At the height of the Great Depression, fifteen-year-old Frank leaves his Indiana home to try to survive on his own; by Scott McDonald.
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Frank and Noble are sitting outside near a huge pile of used bricks. They have gathered their own smaller pile, and are knocking off the old mortar, one brick at a time. Frank is tapping away with a small hammer, and is much slower than his father, who uses a shovel. The cold breeze bothers Frank, but he is determined to be productive. A half-dozen other ragged men are working. Noble’s pile of cleaned bricks grows slower than the other men’s, but with Frank helping he hopes to make at least a dollar. Frank has learned not to rush, after breaking too many bricks at first. He stands up to stretch as an excited young man rushes up with news.
“Hey, they hung that boy! Right over by the courthouse!”
The whole group gets up to go look. Noble quickly counts his pile of finished bricks and only then heads off with Frank in tow. Five blocks away there is a crowd, looking up at the body of a young man who has been beaten to death and then hoisted up to dangle from a tree branch in the little park-like square across from the Terre Haute sheriff’s office. The perpetrators of this act have left, and now townspeople are coming out to enjoy the sight. Some have brought their children. They point, teaching a solemn lesson. The ruined body is a symbol of dominance, of hierarchy. A tableau demonstrating immunity for those who enact swift justice.
Frank stares at the body, and then at the crowd. He begins to feel complicit. Everyday people, many dressed in business clothes. He wonders why he can’t feel the same satisfaction they all share. The event is a ritual that is still ongoing, and Frank doesn’t want to be part of the performance. Soon he is near tears. Noble is discomfited. “Well,” he tells Frank, “…let’s get on back.”
The mood is almost festive as they leave. Frank tries to get over his embarrassment on the walk back to the construction site. The rest of the day he is more quiet than usual.
For weeks, Noble has been mentioning that fifteen is old enough for a boy to be on his own. One day he speaks of a rumor that there is work for able-bodied teenagers in a nearby town, and Frank gets the hint. He tells his father that he plans to leave the next day.
“Tell your Mom it’s your idea, I tried to talk you out of it,” says Noble. “That’ll be easier on her.”
Frank’s parents insist that he memorize their general delivery address, and must promise to keep in touch. His mother is sick and should be in a sanatorium, but they don’t have the money. She is trembling, barely able to speak, when the goodbyes are said. Frank takes a spare shirt, a thin jacket, and a sandwich. His little sister gives him a hug. Noble gives him a dollar and a quarter, then realizes he should be giving Frank some pearls of wisdom.
“Don’t say ‘thank you’ to a darky, like yesterday. At least, not in front of people.”
“Why not? What if he does something, does something for me?”
“It’s just… it puts him in a awkward… well, it makes him uncomfortable, that’s why. It seems polite, but it’s really not.”
“I don’t get it.”
Noble struggles to put it into words.
“They don’t get treated fair. You know that. What I’m sayin’… don’t make it harder on the poor guy, other people get all mad at him.”
“What should I say?”
“Just say, that’s right, or just say okay.”
Noble stiffly hugs Frank.
“Stick a dime and a nickel in your back pocket, case you lose your spending money somehow.” For a moment, Noble tries, but he can think of no other advice.
“I hope things go good for you. Come on back if you have to. We’ll stay here with Earlene and Herb ’til they fix this economy.”
Frank begins life on his own. It is May and the weather is comfortable. He sleeps in the woods the first night. The next day he is lucky with his thumb, and makes it to the next town. Frank sees three men rush a garbage can behind a restaurant after a busboy empties a load of breakfast scraps. He decides to knock on back doors, asking for work or handouts. The first house he chooses has nothing to give. Nor the second. He spends the day methodically hitting entire neighborhoods, once in a while getting a heel of bread or a nickel. In the evening he sneaks a peek into a side window. He sees a man in a living room chair, reading a newspaper. Two kids are lying on the floor playing with toys. Frank can see a woman in the kitchen. For a long moment Frank gazes, and suddenly he is flooded with shame. He turns and walks away, his eyes burning.
Frank shyly asks some older kids for advice about hoboing. They are civil to him until they knock him down and rob him. A kind policeman notices Frank and lets him spend the night in a comfortable jail cell. He gives Frank a Nehi and asks for his story. Frank makes up a name, and says he is on his way home to Iowa. The next night Frank discovers a hobo jungle near the train tracks, but he is scared to approach the rough-looking men. He sleeps in the woods and is bothered by insects.
