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Part #6: We Can't Take Care of Our Own

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When my great-grandfather Bosh died of colon cancer in October 1929, his widow Agnes was left in a bad way. The doctor bills had cleaned her out, and she hadn't had a paying job since her days as a chambermaid at Sehnert's Hotel almost 30 years before. She knew that the family would do what it could to help her. But she also knew that the main burden was going to fall on her two children still living at home, Helen and Eugene. That didn't bother Agnes a bit. She took it for granted that children should support their parents--even if it meant putting their own lives aside, permanently.

Helen was 16 then, and just starting her junior year in high school. She was determined to graduate, because that was what Bosh had wanted. But Agnes told her further schooling was out of the question. So Helen dropped out and got a job as a seamstress at a local dressmaker. (She was hired through her Aunt Minnie, who had been working there for several years, ever since she'd lost her husband to cancer.) Helen had no particular talent for it; clumsy with her hands, she hated the interminable hours and painful difficulty of the work. But she never complained--not to her employers, not to Minnie, and especially not to Agnes. She remained bitter, though, for the rest of her life. Almost 70 years later, she was still saying how unjust it was that she'd had to quit school. "I was the best speller in my class," she said proudly, "and the best out-loud reader. And it was surprising, as I was the shy, reserved kind."

But things may have been even tougher on Eugene. He was 18, and with his brother Clarence away in Chicago he thought it his duty to be the man of the house. One of his father's old friends at the Nelson factory got him a job as a laborer in the porcelain shop. But that lasted only a couple of months. Nelson was doing badly that winter, and all their new hires were soon laid off. Eugene worked briefly as a handyman and as an electrician's assistant. After that he stood in line at the local factories each morning, only to be told there was no work. By spring he was hopping trains to nearby towns and looking for day labor. Now and then he did pick up a few bucks--but that barely paid for his meals, and he was having to travel farther and farther for less and less of a return. So one night in early spring he told Agnes and Helen he didn't want to be a burden on them any longer; he was going on the road and wouldn't be back until he'd earned enough to pay for his keep. The next morning he was gone.

Over the spring of 1930 Agnes and Helen got used to having the house to themselves. They settled into a routine. They slept together in the big brass bed--Agnes couldn't bear to be alone in it at night. Each morning Helen walked to work at the dressmaker, while Agnes stayed at home and did the cooking and cleaning. She'd always been a good cook, and she liked to keep a spotless house. On weekends Hilda came home from her grandmother Franciska's house on Brown Street, and they opened up a fold-out cot for her in the master bedroom.

Bored with life on Brown Street, Hilda wanted to enjoy her brief spells of freedom. She coaxed Helen into going with her to the roller-skating rink on Saturday evenings--that was where all their old school friends gathered. But Helen never liked skating; she was too shy and too clumsy. Whenever she had a choice she went to the movies instead. Hilda wanted her to be more social than that, and even went so far as to locate a potential date for her. Helen approached Agnes for permission to go to the rink with this man--chaperoned by Hilda, of course. Agnes said absolutely not. Helen was furious, but she acquiesced. She didn't mention men or dating again for years.

That summer, Agnes's oldest daughter, Pearl, and her husband, Cecil, announced they were expecting their first child. They were around the house on Second Avenue a lot in those days, doing what they could to help Agnes cope. Cecil was an especially welcome presence. He was the only man left: Bosh was gone, Clarence was in Chicago, and there had been no word from Eugene in months. Cecil took upon himself all the heavy tasks. As autumn came he hauled the coal and stocked wood for the stove and laid in the staple goods--big sacks of flour and sugar and coffee. He also kept the house riled up with his incessant teasing. He was especially tough on Helen. He liked to tell her that she had to get out from under Agnes's thumb before she soured into a lemony old maid.

