Soot and Cinders for Dinner

`IN the summer of 1933, I was 21 years old,'' my father began. I watched him as he spoke, continually holding his hands up, picking out the details of the story as though they were racing past him in the air. His memory for names and dates and events had always been exceptional, but now they seemed even more vivid. As he mentally reviewed that early year of the great depression he had no bitterness toward it, only loving protection. At that time in his life, my father embarked on an adventure as real as the Depression itself. There, in the middle of the drought-stricken dust bowl of southeastern Oaklahoma, he joined two friends, Pud Windle and Hollis Pickle (Pick), and rode the rails to the golden land of California. This is the story he told:

I lived in the small town of Ashland, Oklahoma, and had spent the previous year teaching there. People just didn't have work - a lot of them were on the verge of starvation. The boll weevil had taken charge of the cotton crop, and of course insecticides weren't used and neither were herbicides, so all weeds, Johnson grass, crab grass, and cockleburs had to be chopped and cleared out by hand. The going rate was 10 cents an hour, if a person could find a job. Teaching salaries were $70 a month. The usual term was eight months, if the money lasted. Instead of receiving paychecks, I was given nonpayable warrants which I could hold onto or swap for something. I did swap one of them for a piano for my sister, Mildred.

I remember our preacher, Paul Hively, drove us to the railroad station near Stuart [Oklahoma] in his car and that was where we caught the first freight train we were on. I had $10 and Pud and Pick didn't have any. The first boxcar we got on had at least 70 hobos on it - everybody slept on the floor. I took my shoes off and tied them around my neck and used them as a pillow because I was afraid they might be stolen.

The hobos scared us a little at first, but it didn't take long for us to realize that they were just men who were down on their luck - most of them hadn't been away from home more than a few times. There was kind of an underground network that the hobos used. They knew where they could beg food and where they would be arrested in the towns they went to.

The next day we were in Amarillo, Texas. We got off and walked around town. Most of the men begged their lunch, but we didn't. In Amarillo, we caught the Santa Fe and kept going west to Clovis, New Mexico, and then on to the town of Vaughn - that's where everybody got kicked. The railroad bulls [detectives] had guns and they pulled them out, forcing us off the train.

The bulls talked real tough and cussed a lot, but we knew they were mostly bluff; even when they would whip out their hog leg they used the piece only as a threat.

The fact was that the police in most towns were frustrated with the hobos and just didn't know what to do with them. Anyhow, there we were in Vaughn where we stayed for a couple of days until the leaders of our group said the best way to get back on was for everybody to rush the train at once. We did it and the bulls pulled their pistols threatening to shoot, but they didn't.

We rode to Mountainair, a town not far from Vaughn, in a gravel car. It was cold! We caught another train out of there and Pud and Pick and I got in a refrigerator car that wasn't in use. It was nice and warm in there and we went sound asleep. When we woke up we were on the siding and the rest of the train had disconnected from us. A railroad bull opened the door and cussed us out while he held a gun on us - he forced us off the train. Even though we knew he was bluffing, it still bothered us to have a gun pointed our way.

It was the middle of the night in the outskirts of Belen, New Mexico. As we walked up the track we could hear dogs barking and people speaking Spanish. The only place open was a little cantina so we went in and drank hot coffee and stayed until daylight. The desert at night was cold - we were used to the hot, humid nights of Oklahoma.

Next day we caught the train down to Hot Springs, and from there we took the Southern Pacific to Tucson, we rode on top of the car in the hot sun. We got there around sundown, hot and dirty. Of course the bulls met us and one of the hobos, a black man, asked the bulls, ``Is this Too-soon (instead of Tucson)?'' One of the bulls cussed at him and said, ``No, this is just-right.'' They put that man in jail, but just overnight. Pud and Pick and I went into a restaurant to use the washroom. I looked in the mirror. My face was so dirty and blistered and the black coal cinders had gotten in my eyes. I said to myself, ``I'm too dirty to wash.'' I left and got a sandwich.

We rode on top of the train that went to Yuma. In fact, we rode all day and night without sleeping, because we were afraid if we went to sleep we'd fall off. Some of the men were even riding the rods underneath because they couldn't get inside or on top.

I'll never forget seeing Yuma at daylight. It was a small, peaceful desert town. The Colorado river flowed through it. We decided to get a room and we found a hotel called the Hotel de Riviera. We had showers and had just settled down to go to sleep, we were so tired. All of a sudden a bunch of girls just swarmed in the room. Pud was so mad and when he got mad he stuttered. He said, ``G-get out of here!'' We didn't know that it was a house of ill repute.

We split up in Yuma because we decided to hitchhike to San Diego, planning to meet at the Union Depot in San Diego. It was easy to get rides because people trusted you - it wasn't dangerous. Pud got to San Diego first, but he got mixed up and went to the post office. Pick and I started looking for him and we finally found him there, sitting on the steps out front. He had gotten so cold that he had all his clothes on. He looked at us and said, ``Where have you been?'' We agreed to hitchhike to Santa Barbara, where I had a brother, Marvin. I hitched as far as Los Angeles, and there I spent the night in the Lindbergh Hotel for just 25 cents.

They showed me a room full of cots, and I picked one out for myself. I slept with my clothes on. Next morning I caught a street car out of Los Angeles to Ventura Boulevard where I got off and started walking. There, near the road, was a fruit stand with oranges and peanuts. There was only 8 cents left in my pocket. I dug around and pulled out the money.

The owner of the stand looked at the 8 cents and said, ``Is that all you have?'' I said, ``I have more in the other pocket.'' He answered, ``No you don't,'' and he made me take half a dozen oranges and some peanuts. I made it to Ventura and got off down on Thompson Boulevard, right downtown. I walked to the edge of town to a truck stop to see if I could get a ride in a truck. When I walked in, there was Pick, sitting down eating a big meal.

When the three of us got to Santa Barbara, we stayed with Marvin, my brother, for about a month. The coast of California made a great impression on me, especially the ocean. When I went swimming in it, I thought how different it was from Boggy Creek and the Old Gin Pond at home.

Pick worked a little while as a gardener in Montecito. Pud liked California so well that he decided to stay there. Pretty soon it was getting to be time for Pick and me to head back home. I needed to start teaching again.

I didn't see Pud again until the 1970s, when his brother David died. He had had a good life in California and had a successful business. We talked a long time about our trip, and he said looking back how he couldn't believe how ignorant and naive he was. He had never been away from home before. Pud died in 1985.

Pick stayed in Oklahoma until World War II was over and then he also returned to California. But Pick and I remained lifelong friends. We talked on the phone almost every week and have seen each other many times. He has been a successful man, but it never hindered the feeling of closeness that has lasted until today. The summer of 1933 seemed to add to what was already in place.

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