Tales of Open Road

Drifters -- Six Days in a Boxcar

...From 1929, a young hobo goes west.

Tales of the Open Road, by Bill Jodrey

Six days and nights in a boxcar with 20 or 30 hoboes is an experience that probably not many people would opt for, but when it is thrust upon you, well -- there it is.  Some of those already in the boxcar had spent several days moving east to west and who knows where.

As I boarded the car a voice asked me where I was from and as I answered "Boston", he said, your name is now "Boston Slim", and so it was for as long as I stayed with that group.

Freight trains make many stops to drop off some cars or to add cars.

On one particularly long run I had decided  the box was too crowded so I climbed up to ride on the top of the car.  Darkness came on and as the train did not stop and I was very tired, I stretched out on the catwalk and put my arms underneath so that I wouldn't roll off.  I dozed fitfully until the train had to go onto a siding to let a passenger train go by and then I got down and into the box.

About 33 men stretched out on the floor of a boxcar is a sight to behold.

None of  us were really clean but when the opportunity offered, such as a river or pond or brook near a stopping point, we stripped down, washed up and laundered underwear that we put back on very damp.  It was really a sight to see.

Miles City, Montana, was  a very large railroad freight center and we knew we had  two hours until the train would leave so we walked into town to find the Morgan Memorial Food Kitchen.

They had a lot of beans ready and waiting for us.  We all (140 of us) had all we wanted and after strolling a little bit under the watchful eyes of several policemen, we walked back to the train.

We didn't know it then, but about an hour after the train started moving , a great sickness descended on us all.  The beans we had eaten were spoiled and the end results were catastrophic.  In my car alone there were 34 men and unless one was with us, it would be difficult to imagine the "retchedness" -- plus what took place until the train stopped.

We exited our home-away-from-home.  By good luck there was a small river nearby.  The whole bunch of us hurried there.  Perhaps I should not say "hurried."  Some few of us did walk fast, the rest of us did the best they could under the circumstances.

Our train pulled away, but aside from a half-dozen men sitting on the catwalk, there were no drifters on it.

Gradually, as the day wore on, the number of persons slowly lessened as clean bodies and clean clothes (but shattered confidence) spread out in all directions, going who knows where.

There were about a dozen of us who just didn't have what it takes to go anywhere, so we sat in the sun and as the night turned cold, we huddled together as best we could.  We had to keep changing positions because the men at the ends of the line got colder than those in the middle.

Well, what can I tell you?  The night ended, the sun came up, and we waited for the next boxcar to stop.  One day at a time.

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