By Danny O’Neil
Last week while swapping traveling stories with a few friends of mine, we were talking about hitchhiking in the south and what an experience it was. Our conversation reminded me of a story my father told me about a journey that he made during the depression.
After my son Brendan finished his tour of duty in the US Marine Corps, he was living with me and really enjoyed going to Nana and Pa’s for Sunday afternoon dinner and a home cooked meal. One Sunday afternoon I went to my parent’s house alone and my father looked past me and asked “Where is Brendan?” I said. ” That he’s down at the Big Easy” Dad was a little confused and questioned “What’s the Big Easy?” “Why New Orleans!” I replied. Dad had a big smile on his face. I looked at him and asked “You’ve been down there?” “ Yeah” he said smiling as he continued stirring the beef stew that he was preparing for dinner “It was a long time ago during the depression, me and “Peaches” White got jobs on a coal tender ship here in Charlestown and when we got to New Orleans, the ship was tied up.” Then he injected, “Not too much freight moving back in those days. Well any way” he continued “It was Mardi Gras, so we decided to stay for the festival. After a week not being able to find any jobs aboard a ship, we set our sights on Mobile Alabama and try to get a job there on a ship and maybe get back home to Charlestown”
Then kidding, I stated. “Gee, Dad that must have been really tough, getting tied up in New Orleans for Mardi Gras,” I was laughing. “ Well we made the best of it.” he chuckled “as he continued stirring the stew and thought for a moment “ I think I was sixteen and Peaches was seventeen, anyway, we got on a bus in New Orleans going to Mobile and we sat on the back of the bus.” Then dad put on his best southern accent and imitated the voice of the bus driver. “If you two boys don’t sit up here in the front, this bus aint going anywhere.” Dad stopped stirring the stew and walked away from the stove and sat across from me at the kitchen table and continued. “Well, we got to Mobile and it was the same story there no work on any ships. So we took jobs in some government program putting in sidewalks, the pay was ten cents an hour and a pack of cigarettes a day,” Dad was laughing “ It’s funny, because Peaches didn’t smoke. We worked for a couple of days and then Peaches came over to me and said “We’re sailors this is no job for us,” so we quit and hopped a rail car going to Virginia” I questioned “Did you ride in a rail car”? “No, back then if a fright car was moving it had freight on it, we rode on top of the car, the three of us, me, Peaches and a black guy we had meet. When we got into Virginia the railroad police pulled us off the car.” He paused and thought for a moment and continued, “What they did to the black guy wasn’t right”. He did not elaborate on what had happened to the man but I could see the look on his face, it was a look of helplessness. “Well, we went in front of a judge and he gave us a five dollar fine or five days in jail. It may as well have been five million, we didn’t have any money. The judge reconsidered and said if we paint the jail cell we could go when we finished.”
“After me and Peaches left the court house we walked to the town limits and started hitchhiking, a man and his wife on their way home from church picked us up, a truck driver gave us a ride, and a few other folks gave us a lift along the way. All nice people, and all of the conversation was about the depression and how we are all in the same boat, north and south. Finally we made it to Baltimore and we figured we would hop a freight car going north. But at the rail yard, when the train was pulling out, the railroad police ran along the side of the train until it had enough speed so that it was impossible to jump on. So we were out of luck as far as getting on a train. We made it to the highway, the highway is not what it’s like today, I think it was called the Boston Post road. We were at a road side dinner and a truck with H Rothstine Charlestown Mass written on it pulled up, we asked the driver for a ride and he shouted to us “ I’m loaded with freight all the way out to the tail gate, not much room back there, but if you want you can jump on, I’d let you ride in the cab, but I’ve even got freight in the there”
After he finished the story I asked “How long was the trip from Baltimore to Charlestown?”
“Oh” he said shaking his head returning to the stove to stir the stew. “ It’s over seventy years ago, I can’t remember (it’s approximately 450 miles, traveling at 50mph it would take 9 hours), what I do remember, was holding on for dear life to the chain that supported the tail gate and shifting from foot to foot. We only had a few feet of space each.” The he started to laugh again. “We were going down Rutherford Ave and the sun was coming up, I looked over at Peaches and he was looking at me and we both started to laugh. Our faces were both blackened from all of the soot and dust from the road.” He continued stirring the stew with a smile on his face.