DURING THE GREAT Depression, about four million Americans
tramped around the country on boxcars in hope of finding work.
An estimated 250,000 were teenagers or even children displaced
by the same economic factors that forced adults on the road: hunger,
poverty, and a desire to support their families. Many of these
"road kids" are still alive today, and their stories
make up Riding the Rails, a fascinating documentary playing
at the Screening Room this weekend.
Filmmakers Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell placed ads in national
magazines like Modern Maturity, requesting letters from
former teenagers who'd spent the Depression hopping trains. They
received more than 3,000 responses, and decided to focus their
film on the lives of seven especially interesting, articulate
examples, including Bob "Guitar Whitey" Symmonds, a
guitar-slinging septuagenarian who still hops boxcars every summer,
for the sheer fun of it.
Most of the respondents said they wouldn't want to hop a train
again, though the experience seems to have had an impact on all
of their lives. They remember it as a time of excitement, education,
extreme discomfort, and heartbreaking loneliness. Not all of the
kids left home for economic reasons. The son of an ophthalmologist,
John Fawcett, was 16 in 1938 when he ran away from home in search
of adventure, only to find himself cold and starving. Peggy De
Hart, the sole woman interviewed, left home at 15 after having
an argument with her father (she had cussed in the barn). Clarence
Lee, who was 16 in 1929 when he started riding the rails, took
to the road after his father told him he had to leave. "Go
fend for yourself," he said. "I cannot afford to have
you around any longer."
Uys and Lovell intersperse modern-day interviews with these former
road kids, who are now in their 70s and 80s, with archival footage
from the 1930s, some from newsreels showing clusters of men hunkered
down inside boxcars or riding the tops of trains. The archival
footage is haunting--hollow-cheeked men and a few women, in dirty,
tattered clothing, looking like they haven't had a meal in weeks.
(In a sad comment on the fashion industry, they also look strangely
stylish, with their Gatsby haircuts and visible bone structure).
This contrasts sharply with the lives these ex-hobos are living
today; the interviewees are now college professors, retired contractors,
groundskeepers, all enjoying comfortable lives that were out of
reach for most of them during the Great Depression.
Riding the Rails could have been a simple, historical
documentary without the input of the still-living train-hoppers
who enliven the film. Uys and Lovell have captured a vanishing
piece of history by recording the vivid memories of these old
guys (and a gal). The film has the feel of a family reunion where
the young people start asking the older generation about their
past and turn up amazing stories: De Hart hit the road with a
friend who was three weeks pregnant, though she didn't know it
at the time. The two of them repeatedly got thrown into jail for
hopping trains. They split up a few months later when the friend
insisted on traveling around with some rodeo cowboys they'd met,
against Peggy's wishes.
Uys and Lovell have tried to portray the lives of roads kids
as a rite of passage, but the film is more melancholy than that
implies. Riding the rails was dangerous; the trains themselves,
the railroad detectives, and other vagrants were all potential
threats. The archival footage, accompanied by songs by Woody Guthrie,
Jimmie Rodgers, and Doc Watson, has a blue and gritty tone; nobody
seems to be smiling. These faces have no prospects, no hope. The
footage from the Dust Bowl emigration is especially grim.
The recollections of the old guys reflect this sadness, but it's
a sadness tinged with romanticism and nostalgia. They talk about
the wonderful freedom of hopping trains, but add that the freedom
had a price (proving once and for all that "freedom's just
another word for nothing left to lose"). But for these seven
folks, at least, we know that the story turned out all right.
They survived the Great Depression and their time on the road.
Guitar Whitey is still singing about it.