Continued from the Feb. 25th issue. Please visit thewaynedalenews.com to read all previous parts.
Living there besides the railroad in the twenties and thirties we waved to the firemen and engineers who kept the big locomotives going and soon felt they were our friends. In the winter, the engineer would signal and Dad would go out, gunnysack in hand, and pick up the coal firemen threw down for him. Many a warm fire was a result of the railroader’s gift. In the summer, the signal meant, “Bring a container for some ice,” and we would have ice and water to drink. Or if we were really lucky and could afford them, Dad would go to the store for some lemons so we could enjoy a real treat—lemonade. And on the Fourth of July the men tossed down fusses so we children could have a celebration without the firecrackers our friends had.
I do not know if the railroaders do as much for people in need now, but I think they probably do. I have some fond memories of the very kind men of long ago.
Those Depression days’ men, boys, and entire families moved restlessly about searching for work and new homes. Many of these displaced persons rode the rails. It was free. It was also very dangerous, but those chances had to be taken. When the engine stopped near Hercules Coal Company to take on coal and water, the boxcar doors slid open and men of all ages climbed out and came down the embankment looking for food and work. These fellows were often in threadbare jackets even in the coldest weather. The boys had pinched blue faces. Some looked so young while others appeared much older than they were. They asked for food, for work, and for newspapers. The latter they wrapped around themselves under their thin jackets. They folded them to fit inside shoes with thin, broken or worn out soles. Even though we were on relief, we did have a garden. I do not remember anyone being turned away. Whatever we had, we shared. These people did not want just a handout. They wanted to hoe the garden, chop wood, and do something to repay us. The most pathetic of all were the entire families traveling in boxcars. Some had families to whom they were going. Others were just roaming until they found a new home and work. Parents and children, some quite small children, came off the trains and to our door. We did what we could to help.
Most of the so-called hobos, displaced people, got back on the train and moved on. Sometimes a few of them would set up a little encampment among the lumber piles in the storage yard and stay a few days scouting for work. For this reason, although most of the men were kind, gentle people, we children were not allowed to go into the storage area without an adult.
I have no idea how many worn photos of parents, wives, and children we were shown. The weary travelers were homesick for any contact with their family but stayed so briefly in one place that letters were not practical. And long distance calling was not as common as today. Also, there was no money for such luxury. Those families traveling so dangerously on the railroad were willing to take chances if the family could stay together.
We were still living by the railroad in the mid-thirties when are family celebrated the never-to-be-forgotten Five Dollar Christmas. My brothers and I still talk about that year, that Christmas. Many years and many Christmases later we still recall that day as though it were yesterday.
By some miracle, Mother had managed to save Five Dollars to use for gifts, one dollar each. She and I bundled up for our shopping trip. Snow covered the streets and the day was bitterly cold as we walked from our home on Broadway downtown to buy gifts. The street cars (#4 and #11 on the Belt Line) passed our house but we could not think of spending any of our precious money on the streetcar fare-seven cents per person each way.
North on Broadway to Jefferson and east on Jefferson to Calhoun was the route we took. At the corner was Grant’s Five and Dime Store. Several years later my friend Lorraine Erbe, and I pooled our nickels (one each) for a bottle of Pepsi, two glasses and two straws. Lorraine and I took music lessons (free on borrowed 12 bass Hohner accordions) at Thanes Music Store located just south of the alley between Lewis and Jefferson on Calhoun. Thanes was trying to build a large accordion band and gave youngsters like us a chance to use their instruments.
Mother and I hunted through Grant’s. Finding nothing we felt appropriate, we walked north on Calhoun Street the cold wind making us miserable. Between Berry Street and Main Street were three-dime stores Woolworth’s, Kresge’s and Neisner’s. We renewed our search for gifts and found a pocketknife for dad. It had to be a good, sturdy one for Dad loved to whittle and carve from a solid block of wood probably a piece of 2″ by 2″ a little straight chair painted blue just as he made it for me when I was seven.
With Dad’s gift found, we began looking for Don, age 8 and Dale, 6 ½. At least we discovered some small wooden tool chests each containing a little hammer, a saw, a carpenter’s pencil, small T-square, and screwdriver. My brother, Don, says he kept his little tool chest for many years. We could hardly believe our good fortune the toolboxes were ninety-eight cents each! We had now spent ninety-nine cents for Dad’s knife and one dollar ninety six cents for the boy’s gifts leaving us two dollars and five cents.
Mother and I parted company-she going in one direction to find my gift and, and I went looking for hers. At last I found a little china cat family-mama and three kittens for ninety-eight cents. Clutching my precious package and two pennies I met Mother at the front entrance of the store. The shopping bag we had brought was now full and we started home with our treasures, well content.
Yes, we walked home rejoicing we still had nine cents left! Christmas morning we celebrated around a little tree set up on a small table. Dad had unloaded coal for Hercules Coal Company to earn money for the little tree. We three children strung popcorn and cranberries to trim the tree and we also made a few paper chains. The popcorn, cranberries, and a bag of hazel nuts we received from our grandparents in southern Illinois.
Dad was pleased with his knife and sharpened some pencils right away to show how well it worked. Don and Dale, my brothers, wanted to build something right away but were promised “later.” Mother, who longed for a real live cat, just like the one we had long ago, set her gift up on a corner shelf so she could walk by and admire it often. And I put some of my treasures in the little cedar chest-my gift. Today the cedar chest holds beautiful hankies I’ve collected through the years. We had a wonderful Christmas-a Christmas to remember.
My brothers and I grew up and learned to love and appreciate our family, our home and our country. My parents taught us to be a proud American. We were also taught respect for people of all races, creeds, even those among us who did not speak our language. We were taught never to use a dilatory name for another person. Some of these people, my father explained, came from different countries than our ancestors, but now, we were all Americans. And everyone should be respected. We saw, first hand, our parents respect and friendship for all our neighbors. Life became a little better for us as my father went into construction work. It seemed to us, as to many families, that we had come through the hard years and life would once again be really better.
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