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Other segments from the episode on September 2, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 2, 1997: Interview with Michael Uys; Interview with Jim Mitchell and Peggy DeHart; Review of Nguyen Thieu's book "The Women Carry River Water."


Date: SEPTEMBER 02, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090201np.217
Head: Riding the Rails
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


SINGER: Lots of folks back east, they say
Is leaving home every day
And beatin' the hot old dusty way
To the California line

GROSS: During the Great Depression, about a quarter of a million teenagers left home and hit the road. Most were searching for work. Some were searching for adventure. They hopped freight trains and often slept in hobo jungles -- the hobo camps on the outskirts of towns.

The new film "Riding the Rails" is about the teenagers who became hobos in the 1930s. The film includes archival footage and interviews with former teenaged hobos who are now in their 70s and 80s. We'll hear from two of them in the second half of our show.

My first guest is Michael Uyes, who co-produced and co-directed the movie with Lexie Lovell (ph). He got the idea for the film after reading a book called "Boy and Girl Tramps of America," first published in 1934. The author, Thomas Mynahan (ph) disguised himself as a tramp and rode the rails across America, writing down the stories of teenagers he met.

MICHAEL UYES, FILMMAKER, CO-DIRECTOR, "RIDING THE RAILS": I read the book and I was very moved by their interviews -- by what these kids went through. It was a very difficult life. And from that, I wondered if there were maybe -- if I could find maybe 20 survivors. So I -- and then I might be able to have some subjects for a film.

So I started writing letters to newspapers and magazines and the editors really went for the story. And Modern Maturity was where we hit pay dirt, and that was...

GROSS: It's a retirement magazine.

UYES: Exactly. I mean, that's read by 33 million senior citizens. So I started getting over 100 letters a day coming to my office. And it was just -- it was amazing. And people were pouring their hearts out to me. They were basically saying, some of them said: "I haven't spoken about this for 60 years." And occasionally, I would get letters written in -- by hand that were 100 pages long.

GROSS: Once you got so many letters, how did you go through them and decide who would actually be interviewed for your movie?

UYES: At that point, my partner Lexie Lovell, who's my wife, who couldn't be here today -- she and I decided that we would make this film together and we just -- we read all these beautiful, moving letters. And sometimes people would, in fact, include a snapshot from the 1930s if they were lucky enough to have, you know, a Brownie box camera at the time.

And basically, we each telephoned 250 people. We came -- you know, we had our 500 greatest hits. These were people with incredibly compelling stories. And you know, we talked to 500 of them, and then decided that there were 20 people who we really wanted to travel around the country and film. We went around -- we did a road trip around the country -- a 13,000- mile trip where I basically got out a piece of string and figured out the most efficient way to visit them all.

And we spent two months on the road visiting them. It was amazing.

GROSS: There were about a quarter of a million teenagers on the road during the Depression -- riding the rails, looking for work. That's an amazing statistic. Why were there so many?

UYES: You know, it's for many reasons. The devastation of the Depression is, you know -- poverty is the main reason. These kids -- in some cases, they were told by their parents, like Clarence Lee (ph) who's in the film, was told by his father that he had to leave. And it's not because, you know, his parents didn't love him.

It was just that there were younger brothers and sisters who needed to be taken care of, and Clarence was 16 and that was considered big and old enough to go out and fend for yourself, which is what he had to do. So there were many reasons. I mean, other -- some of these other kids left for adventure.

GROSS: You mention in the movie that even a lot of schools were closed because they went bankrupt during the Depression.

UYES: First of all -- the first thing that would happen is the teachers couldn't be paid because that school district didn't have any money left. They were bankrupt. They couldn't collect taxes. People didn't have anything. And the teachers oftentimes hung on for maybe a year or two or more without pay, and then eventually they couldn't do that anymore and some schools closed; many schools closed.

So that would really eliminate the option of staying in school. Although kids -- they wanted to stay in school. This was not out of choice. And so that was -- that led to more kids being on the road.

GROSS: What are a couple of the themes that emerged from all these people who sent you letters and who you interviewed?

UYES: The biggest theme that comes to mind is how this -- these experiences as teenagers, as adolescents, really shaped these people's lives. I mean, struggling like that as a teenager, it just gave -- it gave them -- it formed their values in many ways.

And you know, they did not want to ever be back on a freight train again. I mean, once they got a job, they would hang on to it for 42 years. I mean, the same job, because they didn't want to lose the security of having a job.

And in many cases, they also wanted to give something back to society, whether it was working in a soup kitchen or in, say, John Fawcett's (ph) case, who's in the film, he became a civil rights worker and he was a union -- a long-time union man and just wanted to give something back.

And that was something that came up again and again and again. And it was really remarkable because it was not necessarily something we expected when we set out on this film.

