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What an Incredible Adventure

 

Berkeley N. Hackett, St. Petersburg, Florida                       

Berkeley Hackett made his first trip in 1929 at 13, riding with his stepfather from Flint, Michigan to Kalamazoo to get a summer job working in a coal yard at 25 cents an hour. A year later, Berkeley ran away from school and began to beat his way around the country.

"Howard, my step-dad, came home one night in the summer of 1929, wide-eyed with excitement. 'I've gotten a job!' he announced.

" 'Where?' we asked, in chorus. 'Doin' what?'

" 'Working for Webb Coal Company in Kalamazoo, unloading coal cars.' Howard looked in my direction. 'I'm taking Bill with me.'

"Mama took all the clothes she could find and put them on me, layer after layer of shirts and an old wool sweater. I remember that sweater well. It was light brown and moth-eaten.

View from the Boxcar, Great Depression era"In the wee, misty hours after midnight, Howard and I made our way to the switch yard at Flint to find a train that would take us to that wonderful promise of employment.

"What an incredible adventure! I felt as if I were Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Swiss Family Robinson combined.

"We slipped furtively through the yard to avoid the railroad detectives. Howard found an empty boxcar in a train going in the right direction. He hoisted me up and clambered in himself. The inside of the car smelled of pine tar and creosote.

"We huddled together in a corner; afraid of being caught by a detective and thrown off or taken to jail.

"The switch engine shunted us this way and that. I could see the red and green lights of signal lanterns, but not the men who wielded them.

"Finally the train was ready. My heart beat fast and the adrenaline flowed. With a great spurt of steam, the locomotive got under way. Our boxcar creaked and groaned, shivered and shook and rattled and complained. - Catching that fast freight to Kalamazoo was the most exciting adventure of my life."

 

"I begged food from butchers, bakers and grocers. I learned where the soup lines and flop houses were, as well as who put out the best chow. In some cities, Sally's - The Salvation Army - was good; in other places, Volly's - Volunteers of America - dished out the best meals. The brothers of the road passed this information along the jungle grapevine.

"The jungle was generally a clearing in a clump of bushes not far from the tracks. Some jungles were nothing more than a place for a camp fire; some had improvised cooking arrangements, crates and boxes to sit on, even mattresses to flop down.

"One of our finest jungles was in Sandusky, Ohio, not far from the B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) tracks. Located beside a delightful brook with red and gold carp, this jungle was a mecca for road weary bums.

"The camp fire blazed high; the sparks shot up and became stars. Fireflies lit up the perimeter of the jungle. The stew pot was on; water from the brook was boiling. The hobos began to empty their pockets in preparation for a Mulligan stew. Do you know what goes into a Mulligan stew? I'll tell you what goes into a Mulligan stew! Whatever anybody has in his pocket, that's what you put into a Mulligan.

"One 'bo has an onion, he pinched from a fruit market; another has several potatoes and an ear of corn leased from a farmer's field. Edible greens are gathered and contributed to the pottage: Dandelions and sour dock; wild leeks and onions. Sometimes pigweed is found in abundance.

"Some bits and pieces of meat. A handful of navy beans carried in a pocket for a month. Cast every bean into the pot, along with a smattering of Bull Durham tobacco and lint.

"Dip in with your cans, men. Eat heartily and with bellies full take your ease and drowse.

"We sit around the glowing coals and swap tall tales of the road. Some of the 'bos drink bay rum or Sterno. Many talk of home and loved ones and the positions they held before the collapse of their world.

"As they leave the jungle to travel on, one fact they know for sure. Somewhere down the line another pot of Mulligan will be brewing, and tired, dirty, ragged and whiskered, they'll come to sit by the fire."

 

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The story of the 250,000 boxcar boys and girls of the Great Depression is one of the vital sagas of America in the 1930s.  These archives derive from 3,000 letters written by men and women who rode the rails between 1929 and 1941; follow-up questionnaires and interviews complete a rare first-hand account of Americans living through one of this nation’s bleakest eras.

 

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