Gerry Kuncio was wrestling with unfitted cotton sheets on the third and uppermost berth in a classic sleeper railroad car that troops used during World War II.
"I can see I'd never make a Pullman porter. I can't make a bed right," said Kuncio, curator of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum.
He looked busier than a conductor punching tickets on the day before Thanksgiving as he completed preparations for an exhibit called "Every Railroader a Soldier: The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in World War II."
The exhibit opens today at the museum at Pratt and Poppleton streets in Southwest Baltimore.
"All of a sudden we remembered we needed sheets for the troop sleeper bunks. They came from the Johns Hopkins Hospital," he said.
His goal in this exhibition is to show how thousands of B&O workers toiled long and hard to help the military effort. "The railroad employees were really the soldiers on the line behind the line," he said.
"The problem with the sleepers was the way the bunks were set up. They ran across the width of the cars, not the same direction as the cars traveled. The men rolled all over the beds," Kuncio said.
The box-car-like design is utilitarian. The wheels mounted on heavy trucks provided a ride that was bumpy and bone-rattling. The troop carrier the museum has secured for this show could accommodate 30 soldiers, and has been repainted in Army green.
After the war, the carrier was used as a crew car for the Western Maryland Railway.
As he worked, Kuncio talked about the B&O and the war effort.
The B&O's role was critical, he said. German U-boat attacks and shortages of rubber and gasoline dictated that important war materiel such as petroleum and coal be moved almost exclusively by rail.
Baltimore, the nation's fourth busiest port, absorbed much of the increased traffic. New and re-tooled defense-related industries in the B&O's territory added to the demand for rail service, Kuncio said.
"Working long hours and making do with what was available, the men and women of the B&O were key to the home-front war effort. They kept the trains rolling, supported war bond drives and joined the fighting forces overseas," he said.
Some 19 days after Pearl Harbor, the B&O was called upon to transport valuable materials and records at the Library of Congress in Washington to Fort Knox, Ky.
The railroad often made top-secret movements during the war years without employees knowing anything about the contents of the box cars. The cargo was marked only with code numbers.
"I was hired in 1942 as a fireman," said Efton Bennett (Ben) Meredith, 77, a Linthicum resident who later became a railroad union official. "The railroad had just come out of the Depression and it worked hard to meet the demands of the war.
"There weren't many, maybe four, block signals along the Old Main Line between Relay and Frederick. It was a very crooked right of way. The locomotives were steam. You had to keep your eyes out all the time because there was probably a train ahead of you. The line never stopped being busy during the war.
l "I never had a wreck but I hit some cars at grade crossings," said Meredith, who was to speak at today's opening ceremonies.
Probably one of the most familiar sights at the time was a B&O engine pulling loaded coal hoppers. During the war years, some 4.7 million coal-car trips were logged by the B&O. The freights shuttled in and out of the Locust Point terminal near Fort McHenry in South Baltimore. Coal also moved through Curtis Bay and munitions through Hawkins Point.
Anyone whoever rode a train during the war years recalls how packed and jammed they were. Some Baltimore-Washington commuters claimed they rarely got a seat for the 38-mile run during much of the war. System-wide, the B&O tallied record numbers of passengers -- topping out at 14.3 million during 1944.
B&O statisticians came up with a figure of 12 million meals served aboard dining cars during the war years. No one recorded how much blue-and-white B&O china got broken.
The exhibition runs through September. During July, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's private railroad car, the Ferdinand Magellan, will be at the museum. Visitors will be able to board and tour this famous vehicle.
Needless to say, the Commander in Chief rode in more comfort than the troops.