MEMOIR: DYNAMITE, CHECK SIX
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By this time the two of them were blowing their noses and tears were running down their faces. In one short week I had become their honey child. I took the lunch and, looking like I was carrying away half of the hotel in my arms and pockets, with a lump in my throat and the tears streaming down my face, I went out the back way, made the railroad track and, walking as fast as I could, I left Seaboard behind me.
After about three or four miles, I came to a siding where cordwood was stacked up in piles along the tracks. Here I met three colored children, a boy about ten and two girls about eight and nine. I stopped, and after talking with them a while, I decided to see what was in my lunch. Christ, there was enough to last all the way to Richmond, Virginia, where I had decided to go, but I knew I couldn't carry it and still catch a freight if I had to run for it.
I asked the kids if they were hungry. They were shy, and also I was a white boy, so I sat down on a bunch of cordwood and said, "I've got too much here, you-all better help me eat it. First one, then the others came closer and looked at that big lunch. The boy said, "Where you-all get all that stuff? We cleared up that lunch and the raisins, dried peaches and apples as well.
Soon we were playing tag around those cordwood piles. They were too fast for me. They got me "it" right away, and they laughed at me when I tried to catch and tag one of them. I quit after a while and told them I had to get going or I'd be caught out in the woods that night. They held a small council of some sort; then the boy said, "You-all can stay with us tonight.
You all can sleep in where we sleeps. Not far from the cordwood piles, a road crossed the tracks, just a dirt rut road. They turned off and about a mile down this road, we came to their place, a shanty, about two rooms and a shed in back. The old grampa was sick and all crippled up, but he made me welcome, and that night I slept on a blanket in front of the fireplace. I had to get up quite a few times to put wood on the fire because the old man couldn't. Although he never asked me to do it, each time he would thank me kindly.
I did it, I guess, because the shanty would have been too cold if I hadn't, and I wanted to be warm, too. Next morning the kids called me at about six o'clock and I went into the shed, a lean-to, which was where they cooked and ate. Their big sister, about eighteen or nineteen, made me welcome. She was making breakfast-hominy grits and fat side pork, and cornbread. I sure loved their cornbread and blackstrap molasses. After breakfast we played around until about noon. I went with the boy while he looked at his rabbit-traps, boxes with a trigger arrangement.
He caught two rabbits that morning which we took home and skinned and cleaned. Then we walked down to the railroad tracks and back to the cordwood piles. There we found an old man with an oxcart and ox, loading cordwood. It was light cordwood so we could handle it OK.
When we had finished he asked me if I would like to come home with him and work on his plantation. Just help with the chores, he said. Said he had a boy, Charlie, about my age. I went home with him and after about three or four days found that "helping with the chores" consisted of slopping the pigs, feeding the mules and ox, cleaning out the barns, chopping wood and filling the kitchen woodboxes, and carrying water from the well. After this little bit of exercise, which began about five-thirty a.
After supper, I would help Charlie with his homework. All this for board and room and clothes. But I liked Charlie and stayed at this place about three months. Until one night at supper old man Yates, who fought the Civil War in my presence every time he got the chance, was bragging about the battles that the South won, how they routed the damn Yankees.
I just didn't think when I said to him, "Mr. Yates, how is it you licked the Yankees so bad and lost the war? I looked at him and he at me. I pushed back my chair and left the house. No hat, no coat, just as I was. Charlie came out after me and cried when I told him I was leaving.
I left right then and there and only went as far as the next farm where I found a shed still half-full of cotton where I slept until morning. I knew the kids on this small and poor farm. In the morning when I heard them I came out of the shed and up to the house. There were three kids, two little girls and a boy. They crowded around me and wanted to know all about what happened. The man and wife were more impatient to hear than the kids. I told them and the kids began to shout , "Can't he stay here, Paw?
Aw, stay with us, Henry! He didn't like old man Yates anyway, and the woman was pleased. Thus another three months or more was spent with these good people. They didn't have as much to feed me as Yates, but I was given the same as their own kids and slept with their boy, and I was not worked to death. In fact, they wanted me to go to school with the boy, but I wouldn't go.