The autumn was warm and wet, and Troy Road and Second Avenue were rivers of mud. Helen slogged off to work each day in high boots as though she were going swamp wading. (She had to walk up Troy Road a half mile to where the pavement began, and she rode the trolley car the rest of the way into town.) One December morning after she'd left and Cecil had set out in his pickup truck to the general store, Agnes and Pearl started in on a big job: cleaning out the stovepipes in the kitchen. Pearl was standing on a chair rehanging the last section of pipe when her water broke.

The labor was brief. Cecil was barely back from the store when the baby was born. They all knew immediately that something was wrong. The baby didn't emerge red-faced and furious but silent and pale as wax. The cord was wrapped around her neck. For the rest of her life Pearl believed that hanging the stovepipes was what did it.

Cecil took care of everything. He drove off again in the pickup truck and came back an hour later with a little wooden box and a lacy white blanket. It was still the middle of the day; Helen wasn't back from work yet, and Pearl was too weak to move. Cecil and Agnes went together to the old Catholic cemetery where the Sehnerts had their family plot, and he dug a little grave next to Bosh's headstone. In those days you needed no ceremony or official record to bury anyone--certainly not a stillborn. But the cemetery's director did happen to come by and asked for formality's sake what the baby's name was. That was something they hadn't discussed. But Cecil spoke up.

"Helen," he said.

A few weeks later, on a murky evening of heavy snow, Agnes saw someone coming through the back gate by the outhouse. She was about to get the shotgun when she recognized the silhouette: Eugene. As he shrugged out of his coat and shook off the snow he was revealed to be both gaunt and muscular; his clothes were ragged, his hands were callused, and he was so suntanned he was almost black.

He wouldn't say anything about where he'd been. He seemed, if possible, even more quiet than when he'd left. At mealtimes he sat sullen and hunched, with his arm around his plate as though someone were going to steal his food. He was also broke. He had nothing to show for his months on the road but a couple of dollars. Agnes paid him a quarter a day to haul the coal and keep the furnace stoked--enough pocket change to buy cigarettes and the occasional beer.

On weekends he headed over to Alhambra to visit his uncles August and Frank. Sometimes he helped with chores, or went hunting with them in the deep recesses of the countryside. Occasionally the three would drive out to a woodland crossroads, and take a snow-buried track to an isolated farmhouse hidden in the trees. That was the local brothel. Eugene gladly spent what was left of his money there. But the rest of the time he was ill at ease and bored. As soon as the spring thaw came, he was off on the road again.

As 1931 ended, Franciska died in the old house on Brown Street. Her death came on Christmas Eve--she'd survived her husband J.L. by one day short of 26 years. Hilda moved back into the house on Second Avenue, and the children divided up the furniture and sold the property. They couldn't have picked a worse time and they got a rock-bottom price, but by then they were grateful for every penny.

Pearl and Cecil left town the following year. He was out of a job: the Nelson company had gone under. But Cecil didn't stay idle long. He heard from his family that a small farm belonging to one of his uncles had lost its tenants and was standing empty. The farm was outside the town of Bourbonnais, on the other side of the state. Cecil immediately took Pearl there and settled into the farming life.

That same year the old coal mine up the tracks was shut down. Its abandoned equipment was hauled away to the scrap yard, and when the cold weather came the neighbors tore apart the derelict buildings for firewood. Then there was nothing left but a slag heap that would go on smoldering for another 30 years. Further on was the brick factory, running half shifts and often idle for weeks at a time. Toward town was the Nelson company, now shuttered. Its utopian workers village had been absorbed into Edwardsville--in exchange for accepting its laws and police the villagers got a sewer system and electricity. In town, there were long rows of boarded-up businesses. Helen's job with the dressmaker vanished and she never found out why; she arrived one morning to find the place padlocked and the owner gone. After that she could get only day labor at a local shirt factory. She joined the Garment Workers Union, and they occasionally found piecework for her.