The next morning Frank is given a sandwich and a big glass of milk after cleaning out a garden. In the afternoon he cautiously approaches a squad of road kids his own age. This group is friendly. They invite Frank to join them. Separately, they hit neighborhoods, streets, and businesses. In the evening, they assemble at the jungle and take stock. They have two potatoes and an onion, a baloney butt turning green, some bacon ends, and fifty-one cents. One of the kids carries a bindle with a small cast iron skillet. They start a fire and cook up a meal, but it’s not much for five kids. They buy a couple of five-cent meals at a beanery, a crude diner in the jungle with kidney beans bubbling in an old oil can over a wood fire.
They stick together for two months, riding trains from town to town. Two of them are wearing shoes with flappy soles, tied in place with string and stuffed with newspaper. One of the group is a sixteen-year-old girl, dressed like a boy. She says she has learned never to travel alone, only with at least three other kids that she can trust. Frank makes friends with Dennis, a small fourteen year-old. Dennis loves anything to do with cowboys and westerns. He’s on the hunt for a cowboy hat.
Eventually the group splits up when they can’t all agree on which direction to go. Frank and Dennis head out, riding on the rods underneath a freight car. They travel for hours, straight through one town and yet another, barely slowing. They have unknowingly hopped an express, a long-distance train. Stiffening fingers, cramping legs. Cinders and ballast rocks fly up and hit their faces. Their perch is not secure, if they fall asleep they will fall under the wheels and be killed. On a sudden stretch of rough track both are nearly bucked off. Still the train rolls. It grows dark and bitter cold. Frank is exhausted and keeps nodding. Dennis keeps him awake by alternately making him sing and asking him questions. It begins to snow. By the end of the ride, Dennis is slapping Frank, hard. When the train finally stops Frank sobs with relief and pain.
“I’m for heading south, partner,” Dennis says. Frank is too cold to answer.
Over the course of the next few days, their friendship deepens, and they promise to stick together no matter what. A week later they arrive hungry and dirty at a transient camp in Tucson, Arizona. It is almost like a real home. They have clean bunks in a tent with a wood floor. After two weeks probation they are moved into a simple bunkhouse and issued new work clothes. Dennis chokes up, holding the shoes in astonishment. Frank realizes that this is the first time Dennis has owned a brand-new pair of shoes, or “boughten shoes” as Dennis calls them. They have easy busy-work jobs, and are paid seventy five cents every two weeks. The food is boring but filling. There are men who have been here for a year, and are planning to stay until prosperity comes out from behind that corner.
For a while, they are content. They share stories. Dennis is from a small farm in Missouri. His mother died three years ago, and he doesn’t care if he ever sees his father again.
“The grasshoppers made him crazy, ” says Dennis. “He’s a mean son of a bitch anyway. One day they was bugs all over the fields, all over the ground, I mean everywhere. He picked up a board and started hitting the cow. He smashed up the front of the house…”
“He hit the cow?”
“He beat the hell out of her. Then he come at me and he woulda killed me. I lit out and I ain’t never going back there. What about you? You said Indiana?”
“Well, I’m from Baltimore really. My dad had a job when I was growing up, then he lost it. Then he had a bad job. Then he lost that job, and we went to Indiana and doubled up with my mom’s sister. My dad cleans out restaurant grease collectors and does any kind a odd jobs he can find. I decided to move out on my own. Tired a sleeping on the floor in the living room.”
There are donated books in the bunkhouse, and a beat-up radio. Dennis loves the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy radio show, and The Park Avenue Penners. He likes to say, “You naaasty man,” and, “Don’t ever dooo that!” Frank prefers the Jell-O Program starring Jack Benny. They play cards, and look through magazines for the cartoons. They slowly get restless as the memories of discomfort and hunger fade with the passing of time. When spring comes, Dennis begins asking other residents for advice about tramping.
“What are you doing?” Frank asks him in private.
“Just making conversation.”
