When his father lost his job in 1931, Jim Mitchell saw his family slide to rock bottom in the “undeclared war of the Dirty Thirties” as he calls the Great Depression. The Mitchells lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Jim remembered pulling a little red wagon through the streets to collect the family's relief food. In his sophomore year at high school, humiliated and taunted by classmates who derided his circumstances, Mitchell persuaded his buddy Peter Lijinski-“Poke”-to run away with him in winter 1933. The pair set their sights on Texas, where they wanted to work as cowboys. From the moment they hopped their first train in the Kenosha yards, the runaways experienced the best and worst of life on the bum in America.
Dad worked ten hours a day for six days a week before the Depression, and things were fine. I remember the morning it happened. I was in the basement fooling around with my crystal set before school when Dad came home. “I lost my job. I'm out of work, ” he told Mother. It was the first time I saw my father cry.
Dad had to stand in unemployment lines. He'd get a job for a day or two and earn a buck or so. You could see his suffering. Dad wasn't a banker, he wasn't a machinist, he was a common laborer like hundreds of thousands of others. He put pieces of metal in a machine that went clunk. That's what my dad did but he had his pride. Take away a man's pride and he's skin and bones. He is nothing.