Riding Rails before WW2

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from The Wayward Kid: The Depression Years of Charles Leroy Childs

 

LTC Chuck Childs (USAF ret) of Rapid City grew up in rural North Dakota during the Great Depression.  "The Wayward Kid" is the book he wrote about that experience. "No one had any money," he remembers.  "I was the 4th child from the top and had 2 younger sisters.  I started riding the rails at the age of 14-16."


"Starvation was right around the corner for everyone."  Being one of the youngest, and to help the family's chances for survival, Childs took to riding the rails, living in hobo jungles, always cold and hungry, working hard for small amounts of work, which he then shared with others back in the camp.


Childs saw America's steady climb into World War II, however, and when war broke outlook, he entered the Army Air Corp, working his way up to become a B-17 pilot with numerous combat missions against the Third Reich, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses for heroism.  After flying in the Berlin Airlift, Childs fought in the Korean War.

Leaving Williston, we rolled into Montana passing through Wolf Point, Glasgow, Malta and then Harve.  We got off the freight at Havre and by that time our sandwiches and drinks were gone and we were starting get hungry.  About a mile out of Have was the Hobo Jungle so we walked out to the June.

The next morning some of the older hobos said they were headed for Spokane, Washington.  We thought that would be a good place to go.  They knew what train was going hat way so we waited with them until the train was going by so we could "catch out".  The jungles were always out of town on the higher side so that when the train c\ame by it was going slowly.  This made it easier to get on.  When I ran for the boxcar door, some big hobo lifted me up and another one in the boxcar grasped me and pulled me in.

 

To get on top of the boxcar you had to run beside the train and grab the ladder, swing up on the ladder and climb on top.  Hopping into a boxcar or gripping on the ladder of the car when the train was moving was very dangerous.  Jumping on a ladder you could lose your grip, thereby falling under the train and being killed.  This happened to many hoboes.  It was always better to club the ladder when the train was stopped.

 

Riding on top of the boxcar wasn't the cleanest place to be.  The smoke from the engine was black with coal dust and we gathered a lot of coal dust on our clothes and bodies.  We had to make sure that we were not on the top going through mountains because of the tunnels.  When the train went through a tunnel, you could coke to death from the smoke, which had a chemical in it.  We made certain that we were in a car at that time.

 

We head south on the freight and the next stop for us was at Great Falls, Montana.  We war dirty, ragged looking and hungry.  We again stopped at a bakery and did some sweeping for a couple days old rolls and donuts.  We hung around the jungle until the grain came through and then we headed for Spokane, Washington.

 

By now I was pretty well experienced on how to hop freight.  The older hoboes taught us how to do it safely.   Most of the hoboes were in their thirties.  Some were ugh older than that.  You'd see a bunch of them on top of a boxcar.  At times it seemed like hundreds on the top looking like lines of blackbirds on telephone wires.  Trains would frequently cross each other on adjoining tracks, with some hoboes going west, some going east, all looking for work.  It brought home vast the number of men aimlessly wandering around searching for something better.  Even for a 14 year old it was a sobering sight.

 

I began writing this book about 10 years ago which I was 80 years old.  I had been compiling memories of my past by writing notes on napkins, scrap paper, toilet paper, etc.  Every time I'd think of something I would write it down and then throw the scraps of papers into a file drawer.  One day I thought I should look at them and start writing a story of my childhood.  I opened the drawer and saw thousands of scraps of paper in the drawer.  I thought this was impossible.


My first job was putting the scraps into some sort of sequence and then I typed them into my computer.  I had an old computer at that time and it was a struggle getting that done.  Each scrap of a paper had a key word in it for me to remember and then I started writing this book.  It was a long haul but it became more enjoyable as I went along.  I finally finished it in 2005 when I was 85 years old.


+++ Read more by Chuck Childs at "World War II" on top +++



January 11, 2014