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"There is no feeling in the world like sitting in a side-door Pullman and watching the world go by, listening to the clickety-clack of the wheels, hearing that old steam whistle blowing for crossings and towns." -George Phillips in Riding the Rails
At the height of the Great Depression, 250,000 teenage hoboes were riding the rails and roaming America. Some left home out of desperation and went looking for work and a better life, 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 wanderlust and romantic idea of life on the road.
The restless youth of these boxcar boys and girls, many who went from "middle-class gentility to scrabble-ass poor" overnight, is recaptured in Riding the Rails. Based on the award-winning documentary, this book dispels the myths of a hobo existence and reveals the hard stories of a daring generation of American teenagers-forgotten heroes-who survived some of the hardest times in our nations' history. 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."
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"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 DelaneyFrom the Inside Flap:
"We thought it was the magic carpet...the click of the rails...romance."
"The end of the rainbow was always somewhere else and it kept us moving."
"Most of all I remember the loneliness. More than once I cried. I felt so sad, so utterly alone."
At the height of the Great Depression, two hundred and fifty thousand teenage hoboes were roaming America. Some left home because they felt they were a burden to their families; some fled homes shattered by the shame of unemployment and poverty. Some left because it seemed a great adventure. With the blessing of parents or as runaways, they hit the road and went in search of a better life.
By summer 1932, the "roving boy" had become a fixture on the American landscape. The occasional girl was sighted too, mostly passing unrecognized in male garb. Girls especially never took the decision to hit the road lightly, for they were stepping into a world filled with danger. It was the same for young African-Americans, for whom the beckoning rails could be doubly perilous.
One of the vital, neglected sagas of America in the 1930s, the story of the boxcar boys and girls has seldom been told. First-hand accounts of individuals who endured those trying times are even more scare. Riding the Rails draws primarily on letters and oral histories of 3,000 men and women who hopped freight trains, their incredible journeys illustrated with rare archival photos.
Riding the rails was a rite of passage for a generation of young Americans and profoundly shaped the rest of their lives. Self-reliance, compassion, frugality, a love of freedom and country are at the heart of the lessons they learned. Their memories are a mixture of nostalgia and pain; their late musings still tinged with the fear of going broke again. At journey's end, the resiliency of these survivors is a testament to the indomitable strength of the human spirit. It is also an inspiration to all of us who share a nostalgia for the road and the freedoms sought there.
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