[Note: After World War II, Norman worked for thirty-six years as a locomotive engineer on the Canadian National Railways in Canada, mainly Alberta. Our family has known him since 1958. He has given us permission to use his story. A more detailed story about Norman can be seen in “I Have a Story to Tell”.]
It was early summer, 1933. I had quit school in March of that year, it was the height of the Great Depression (later dubbed the Hungry Thirties); and, because my mother had been widowed three years prior, we were just living from hand to mouth and I decided to go to work to help support the home. I was pushing sixteen, hardly a candidate for the job market where competition was fierce for jobs that were few and far between.
A friend of mine who was a couple of years older but with severely impaired vision (he was born with cataracts on his eyes) suggested that we hit for British Columbia to look for work. I jumped at the thought. I felt deep within, of course, that we didnt have a ghost of a chance of finding work in B.C. anymore than in my own home province [of Alberta]. It was adventure more than anything that spurred my eagerness. I was ready to see the world. We would, of course. make freight trains our mode of transportation. Hundreds were doing it, spawning a hobo segment of society that grew with the times. We would become hobos.
My mother was horrified and tried to talk me out of it, but I was almost sixteen and I had all the answers. We knew what deprivation was, I said; things couldnt get worse, I argued, little knowing that what I still had to learn about the big world beyond me would come hard and fast through experiences that were soon to unfold.
We rigged up a gunny sack with a stout rope tied to each end so that we could sling it over the shoulder and have free hands for grasping moving ladders or climbing into open boxcars. Each of our bags contained a light make-shift sleeping bag and some food for the start of the trip, at least. And, yes, we had cash in our pocket I had a one-dollar bill.
So, on a dark night about 1 am, we removed ourselves to the coal dock a couple of miles away where all trains stopped for coal and inspection. We waited for number 403, a daily freight train that ran on an approximate schedule, to arrive. It screeched to a stop and we hurriedly looked for an empty boxcar and climbed aboard. A few minutes more of comparative stillness and, without regard for the comfort or safety of its newly acquired passengers, lurched forward into motion. We were on our way, never knowing from that moment on what the next minute would bring.
We clickitey-clacked through the night with sleep evading us and, as morning brightened into a brand new day, I was seeing unfamiliar landscape; and second thoughts were uncomfortably creeping into my mind. Slowly but surely Moms reasoning began to make real sense. But turning back was less appealing so we stuck with the steel road and wheeled west.
The rest of the ride to the Vancouver area must have been uneventful because I do not recall one solitary thing. Only that, on arriving at Port Mann, we had to make the rest of the journey into and through Vancouver by some other means which I cannot recall. But I do remember arriving at the ferry terminal where we caught a ferry to West Vancouver where my friend’s sister lived. So I had to break into my dollar to buy two one-way tickets which, I think, were twenty cents each. That made a big hole in my dollar.
His sister welcomed us with open arms and put us up for the couple of days which we were able to squeeze out of our tight schedule, or so we thought. It was great to get a square meal and a chance to clean up and get set for the next step of the journey. On leaving, she gave him a dollar and some food for the road. Another outlay of cold cash for ferry tickets and we were on our way, destination Trail B.C., where my older sister and her family lived. It also hosted a large smelter operation which we had targeted as our hope for employment.
Out of the Vancouver area we caught a train headed east on the C.P. line (which was referred to at that time as the Kettle Valley line). This was not a through freight, so it stopped over every night at its designated terminal. On arrival, if we had not previously been informed by the hobo grapevine, we would ask the locals the inevitable question, Where is the jungle area?
This was an area usually close to the railroad yard but always on the edge of, or out of, town so as not to interfere with or disturb the local residents. Beside water, if possible. There were usually make-shift shelters, fire pits, wind breaks, of all sorts and descriptions brought into being by innovative hobos and frequented by same who were always traveling back and forth, getting nowhere.
Each night on arrival, we would pick our spot, roast a couple of spuds in the open fire, warm up a can of beans or stew, a slice of dry bread and always a pot of coffee made over the open fire in a blackened tin. We had several nights of this so our supplies ran out before we reached our destination. On the last night we were completely out of food. In desperation (so I thought) I went to the outskirts of town, went to the back door of an unpretentious looking home and knocked. The door was cautiously opened part way, a matronly looking woman said, in broken English, What do you want?”
Im out of money and hungry, could you spare a little food?”
She hesitated for a moment and then said, Wait here.
She left the door ajar, which suggested to me she was sending a burly bouncer my way. After an agonizing few minutes she returned with a couple of large slices of good substantial home-made bread and a large slab of cheese. I was never so thankful for anything in my life. For us it was a feast. That was the one and only time in my entire life that I did such a thing.
The following day we arrived at Castlegar late forenoon where we would catch another freight for Trail. Fortunately we found out there was a short train getting ready to head out our way so we climbed aboard but, unfortunately, the police kicked us off. Get the hell off this property! he barked, take the highway and stick to it. That was our first rude treatment by police authority that failed to recognize the rugged culture of the hobo class. Of course, we were too polite to argue.
