I began hopping freights when I was 10 years old. Of course, I had ridden freight trains for fun as a 9-year-old, but only for short trips. By the time I was 15 years old, I had hopped more freight trains with unknown destinations that I marvel at how agile I was then. I am amazed today that I wasn’t killed or maimed.
In those perilous days, I wasn’t afraid of anything or anybody. I remember my first lesson in freight hopping. A freight train was pulling out of the Missouri Pacific yards at about 25 miles per hour, a little fast. I grabbed for the ladder to climb to the top of a boxcar, but slipped and fell, my right arm landing on the track. The wheels clickety-clacked, swiftly now. I jerked my arm off the track and rolled off the gravel tie bed.
I get the shivers now when I think how close I came to getting my arm cut off by a boxcar wheel. Why would an American boy in his early teens run that kind of risk? The answer was easy. We were the urchins of the great Depression.
When I kissed my mother goodbye one summer morning in 1935, I caught an outbound freight. The eight-wheel steam engine blew a cloud of smoke and cinders in heavy strain to pull 50 or 60 boxcars.
I ran full tilt, and finally someone grabbed my wrists to pull me into the boxcar. It was a young hobo around my age.
“Jeez, Bo,” he said, “I thought you were a goner.”
I thanked him as my eyes cleared to see 11 other youths in the dark corners of that boxcar. Juvenile hobos were human discards who came from farms and inner cities. We all had the same goals – to relieve our families of the burdens to care for us and to find a job. That year, unknown to me, of course, a Chicago research group estimated the juvenile hobo population at a half-million between the ages of 11 and 17. Some had not attended high school.
“God is guts – He keeps you pushing on,” a young hobo, who went by the name Blink, once said. And it’s something I will never forget. Blink had a patch over his left eye, which had been burned out by a hot cinder.
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.