I said I could help better by staying home - which was a damn lie, because after a week or two I found a good place to fish, and used to sneak off and be gone all day. But I always brought back a lot of fish, and they loved them.
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Never said a word about me running off. In fact, the old man wanted to go with me sometime, but he never did. One day I just took off and hiked about twenty miles or so until I came to a large plantation. As I was hungry by this time, I went up to the big house - about fifteen rooms. It must have been one of the old mansions of the days before the Civil War.
In fact, they were later to brag that it had once worked over one hundred slaves. The lady at the house called to someone inside that there was a boy outside who wanted something to eat. Out they came. I don't remember just how many after this long a time, but I think there were seven or eight boys. They were all the way from about eight or nine to twenty-three or twenty-four years old.
The oldest ones had their wives with them. They crowded around me just looking. Outside of the wives there were no girls. I didn't know what I had gotten into, but after looking me over for what seemed like a heck of a long time, one of the older men said, "Well, come on in; we were just eating supper.
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I went with them into a big long room, both kitchen and dining-room together, with a Negro woman at the stove and another serving the table. All the man said was, "Sit"' But where? Every chair was filled. Then he said, "Get yourself a chair and sit. Then came the questions; they asked me everything they could think of about myself. Their father had died, I found out later, and the plantation had been divided among the children, the oldest one running it and dividing the profits.
It sure was a big place as I remember, over one thousand acres. Well, that night they must have held a pow-wow, and the next morning I found I was the sole property of the oldest brother and was to help him with his part of the farm work. I don't know how they decided this as I didn't ask to stay, but the kids were fun, and after a few days I kind of liked it. They sure ate good, and they did get me some new workclothes. I enjoyed myself there for most of the winter, and it gets cold there - make no mistake about that.
I helped with the stock, getting wood, fence-building, etc. Then all of us would be out by the big barn waiting for supper if it wasn't too cold. I remember one day they were riding some of the mules, and, believe me, those young mules could run. Well, they were all bragging about how well they could ride. They asked me, "Can you ride? Well, I guess I laid it on too thick. Anyway, right in the middle of my telling about the last race I won on a very mean horse one of them came up leading a young mule all saddled and ready to go. Hell, I never had anything more to do with a horse than to feed him his oats at the front end and take them away later from the rear.
But I thought, hell, anybody can ride. So I walked over to this mule and tried to get on. But he wouldn't let me get my foot up. As soon as I put any weight against him, he would move away. One of the kids yelled, "Hey, maybe they get on a racehorse that way, but down here we get on from the other side! I tried the other side and the mule stood still while I got aboard.
The most I could get out of that critter was something between a walk and a slow dog-trot. We ambled to the gate about three hundred yards away, and they were all yelling, "Look at him go! My heels must have caught him just right, for all at once that mule was a streak of lightning. I was out of the saddle, on the horn, around his neck, and when he got within a few feet of the yelling kids - and all the women who were outside by now taking it all in - he put on the brakes and I went over that mule's head as graceful as a bird and landed right at the feet of the kids.
Boy, did they razz me! I said, "How did you expect me to hold on with a saddle like that? I'm used to a racing saddle," and then the bell rang for supper and I was saved because they had no time for talk or kidding when they were eating. They just ate. It was just a few weeks after this that they began to talk of plowing. It seems they planted a few hundred acres of peanuts. The land was sandy and light, so my first day of plowing went fairly well. But the field kept getting bigger and bigger to me instead of smaller and smaller.
I began to look for ways to get out of plowing, and one day I just unhitched the mule and led him home. The brother I was working tor met me at the barn. I told him that Jenny was sick or something, wouldn't pull the plow. Hell, in that soil, now that I think back, even a sick mule could have run away with the plow. Well, he took her out and that was that. He knew, but he said maybe she just wanted to rest a while. I said, "Yeah. I guess so. I plowed all that week, but one morning instead of plowing I just wandered off and went fishing.
There was a swamp about a mile or so from the barn and I had never seen so many fish. Bass, pickerel, and perch. I only had worms and a small hook, so I caught perch. I could hardly carry them hack. No one said anything when I wandered in at about six o'clock, but next morning I was back to plowing again.
