The story of the 250,000 boxcar boys and girls of the Great Depression is one of the vital sagas of America in the 1930s. Often as young as thirteen, each one came from a different background, each left home to ride the rails for different reasons, and each had unique experiences. They shared at least one thing: They knew the hardships and danger of life “on the road” during this almost-forgotten epoch. It was hard times-and none forgot how hard-but it was also a time when they were fearless and free. It was the beginning of a life's journey.
Their story has seldom been told, and firsthand accounts of individuals who endured these trying times are even more scarce. As they grew older, some survivors shared reminiscences with family and friends: bittersweet remembrances mixed with wistful longings for youth. Some kept their memories locked up, for they had been ashamed of their lives as “bums.” Some never regarded their freight train odyssey as the stuff of history.
This book has as its primary source thousands of letters sent to Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell, coproducers of the documentary film Riding the Rails. Some three thousand respondents, a majority answering to a notice in Modern Maturity, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Retired Persons, wrote letters about their life on the road between 1929 and 1941. Some sent handwritten memoirs as long as sixty pages, with evocative passages detailing their childhood wanderlust. Some letters are only a paragraph or two in length, fragments of memory that are raw and powerful-and sometimes bitter.