On the Bum
By the time I got to high school, the whole town was well into the Great Depression. It was tough times. I got my diploma but I couldn't afford to go to university so I took advantage of the extra year of high school that the district offered. After that, I did what a lot of young men from large families did then to relieve the load on the home place: I went on the bum. Charlie Shellfisher, my good friend all through school, and I went together. Although Native American not Norwegian, his family was similar to mine -- hard-working and hard-pressed. We left Seattle in the spring and returned before winter.
Charlie and I usually rode freight trains. When a gondola car was empty of grain or coal, we could get shelter from the wind inside. A boxcar was even better because it would also keep us dry. If we couldn't get inside a freight car, we rode the rods under it. Two thick rods about five feet apart span between the front and rear wheels of a freight car to give it strength. To "ride the rods," you would lie on a plank wired across those two rods. You could usually count on finding a plank and some wire in the rail yard. The wire is essential because, if your plank falls off when the train's going 40 miles an hour or so, you're dead. Charlie and I always tried to put our planks together so we could get some warmth from each other.
If no freight train was coming, we would catch a passenger train and "ride the blinds." Similar to our articulated buses now, the accordion-like folds of a train's blinds are what enabled it to "bend" around curves. The blinds of one passenger car would butt up to the blinds of the car in front of it to make an articulated compartment. At the time, trains were powered by coal. Where the coal car met the first passenger car, you had just a single, open blind. Charlie and I would jump in there and cuddle in the corner away from the wind. The railroads didn't like you riding their passenger trains and we would do it only as a last resort. If you didn't get off before the train reached the yard, the bulls [railway security officers] would come after you with those big sticks they had.
One day Charlie and I scrambled out from under a car to face a yard bull in Cheyenne, Wyoming. "How much money do you have, boys?" he demanded.
"We don't have any," I responded.
"Well, this town has an ordinance that says, if you don't have at least 35 cents, you're a vagrant and under arrest," he said. "Come on."
We figured out later that, when someone in town needed workers, the yard bull would provide them! We happened along when the town needed to move its library from one side of the street to the other. For four days, Charlie and I carried books. We spent three nights in jail, where our meals arrived in a bucket! When we were finished, the sheriff drove us in an old Dodge panel truck out to the edge of town.
"That's the way to Laramie," he said, pointing down a gray ribbon of highway. "Don't you ever come back to Cheyenne."
"No sir, we won't!" I said. We thumbed our way to the next town and sought out the hobo jungle near the railroad tracks where we could find out when to catch a train going north.
To sustain ourselves, Charlie and I would first ask for work in exchange for a meal, then if we couldn't get work, we would ask for a meal. Because most of the places we asked were on the regular routes that bums traveled, feeding them got to be too much for many of those dear, kind people.
We were in one jungle when Charlie got sick and was shaking with cold. I found a long cardboard box, the kind that a hot-water tank might have come in, and put it under a bridge out of the rain. Charlie crawled inside and I stuffed newspapers all around him for warmth. I went into the town and asked the baker for work in order to get my sick friend something to eat. He said he was asked all the time and usually said no but he had garbage cans out back that needed cleaning and I could have that job.
Never clean a baker's garbage cans! The stuff on the sides was as hard as concrete. I pretty much had to chisel them clean! When I got finished, the baker's wife saw that I had worked hard and she put a full piece of beef steak inside each of two sandwiches. When I got back to Charlie with this food, an old Negro man had come in with a few other hobos and started a fire. They took a square five-gallon tin can and cut one end out to feed in the wood and a hole in the other end to get the draft going and it made a darn good stove. The old man got the beef steak all heated and cut up for Charlie. He began to feel better and soon we were back on our way to Seattle.
One story from that time I know to be true but I'm not sure who did it. It could have been Charlie; I know it wasn't me because such a deception wasn't in my nature.
We were hungry one day when we came across a little boy playing near an irrigation ditch. Charlie thought a minute and then all of a sudden he grabbed the kid by the neck of his shirt and dunked him under the water. Charlie carried the dripping kid to the mother and said, "Your little boy fell in the irrigation ditch!"
"Oh my goodness," she said. "I'm so glad you were there! Johnny, I told you not to go near that irrigation ditch. Now you thank the nice man." Well, of course, the kid's eyes got big and he backed away and started to cry. He didn't want to have anything to do with Charlie! We got a good meal out of it but it was a dirty trick.
On the bum, you're always moving. At first you're searching, anxious to get to the next town or farming area because that may be where you find a job. After you realize that nothing's out there, you're hurrying home. We got as far as Cheyenne before we decided we'd better turn around.
Oldtimers had warned us against riding through a long tunnel -- that we could suffocate from the fumes. We took a chance, though, and made it through one long tunnel north of Everett and another just before Union Station in Seattle. As we came out of the second tunnel, we hung on the side of the car and paced with one foot to tell if the train had slowed enough for us to jump. When I jumped, I landed right in the cinders. Charlie was more nimble and made it fine.
We brushed ourselves off and walked down to Skid Road with just 10 cents between us. We got a bowl of soup and dry bread for 5 cents each at the Klondike Café, then walked home. Mother was glad to see me. I had turned 20 on the bum.