Musings of An Old Man

by Brian K. Moore

Brian Goes on the Bum

In the spring of 1937 I was working as a welder at the General Motors assembly plant in Torrance, CA. In early summer the plant closed for a week in preparation for the 1938 models. This meant a week off work, which was OK with me as I always liked recreation time better than work, although I couldn’t make a living with pure recreation time.

My friend George Walker, who was unemployed, and I decided to use this week for a trip to Grand Canyon. The plan was to go in my car, which was a 1929 Packard touring car. (A touring car in those days had a front seat and a back seat and a folding canvas top and no windows in the doors.)

As we were packing the car we smelled gasoline and found a drip under the gas tank. The gas tank was leaking! If we took time to fix it, it would cut into our trip time and make the trip impractical. After a moment’s consideration, we decided to hitch hike. We put one change of cloths and a few other items in a sort of strong cardboard box about 4 × 14 × 20 inches tied closed with a strong string. We each took 20 dollars and headed out early the next morning on highway 66 headed toward San Bernardino.

It took about 4 hours to travel the 60 miles to San Bernardino. Most of it being spent standing in one spot waving our thumbs in the air. We were tired and hot and we thought there’s got to be a better way. The highway was alongside a railroad and a freight train was going by real slow. We thought this is the better way, and we jumped on the train right in the middle of a flat car. Not the proper way to board a moving train as we later learned.

The idea of traveling by freight train was not new. We had known people who had traveled this way and got to their destination.

It started to rain so we worked our way down the train to a gondola car. (A car with sides about 4 feet high and no top.) The car was empty except for a few old splintery planks. George took some of the planks and leaned then from the top of the side of the car to the floor of the car and made a sort of shelter that kept some of the rain off of us. It stopped raining in a while so we didn’t have to spend the night in the shelter.

We had heard that Barstow had a tough railroad bull. (A railroad bull was an officer whose job it was to keep bums off the trains.) We later learned that most bums get off the train when it slows down as it is entering the yard at Barstow and walk around and catch the train again after it has left the far side of the yard. Sometimes the train is going pretty fast at this point. We didn’t do this. We sat low in our gondola car and rode right through the yard undiscovered. It was getting dark as we left Barstow and we rode through the night and even slept some.

We knew that there was a fork somewhere north of Las Vegas where the train went either toward Grand Canyon or to Salt Lake City. In the morning as soon as we could determine where we were, which was at Moapa, Nevada, we found out that we were on our way to Salt Lake City!

This sort of blew our Grand Canyon plan and made us think of what are we gonna do now. By now I was in the mood to go somewhere, so I said to George, I have a whole lot of relatives in Louisiana. Let’s go see them. George said, “What about your job?” I thought for a minute and answered, “I didn’t like that job much anyway.”

George didn’t like this idea. He wanted to go home. So I said, “OK. You go home but I’m going to Louisiana.” I started to separate our stuff. He said, “Oh, come on Moore, aren’t you going to go back with me?” When he could see that I wasn’t, he decided that he was going with me. Good thing, the trip made many great memories that we would talk about every time we saw each other right up until just before he died a couple of years ago.

We rode into Salt Lake City in the blinds of a passenger train. (The “blinds” is the half of the accordion like passageway between cars. The blind on the front of the baggage car is open because it is right behind the coal car and there is no other half for it to mate with.) This space is a couple of feet deep and big enough for a couple of guys to stand in.

The train was a coal burner and the smoke was dirty. We went through some tunnels on the way and that dirty smoke just enveloped us. We were black from head to foot. We spent 50 cents apiece of our 20 dollars on a hotel room with a shower. What caused them to accept us in our condition I will never understand.

We got cleaned up and washed our clothes and said, “No more trains! It is just too dirty.” In the morning we got on the highway to hitch hike but it was along time between rides and most of the rides were short. It was slow going. The trains were much faster.

We spent most of the trip switching between trains and highway. The trains were not all as dirty as on the trip into Salt Lake, but they were almost all coal burners so any where we were riding we were getting the dirty residue from the engine which, to make matters worse, contained hot cinders. We finally got caps that we could pull down to our eyebrows and goggles to keep the cinders out of our eyes.