I couldn't stand it any longer. First a half mile one way, then a half mile back, and each time only about eight inches plowed. That afternoon about two o'clock I unhitched the mule and tied him to the fence by the gate where I knew they would find him, and I took off across country for the railroad. I was going back home for a while. I caught a freight that night and landed in Richmond, Virginia, next morning.
I found a place to wash up a little and went sight-seeing around town. Towards evening I was getting pretty hungry so I decided to try my luck panhandling. I waited on a corner, watching people go by and trying to get up enough courage to ask one of them for the price of something to eat. I had never begged anyone like that before. I had always gone to houses and asked for some work to earn something to eat, but this time I decided to try my luck this way. I would pick out a man walking toward me and decide, "I'll ask this one.
Truth was, I lost my nerve each time. I decided on about thirty or forty different men, never a woman, and discarded them all as bad risks. Then I noticed a large man just standing there as I was, and it came to me he had been standing there almost as long as I had. He didn't seem to be watching me, but I had a funny feeling about him.
It was getting late, however, and I had to eat, so cop or no cop, I thought, "Here goes. He was looking at me with a funny kind of look, not mean or stern, just a kind of a look that said, "Well? Lost your nerve? He smiled. I've been watching you, and I wondered just how long it was going to take you to get up enough nerve to brace somebody. Where you from? So we walked.
I thought: I hope they haven't fed them yet at the jail. I thought sure that's where we were headed.
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But when we passed first one cop and then another, I began to try and figure out what I'd gotten myself into. The next block I found out. We came to a large drugstore, and he said, "Let's go in here for a while. Then he turned to me and said, "Charlie will take care of you. Don't be afraid," and he left me there with the druggist.
This fellow got a book and started to question me: name, address, parents living? How long away from home? Why I ran away, etc. Well, when he was through he said, "So you think you want to go home for a while, do you? It will save some trouble as long as you want to go. A little later he locked the store and we went to a nearby restaurant. He said, "Sit down and order what you want.
Don't be afraid to order enough to eat, but eat it. When I was through, he took me across the street to a small hotel. He said, "We are going to trust you since you were going home anyhow. You will have a room here tonight, and in the morning go back to the restaurant and they will give you breakfast. At nine o'clock you come to the drugstore and we will see what we can do to help you get home. When I arrived at the store next morning, he was already there and so was the man I met on the street.
They greeted me just like one fellow greets another. Did you enjoy your breakfast? I said I'd never been in any thing bigger than a rowboat. We're going down and see a real ship. It was a big ship, and we went aboard. He took me to the kitchen, "the galley," as I was later to learn, where the steward met us.
He said, "Here he is. He put out his hand and said, "This man here will take care of you," and was gone. The steward put me to work peeling potatoes. I didn't know where the ship was going, but I had pictures of China and the South Seas in my mind. Not long after I boarded, the ship backed out of the pier and started for open water. I was on my way. I peeled potatoes. I peeled onions. I peeled carrots. I just peeled and peeled until I began to feel a sort of funny feeling in my stomach. It got worse and worse, and before long I was really sick.
They put me in a bunk in one of the cabins and left me there. After a while I went to sleep. When I woke up the boat was still. We were stopped. I got up and went on deck and found we were tied up at a big wharf. I asked a sailor where we were and he said, "New York, son. This ship has only two places to go. One is New York; the other is Richmond, Virginia. How could they do that to me! Here I am all set for China, ports east and ports west, and they land me twenty miles from home! The steward handed me money enough to take the ferry to New Jersey and the streetcar home, and that was that.
It is a strange thing as I write this to find that Paterson leaves me with so few memories to write about. Paterson always seemed to me to be a city where people just worked from one day to the next and had no life of their own that was not at the beck and call of the hundreds of mill-whistles that blew to tell you when to wake up, when to report to work, when to eat lunch, and when to go home.
I think this was one reason I hated that town. Even the little things I can remember did not happen so much in Paterson itself as in the outskirts, like Lakeview. Where the lake was in Lakeview I don't know to this day, and I doubt there was a lake there, or if there was, I couldn't find it. Then there was the country outside the city. This part I must admit I liked. There were small streams I found for myself three or four miles up the railroad track of the Erie Railroad. Little streams no wider than a small ditch, but filled with the best watercress I have ever seen.
