Riding the Rails with Dad

By Jeffery Cohen

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time

Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;

Once I built a tower, now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

It was a song my father used to sing for me. He would begin by softly humming its melody. Then the words took form, as if he were writing them as he went along.

My father’s childhood was shaved away by that great depression. When he thought about the past, he would shake his head and stare off into space as if he could see it all right before his eyes. After the crash of ‘29, people who had lost everything saw no other way out but an open window to jump from. City blocks of the beaten down who once “had,” now lined up next to the “have nots” just to get a bowl of hot soup. Street corners were dotted with tattered souls trying to eke out a miserly living by selling apples to those who could still afford the luxury.

President Hoover’s campaign speeches promised “a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage.” My father would half-smile.

A chicken in every pot. No one had the pot, let alone the chicken to put it in! Pork chops were three pounds for a quarter, but who had the quarter?”

At sixteen and the oldest of five children, my father saw little hope and less opportunity in the small New Jersey town that he lived in. The best he could offer was one less mouth to feed. On a gray summer morning he found himself walking alongside a stretch of railroad tracks, a small bundle of clothes tucked under his arm. As a slow moving freight train lumbered by, he tossed his belongings in to an open boxcar and hoisted himself inside. He sat on the hay-lined floor and watched the rooftops of his hometown disappear in the distance. Now, he was a man of the road.

Riding the rails. On the bum. A hobo. It was a badge that he wore well. A title he was proud of. One that came with honor and experience. He would speak fondly of those early days when he met hundreds of kids just like himself, starving, not just for food, but for the adventure.

“There were days,” he would recall, “when there were so many of us latching on to a string of cars that we seemed like a flock of tiny birds, perched and ready to leave the nest.”

And it wasn’t just kids. Entire families huddled together in rail-cars with just what they had on their backs. Old men, tempered and tattered by lean times, taught him the ways of the road. Lessons like stuffing your clothes with newspaper to stave off the cold or stocking up on bread when you could because dried and stale, it lasted longer than most other foods would. Traveling from one hobo jungle to the next, he found fellow travelers, willing to share what little they had in spirit and sustenance, all striving to make do.

“Those were days when being poor was nothing to be ashamed of,” he would say proudly. “We never begged for a buck or pan handled. An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Can’t tell you how many times I knocked on a stranger’s door and asked if I could chop some wood or mend a fence for a meal. And I was always met with a smile and a welcome, the way neighbors do.”

My dad rode the rails from the east coast to the west. Young and cocky, he talked his way into a busboy job at the Cafe Trocodero, the jitterbug capital in West Hollywood. The movie stars still came out, even during the depression. Tips were good, and he figured he had a future, until the night he flirted with Jean Harlow and was given his walking papers.

For three years he traveled about the country. He picked fruit under a California sun, where he sweated side by side with Okies who had escaped the swirling winds of the dust bowl in the Midwest.  He picked cotton in the south and remembered it as the toughest job he’d ever had. After three days worth of work, he hadn’t made a dime, and owed his boss money for the rental of the bag he collected the cotton tufts in!

In a Chicago stockyard he met Harry, an old friend from New Jersey, and they partnered up for almost a year. On a foggy night passing through Pittsburgh, Harry boosted himself up the ladder of a car to get a look at what was up ahead, never seeing the oncoming tunnel. He died instantly. My father made certain he got back to his folks. The road led them both back home again.

The year my father died, I found myself thinking about his stories, as if the words and memories could bring him back. One summer morning, I walked alongside of a stretch of railroad track, when a slow moving freight train came rumbling by. Without hesitation, I trotted next to a boxcar, gripped the metal ladder and hoisted myself up. I felt the bounce and the metallic clack of the cars. I listened to the screech of the steel wheels on the rails as I passed by my town. After a mile or so, I hung off the side and dropped into the cinders on the side of the tracks. I sat there, scratched and dirty, and as the train disappeared into the mist, I never felt closer to my dad. He was of another generation, another time, and yet now, in some strange way, we were both men of the road.

About this writer

  • Jeffery Cohen

    Jeffery Cohen

    Freelance writer and newspaper columnist, Jeffery Cohen, has written for Sasee, Lifetime and Read, Learn, Write. He’s won awards in Women-On-Writing Contest, Vocabula’s Well Written Contest, National League of American Pen Women’s’ Keats Competition, Southern California Genealogy Competition, and Writer’s Weekly writing contest.

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One Response to “Riding the Rails with Dad”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Ahh, what an adeventurous and satisfying story. I admire your writing.

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