GROSS: How dangerous was the experience for teenagers? Was there a lot of crime, mugging, murder in the hobo jungles and in the boxcars?

UYES: It was incredibly dangerous. I mean, there were a lot of criminals. I mean, these kids would get thrown into these hobo jungles where there was prostitution. There was rape. There was homosexual rape. I mean, there were all kinds of horrible things that happened to these kids. And you know, oftentimes, they regretted leaving home.

About one out of three letters would talk about someone's legs getting cut off; about how someone falling underneath the wheels of the train. I mean, it was incredibly dangerous. So many kids didn't return from this, and it was unbelievable -- the stories.

I mean, we actually hopped freight trains to -- with one man who actually still does it in his 70s. And just that experience as a film crew was -- I mean, I was thinking: "why am I doing this? It's only a movie" -- as I was running towards a moving freight train. You know, your knees are like rubber.

You know, it was -- one instance, you're grabbing the rungs of a ladder and the next instant, you know, you're lying on the tracks with one leg missing. I mean, it was very, very dangerous.

GROSS: With so many young people and older people, too, out hopping the freight trains, looking for work, traveling from state to state -- some of the states tried to keep them out. You have a great archival clip from someone in New York basically saying: "stay away. Don't come." Let's hear that.


NEW YORK CITY COMMISSIONER HUDSON: One of the very unfortunate things in connection with the Depression is the fact that so many people have left their homes to look for jobs in other places. My advice to all, everywhere, is not to come to New York.

There aren't enough jobs here to go around and it is very much better for all to remain in their own homes with their own friends and with those who can help them in their time of trouble and distress.

GROSS: Michael Uyes, who is the person we were just hearing? And where is this footage from?

UYES: That's Commissioner Hudson, I believe, and that is from a news reel in the 1930s. I think it's Movietone News. I don't have it in front of me because we collected so many archives.

But that was played to warn people that there were no jobs in the city, because the flow from the country to the city was equal to the flow from the city to the country. And people would just pass each other on freight trains going in either direction -- you know, 250 to 500 people on a train going in the opposite direction looking for work.

And so, that clip was created to warn people against coming to the cities because there were no jobs. And basically what would happen is kids would end up on the streets, you know, shining shoes or selling newspapers or begging. I mean, or living in the subway. I mean, that happened a lot.

GROSS: How did some of the other states try to keep people out?

UYES: Well, I mean, some were particularly bad. I mean, the stories we heard from Texas -- Weatherford, Texas had an unofficial policy of basically if a kid came into town who needed medical help, they were -- they were just driven out to the outskirts of town and dumped on the highway.

And it's -- this news would travel among the -- what they called the "hobo jungles" where these kids and older hobos would sleep and trade information about what towns to avoid; what railroad bowl was particularly harsh; and "don't go near Cheyenne, Wyoming" because there was a school for railroad detectives there, for instance.

GROSS: Your film describes what California briefly did to keep vagrants out.

UYES: What happened was the Los Angeles police were so alarmed at the number of transients coming into their city that they actually blockaded the California border -- not the Los Angeles border. They stopped people from coming in at the California border. So these teenagers were among the hobos and transients who were physically turned away.

And you know, they said if they didn't have something -- I think it was $100; they were supposed to have $100, which was a fortune -- otherwise they were turned away at the border. And this went on for -- in 1936. It lasted for about six weeks before, you know, there was public outrage over it and it was stopped.

But the fact that they -- that they got that far, you know, showed you how desperate people were to keep all the transients out of their cities -- people who might be taking away jobs or people who they felt were dangerous. I mean, the country was really, really in -- on the edge of revolution, and people were so afraid of what might happen that things like this happened. And we heard about these kids being turned away.

GROSS: And this is what the Woody Guthrie song "Do Re Mi" is about: "If you ain't got the do re mi" -- about how they turn you away if you don't have the "do re mi" in your pocket.

UYES: Exactly.

GROSS: A lot of the teenagers who rode the freight trains were looking for work, and many of them couldn't find it and had to panhandle or beg for money. What were some of the techniques that you came across? And some of the things the teenagers were forced to do in order to get enough money for some food?

UYES: Well, I mean, they were pretty inventive. I mean, there were kids who -- there were techniques they had. They would go to a house and they'd see, you know, they'd study the laundry in the back yard and they'd say, they'd see if there were kids clothes out there -- if there was a man's clothes out there. And they'd say: "well, that would be a better house because they've got kids, and you know, they'll have sympathy on us."

And so they would knock on the back door of that house. And there were also these marks that you'd get -- you'd hear about in the hobo jungles, where a house might be marked as a good place for a handout. So, that woman would be more likely to give you something.

