met her in Agua Caliente and I’ve been in hot water ever since,” he jokes.
When asked what advise he would offer young couples today John turns serious, “The most important thing you can do is to pick a life mate. If you think before you act you will always do better.”
John Alexander pointing to the Railway Express Agency sign that still hangs at the Tehachapi Train Depot.