Riding the Rails

Nov 5, 1997 at 12:00 am

"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Janis Joplin might have been singing about a free love throw-down with Bobby McGee, but for the teenage railroad gypsies of the Great Depression, freedom was the booby prize from a society that could offer them very little -- least of all, hope. A quarter million youths, barely past puberty, left homes ravaged by financial ruin to seek better fortune farther down the line. But as this very handsome little film testifies, the line ran through the same sad territory, from sea to shining sea.

Directors Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell, inspired by Thomas Minehan's Boy and Girl Tramps, wrote to a variety of retiree publications, looking for former rail kids. The response was sensational. Out of more than 3,000 respondents, they assembled a cast of 10 colorful old-timers, male and female, willing to tell their stories on camera.

Most of them came from working-class homes in the oblivion of small-town America. But John Fawcett, the son of a well-to-do ophthalmologist, also took off looking for adventure. In some way or another, each one, particularly Fawcett, came to be politicized in a deeply personal way by their experience.

Cynics no doubt will smell the white liberal rat of the PBS-NPR axis scurrying through the film's message: Unfettered capitalism caused a lot of grief, and were it not for FDR's New Deal, the grief would have hurt a lot more. A bleeding-heart ode to the welfare state, no? Yet, what if the stock market of 1997, recently very skittish, went down for the long count? Where's the safety net? Bill Clinton is no FDR and all the fine folks living in gated communities are certainly not going to break out stepladders to help hobos in tattered Brooks Brothers suits scale the fences to get at a free hot dinner on the sun deck or a soak in the hot tub. The Depression exposed the social Darwinism inherent in capitalism's rigged pyramid structure. Today we strut around, right on the apex, due for a free fall. Heaven forbid if the fickle hand of fate, baiting us with delusions of perpetual prosperity, were to give America a shove.

Eventually the rail kids put down roots. The drive to do something with their lives gnawed at them, even in those days when there was nothing for them to do. Only a spry old bird named Guitar Whitey revisited the rail yard. At 72, he dabbles in a gentleman vagrancy, using his summer vacations to tour America alfresco.

For all the participants, however, the sense of freedom they fondly remember has always been tempered with the realization that the mystery train would never reach a promised land.

Living in hobo jungles filled with dodgy characters and scavenging in trash cans took the romance out of the rails quickly. They settled into average American lives, working hard at jobs they never would or could take for granted. The voice of experience, that lonely rattle of a midnight freight, warned them against it. The same eyes that sparkle often well with tears, remembering the hardships.

So whatever socially activist perspective the film has comes not from the filmmakers, but from informants who know exactly what desperation sounds like. Good thing they tell us, so that we too will know when the train's a-comin'.

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