And they'd steal, too. I mean, that was one of the things they resorted to. They were -- we heard a story about a group of about 200 people coming off a freight train. They were all hungry and they basically looted the grocery store in town. They just overran it and left on the next freight train.

I mean, these were desperate times and people did desperate things. And sometimes they had -- they did have to resort to crime.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Uyes. His new documentary Riding the Rails is about teenaged hobos during the Depression. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


SINGER: I ain't got no home
I'm just a...

GROSS: My guest Michael Uyes is the co-director and co-producer of the new documentary Riding the Rails about teenaged hobos during the Depression. These teenagers faced a catch-22. They were thrown off the trains for riding illegally, then they were thrown out of towns for violating vagrancy laws.

You mentioned the laws were often tougher on teenagers, because the authorities really wanted to discourage teens from traveling around and riding the rails.

UYES: The logic was that if you were tougher on a teenager, that would make him go home sooner. But if you gave him just one meal, rather than if you were an adult, you might get three meals, you know that -- they were trying to really encourage teenagers to go back home, and particularly girls who were on the rails. I mean, that was considered -- I mean, it was considered shocking even back then.

And so, girls would disguise themselves as boys. They'd put a cap on. They'd wear overalls. This we heard about again and again, so they did not want to be counted. They did not want to be found by the authorities. You know, they didn't want to go back, but the authorities really, really wanted to send them back more than anything.

GROSS: A little later, we're gonna be hearing from a woman who you interviewed for your movie, who's featured in your movie, and she rode the rails as a teenager. Did you find a lot of women who were on the road like that in the '30s during the Depression?

UYES: Well, we didn't get that many responses from women, but we did hear from men who were out on the road that there were -- about 10 percent of them were women. And in many cases, they were -- they might be with their husbands or something, but there were girls on the road. And sometimes there'd be a group of them.

But one of the reasons -- it was interesting, my partner Lexie was actually on the phone with a woman who we wanted to interview, and asked her why so few women had responded. And she said: "you know, honey, the shame of being on the road is something that we really don't want people to know about, even today."

And it was considered shameful, and particularly for a woman, because, you know, a woman was supposed to get married and have her husband take care of her. And to start life out on the road was not particularly auspicious beginning for a woman. They didn't want to talk about it, oftentimes.

GROSS: Did you find that the experiences of African-American teenagers who were riding the rails was different from white teenagers in the '30s?

UYES: Definitely. It was definitely more difficult. I mean, there were so many more odds that they were against; they faced. For instance, even the most menial jobs that were taken -- that normally African-Americans were given in those days, like elevator operators or shining shoes, were taken by white kids.

And so it was even more difficult when they left their local areas. I mean, Clarence Lee, who talks about it -- Clarence tells a horrific story about the racism out there and how he was nearly -- I mean, he was nearly lynched. There was a case of mistaken identity. But it was a lot more difficult. I mean, that was a general impression.

GROSS: I'm wondering if the boxcars were integrated? I mean, it was illegal to be in them in the first place, so certainly laws of segregation wouldn't apply, since no law applied.

UYES: Well, I mean, we heard lots of different accounts. I mean, one very interesting account we heard was a group of kids in a boxcar -- integrated at that time. They got off in the hobo jungle. The hobo jungle was not integrated.

So I mean, there was -- they went their separate ways when they got off the train. On the train, I guess out of necessity, they traveled together, but we heard lots of different things and then we'd hear things about boxcars -- people really keeping -- different races keeping to themselves.

And then you'd hear the opposite -- that you were -- they were all in the same boat.

GROSS: I'm wondering what impact the stories of teenagers on the road in the '30s had on you and about your thinking about your life.

UYES: Well, it's really amazing. I mean, to -- first of all, the people that we met, they -- you know, they become heroes to us. And they were so -- they're so dynamic. I mean, in a funny way, it was like meeting old friends when we went out there, because we had spoken to them on the telephone.

And in another sense -- and we'd spent so much time with their stories that it felt like getting, you know, 20 grandparents, you know. And we'd become very close to our subjects and -- after meeting them and interviewing them, but not really spending that much time with them. And it just -- you know, in some ways meeting them made us feel less afraid of getting old or something, because they're so dynamic.

And then in terms of people being -- what it was like for teenagers. I mean, part of the reason we made this film was because, you know, we saw what was going on with, you know, people on the streets today and other documentaries which have -- like "Streetwise" for instance -- which have covered the subject nowadays.

And we saw just how sort of history repeats itself, and we became just fascinated with what it would be like to be a kid back in the '30s. I mean, it was -- it's -- was really, really amazing. We learned -- we've learned -- sort of continued to learn about it on this project.

GROSS: When you were riding the rails as research for your movie, did you find people who were riding it for other reasons? Are there still people riding the freights?

