Chapter XII: Riding Boxcars

The city was a long way off. I kept my head down on the way, "sniping butts," that is, searching for decent-sized cigarette butts. It was midday. My stomach was growling loudly. I saw a ship in the harbor. I was sure that a friendly word and a messman would be on board. A lock on the messroom door and a note reading, "Strangers: Stay Out!" proved me wrong. Tough luck. But maybe a job was available. The first assistant engineer's room door was slightly ajar. I could see his desk. On it, among some papers, was a pack of cigarettes and a dollar bill. I knocked on the door; no answer. I had an impulse to walk in and adopt that dollar. But thoughts of a lifetime on the chain gang rose before me. I walked away.

Down in the engine room I located the engineer, who was repairing a pump. He looked at me as if I were out of my mind when I asked if there were any jobs in the engine room. "How the hell did you get aboard my ship? Git your ass up that ladder and git ashore, quick-like, or I'll call the cops." Then he mumbled something about how easy it was for any bum to get aboard his ship.

The bastard, I said to myself. When I reached the top deck, I glanced back at him. He had returned to fixing his pump. My stomach was still growling, the messroom was still locked and my imagined friendly word and warm meal in reality were a disaster. I had to pass the engineer's office again on my way to the dock. This time I turned my head just once, all around, fast. Not a soul in sight. Pushing open the door, I grabbed the dollar and cigarettes. In a trice, I was down that gangway. On the way off the pier, my heart was pounding like a jackhammer. I quickened my pace.

When I had gone five blocks from the ship I found a restaurant. I was so excited I forgot how famished I was and ordered only a piece of pie and a cup of coffee. That reduced my dollar bill to change. Now let someone prove I had taken it. There would be just loose change on me, while the engineer would be swearing that a bill was missing. I faced the window as I ate, watching for the Law. Across the street, a signpost sported two arrows: "Waycross, Georgia," that way; "Tampa," this way. Heaven only knows why I selected the arrow pointing to Waycross. My original intention was to get to Tampa or St. Petersburg. Besides, Waycross was a lousy way to start me toward my real, if still subconscious goal: the wild and woolly West. Nevertheless, there I was out on the highway, making rapidly for the Georgia state line. I felt secure in the knowledge that 85 cents were hidden in various places all over my body (in case I was held up).

I've often wondered why, when the going is tough and people have no warm clothes, the weather will invariably get freakishly cold. That's how I marched into Georgia; nights were near freezing and mornings confronted me with frost an inch thick. Georgia made its first impression on me with the many chain gangs I passed along its roads. The uniforms were black and white; their tools were picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. I kept my head down when I passed them, trying to act as if I were the boy from just down the road. I avoided their eyes; I didn't want to see their sorrow and pain.

I arrived in Waycross on a Sunday. Dirty and shabby though I was, everybody I passed gave a friendly greeting, a practice that impressed me. "Good afternoon," each would say with a dip of the head. I hoped the people would be as generous as they were polite, but no such luck. I knocked on at least six back doors for something to eat before someone handed me a jelly sandwich. Things were obviously rough in Waycross, too. As darkness approached, I knew that the only safe place in town had to be the jail.

The sheriff showed me an empty cell and bid me goodnight. It was warm. They furnished two blankets. Before the night was over, several more guys moved in to occupy some of the empty bunks. The sheriff could only have been delighted that we had come to his jail. He wouldn't have to go looking for us now. If we were snugly inside the jail, we couldn't commit any crimes. We were protected, he was protected. All we hoped was that he wouldn't double-cross us by holding us for vagrancy the next day.

That night, as I reflected on the past week, I made up my mind that footing my way through the United States was not for me. No sir; from now on I was going to use the great American railways. Hell, didn't my own people, the shanty Irish, help lay the tracks across the country? The least I could do was see how they were being used.

A mile outside Waycross, I and a handful of others heading west waited. A freight train rumbled slowly toward us, its stack belching black smoke as the fireman worked up a full head of steam. We scrambled aboard any open car we could catch. The train started picking up speed. Then two long toots of the engine whistle let us know the train was going to "highball"run wide open. There's a lot to be said about traveling in a boxcar, especially an empty one. You can get up and walk around or even trot. You can sing, holler and shout. You disturb no one, if you're alone. Through the wide open door you can watch the countryside go by; you can smell the country air mingled with the odor of sulfur, as the fireman piles more soft coal onto the fire. When it rains, there's a roof over your head. When the wind howls, you can always close the door a wee bit more to keep out the gusts and the cold.