To the highway we removed ourselves and started the long trek by foot. I believe it was about twenty miles or so to Trail: a sad state of affairs, I thought. We were just nicely out of town when we heard our taxi chugging up along side of us. The highway ran adjacent to the railroad and it was a steep grade that the train was negotiating, so it was laboring at no more than a brisk walk. Duck soup we climbed aboard and made Trail by early afternoon. Worn and weary, tired and hungry, we used the last of our inner human resources to make it to my sisters home with the help of locals steering us to the right address.
I knocked on the door. My brother-in-law opened the door, stared in disbelief for a moment and said emphatically, Its Norman. My sister was in bed with the flu, so he was in the midst of cooking supper and there was the pervading aroma of potatoes frying. How inviting that was! What a feed we had! And what a joy it was to move out of a strange world and away from strange people into a comfortable, welcoming home of blood relatives a sister and a niece and two nephews that I hadnt seen for four years, as well as a brother-in-law whom I always respected.
About the third day of our stay, after getting cleaned up and fed and rested up, with my brother-in- laws guidance, I went to the smelters office to apply for a job. What a joke it must have been for them; they hardly gave my request a thought. Just one more of dozens that were constantly pestering the place for jobs that didn’t exist. I cant say I was surprised. As I confessed at the beginning of this story – I didnt expect anything. Only adventure and now I had plenty of that behind me with much more to come.
We enjoyed our few days there. My side-kick, Spencer, was elated. He even cashed in on a few drinks of whiskey when a friend of my brother-in-law came over for a visit one evening. I still hold a clear mental picture in my mind of him sitting with glass in hand, bolt upright, grinning like a Cheshire cat, his thick glasses evidencing his problem that captured the sympathy of all. But all good things have to come to an end. So we expressed our thanks, said our goodbyes, and hit the road for home, expecting an eventful journey.
We back-tracked from Castlegar towards Vancouver; and, at some point due south of Kelowna, we quit the train and took to the road for a twenty-five mile cross-country hike to Kelowna. We started out late afternoon. About midnight we stopped for a breather, built a campfire and warmed our last can of beans with little to go with it except a good brew of coffee. Now we were out of food and flat broke. We rested a bit, and then walked our way into the dawn and brightness of full day. Finally, the town loomed into view and we were sure we could get there in time to catch a morning train that, hopefully, would be leaving. For the last six miles we were lucky enough to get a lift with a local farmer who was hitting for town early with his fresh produce. Any work to be had around here? we asked.
Not now, he replied, but a little later on when the fruit season gets into full swing there will be some part time work, perhaps.
We couldnt take a chance on the “perhaps” or survive until a “little later on”.
The ride was a nice break but, alas, a little too late. We got the bad news that the train to Kamloops only ran three days a week; this was a Saturday morning and it had already left. There would not be another one until the following Tuesday. Great news, but on the negative side. What now?
We found the jungle area, one of the nicest we had seen, beside water as I recall. It was a beautiful sunny day and we were dog tired. So we let the conscious world carry on while we found a shady spot and moved into dreamland for several restful hours.
On awakening, our first concern was the question of food for which we had no immediate answer. There were quite a few other fellow travelers milling around; and one in particular, an older fellow with a full blown, unkempt beard, that appeared to really know the ropes informed us that a short distance away there was a fruit packing plant. They throw out all the cull cherries, he said, and a lot of them are perfect. Theyre just for the taking.
I was away like a shot. I returned with half a sack full and we ate cherries by the pound.
The next day, Sunday, I went for a short stroll and spotted, on a railroad spur a private coach that likely accommodated some high ranking official. I decided to make a friendly call – to the Chefs end, of course. Have you got any food youre going to throw out? I asked.
Of course, I was not putting the bum on him. I was just a friendly guy willing to help him get rid of any surplus food he had no use for. Oh, Im sorry, he said. Im very busy right now, but if you come back this evening about seven-thirty, I think I can have something for you.
Back I went at the appointed time, and this efficient little guy with a great big heart provided containers with delicious meat and gravy and veggies and dessert and a great big can of rich coffee with real cream in it. I thanked him profusely. Come back tomorrow night if we are still here, he said, I will give you some more.
We had a feast fit for a king and enough left over for a bit on Monday. That night I went back and got the same treatment, we were living like kings. It very nicely sustained us through our greatest time of need. Now, with a little bit of luck, we could make it home even if we didnt have any food on the way.
Does anyone know if the cops are tough in Kamloops?” we asked around. By this time we had learned to feel out” the territory ahead and usually someone could speak factually or share the latest that the grapevine was offering. One thing was sure. There developed a camaraderie that spawned an unwritten code among hobos from coast to coast that made the grapevine a viable means of communication that was, for the most part, reliable.
Not Kamloops, was the general consensus, but Jasper is tough. Make sure you get off as soon as the train slows down to pull into the yard, make for the highway and, unless you have legitimate business to see to, avoid the town like the plague. They want you through the town and out, not in.