I used to take a large basket out there and make bunches of watercress and sell them back in town for a nickel a bunch. I made a dollar now and again this way. I was also the ice-cream king of Jackson Street. A stolen can of thick condensed milk, a spoonful of vanilla, some sugar, water, rock salt, and some ice I swiped off the icewagons and I was in business. I never did have any left over. Maybe my experience in the ice cream business is responsible for my not liking ice cream very much today. I never ate any of my own, either. Sometime after my return from the South I had my first and last experience as a paid actor.
I was just wandering around the outskirts of Paterson and suddenly saw this big sign way up in the air, "Fairyland. It was early, and there was no one watching the gate, so I just walked in and started to look around.
After taking in the whole place, I was sitting on the steps of a large building with a sign, "Theatre. What you doing? He said, "We have our act here for a week. If you don't go to school, I can give you a job. He was a wise one. He said, "Acting. I was frightened, but I don't think I would have passed it up even if he had said, "Of course, we have to horsewhip you every show. Well, I hung around there all afternoon. The cop on duty asked me what I was doing there. I said, "I'm with the show in here. I'm an actor. Well, about seven o'clock I went to the back door of the theater.
The man at the door must have been told I'd be around, because when I told him I was going to act in the show he laughed and said, "Sure, kid. They're in there waiting for you. Better hurry; they can't start the show till you git there. One of them was all made up like what everyone thinks looks like a tramp. But I'd seen too many real tramps, and this fellow just looked to me like a real funny circus clown.
The other fellow was dressed like a train conductor. I went in, and they asked me if I was afraid. No, I wasn't afraid. Oh, no, not much! I felt like running as fast as I could to get out of there. I don't know, but I suspect they knew I felt that way.
Memoir: Dynamite, Check Six
One or the other one stayed right close to me telling me not to worry. After the first time, I'd see how easy it was and it took kids like me to make real actors. Why, wasn't that the way they began? They kept telling me what I had to do. Don't speak, yours is a silent part. Look sad. Boy, oh boy, he's the best kid we ever found. We'll have to keep him with us. Little by little my fright was leaving me. We went upstairs. They showed me the drop-curtain with painted boxcars and door. Behind the door were a couple of planks on wooden horses which was the floor of the boxcar.
After what seemed like a long time their turn came. The tramp was holding on to me in back of the drop, waiting for the cue, but later I knew he was taking no chances on my bolting. The conductor walked slowly on the stage, supposedly taking down the numbers of the cars on the train. While he was doing this to soft music, the tramp, at a certain part of the music, dropped a brick on the floor.
This made the conductor look in the car door, and he shouted, "Come out of there you bum! The conductor held on to me like the tramp did. I know they were afraid I'd run, because after I showed up for the next show the following night, they did not lay their hands on me. Well, while I had no part to speak but just stood there, I can remember almost all of that little act. Not too funny, I suppose, but not too bad, either.
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They were good dancers, and the tramp was a good singer. After pulling me out of the boxcar door, the conductor bawled me out for riding his freight, when he saw a piece of paper sticking out of my coat pocket. When he got through, he was saying how sorry he was that my mother was dying, and just then the audience hegan to laugh.
I couldn't figure it, because the guy almost had me crying. I looked around and there in the boxcar door was just a head looking first one way, then the other. The conductor shouted for the tramp to come out of there, so he came out. It was a high door, just about as high as a real boxcar, but the tramp just stepped down like it was a few inches. I don't know how he did that so gracefully and yet so funny. Well, they went on with arguments, jokes and songs, and I got to enjoy my part, even though I never did anything except look sad.
I got pretty good at that. After Sunday night's show they gave me an extra fifty cents and told me they were going back home until they got another booking and they might look me up sometime. They never did, of course, and that was the beginning and end of my career as an actor. Not long after this, Paterson began to pall on me again. Dad was working at Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. I left Paterson on the Erie Railroad and made Susquehanna the next day, and had no trouble getting a job in the boiler shop where my Dad was a handyman, which in those days meant he was a damn good boilermaker.