We went across the mid US through Colorado, Kansas and Arkansas, switching between trains and highway. We spent a freezing night in Colorado while crossing the Rocky Mountains. We were riding in the ice compartment of an empty refrigeration car. We called the ice compartments “refers.” It was considered a good place for bums to ride, out of site and out of the sun and wind.

Of course there was no ice in this compartment because the car was empty, with nothing to refrigerate. The bottom of the ice compartment was made of two by fours on edge spaced about 1 ½ inches apart to allow space for the melt water to drain.

Although it was summer, it was cold outside, because of the altitude. As the night progressed, it got colder. When the train went fast the cold air would whip up through the spaces in the floor, just freezing us. We put on all the clothes that we had, which were two shirts and two pairs of pants and a cap each, but we were still freezing. Finally the train went to a lower elevation and it warmed up a bit and we finally got some sleep.

In Colorado Springs we paid a call to a girl that we had graduated from high school with. She and her boy friend took us around in his car and showed us the town. He worked in the steel mill.

As we traveled we stretched our limited money supply as much as we could by “bumming .” This would usually happen in a small town or rural area where we would knock on a door and ask the one, usually a woman, who answered the door, “Do you have any chores that we can do to earn a meal?” It usually ended up with the lady saying that there were no chores but making us a sandwich.

On one of these occasions that took place in the corn country, we knocked and asked our question and the lady said, “Can you shuck?” Not wanting to get involved in any actual work. George said, “Shuck! What’s that?” The lady made us a sandwich and sent us on our way.

George was about 6 months older than I and he had his 19th birthday on the trip. We got off the train in a little town by a river. We went to a bakery and bought a birthday cake for sixty cents and went down and sat on the river bank and ate the whole thing.

It took about 2 weeks to make the trip to Louisiana, entering the state at Shreveport, then diagonally southeast to Kinder, my mother’s home town. I was related to almost every one in Kinder.

We stayed mostly at George Gilly’s house in which the sanitary facility was an out house. The water (cold only) was delivered by a hand pump in the kitchen direct from the well, a feature most Kinder houses didn’t have. In most of the houses the pump was at the well and house water was carried into the house in a bucket. Baths were in a wash tub.

George Gilley and his son Carroll were carpenters. I went to work with them every day and helped by doing what basic carpentry I knew.

George had another way to sort of earn his keep. George was an athlete and the town of Kinder had a baseball team. They played ball with teams from the other little towns there, which were about 10 miles apart in any direction. George proved his worth by helping the Kinder team become the champs.

Carroll Gilley showed us a good time. He took us fishing in the Calcasieu River and hunting for “rice birds” in the rice fields and we had cook outs with jambalaya and Cajun food.

We stayed a while with my cousin Lawrence and his wife Georgia. Lawrence was a painter and a paperhanger. I had some experience in these trades, and I worked with him every day that we were at his place. Of course there was no pay involved but they fed us and had a place for us to sleep. George played ball.

We took a trip to Lake Charles, about 25 miles from Kinder to visit my uncle Buddy and aunt Julia and we decided to race back to Kinder with George hitch hiking and me riding the train. I won.

We also paid a visit to my aunt Sister and her son Patch and his wife who lived in Reeves a rather primitive settlement about 10 miles west of Kinder. Their house had an off the ground wood floor. Most houses in Reeves had dirt floors some of them had hand hewn pine planks laid on the dirt floors. But all of them were well maintained and the grounds around the houses was raked or swept neatly.

Aunt Sister’s house had no windows; there were openings in the walls but no glass. It didn’t get cold there so glass was not needed for that, but the bugs and mosquitoes sure got in. This was controlled by making what they called a “smoke.” This meant building a smoldering fire on a fireproof surface, inside the house, and driving the bugs and almost the people out.

Each morning at dawn at Aunt Sister’s house the first sound of the day was the coffee grinder. Aunt Sister had already built a fire in the wood stove and roasted the coffee beans on the cast iron stovetop and was grinding the beans to make some out of this world coffee.

We were about ready to leave for home because our 20 dollars apiece was getting low and we needed some money left for the trip home, when I won 6 dollars in a poker game at the local saloon. Because of this windfall we stayed another week.