For a novice, danger lurks in and around freight trains. They exact a heavy toll in injuries and deaths. Fortunate indeed is the man who can ride with a few old timers. Three such veterans were in the car with me. I spread out in the back of the car. Then I lay down with my head against the bulkhead. One of the more experienced travelers promptly chided me for being so amateurish. "Why, you can get your brains bashed out, lying like that!" he said. "Suppose the train comes to a sudden stop? Or humps some cars in the middle of the night? Your head would be bashing up against these walls like a yo-yo. Always lie sideways in the car. Then the most that can happen to you is you roll a bit." He went back and sat down with the other two. I heard one comment quietly, "It's hard to teach these young kids anything nowadays. They think they know everything."

And the train rumbled through the night, racing toward Tallahassee and the Gulf of Mexico. I was amazed at how much there was to learn. My three boxcar buddies never missed an opportunity to give me a critical blast about my ignorance of life on the road. Once all I did was stand and peer out the door at the passing countryside. "Do you want your head chopped off?" came the sharp reprimand. "You got the door open a foot. You got yer head stickin' out. Suppose the engineer braked in an emergency? This door would chop your neck in two like one of them French . . . er, whatchamacallits."

"A guillotine," volunteered one of his sidekicks.

"Yeah, that's it. A guillintine. Yer head would go bouncin' along the tracks. Now, the trick is to shove a wedge in the door so it can't slide. Otherwise keep yer head inside the car. Does that make sense?"

I nodded sheepishly. The boxcar sage continued. "Aside from the danger of gettin' yer head lopped off, you could get kicked off the train." He let that one sink in for a moment, then elaborated. "When the train is going around a curve, and you're standin' there with yer head out the door sniffin' at the scenery, the brakeman can see you from his caboose. Yeah. First time the train makes a water stop, he'll be back here and drive you off. If you're ridin' through town, could be the station master sees you, and he'd telegraph ahead for some railroad bull to meet you. So watch yerself when you stand at an open door."

Again the other guy commented, "Can't do a thing with these young kids nowadays. They think they know everything."

Contrary to some beliefs, a train is not in constant motion. A lot of time is spent for refueling, water stops or rumbling onto a side track to let a crack passenger train or fruit manifest pass. In most cases the stops are only a matter of minutes. But there are also times when the train can be sidetracked for as long as an hour or more. Then you have a right to worry. You have no idea what the problem is, and you can't help wondering if the entire train will be searched and everyone get kicked off. You huddle in your car, holding your breath every time someone walks past.

My traveler champs were right on their toes when our train pulled to a stop in the middle of nowhere. We were on a slight curve, and the caboose was visible. Three brakemen climbed down and started the long walk toward the engine, some hundred cars ahead. Quickly, one of the older men with me found a piece of wood in the car. Using it as a wedge, he opened the door about six inches; then he rammed the wedge against the door so it could be neither opened nor closed. "We can't afford to be locked in," he explained. "The only way to lock us in now would be with a crowbar. Most brakemen won't do any more work than they have to. If the door is too hard to close, they won't mess with it."

"But what if they look in and see us?" I wondered.

"How can they? Can't you see I set the door so they can't open or close it, let alone put their heads in? That's the point. Get it now?"

I nodded. Then I waited for the other old geezer to repeat how smart-assed the kids were nowadays and how no one could teach them anything. But this time he skipped it. We all moved to a far corner of the car and sat there in silence. We could hear the brakemen's footsteps as they approached. The door of the car next to ours was open. They stopped and closed it. Now they reached our car. "Another one," grunted one brakeman. "They should make it a law not to hitch onto any car unless it's shut tight and locked." They yanked the handle, trying to pull the door closed. Failing that, they tried to open it. Finally one grumbled, "Aw, screw it! Leave the sonofabitch the way it is. It's not going anywhere. Let's get up to the engine and see what's going on." We heaved a sigh of relief. My admiration for the wisdom of these older men rose considerably.

We had crossed into Florida and had long passed Tallahassee when two of the old timers waited for the train to slow down on a hill. They said goodbye and jumped. Landing on their feet, they waved us out of sight. "There go a couple of bean farmers making for home in Calhoun County," the remaining veteran told me. "I'll be getting off another 75 miles from here. That's the shortest way to Andalusia. Ever in Andalusia?"

