Robert Symmonds-“Guitar Whitey”-saw his family go from “middle-class gentility to scrabble-ass poor overnight.” His father's security business collapsed in 1938 and they lost everything, including a home in Seattle. Robert and his three sisters moved with their parents to a cabin that a relative owned in the mountains of western Oregon, with three small rooms and no electricity or water. His father tried to start a new business but never earned another dime in his life.
Robert hopped his first freight in 1934 at age thirteen. In 1938, he became a summer tramp, riding the rails to follow the fruit harvests from Oregon to southern California. Some years he would earn two hundred dollars, which would carry the family through winter. Between harvests in 1939 and 1940, he served two six-month stints in the CCC in Montana. In 1942 he joined the navy and when he left the service stayed at sea as a merchant seaman. He eventually settled in California, married, and raised four children.
In 1972, after a hiatus of thirty years, Guitar Whitey felt the urge to hop a train again. He began riding the rails for a few weeks every year. In the late 1990s, when he was in his seventies, he was still riding freights in California and singing the old hobo songs, the last of the boxcar boys on his own path of glory.
I first started riding freights when I was thirteen years old. I was living in Seattle, a wild reckless kid looking for adventure. When-
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Publication information: Book title: Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move during the Great Depression. Contributors: Errol Lincoln Uys - Author. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 2003. Page number: 264.
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