Sunday, September 21, 2008


During the Great Depression, it was common for unemployed people to “move on,” traveling westward, as they searched for something better.

I remember a number of drifters – people “down on their luck” – walking through the countryside and stopping at farms, offering to do several day’s work in exchange for food and permission to sleep in the barn hayloft. And then, as there were no permanent jobs available, they were ready to move on.

Some traveled by rail, finding various ways to ride the freight trains without paying. In towns along the railroad, they often went to homes and offered to split firewood or do various other chores in exchange for a warm meal or two.

A number of these fellows managed to pick up quite an extensive informal education along the way. They kept their eyes open and remembered everything. Listening to tales of their experiences was usually quite interesting to those of us who had never traveled far from our homes.

Some of the vagabonds, not finding success on the Gold Coast of California, or anywhere else in the Far West, worked their way back across the country. They had wondrous tales to tell about working in wheat fields so large that there was “wheat in every direction and as far as the eyes could see.” Others had worked in salmon canneries or as stevedores who loaded ocean-going ships. There were men who said they had milked cows all day long in huge California dairies. I recall one older fellow who told of shearing sheep, day after weary day, in Wyoming. And a few had actually prospected – looked for gold ore – unsuccessfully, in the rugged western mountains.


“Windy” Jackson was a drifter
Who once visited our town.
As a talker, he could
Just go on and on.

He’d converse with almost any
Person who had time to talk.
He stayed with us for three
Weeks and then was gone.

“Lefty” James once listened to old
Windy for an hour, then said.
“There can’t be much you ain’t
Seen under the sun.

“You seem to have all the answers
But I still ain’t heard you tell
Where you’ve gone to school and
What great deeds you’ve done.”

Windy said, “In a small country
School I learned to read and write.
From there on it was the
Tough school of hard knocks.

I’ve milked lots of California
Cows and threshed Dakota wheat
And I’ve punched my share of
Factory time clocks.

“I’ve won no Olympic medals,
But have a few special skills –
At spitting tobacco-juice,
I can’t be beat.

“If there were some competition,
I’d be the long-distance champ.
If need be, I could spit
Clean across this street.

I’m so accurate that I can
Hit a bull’s eye, slick and clean.
Even as a wing-shot,
I’m better than fair.

“Should some unlucky mud dauber
Wasp come flying past this bench
I’ll blast that poor sucker
Right out of the air.

“No matter what I am doing,
I try my dead-level best
I’ve no need to hang my
Head or feel ashamed.

“I ain’t held no public office
So if our great country gets
Into a mess there’s no
Way I can be blamed.

“I’ve met lots of pretty women
In all my travels, but I’ve
Never wooed and wed a
Woman of my own.

“Many years ago some wise man
Kind of summed it up this way:
’He who travels fastest
Must move on alone.’

Like a rolling stone, I gather
No moss or money or fame,
I’ve no wish to become
President or king.

I just keep moving on, trying
To learn everything I can
Traveling and talking
Seem to be my thing.”

1 comment:

Nomad said...

recently I listened to NPR- a radio program called "American Life" and there was a retrospective of Stud Terkel who passed away last week. Sadly, because his collection of powerful interviews has had a lot to with keeping the memories of the Depression and its effects on people. It seems we may be in danger of re-living that situation again too. Come and visit my site, I welcome friends.