UYES: There are still people riding the rails. What happened -- when we were -- we rode up and down California to Klamath Falls, Oregon. And the people we saw on that trip were Mexican migrant workers who were riding to pick lettuce. You know, it's really a -- it's "Grapes of Wrath" stuff. I mean, it hasn't changed.

There were not 200 people in a freight train. There were maybe five. There were also some sort of drifters who you'd see -- some pretty scary types who would linger in the bushes and ride the freights. So it's -- we -- there are still people doing it, but not too many.

I mean, the one guy who does it in our film, I mean, he's now doing it for adrenalin. He did it out of necessity in the '30s to help feed his family. But now, he just -- it kind of got into his blood so he doesn't -- he just does it. He's got a home and everything. He does it for kicks.

GROSS: You've got thousands of letters from senior citizens who rode the rails as teenagers. Ten people are actually interviewed in your movie. What did you do with the rest of the letters?

UYES: Well, what's happening with the rest of the letters is that because there were so many moving stories that we couldn't include, we're doing a companion book to the film, and that's actually being written by my father, Errol Lincoln Uyes (ph). And that is going to be coming out in the spring, and it's sort of a Studs Terkel treatment of all the -- all the letters and really following the film. It includes the people who are in the film, but it also includes these other stories and more details.

And we're just very glad that they can somehow be included because film was just a very different medium and you can't really get to know more than seven or 10 people in a film.

GROSS: Well, Michael Uyes, I want to thank you very much for talking with us about your movie, and good luck with it.

UYES: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Michael Uyes is the co-director and co-producer of the new documentary "Riding the Rails." It opens September 5th in Los Angeles and September 12th in New York, where it will share the bill with "Wild Boys of the Road."

It will open in other cities around the country over the next couple of months.

Here's an excerpt of Riding the Rails in which Peggy Dehart, formerly Peggy Eaton (ph), reads a letter home that she wrote in the 1930s. She's one of the former teenage hobos we'll meet in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR


PEGGY DEHART, FORMER TEENAGE HOBO: Issaquah, Washington. July 17, 1938. We're starting back for Idaho Monday. The law won't let girls work in the orchards here. Tell them all hello for me. Slim gave me a rabbit's foot -- sure brought luck, too. Ha. Ha. Don't worry. Take me back to old Wyoming, for I'm getting tired of roaming. Take me back to old Wyoming for to say. Don't worry. Love and kisses, Peggy Eaton.

Oh, if you ain't got the do re mi, friends
You ain't got the do re mi
You better go back to beautiful Texas
Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee

California's the Garden of Eden
It's a paradise to live in or see
But believe it or not
You won't find it so hot
If you ain't got the do re mi

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Michael Uyes
High: Film maker Michael Uyes. His latest project is Riding The Rails which he co-wrote, co-produced, and co-directed. The documentary film recounts the experiences of the more than 250,000 teenagers who left their homes during The Great Depression and hopped on trains in search for a better life.
Spec: Movie Industry; History; Transportation; The Depression; Riding the Rails
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Riding the Rails
Date: SEPTEMBER 02, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090202np.217
Head: Riding The Rails Participants
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:35

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Both of my guests left home and rode the rails back in the 1930s during the Great Depression. They're both featured in the new documentary "Riding the Rails."

Jim Mitchell left his home in Wisconsin when he was 16. Peggy Dehart left her home in Wyoming when she was 15. He later served in World War II and made promotional films for the auto industry. She later ran a business with her husband and became a missionary in Trinidad.

Peggy Dehart now lives in Spokane, Washington, and Jim Mitchell in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Jim Mitchell told me why he started riding the rails.

JIM MITCHELL, PARTICIPANT, "RIDING THE RAILS": The railroad was the quickest way to get away from the misery of home. That's -- the simple answer is that -- get away from the unemployment, the relief lines. So we got on -- so you got on, you grab a passenger train and head on down the road.

Of course, you were about 30, 40 minutes into the ride, why, you were cold and miserable. And if it were raining, you were in a mess and you wished you were home. But you'd made your decision and so that was it.

Basically, you did it to just get away -- I did it to get away from the misery of the Depression.

GROSS: Peggy Dehart, how did you end up riding the rails?

PEGGY DEHART, PARTICIPANT, "RIDING THE RAILS": I was working with my father. We lived on a ranch in Wyoming, and very little money at hand. And I was in high school and had no money for clothes. And I was helping my dad milk, and an old cow switched me in the eye with her dirty tail and I got up and whopped her one and cussed her out, and my dad came across the aisle and slapped me.

And I said: "I'll leave home." And he says: "you'll be back for supper."