But they could pay him less by calling him a handyman. It wasn't long before I had my bellyfull of that boiler shop and I told my Dad, "I'm going to quit, Dad; this is not for me. Well, he gave me twenty dollars and told me to buy a ticket as far as that would go. I did it. Paid for a ticket to Minneapolis. There I took a few days to look around.
I had a few dollars left and they didn't last long. I landed a job at Midway, a freight dispatch terminal half way between Minneapolis and St Paul. I was too young and not strong enough for the rugged work, but I stuck it out for as long as the boss would let me. On payday he told me he was sorry but he couldn't keep me any longer. Well, board and room had taken about all I made, and it wasn't long before I was broke again. There was a small office of the YMCA at Midway, and one day I just strolled in there and asked the secretary for a job.
He looked me over and said, "Run away from home? Pay a dollar a day and board and room. Hell, that was more than I made at the freight dispatch. There you got two dollars for ten hours, and board and room was a dollar twenty-five a day at the boarding house. So I took the job. I stayed about four months until we finished the landscaping and he couldn't find anything more for me to do. One day he asked me if I knew anybody in Washington. I told him my brother ran a hotel in Wilbur, Washington.
A few days later I received a ticket by wire and fifty dollars to come to Wilbur. So I packed up my bag with my extra shirt and pair of socks, and within four days I was on the soil of the State of Washington. My brother put me to work as dishwasher and all-around flunky. It was here that I began to break into the cooking racket. My brother was a ball-player, and he was hired from time to time to pitch for a team in some other part of the state. He would just go and tell me to take over.
But I was quick to find out that working for a member of your family was not the easiest thing to do, and after several beefs about one thing or another, I walked out of town one day and didn't go back. I was there almost a year, taking care of the lawn and flowers. One fellow I had on the gang would run as fast as he could to the lawn every morning. There he would be on his knees picking up things and putting them into his mouth. I asked what he was doing. The birds eat them. I have to hurry and get mine or the damn birds will get them all. I made my way slowly across the state, stopping to work in the hayfields here and there until I finally landed in Seattle.
For some time I did fairly well. I was able, after many trips to the waterfront and standing in the gangs of longshoremen, to be picked out quite a few times to work a ship, mostly unloading cases of salmon from Alaska, and then loading the ship again with sacks of sugar or cement. It was hard work, but the pay was better than I had ever received. You worked a ship until it was unloaded and loaded again, sometimes forty-eight to fifty hours with only time enough out to eat meals.
You were paid at the end of each ship-loading. So I made enough to live and have a room in a waterfront hotel. One night in January, , while not working, I wandered down to the slave market, as it was called, where there were employment offices crowded close together for two or three blocks, interspersed with saloons, hock-shops, and clothing stores for workers. Seeing a crowd on a corner, I stopped to listen to a soapboxer who was speaking about industrial unionism and the free-speech fight then going on in Aberdeen, Washington After he was through, he invited all those who wished to know more about unionism to come to the IWW hall where there would be another speaker.
I was very interested. I followed this soapboxer to the hall where a fellow worker named Floyd spoke, followed by Tommy Whitehead. I was sold before the meeting was half over. Floyd was a wonderful speaker who could make you understand because of the way he had of explaining the complicated theories of industrial unionism in simple language, and by his comparisons with craft unionism.
At the end of his talk, he called for volunteers to go to Aberdeen to help fill the jails and win back free speech and the right to organize. I was not a member so I asked Tommy Whitehead if I could go and help. After some time, while he talked with Floyd and some others, he said, "What's your name, son? He called a few fellows over and told them, "The kid wants to go along. About midnight some eleven or twelve of us left the hall. We went to a cheap restaurant where one of the men paid for "coffee and" for all of us. Then we got a streetcar and went to the freight yard where we boarded a freight headed for Aberdeen.
The next day, when we were within ten miles of Aberdeen, we all jumped off and went one at a time by different routes into Aberdeen. We would leave after a talk with the fellow in charge. I found out, when my turn came, that what had been troubling me all the time - how we were to contact the other free-speech fighters in Aberdeen - had been taken care of, but no one was told until the last moment, and each one of us was to make contact at a different place.
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