"No. Never even heard of it. Where is it?"

"It's in Alabama. I have a daughter there. She and her husband run a small farm. Pigs and peanuts. Or peanuts and pigs. I'll let them put me up for a couple of weeks. Don't know where I'll go after that. Every place seems the same. Can't even offer your services to anyone for room and board anymore. Anyway, you stay right on here. Mobile is a division point. The train will stop there, probably change engines and crews. If the train slows down before you get into the yard, get off. Otherwise, watch those railroad dicks; they're bad medicine." About two hours later he shook me out of a nap. "This is where I get off, kiddo," he announced. "Close the door when I leave, and take care of yourself, son," he said as he eased himself out of the car to the ground.

I was alone--and I didn't like it. The train rumbled on at a slow pace. I narrowed the opening of the door the way my departed buddies had shown me, ramming home the wedge. The world around me was settling down for the evening. Stars began appearing, and with them lights in many farmhouse windows. Hunger, the shaking of the car and the monotonous clippity-clap of the wheels on the tracks soon put me to sleep. I woke up early the next morning to dead silence and a chill that had gotten to my bones. I opened the door onto a deserted roadway. A sign read "Pensacola One Mile."

I had no idea of how or whether we were sidetracked. One thing I did know: I was starving to death. Mobile or no Mobile, food was the most important item on my list at the moment. I rolled back the door, jumped out and moved onto the highway. About half a mile down the road I came to a small farmhouse. I saw two cows and a horse. A back window showed a light. Before I reached the door, a dog spotted me. Barking and yelping, he came charging at me, stirring up such a fuss that the woman who emerged from the kitchen door had to throw a stick at him to quiet him. I stood motionless until she asked what I wanted. "Something to eat, ma'am. I'll gladly work for it."

"We're poor people, too, mister. This is the first house that everyone comes to, either from the trains or from the road. Twenty times a day someone asks for food. Sometimes I wish we never moved so close to the tracks; so much misery to see! But I'll give you what I can." She went into the house and returned with two slices of bread and a strip of well-done sow belly. The dog sidled up, wagging its tail, bumming me for part of my breakfast. The woman chased him away.

"Do you want me to do some work?" I asked.

"No, I can handle what little there is. You go on now, with God's blessing and a Merry Christmas." I thanked her and left, having made short shrift of the bread and the sow belly. That had been just enough food to work up a really good appetite. I kept moving. Suddenly it struck me: she had said Christmas! It was Christmas Day! Well, Christmas had never had any special meaning for me, anyway. So why get excited about it now? All it did was remind me of roast turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries and pie. Hell with it! I'd settle for a few more slices of bread and more of the fried pig belly.

I ambled down Pensacola's main drag. Christmas decorations hung between telephone and light poles. Few cars and even fewer people were out. It was still early. The sun was beginning to warm the day. For the first time that morning I felt comfortable. But one thought still dominated me: food. With each restaurant that I passed, I tried to decide whether to bum it for something to eat. Finally an eatery captured my attention. In the window stood a big picture of Santa Claus with a wide grin on his white, whiskered face. On his back hung a huge sack. Sticking out of the sack was a card with the restaurant owner's picture on it. The message read: "It is the season to be merry, yet let us remember those without." A religious nut, I figured. Well, I was one of "those without." I went inside to test the owner. He sat at the cash box a few feet from the door. I sucked in a lungful of air and moved right up to him.

"I'm hungry, without work or funds. I'm willing to work for something to eat." I said it quietly, so as not to put him on the spot if anyone overheard us.

He smiled. "Today is Christmas. All the merchants have chipped in to provide anyone who needs it with a warm Christmas meal. The sheriff asked us to inform any such person that he may have it at his office in back of the courthouse. It's only two blocks straight down that way, then half a block to your left. See? Tell him Ronnie, from Ronnie's Cafe, sent you."

What he said made sense. First of all, it guaranteed that drifters and down-and-outers would get a good meal without bothering restaurant owners or local people. Then it would give local merchants a good name for their kindness, while making it easier for the local police to know where all the out-of-towners were. At the sheriff's office, the sheriff and his two deputies sat around a desk, laughing their heads off about something or other. "Mr. Ronnie, of Ronnie's Cafe, sent me here for your Christmas special," I interrupted.