And about a week later, I went to work for a neighbor for a dollar a week, and I worked two and a half weeks, and took my two dollars and a half and left with another girl to hitchhike and ride freight trains to Issaquah, Washington. I was gone 33 days, and on the 33rd day, I was home in time for supper.

GROSS: Jim, how long were you gone?

MITCHELL: Oh, I -- these would be various sorties. I'd go out and I'd be gone for two or three weeks; sometimes a month. And then I'd come home and you'd be around, then you'd take off again. There was no -- no long, protractedness. This went on for over, oh, about a year, year and a half.

GROSS: Would you each remember for me the very first time you jumped a train?

MITCHELL: Sure. First time, I damn near got killed. I went down to the railroad station with a buddy of mine. What you do is you get to the head of the platform and you wait, and when the conductor says "aboard," then you wait. And the engine starts up, and it gain -- when it gains speed and gets up toward the end of the platform, you run for the ladder on the back of the tender and up and into the blind of the first car.

And I'll never forget it -- it was either the first or second sortie out. I was riding the blind with an old bum across from me, and we each snuggled into our own side and held on for dear life. About a couple of roads -- couple of stops down the road, an old bull -- a bull got on that -- he was a pretty scruffy character.

And he looked, and there was no place in the blind and he had to hook -- put his foot around the ladder going up the tender. And so he had a bag that he had -- a bag wrapped up in a rope and he put it up on top of the tender. And he says: "watch my bag, kid." And I, you know, I said: "not a chance," because I had all I could do to take care of myself.

Well, the wind and the rattling of the rails pretty soon took that bag and smashed it against the car and down into the wheels went all of this man's possessions. And with fire in his eye, he dashed over toward me and he says: "damn kid, I told you to watch my bag." And this old bull, I'll never -- I don't know who he is, but I owe my -- he stepped between us and he says: "you touch the kid and I'll kill you."

And the guy turned stone white, went back -- and that's one of my first trips on the train and I'll never forget it. And wherever that old bull is, I owe my life to him.

GROSS: Jim, would you describe what the "blind" and the "tender" are that you're referring to?

MITCHELL: Well, if you've seen motion pictures, there's an engine -- a big black steel thing up in the front, driven by steam. And back of that is a tender that holds water and coal for creating the steam. And then, that is hooked up to the first car.

And the "blind" is literally the door opening. It's where the door is, and it's the coupling between the two cars. And if it's the first car right in back of the tender, the blind -- it'll be open so you can stand in there sort of, a little bit out of the wind and weather.

GROSS: So when you were riding in the blind of the car, you were actually riding more or less in between two cars.

MITCHELL: That's right...

GROSS: ... holding on for dear life.

MITCHELL: ... you were riding -- yes, you were riding between the first car and the tender of the engine.

GROSS: And Peggy, would you remember for us the first time you jumped the train?

DEHART: Yes, I was in Cokeville (ph), Wyoming, which is the end of the world. And my girl friend with -- she was 17. I was 15. And we walked -- we were going up the road and having little luck in catching, thumbing a ride. And it was because we were too close to the state line. And we walked by the stockyards, and here were some bums cooking a pot of stew and had coffee.

And they asked us if we were hungry and we always said "yes" and we went in and ate with them. And they said: "well, you kids are gonna have trouble getting out of here because that state line's so close." And in the '30s, people were very leery about carrying people over a state line, especially young girls.

And so they said: "why don't you just catch a freight with us? We'll help you." And so the freight came in and the water pump -- the water, where the steam engine watered up was right there, and they came in to water up and we caught a -- they helped us into a big car that had been hauling wheat and there was paper inside of the walls.

And so they helped us on and as we left the station, we were all four sitting in the door of this box car and I was swinging my legs and suddenly this one man slapped my shins and says: "keep your legs down. You hit a switch on the railroad, it'll jerk you right off into eternity."

And so, I learned real quick. But they were very kind to us and in the -- we rode that thing all that night and all the next day into the next evening to Nampa, Idaho. They taught us how to roll up in the paper from the walls to shield ourselves from the wind and the cold at night. And it did get cold at night, even though this was in late July.

GROSS: Did you find it hard to jump on a train that was moving?

DEHART: Yes, it was. At Nampa, we had to change trains and the -- at the jungle where we were, there was a kind of an amphitheater and it was filled with men. There was men everywhere. I have no idea how many. But there was only one box car on the whole train that was open, and it was there in front of that amphitheater and the bulls were pacing up and down with their lanterns and their rifles. And...

GROSS: The "bulls" were the train cops.

DEHART: Yes, the railroad cops. Mm-hmm. And we -- so when the rail -- when the train started, when it jerked loose, this whole body of people rose up like one person and rushed for that door, and I was the first one there. And somebody -- I have no idea who -- picked me up by the nap of my neck and the seat of my pants and pitched me into that car. And my girl friend was right behind me, and she was carrying a tin suitcase, of all things. We crawled into a corner and set that suitcase up in front of us.