But Frank is catching the fever too. One night they ask their bunkmates for stories about living on the stem. What mistakes to avoid, what’s the best way to score handouts. This turns into a lively discussion of the signs that hobos draw outside houses, a secret code that can tip off someone looking for work or food. Laughing, the men disagree what various signs mean. The only consensus is that certain signs are bad, a couple of signs are good, and one in particular means that if you act religious you’ll get a handout. A slumped-shouldered man named Bryson gives them advice about harvest work.
“I was a fruit tramp in the summer, and went down in the mine in the winter,” he says. “Got to where my legs guv out, or I’d still be at it. Peaches pays the best, but it’s only two or three days. You gotta be right there when they ripe.”
Others offer their advice. Start south, in Arizona or Southern California, follow the harvest work as it moves north, maybe end up picking blueberries and blackberries in Washington state. No, by September go back south again, do the second crop. Screw Oregon and Washington, the cops are awful and the growers cheat you.
“I don’t know if I like this picking crops idea,” says Frank that night in the bunkhouse.
“I’ll never get my cowboy hat ‘less we get some kind a real work.”
“Well, let’s try it I guess, but let’s… let’s be smart. We know a lot of ways to mess up on the road. I wanta be smart.”
“No more mission flops,” says Dennis. “I hate lice. And too many sick people.”
“You know what else? How do you know where a train’s going? We just been jumping on anything. We Take Care of Our Own
Before they take off, Bryson tells Dennis he should carry a letter from his father, to convince the police that he has permission to travel the country and is not a runaway. This is because Dennis looks about twelve years old.
“Trouble is, my dad can’t read nor write,” says Dennis.
So Bryson writes a single-page permission letter, and signs it as Mr. Cantrell. When he shows it to Dennis it’s obvious that he can’t read it.
“I know my letters real good,” Dennis says defensively. “And some of the words.”
Two weeks later they are riding on top of a boxcar with a bag of oranges and a jug of water. The train winds through a western landscape. They enjoy the fresh smell of the earth, the orchards and pastures. The farms, like faces, are similar but not identical. The steady click of the rails. The ding ding ding as they pass street crossings in small towns, waving at kids on bikes. Dennis tosses a couple oranges to a girl who catches one of them and grins excitedly. From the catwalk, Frank looks up at scattered clouds in a perfect sky and feels simple and free. Suddenly he thinks, “I should try to remember this all my life.”
They absorb lessons as they sit around campfires with men who have been on the road forever. How to get on a moving boxcar the right way, so if you fall you don’t drop under the wheels. How to avoid railroad bulls by jumping off early. In town, pick up and carry something, anything, so you look like a local citizen and not a transient.
They stand in breadlines for hours. One day they eat a decent lunch, and an hour later are offered another meal. Without hesitation they eat this one right on top of full stomachs. This is followed by a day and a half of nothing at all to eat. Finally, at a ramshackle farmhouse they work for a couple hours and are given a jug half full of blinky milk, a small pan of cornbread, and a slug of molasses that is full of tiny ants.
“Now we’re Jake!” laughs Dennis, slapping his hands together.
Nearing a small town they see a billboard. “Okie keep moving. We take care of our own. Signed, Chamber of Commerce.”
One day in a ditch camp, Dennis is talked into a peeing distance contest, trying to win the other guy’s cowboy hat. Dennis loses and it costs him his good work shirt.
“I thought I could out-pee anybody,” he grumbles.
“I think you’re more browned off about being peed to shame than about your shirt,” laughs Frank.
The next morning is their first try at harvesting. They pick oranges, standing on wobbly ladders and filling up canvas bags slung over their shoulders. That night Frank is stiff. His feet hurt. His hands hurt. His back, his shoulders.
“Shit. How these scrawny Mexicans work so fast?”
“Maybe it’ll be easier tomorrow. Our muscles get use to it.”
But at lunchtime the next day they both agree that oranges are just too hard. They don’t get paid, because they quit. A week later they try strawberries. This is stoop work, brutal and hot. They are too slow to make much money. After six days they draw their pay and decide to go back to the old game of finding handouts and occasional odd jobs.
Frank has noticed that a guy who can give haircuts can sometimes make five or ten cents in a jungle, enough to buy a meal of beans or mulligan. He splurges on a cheap pair of scissors in town, and Dennis lets Frank practice on him.
“How’s it look? Pretty good?”
Frank lies. “Yeah, just looks like a normal haircut. I tell you what though, maybe I won’t do any more for a while. My fingers are real sore from those strawberries.”
