Remembering Knights of the Road
(From the Monterey County, CA Herald, 12/17/04) Riding the rails during
the Depression was a way of life for many -- including Carmel's
A Southern Pacific freight train, its rusted boxcars clicking along the
tracks, has become a spectral archtype of the American
landscape. To Theodore Sarbin, to America
in the 1930s, the train carried more than grain and steel. It was a vehicle of hope and adventure.
a 93-year-old retired professor of psychology now living in Carmel. At age 20, he wanted to see the world and
left Cleveland to ride the rails in
1931 at the onset of the Great Depression.
"I remember it was sometime in May. I took extra clothes, a frying
pan and some Bisquick. I started off hitchhiking going west."
"I got as far as Illinois
and I ran into a fellow my age from New York
who said something about taking the freight trains. His name was Irv.
He was out to seek his fortune, too. We
were good company for each other. Oh,
sure there were stories about people losing their limbs hopping freight
says he never saw that, "but, you learned that if you grabbed the ladder
wrong while the train was moving, it was easy to slip and get your foot caught
underneath. You were careful.
A train had no bounds. From the top of a boxcar, the open prairies,
the blue skies above you -- this land was your land, this land was my land --
the train could lead you anywhere.
Traveling west, sometimes with
hundreds of men, they were also bearing witness to a country "dying by
inches" in the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "Some of these guys were farmers from
the Dust Bowl, hoping to get out to California
where they thought there would be sunshine all the time and you could pick
grapefruits off the trees. It was hard
to get into California in
1931. They were cleaning out the
railcars as they got close to the border."
But if you were 20, you had your
life ahead of you. You could watch the
sun rise over the Rocky Mountains. You helped each other. "The train would stop in the morning and
we'd get off and go into town. We'd look
for a YMCA and pay a nickel for a towel and a bar of soap. We'd go up to a bakery. One of us would go in and ask the young woman
behind the counter: Is there any work I
can do? Sometimes they'd give you
work. Washing windows. They'd fill up a bag with bread and
rolls. Then, Irv
would go in and they'd say: Oh, there's
the basement that needs cleaning. We'd
get more rolls.
Theodore Ted Sarbin
was born in 1911 in Cleveland, Ohio
to a Polish mother and a Russian father who made cigars for a living. He was one of six children. Sarbin says he
probably read too many adventure books and was seized with wanderjahr,"
a German expression meaning "year to wander." It was a life without purpose, he says, I
have to admit that. You didn't need
much. Sometimes he sent his parents a
two-cent postcard from the road.
and Irv rode the rails through Texas,
Mexico, and Nevada. In a way, location was beside the point. He remembers the plaintive sound of the train
whistle. "It meant moving on. I never felt sad or depressed out there. I always thought if I went without a meal, so
what? You can always get on a freight
train and go somewhere else. Maybe the
girls in the next bakery will be kinder.
Sometimes they'd walk onto a farm
and work in exchange for something to eat -- fatback bacon, cornbread, gravy. Usually it was
a sandwich out on the porch. They'd
sleep under newspapers in a park. If it
rained, they discovered you could go into a police station and they'd let you
sleep in a jail cell.
There was no violence that I ever
saw. If anything there was a spirit of
cooperation. One time In Cheyenne,
Wyoming, Irv and I were waiting for a train. An older hobo in his 40s asked the two if us
if we'd had anything to eat. We hadn't
eaten in a couple of days. He left and
came back with coffee, lunchmeat, bread and so on. This fellow's name was Harry. I never saw him again." If you fell asleep on a grassy field, you
could never be sure what you'd wake up to.
Once, it was to the sound of airplane engines. Another time a cow stood over them chewing
You had to watch your shoes. "I remember it was summertime in St
Louis. I woke
up in a park and another hobo had his shoes stolen. So here was this fellow maybe 30 years
old. Barefoot. Too embarrassed to walk
down the street. So I took it
upon myself to find the Salvation Army and a very understanding woman gave me a
pair of shoes. That was my turn to do a
good deed for someone else.
By autumn, Irv
and Ted had crossed Wyoming into
the Great Plains.
They'd seen a growing legion of footloose wanderers on the road. They saw the ravages of poverty in rural
areas. Hobos would congregate in the
jungles next to the railroad lines.
"We'd sit around the fire and talk and sometimes share food," Sarbin says. There
was a song the old ones used to sing (about railroad baron James J. Hill):
know Jim Hill
And he's mighty fine
That's why I'm walkin down
Jim Hill's main line
Hallelujah, I'm a
At some point someone would ask,
"Are you a bum or a hobo? Bums
won't work. Hobos will. On the road, you learned it was an important
distinction and sometimes, Sarbin says, it was hard
to tell the difference. If he said he'd
been there three months, then you knew he was a bum.
On through Chicago
and Pennsylvania, there was much
talk about the government, Sarbin says. People were
ashamed to go on relief. Everybody was
affected by the Depression. And,
everyone asked why couldn't the government do something about this?" People were openly sympathetic to World War I
vets who trekked across country by the thousands to ask President Hoover in Washington
for their war bonus. Droves of them were
later dispersed in front of the capitol by General Douglas MacArthur. As a matter of fact, Sarbin
says, I happened to be wearing khaki pants and shirt a lot of people thought I
was one of the Bonus marchers, even though I was too young to be a
Eventually, the train pulled into New
York and Irv and I split up. He went home to Brooklyn
and I found a room in a newsboy's dormitory and spent two weeks walking around
the bowery learning about New York. A few weeks later, Sarbin
cross the border into Ohio and
went home. It was December. Christmastime. "I was glad to get out of the
elements," Sarbin says, "except it was a
His father borrowed $20 from a
friend to pay Sarbin's tuition at Ohio
-- an investment which in time justified his exile. Sarbin's career as
a psychologist centers around the meaning of the stories we all acquire in our
taught psychology for two decades at the University
of California at Berkeley,
then went on to teach at the University
of California at Santa
Cruz where he is currently a professor emeritus of
psychology and criminology.
In 1999, he was the recipient of
the Award for Distinguished Theoretical and Philosophical Contributions to
Psychology by the American Psychological Association. "In retrospect my life on the road may
have been a foolish thing to do but it helped me recognize the diversity of
life, the capacity of people to be kind and helpful to strangers." "I was a member of a dispossessed
segment of society. I think that's always been in the background of my own