It was very dark in there. And these two men -- one of them called out my name, and I answered. And they came and sat in front of us.

GROSS: Did men prey on you while you were on the road?

DEHART: No, I never had any -- not riding the rails. We had one incident in a car. Of course, I was a kid and I looked like a kid. And people would give me their change out of their pockets and fed us, you know, every time they had an opportunity.

GROSS: Jim, would you describe for me what it was like on a typical freight train, when you were on a freight train, in a box car with other people?

MITCHELL: The thing Peggy was talking about -- wrapping up in papers and so forth -- we called those -- those were known pejoratively as "Hoover blankets." And it was a way to keep warm, and paper is a wonderful, wonderful way to keep warm.

Most of the freight trains we ever rode on, we either rode on the top or we rode in empty cars.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

MITCHELL: And I must confess I never rode with -- there were not a lot of people on the trains that we rode on.

GROSS: Jim, how would you decide where you wanted to go?

MITCHELL: You didn't. You got on and you went. You didn't care where you went. There was no -- you had no destination. There was no destination. It was just like how did we know in the Depression -- how did we know it was ever going to end? We didn't know what it was going to happen during the Depression.

I think that's safe to say, I think, isn't it, Peggy? We didn't know -- nobody knew if it was ever going to end.

DEHART: Well, I did. I had a goal. When I left Wyoming, I was headed for Issaquah, Washington. So I...

MITCHELL: Oh, you had a -- OK.

DEHART: It was the place where this girl's parents lived.


DEHART: So we did have a goal. And so when someone asked us where we were going, we could always say "home" either direction, because one of us had a home in that direction.

So, we did have a goal.

MITCHELL: Yeah, well, you're getting -- you're -- you -- well. You're -- this is one of -- you're getting two different perspectives on the Depression. As a matter of fact, if I may, may I -- from my perspective, can I put the Depression in perspective?

GROSS: Please, go ahead.

MITCHELL: Because -- see, in the '20s, when I was 10, 11 years old, Lindbergh had just flown across the Atlantic. My father was working five and a half days a week. Everything was rosy. Radio was coming and the world was bright and cheerful.

Then hit '29 and things started to fall apart, and slowly the country started to deteriorate. And so it was from that perspective that I left and went bumming on the road. Because when I was a boy about 15, I -- my father came home -- I'll never forget this -- he came home early one morning and I was on my way to school, and he come in and I heard him come in, and he put his lunch bucket on the table, and he -- first time I ever saw my father cry. He was out of work.

And it was from that perspective that you wanted to get on the train and go -- you wanted to get away. At least I did.

GROSS: Jim, what did you parents think of you going on the road? Your father was out of work. The family was hit hard by the Depression. But did they approve of you riding the rails?

MITCHELL: I never was scolded for it. I was never lectured to about leaving. I just -- they trusted me. I'm certain that my parents trusted me. They didn't -- and...

GROSS: Was it one less mouth to feed? Was it a relief in a way?

MITCHELL: That's pretty much the size of it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

MITCHELL: And you could put it that way. And my father was busy every day standing in long unemploy -- in employment lines trying to get what little bit of work he could. And so when you were gone, that was another -- and they knew I was able to take care of myself so they never really worried about me.

So when I came home, I was welcomed home again. And when I left, you just left.

GROSS: Peggy did you worry about your parents panicking when you took off?

DEHART: Well, of course I thought about that. I -- you know, I know all about Depression because our income -- our liquid income was probably $300 a year. We were on a ranch so we had our own milk, butter and eggs, and there were three things that would always grow: corn, beans, and potatoes. So, we had three things that we could always eat.

And so we never knew -- I -- there was just no money. That's why I left. I wanted to earn some money to buy some clothes for high school. I rode four miles horseback to catch a bus to go in to high school. We didn't consider ourselves poor because everybody where we lived lived the same way.

GROSS: Did either of you succeed in making money -- which you both set out to do?


MITCHELL: You asked about making money. There was one source of income, at least for boys, and that was carnivals. And you'd go and you'd hook up with a carnival and you'd, for the night, and you'd work as a shill. And you could pick up a dollar or two and that'd hold you over for a while.

GROSS: My guests are Jim Mitchell and Peggy Dehart. They both were teenaged hobos during the Depression. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Peggy Dehart and Jim Mitchell -- two of the people featured in the new film Riding the Rails, a documentary about teenaged hobos during the Depression.

Jim, did you ever stay in one of the hobo jungles? Did you do that often?

