"Go fend for yourself," Clarence Lee's father said. "I can't afford to have you around any longer." Like hundreds of thousands of other young people across the country during the Great Depression, the 16-year-old left home, hopped a freight train, and started riding the rails. An estimated 250,000 men and women--many of them in their teens--turned to the trains as fast and free transportation. Some left out of desperation and went looking for work, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles on the rumor of a job waiting farther down the line. Others left out of boredom; still others with a romantic idea of life on the road. Many realized, too late, that they were leaving little for nothing. Henry Ford, for one, thought the boxcar teens had it made: "Why it's the best education in the world for those boys, that traveling around! They get more experience in a few weeks than they would in years at school." As one contemporary observer noted, however, after about six months on the road, "the boys and girls lost their fresh outlook and eagerness. Trips across the continent were no longer educational, but were quests for bread."
Errol Lincoln Uys (pronounced "Ace") has collected thousands of letters written by boxcar boys and girls about their experiences, and peppers his chapters on the various aspects of hobo life with lengthy quotations, allowing the riders to speak for themselves. They talk about the danger--"You had to be careful not to stumble and fall under the wheels when you climbed on the cars"--and the desperation--"We were always hungry. Wasn't just 'cause dinner was hours late. It may have been a couple of days late. You were hungry, cold, miserable, with nobody to help you." They also talk about the remarkable kindness of strangers who fed and clothed the riders. Whether you're a "gaycat" (novice rider) or a "dingbat" (seasoned hobo), Riding the Rails is entertaining and inspiring, recapturing a time when the country was "dying by inches." --Sunny Delaney
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From Publishers Weekly
This erratic account of the 250,000 "boxcar boys and girls" who traversed the country during the Great Depression amounts to an oral history of the seldom-studied lives of teenage hoboes. Using material gathered for a documentary film of the same title (made by Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell, the author's son and daughter-in-law), Uys draws on interviews, letters and other fragments from thousands of former rail-riders who answered an announcement in Modern Maturity magazine seeking reminiscences about their lives. A number of anecdotes offer insight into the desperation that led teens to leave impoverished homes. A sign at a Louisiana cafe, for example, stated succinctly: "Dishwasher WantedAonly college graduates need apply." Jobs were so scarce that one 18-year-old climbed eagerly on a locomotive in Ohio after hearing there might be work at a Los Angeles hotdog stand. The poignancy of such moments is diminished, however, because the various episodes are hitched together like random cars on a freight train and the text takes on the aimless movement of its young subjects as they drift in search of a hot meal. The most accomplished passages frame the vicissitudes of hobo life within the larger context of Depression-era politics. For many former hoboes, New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps offered the only alternative to hunger, jail and degrading hardship. Most remarkably, perhaps, this book shows how the occasional generosities encountered on the road instilled in these wanderers a lifelong ethos of humility and compassion toward others. (July)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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