In the spring and summer of 1933 there were big parades through town celebrating the new National Recovery Administration; its symbol--a blue eagle with the motto "We Do Our Part"--began appearing in store windows. (It meant that the store owner had agreed to pay a minimum wage.) The NRA brokered a deal between the clothing industry and the Garment Workers Union, and Helen got called in for steady work at a dress factory in Saint Louis. After years of scrounging she was bringing home $15 a week. It seemed to her like a miracle. She was always fiercely prounion after that; the old employees called her the NRA baby.

She and Hilda and Agnes were better off than almost anybody they knew. They had something worth its weight in gold: a house owned free and clear. Bosh had paid off the mortgage, and the property was still in an unincorporated area where the taxes (and services) were negligible. They had a big vegetable garden, fruit trees, and a chicken coop. The money that Helen brought home was more than enough to buy the basics--milk, meat, flour, and coffee. Helen even had change left over for the movies. Things were tougher in the winter when Eugene was home and there was an extra mouth to feed; but even if he arrived with empty pockets he was always willing to do all the hard labor around the house for cigarette money. And besides, he was always gone in the spring.

When Eugene went on the bum all he had to do was walk down the railroad tracks to the hobo jungle and wait for one of the big freight trains to pass. It was tense, jumping a train. Everyone had to stay hidden in the trees until the last moment to be sure no railroad bulls were watching. Then they'd dash forward and lunge at an open boxcar door, or the ladder on the side of a coal hopper, or a stray rope dangling from the cargo lashed to a flatcar--anything at all to get on board before the train cleared the curve and picked up speed on its way west.

The train ran through open country for several miles and then gradually lost itself within the old, decaying network of spur lines and abandoned industrial strips on the Illinois side of the Mississippi. Across the wide, gray waters was Saint Louis, perpetually wreathed in smoke. Eugene would usually make his first stop there; he found temporary shelter in one of the countless sprawling shantytowns that had flowered in the city's vacant lots and derelict factory grounds. "Hoovervilles," they were called, in honor of the president. The biggest Hooverville in Saint Louis was alongside one of the train yards. It covered nearly a square mile and had a population of several thousand: more people were huddled in its shacks and lean-tos and tents than in the whole town of Edwardsville. But Eugene rarely spent more than a night or two there. It was a squalid, loud, chaotic place, filled with the stench of open sewage and smoke of countless trash can fires. Toward dawn each day there would be a general exodus, as people swarmed out to join the lines snaking to the big soup kitchens, or to the few factory gates around town that weren't already hung with NO JOBS signs. Eugene didn't bother with any of that, after a first few tries. Instead, he sauntered along the tracks until he could catch a likely looking outbound freight train, destination anywhere.

Most of what he found on his travels was just like what he'd left behind. Wherever the trains passed, he saw the homeless sleeping in every park and town square. Cities had armed guards posted at their dumps to prevent people from scavenging them for food. Vagrancy was a felony in much of the country: an encounter with the wrong cop or the wrong judge could earn you a couple of years on a chain gang. Some towns, meaning to be kind, put up huge warning billboards along their main roads and by their rail yards that read "Homeless Men Keep Moving--We Can't Take Care of Our Own."

Eugene mainly stuck to the rail lines west of the Mississippi. The land there still looked barely settled. The coal towns along the Rockies and the lumber towns in the immense virgin pine forests of the Pacific northwest were separated by desolation; hours of clattering monotony would pass, and all Eugene would see would be the occasional ill-defined dirt road, or a long line of fence posts along a distant hilltop, or a grain elevator sitting on the horizon like a piece in a board game. During the dust bowl years the desert spread into the heartland: the trains passed through wastelands that had once been cultivated fields but where derelict farmhouses were now half buried in blown topsoil. Once he watched a dust storm billow across the prairie. It was like a sickly thunderstorm of yellow, brown, and black, and when the fringes of it passed across the tracks the train was engulfed in furious dust that stung like a cloud of wasps.