MITCHELL: I stayed, oh, a couple of nights I stayed in them and slept under the trees. But I didn't stay very long. I didn't like them because they were -- the characters among them -- they were too weird for me.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Would you describe one of the nights that you stayed there -- what it looked like physically? What it was like to be there?

MITCHELL: Well, physically, in this one, I would guess we came down off the railroad track into this thicket and there were two or three fires and people cooking what they called a "mulligan stew" -- that's probably where it got started was in the jungles. And some fellows shared a -- shared their supper with us that night.

And we had a little bedroll and we went over and some fellows had a lean -- there was a lean-to made out of some metal roofing -- and leaned over, and so we were in there. And we stayed that night. It was not very memorable and it was pretty miserable. I didn't like it at all.

GROSS: Where did you stay when you weren't staying in one of the jungles?

MITCHELL: You'd stay in a barn -- you'd stay in barns; sleep -- sometimes, you'd even sleep in a jail. And you'd go in and -- the first time we learned this trick, you'd go into a small town and you'd go into the -- here, you're a kid about 15, 16 years old, and so, you go into the policeman and you smile at him and say: "what's the smallest crime I can commit that will put me in overnight?"

And nine out of 10 times, he'd smile and he'd say: "c'mon, follow me." And he'd take you back and he'd say: "sorry, but I've gotta lock you up." And then you'd go in the cell and he'd lock the door and there you'd stay during the night.

Next morning, he'd let you out and you'd go and have some -- cup of coffee with the guys, and take off and go down and find a restaurant where you could get a meal or try to earn some money and buy a few rolls for some coffee.

GROSS: Peggy, I have a question for you that might seem a little indiscreet, but when men are riding the rails and they have to relieve themselves, they can kind of, you know, do it fairly easily. It's much more difficult for a woman, especially a woman in a male subculture. What did you do when you were riding the train for many hours at a shot and you had to relieve yourself?

DEHART: Only one time that I did, and that was on the first railroad ride -- the first box car that we rode from Cokeville, Wyoming to Nampa, Idaho. And we held -- we had -- there was paper in the room and in the box car and there was only the four of us. And so, my girl friend would hold up this big sheet of paper from -- torn from the walls to make a little privacy. And then I would do the same for her.

But I did not relieve myself all the way from Nampa, Idaho to LaGrande, Oregon. There was no way...


DEHART: ... just too many men in the car. And none of them did, to my knowledge, either.

GROSS: Hmm. I'm wondering if you both felt when you were on the road that you were turning into people you didn't recognize. You know, you were unable to bathe; you had no money; you had little or no food; you were being chased by the police and driven out of town and sleeping in jail.

DEHART: I think, for me, it gave me more confidence to know that I could survive away from my family. It give me confidence to know that even though there's a big world out there, that you can survive. And you don't have to have somebody helping you at home. And you don't have to have four walls around you to be confident and to be able to get by.

I mean, it gave -- it helped me in later years to have the stamina to stand some of the rigors that I've had to gone through.

GROSS: Jim, what about you? Did you feel like you were turning into somebody you didn't recognize?

MITCHELL: From my perspective, being on the road really was sort of like being in a fog. It was -- it was a means of getting away. And I doubt if I psychoanalyzed myself. You just drifted, as far as I was concerned. And as far as being self-sufficient, guess I never thought much about that. I always thought that I was fairly well self-sufficient.

GROSS: Jim, you got off the road by joining the CCC -- the Civilian Conservation Corps which was part of...


GROSS: ... FDR's -- one part of FDR's programs to get the country out of the Depression. Would you briefly describe what the CCC was like and what it offered to you as a teenager?

MITCHELL: First place, the Civilian Conservation Corps -- it was run -- it was administered by the United States Army, and I was lucky to serve under people who treated you with what's today called "tough love." Man, I don't know -- I wish I knew whatever happened to him. Man by the name of Captain J.B. Entringer (ph) -- I don't know what would have happened to me if I didn't -- hadn't had his guidance and discipline.

And we were -- first camp we lived in, we were up in Merrill (ph), Wisconsin at Camp New Wood (ph), and we did roadside clearing. We put in fire lanes; did stream renewal. And we did a lot of -- there was a lot of soil conservation work done.

You know, I think it's fair to say that I doubt if the park system we have in America today would be in existence if it had not been for the Civilian Conservation Corps because we left New Wood -- we went down to Wausau and built camp -- Rib Mountain State Park. And I stayed in there until I was 19 years old, and then I went back to high school.

GROSS: Did you each tell your children when you had children about your experiences during the Depression?

DEHART: Not until they were grown.

GROSS: You waited that long.



MITCHELL: Well, you try to tell them, but they don't understand and you can't explain it to them. You know, they've got all the food they want; they've got all the money they want; they've got cars; they've got everything. How can you explain when you don't have anything?