Weeks turn to months. It is a constant struggle to wash off the soot and grit. They see people maimed, some killed. Boxcar doors that slide closed when a train jerks. Freight shifting when a train brakes. Low tunnels. People fall off, especially in rain or snow. Railroad bulls, some of them sadistic killers.
Frank comes to understand that Dennis is uncomfortable around black people. Sometimes antagonistic but more often just awkward, as if he feels threatened. At first Frank thinks this is a little funny but eventually they miss out on an opportunity to eat because of Dennis’ inconvenient reluctance to even talk to people, and Frank is mad. When he tells Dennis to get over this senseless hostility he is shocked by the reaction. Dennis explodes and Frank realizes that wherever this craziness came from, it is part of Dennis, right down to the bone.
A hobo jungle is attacked by the American Legion, wearing blue hats and carrying thick clubs. They beat people unconscious, steal everything of any value or usefulness, and shoot holes in everything else.
Whole families are on the road, some with babies, one family traveling with a milk goat. Women make crepe paper flowers to sell on street corners. More than one family has lost a child to typhoid. One evening a father smiles at Frank and asks, “Remember me? I was at Camp Marks in the tent next to you and your dad!”
Sitting in open boxcar doors, they travel for hours through vast stretches of desolation with no human activity, abandoned farm buildings half covered in fine dust.
On a Colorado prairie, a train stops in the middle of a moonless night. A herd of mustangs passes across the tracks, refulgent in the headlight beam. The steam engine breathing heavily in the dark.
They stumble into a job in a Kansas City restaurant, washing dishes for eleven dollars a week plus a bed in the kitchen and free breakfast. Each works half of the twelve-hour day. They feel grown up, staying in one place for almost four months. Dennis goes to Gene Autry movies. Frank spends hours in the library. He gets in touch with his family. Noble has finally received his Great War bonus money, only two hundred dollars after paying back what he borrowed against it. Most of it is going to doctor bills.
Without warning, their pay is cut. Three weeks later they don’t get paid, and the next day the restaurant closes.
With decent clothes and an eighteen dollar bankroll, they are ready for adventure. They buy a cardboard suitcase and strike out for New York City, trying to stay clean by hitchhiking and avoiding trains. They are very lucky, this trip goes smoothly. The roads are full of worn out cars limping west to the promised land. Going east, there is less competition for rides.
They catch a ride with a farmer who begs them to help with his harvest, for ten cents an hour. No dice, they have heard too many stories of farmers cheating itinerant workers. It takes three days to get out of Ohio, but then a couple in a battered Chevrolet make a deal. The boys split the gas and they have a ride all the way to Philadelphia, crammed in the back seat with a farting dog. The next day they catch a ride to New Jersey and walk across a bridge to the big city.
They sleep in Battery Park, and the next day they take in the sights. Tilt their heads up and marvel at the impossibly tall buildings. The New York Public Library. Delicious hot dogs for five cents. A baseball game. Outside a Mulberry street pool room they crack up at men with trousers pulled several inches above their belly buttons.
The second night, as they bed down in a quiet corner of the park, Dennis gets philosophical.
“You ever wonder what you’ll end up doing? I mean like when you’re old, when you’re twenty-five or so?”
“I never thought about it,” says Frank. He is quiet for a couple minutes. “I like just traveling around.”
“But what kind of job would you like? What would be worth staying in one place, for permanent?”
Frank thinks about it. “It would have to pay pretty good. Enough to have a room of your own. Not a lousy cot in a cold restaurant. Enough money to eat all you want, and a little left over. ” He shakes his head. “Otherwise it’s not worth being someone’s slave, just so he can get rich.”
“Yeah,” says Dennis. “And I tell you what. I ain’t never gonna be a farmer.”
Frank stays awake for a long time, wondering if hard times are forever. Maybe jobs worth having are never coming back.
Back on the road, riding trains again. The Hudson River Valley. Vermont. Following the Ohio River through the hazy Appalachians. Coming into Illinois from Kentucky, on a long curve, they can see the entire train from their gondola. Dozens of men are perched on the cars like locusts.
A bunch of hobos are discussing the world around a campfire.
“Green houses are the best for handouts,” says a weaselly guy in a shirt five sizes too big. “Way better than white ones. White ones are the worst.”