"All right, Bert. Here's another one for our Christmas special. Take him on down."

"Follow me," the deputy instructed. A door led to a corridor; another door led into a large room with four small cells and a larger holding cell. Behind the cell door, there were 15 men already locked in.

"Hey, man!" one of them shouted at the deputy. "When we all gonna eat?"

"Soon. Pretty soon, now," the deputy assured him as he unlocked the cell door. He asked me to step inside, then locked the door behind me. "Pretty soon," he repeated, grinning. And off he went.

An uneasy feeling arose in my stomach. I was mad at myself for being such a hog; I should have made do with the sow belly and bread. No, no; I must be crazy. Surely they would feed us. Didn't the restaurant owner say that all the merchants had taken up a collection to treat us? Hell, these guys are just impatient. I bet the food is being cooked up for us now.

Two hours went by amidst the grumbling of the men who shared my cell. A rattle of a key in the outer door, at last! We're going to eat. All eyes were on the door. It opened. The deputy led two more men into our cell. "Damn it, man!" shouted one of my cell mates. "When do we eat? I've been here four hours now. I'm hungry, man! Hungry!"

The deputy smiled. "Pretty soon," he soothed. "Pretty soon." Another two hours passed. No one spoke anymore. Some stretched out and went to sleep. We were aroused from our torpor by a loud cursing in the outer corridor. The door opened. Two deputies dragged a young man into the cell block, pushing him in among us.

"You better let me out of here, right now! Y'all here me?" he cried.

"You stay right there now and get some sleep," was the deputy's reply.

"You just wait till mah dad hears what you done! He'll put some spurs in your ass, y'all hear me?"

"Your dad ain't gonna do nothin' of the kind," replied the deputy, a big smile creasing his face.

"You're a liar and a mother," shot back the youngster, grabbing the bars and trying to shake them.

"Now watch your mouth, Clem," warned the deputy, his smile disappearing. "No need to talk like you do. You're drunk and you have to stay here until that corn whiskey wears off. Why don't you be a good boy and lay down and sleep?" Believing he'd had the final word, the deputy moved toward the exit. But the guy who'd repeatedly asked about food took a step closer to the bars.

"Hey, deputy! Just when do we get that Christmas dinner that all the merchants paid for?" he demanded.

"Any time now," the deputy promised.

That brought the young drunk back to the bars. "Y'all ain't gonna get no Christmas dinner, no way!" he yelled.

"You shut your mouth, Clem," ordered the deputy, letting go his grip on the doorknob and turning toward Clem.

"You know you ain't gonna feed these here men `cuz you and those other mothers pocketed the money! Just wait till my dad hears about this!"

The deputy marched straight up to the bars. No trace of a smile hid his anger now. He stared directly at the youngster. "Listen here, Clem! You or your dad ain't gonna say nothin'! Now just shut up, you hear?"

"My dad is too gonna say a lot of things when I tell him what you're doin' to these poor men. Pocketing money that was collected for them . . ."

"You better hush up, Clem, 'cuz yer dad gave us permission to lay some leather on your ass if we ever bring you in here for being drunk. Now don't make me come in there and whip your ass!"

"Crook! You're a cheap, dirty crook, that's what you are!" half-sobbed the fellow. "Let me out of here!"

With a scowl the deputy said loudly, "If we're crooks, your daddy is the biggest crook of all." With that he slammed the cell door shut with a clang. At seven o'clock that night the sheriff and two deputies opened the cell and let us all out except the mayor's son, who was fast asleep. They led us out in front of the courthouse. "If y'all just march straight down this here street, you'll reach the outskirts of town in about five minutes. Don't stop to ask anyone questions; don't bother none of the merchants. And don't come back here. If any one of you are caught in town, I promise him six months building roads."

None of us could imagine how much money had been collected from the merchants, but it seemed clear to us that the mayor was part of the setup of rotten crooks. I found it hard to understand how a handful of supposedly respectable people could callously pocket the few dollars that would have meant so much to us poor hungry men that Christmas Day.

The sign stretched out across the street proclaimed, "Peace on earth; goodwill to all men." "Balls," I mumbled as I passed beneath it. I was headed for the next train west.


Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.

The Kid from Hoboken: Book One