We were all day getting to Kamloops, arriving late evening. Nothing to do but scout out the yard, observing the activities of the yard crews; what operation appears to be making up a train on what track that looks suspiciously like a through freight. Then the usual clinching evidence, adding the caboose and the car men walking the length of the train inspecting and oiling the journal boxes of each car. Oh, yes, we could not overlook the attaching of that steam packed locomotive with its belly of fire; that old tireless “iron horse” with “hooves of flint and feet like a whirlwind”.
If my recall is correct, we nailed number 404, our first choice.
The train left early that night and I was glad to be on my way. Home felt within reach and that pleasant feeling helped to counter the hunger pangs that were evident and continuing to become more pronounced. We chugged into the night and some time the next day the beautiful Rocky Mountains became visible in the distance. What a beautiful sight!
By the middle of the day we were approaching Jasper and I felt an inner anxiety beginning to build because I remembered what the ominous message was, the cops are tough in Jasper. Something foreboding, a tense feeling, was starting to build which increased as we neared the town. I was reading more into it than what was warranted, I suppose; but, at fifteen, a novice and first time away from home, I was anticipating the worst scenario and it peaked as the train began to decrease speed.
We were, perhaps, twenty or thirty in number spread throughout the train. The train was still moving at a pretty good clip when one fellow jumped off and took a lively roll. Not me, I thought, its too fast. But others took the lead and began piling off, hitting the solid, stationary ground, rolling down the slight embankment, taking their lumps. Suddenly I caught the action that motivated me and I took my chances. I hit the ground but, try as I did, I couldnt make my legs match the speed of my body so I took a hard roll that shook me up pretty badly.
Just as myself and everyone else was scrambling to get to the right-of-way fence an RCMP officer, appearing from nowhere, came running toward us with drawn pistol shouting, Halt! Halt! Halt!”
No one heeded the order; we just kept going and quickly faded into the bush that skirted the CN property. He never pursued us so we just laid low for a good thirty minutes, and during that time the group began to gather (theres safety in numbers) to plan strategy. We would stay together as a group, take to the highway and proceed to the other side of town. Just as the last few were breaking out of the bush to join the gathering on the highway, this same RCMP officer suddenly jumped out from behind a clump of bush with gun drawn and shouted, OK, you hobos, hands on top of your head, QUICK!
Every syllable of that ominous order was barked out, loud as a shot; clear as a bell, crisp as a snapped twig. I looked at the guy; his uniform loomed larger than Canada. I stared down the barrel of that pistol. To me it looked like a cannon. I could swear it was pointed right at me. I froze and almost did something else.
He, sensing he had us subdued, not the slightest sign of his authority being challenged, addressed us matter-of-factly, Ive got some damn good advice for all of you, he said, the next time you are ordered to halt youd better do just that; were looking for someone in particular and if we see someone running that suits the description well shoot first and ask questions afterwards.There were a few moments of silence as though he was allowing a little time for his advice to sink in. Then, in a much less officious but condescending voice said, We cant take you all in (our safety-in-numbers strategy paid off) but is anyone hungry? We have a little work that needs to be done around the station and we would like two or three of you to give us a hand. Well provide meals and a place to sleep.
Im sure all of us were hungry. I was starving, but I wasnt that hungry; furthermore, I felt that the worst of the ordeal for me was over and I was not far from home. There were no takers. OK, he said, take to the highway and get out of town, all of you! Case closed!
We walked to the east end of town and lingered until that same freight train pulled out. We were pretty sure they wouldnt bother us again, they were only too glad to see us gone. They would gladly turn a blind eye to us continuing to patronize the free gratis railroad service which was fully appreciated.
An hour or more later, the long train began snaking out of the yard. Slow start was always necessary because as soon as the tail end of the train enters the main line the tail-end brakeman has to line the switch to normal position, lock it into place, then run to catch up with the caboose. We climbed aboard, rolled eastward and were soon observing the snow capped Rockies slowly diminishing to a point left behind. The thought of Winston Churchills Freedom from want began to glow in my mind as the thought of home fired my weary being with joyful anticipation of reunion, food, rest, and yes, familiar environment!
We arrived at our destination, the same coal dock where our trip had begun, late at night. We had a couple of miles to walk to our homes which seemed like ten, not because I was tired but because I was anxious and eager to knock on that old familiar door of that humble cottage that was home.
I knocked gently at first, then again a little louder. A voice subdued but familiar, Whos there?
Its me, Mom, Im back.
Oh, she shouted with delight and threw the door open. What a welcome! I dropped my dusty old bag right where I was standing and gave her a big hug. She burst into tears of joy and relief ,and I suddenly realized the pain and worry that I had caused her to suffer. But now it was all in the past. Although late into the night she set about getting some food on the table. I was famished so I ate heartily as we talked later and later into the night. Then to bed, a real bed where I slept away half the next day.
It was over.