When I look back I am embarrassed by the way we just showed up at a relative’s house and expected to be fed and housed. But it was sort of like that then. We had had visiting relatives such as George and I come to my parent’s home and they were always welcomed and provided for.

When we finally did leave, a multitude of my relatives came to see us off. The railroad tracks crossed Main Street in the middle of town and the trains went slow there. We new about what time the train would come and we and our bon voyage party were there. When we heard the train coming we shook a lot of hands and at the appropriate time we climbed on. The whole train was tank cars and the only place to ride on a tank car is on a little one-foot-wide cat walk alongside the tank. But when you are getting a free ride you take what you can get.

We went home the southern route, through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. We went all the way on the rails, knowing that this was the fastest way. It was not as dirty on the southern route as most of the trains there were oil burners and the engine exhaust did not contain hot cinders and not much soot.

We made it in six days and would have made it in five, but we were apprehended and thrown off the train by the yard bull as the train was leaving San Antoine. We had boarded the train too close to the yard.

All we could do was wait 24 hours and catch the same train the next day, only farther out of the yard.

The bull would ride the train out of the yard looking for bums. But the bull would have to get off the train before it got going too fast. The bums have to time their boarding so that they got on after the bull got off. This means catching a pretty fast moving train.

We made good progress through the rest of Texas, across New Mexico and into Arizona where I screwed up. I had an accident and hurt my knee about 60 miles east of Tucson, Arizona. The train was going real slow through a little town and we, along with 6 or 7 other bums, saw a water faucet about 100 feet from the tracks. It was hot and we were thirsty so we all jumped off and ran to the faucet to get a drink.

I waited till last because I had brought a water bottle that I wanted to fill. When it came my turn I got my drink and then filled my bottle. By this time the train had started going faster and was rapidly picking up speed. I ran fast to the train and then ran fast alongside the train in the direction that the train was moving, watching over my shoulder for the ladder on the front of the next car to come by.

I was carrying the water bottle in my left hand. When the ladder came up to me I grabbed it with my right hand. The speed of the train yanked me off my feet and the train dragged me along through the course gravel by the side of the track, tearing through my pants and ripping skin and meat off my knee. I couldn’t pull myself up with one hand and I was afraid to let go for fear of being swung under the wheels.

I finally realized my problem was that I was hanging onto the water bottle with my left hand. I dropped the water bottle and grabbed the ladder with my left hand and pulled my self up onto the ladder.

I was now several cars behind the box car that the other guys were riding in, so I ran down the top of the train to their car, flopped down on my belly, slid over to the side of the car and reached through the door opening on the side of the car, grabbed the rail that the big sliding door ran on and swung down off the top of the car, through the door and dropped off inside the car. The other bums patched me up as well as they could with no water or bandages. When we got to Tucson, George and I got off the train and found water at a drinking trough in a cattle yard. We used a sleeve from my clean shirt for a bandage and caught another train out.

We came along pretty well until we got to Niland, California. At Niland the train stopped and three bulls went through the train. They got about 30 bums off. They lined us up and asked us questions. When they were through questioning us they told us that we could buy a ticket on a passenger train to Indio for 2 dollars and if we didn’t want to or couldn’t they said, “The highway is 6 miles over there. Start walking.”

George and I still had a little money left and we bought tickets for ourselves and for a guy that we had been traveling with. This guy’s pants were ripped horizontally right under the back pockets and he had no shorts. His behind was hanging out. George had loaned him his sweat shirt so that he could tie the arms around his waist and let the body of the shirt cover his bare bottom. We had a luxurious cool ride to Indio. When we detrained at Indio our friend started to untie the sweat shirt to give it back to George. George said, “Keep it. You need it worse than I do.” The last we saw of this guy, he was walking toward the highway with Georges sweat shirt keeping him decent.

We rode a train from Indio to Riverside where we got off, got cleaned up in a gas station restroom and went to a restaurant for dinner. Our plan was to quit the trains at Riverside and hitch hike to Alhambra. We each spent the remainder of our original 20 dollars on food except for a nickel apiece which we saved for bus fare from Valley Blvd and Garfield to our homes on North Electric Street.

We didn’t have to spend our nickels. We caught a ride almost right away and we told the story of our trip to our driver and he got so interested in it that he drove us all the way home.