The oldest man, considered the wisest, looks amused.
“How you figure?”
“Yeah,” says Frank. “I mean, come on!” He looks at the wise man and shakes his head.
Weasel senses that he is being mocked.
“You don’t hafta believe me. Go ahead, try all the white houses in the world. I don’t care.” He gets up and walks stiffly to the woods to relieve himself.
“Funny what some people believe,” says Dennis.
“Yeah,” says the wise one. He stands up and raises his arms, stretching luxuriously. “Everyone knows yellow houses are the best.”
Twenty months have passed, living day to day. They have been back and forth across the country several times, south and north. They know most of the railroad lines and their nicknames. They have learned how to size people up quickly. The difference between needs and wants. Patience and compassion, tempered with caution.
The Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River. Looking down between cars rolling over a high bridge, Dennis happily shouts, “This must be what it looks like from a airplane!”
Descending the Raton Pass at night, the glow from the firebox and long showers of sparks from the brakes illuminating their faces.
They have learned to distance themselves from the drunks, men who get wasted on squeeze or dehorn. In a slow rolling train one morning before sunrise, a foul-smelling man with three teeth had grabbed Dennis, choking him and pulling down his pants. Frank fought to stop the attack but the man was too strong. Dennis stopped struggling and began to lose consciousness. The only other occupant of the boxcar, a stocky teenager, pulled a small cast iron skillet from his blanket and calmly delivered a hard blow to the drunk’s knee. The man howled and rolled over, clutching his bent leg, and the boy carefully wound up and hit him in the temple. Frank helped Dennis wake up and start to breathe as the boy sat down and used his feet to scoot the dazed predator a little at a time to the door. He opened it part way and pushed the man out onto the tracks.
Frank and Dennis decide to join Roosevelt’s tree army, the CCC. The government provides food and lodging and pays thirty dollars a month, twenty-five of which they send to your family back home. Five dollars a month is pretty decent, considering you have no expenses. The very first day, Dennis is chewed out for not knowing to separate his silverware from his plates when turning in his dinner tray. He looks at his accuser for a few seconds, and then strides out of camp. Frank shrugs and follows him. No CCC after all.
Standing on the side of the road near a stop sign, Dennis cusses at a driver who stopped, then took off just before they could get in.
“People are rotten, you know that?”
“Aw, people are mostly pretty good one at a time.” Frank puts a finger on the side of his nose and blows a snot onto the ground. “It’s groups. In a group people will go along with anything.” He thinks a moment and frowns. “They’ll do… bad things.”
A sign outside a movie theater: “Niggers and Okies upstairs.”
In the fall, they are in Seattle. Dennis announces a new plan.
“The Navy! No marching. Float around on a boat, see the world. And good money.”
“How old are you?” asks Frank.
Frank has an idea. He writes Dennis’s aunt in Kansas City, asking for any kind of identification to help Dennis find employment.
“We’ll stick around here for three weeks. Check the post office every day starting next Monday.”
“I think I found us a steady meal,” says Dennis matter-of-factly.
A little after midnight, lurking behind some bushes, they watch a bakery truck driver dump garbage cans into an open container behind a grocery store.
“That’s two day old bread and donuts and stuff,” Dennis says. “I was out here taking a leak and looking around last night. About six-thirty some guy comes and hauls it off. I bet it’s hog food.”
“I don’t know about this…”
It turns out that there are a lot of perfectly edible pastries and always at least one decent loaf of bread. They steal a jar of strawberry jam and live on sandwiches and old donuts for the next week and a half.
To their astonishment, Dennis’s baptismal records show up in the mail, general delivery. Frank changes the year of birth and now Dennis is eighteen years old. The next problem is passing the physical.
The Navy doctor says Dennis is malnourished, and he’s five pounds underweight anyway. The Marines won’t even look at them.
“Good thing we’re eating dessert four times a day,” says Dennis.
The Army has a lower minimum weight. Dennis eats lots of bananas for several days and gains a couple pounds. They get lucky, the recruiter has two slots for the Air Corps and the doctor is feeling generous. They are in.
Outside the recruiting station, Frank yells, “You know what this means? Easy street!”
“Yeah,” Dennis laughs, doing a little time-step. “It’s almost the forties, Jackson. The forties are gonna be tops!”