That's why I don't know what would happen to this country if we ever -- if we ever hit another Depression. I just can't imagine.

GROSS: Peggy, why did you wait 'til your children were grown to tell them?

DEHART: Well, I didn't want them doing the same thing. And it was a different era, too. So, I didn't want -- I didn't want the romance of the thing to get to them in their teenage years.

GROSS: I bet they were shocked when they found out what their mother had done.

DEHART: Well, I think they were somewhat, yes.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.

DEHART: Thank you for asking.

MITCHELL: Thank you.

GROSS: Peggy Dehart and Jim Mitchell are both featured in the new documentary Riding the Rails, about teenaged hobos during the Depression. The film opens September 5 in Los Angeles, September 12 in New York. It will open in other cities over the next couple of months.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Jim Mitchell; Peggy Dehart
High: In this part of the show, Terry Gross talks with two people who as teenagers who left home and road trains during The Great Depression. Jim Mitchell and Peggy Dehart are both featured in Michael Uyes film Riding The Rails. Mitchell was 16 years old in 1933 when he first board a train. Dehart was 15 in 1938.
Spec: Movie Industry; History; Riding the Rails; The Depression; Transportation; Trains
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Riding The Rails Participants
Date: SEPTEMBER 02, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090203NP.217
Head: Vietnamese Poetry
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: There have been a lot of news stories lately about growing business ties between America and Vietnam. But cultural links between the two countries are also flourishing. One example of this is the newly-published poetry collection called "The Women Carry River Water." It's by the prominent North Vietnamese poet Nguyen Thieu (ph).

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of the first book-length English translation of Thieu's work.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Poet Nguyen Thieu was born in 1957 in a village near Hanoi. The "American War," as it was called, was the central grim fact of life during Thieu's childhood and adolescence. His poems overflow with recollections of starvation, village war widows, and sniper fire.

The war ended when Thieu was in high school and he went on to study at Hanoi University. Later, he learned English during a stay in Cuba.

Now the editor of a literary magazine in Hanoi, Thieu has published four books of poetry as well as novels and children's stories. A few years ago on a visit to a writers workshop at the University of Massachusetts, Thieu read three of his poems, which he had himself roughly translated into English.

Hearing them, a creative writing teacher named Martha Collins (ph) was inspired to work with Thieu to produce more sophisticated translations. The result of their collaboration is "The Women Carry River Water." The book is bilingual in format. The Vietnamese and English versions of Thieu's poems appear on facing pages.

To American readers of Thieu's age or older, the sight of his words -- his northern Vietnamese phrases -- side by side on the printed page with their English equivalents, is as unsettling as it is miraculous. Thieu refers to himself as a "dreamy poet" and there is something hallucinatory about many of his images.

In his weaker poems, the visions just seem to fade out into pointlessness. In his more striking poems, however, the material world dissolves into more vivid shapes created by memory and desire. One of those poems, "On the Highway," describes a line of women trudging along the side of a road carrying bamboo shrimp pots.

In a flash, or maybe it's a flashback, the women transform into a line of defeated soldiers. Thieu writes: "the pot handles bend down like empty rifles; fish scales cling to their clothes and glitter like medals. They expect no welcome; await no acclamation."

Thieu transports his American readers into an exotic, pre-industrial landscape where village women -- their hair bound with blades of grass and their bony toes spread like chicken feet -- routinely carry buckets down to the river for drinking water. Like his Victorian counterpart Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thieu regards nature as being red in tooth and claw.

In his poem "The Field," he recalls "hungry grasshoppers lifting their wings to flutter in the villagers throats."

Not surprisingly, the efficient cruelty of nature calls to mind the barbarism of war in many of Thieu's poems. In "The Black Ants," for instance, ants overrun a deserted banquet table as if it were a battlefield -- creeping over bones, fighting their way through spilled red pepper that makes their eyes water.

The most memorable poems in this collection, though, are the ones in which Thieu expresses his sharp yearning to return to the village of his childhood and to be reunited with his presumably dead mother. Here's part of the first stanza of his poem "The Day River."

"The day river flows through my life
Like my mother, coming home through our gate
With heavy baskets of rice at the end of the day
I'd rub my face on her sweat-soaked back
As cool as the river at night"

As with so many of Thieu's poems, even this one seems to hint at the war as its underlying sub-text. What joy and relief those evening reunions must have held for Thieu, a child of war for whom no reunion could have been taken for granted.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Women Carry River Water" by Nguyen Thieu.

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: There have been a lot of news stories lately about growing business ties between America and Vietnam. But cultural links between the two countries are also flourishing. One example of this is the newly-published poetry collection called "The Women Carry River Water."
Spec: Asia; Vietnam; Books; Poetry; The Women Carry River Water
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Vietnamese Poetry
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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