He was never comfortable riding the rails, but he did get used to it eventually. The hoboes had figured out every single place on a moving train where a human being could fit, and Eugene tried them all at one time or another--from the high heaps of coal in the hopper cars to the big rods beneath the flatcars that skimmed just a few inches above the rail beds. Boxcars were the best rides, but you had to pick them carefully. If you were too close to the engine you could get caught in a shower of live cinders that might put out an eye or scar you for life. Eugene got into the habit--learned from the longtime hoboes--of riding with a rag tied across his face. But there were other dangers. The cinders sometimes set fire to the heaps of straw where the hoboes slept. Then, too, a good safe boxcar, one toward the caboose, was usually crowded, and riders could be murderous in defending it. Sometimes there was no choice but to climb up onto the boxcar roof. That was the most dangerous spot of all, particularly on long, lulling night journeys. There was nothing to hold onto if you dozed off and started to slip. That didn't keep anyone from riding there, though. One of the most common sights of those years, seen everywhere the railroads ran, was a freight train bearing a single-file line of travelers on its back, like the fins of an enormous lizard.

In the old times the hoboes had had their own language and their own mythology, a secret world of Okies and bindle stiffs, of John Henry and Boxcar Bertha and the Emperor of the North Pole. But that was mostly gone by the time Eugene went on the bum. The traditional hobo culture had been buried by a flood of undifferentiated misery. There were millions of homeless people in those years, and few had any use for the romance of the open road. Nor did they go in much for camaraderie. Sometimes people in the hobo jungles passed an idle evening singing the old songs, and sometimes a firebrand from the Wobblies would give a political speech (there were Hoovervilles where a red Wobbly membership card was required for admission), and always there was the chatter about what city might have work, where the local cops and the railroad bulls were most vindictive, what you'd do if you got to Easy Street.

But nobody talked much about the past. You were never asked where you were from and how you'd ended up on the road. People shied away from that because of the implication that your hard times were your fault. Everybody kept their distance. Anyway, it was hard to open up and make friends because life was too chancy. If your hand slipped as you jumped for a coal-hopper ladder, or you lost your balance as you clung to a boxcar roof on a mountain curve--then in the blink of an eye you were separated from a newfound friend forever.

Eugene followed the great tides of migrant and seasonal labor around the west. He got road work and construction work. He logged in the summers and worked farms at harvest time. One year he spent a month in Nevada, the site of Boulder Dam, the great federal project of those years. But he couldn't stick it out. The men slept in a tent city in a waterless canyon below the construction site, and the temperatures at night rarely went below the mid-90s. His best job came later that summer, when he worked as a field hand at a big farm in northern California. The owner was impressed enough with his dedication to keep him on as a handyman after the harvest. He slept in a bunkhouse and got three square meals a day. One of the other hands had signed up for a correspondence-school course in electrical work, and when he dropped the books in impatient incomprehension Eugene picked them up and read them cover to cover. He did so mostly out of boredom, but when months later he lucked into another big construction job he could understand what the electricians were doing. There was no immediate payoff to this, but it gave him the beginnings of a trade.

Each year as the fall ended and the snow line began creeping down out of Canada he joined the general migration south. By the time of the first hard freezes in the midwest, he'd reached a familiar hobo jungle in a strip of woodland along a railroad junction. There'd usually be a few other travelers lingering there. They usually had a fire going in a corroded trash can and a mulligan stew simmering; someone would lug a battered bucket down to the creek for water, and when the stew was edible somebody else would rouse the sleepers huddled in the cardboard lean-tos. Then the sound of an approaching train would come rumbling through the frosty air. The jungle emptied out: everyone staked a place on the tracks to make their jump as the train approached. Eugene always made as if to join them--but he'd hang back unobtrusively until the caboose sailed past. Then he was alone. He sauntered down the spur line that led out of the forest. Past the trees was a tangle of low shabby roofs and chicken coops and outhouses and tumbled wire fences. People wouldn't look twice at a hobo walking along the tracks there, so nobody noticed when he turned aside and vanished through the back gate of his home.

Next week: Nobody Owes You a Living.

Previous installments are posted at leesandlin.com.

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