By Jim O'Leary
An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.
Nov. 17, 2001
Many young men from Waverly left to find work in other parts of the country, usually traveling by rail. Russell Jerry, whom I remember from my Waverly days, had many tales of such adventures.
I remember he preferred riding in the windy fresh air on top, while most others liked the safety of the box cars.
My own brother, Paul, in the late '30s, traveled by freight trains to South Dakota to work for the O'Learys, accompanied by Jerry Jerome, his life long friend.
Jerry now lives in Bella Vista, Ark. and still goes elk hunting with Paul's son, Jeff, near Steamboat Springs, Colo.
One night, Jerry and Paul had to cling to the iron ladder rungs of a box car which had the door locked shut. It was a long, cold, windy night for them as the train raced through the dark. Some of these mishaps prepared them for the hardships of WWII, which was still ahead of them.
Jerry said that night of hanging on for dear life was even harder than getting wounded or being taken as a POW by the Germans in WWII.
Many of my first cousins were hoboes. One of them in particular, Garrett Keefe, liked the life so well he continued to travel even after he had lost his arm when he fell underneath a moving freight car while trying to hitch a ride.
After he lost the arm, much sympathy was forthcoming. Being very Catholic, he always started at the small town parish rectory, where more often than not, the pastor provided him shelter in exchange for whatever odd jobs a one-armed man could do. While staying in rectories, Garrett would whittle away the time reading through the priest's library.
On his rare visits home, he became the acknowledged family authority on the Bible, theology, and history. He even acquired a working knowledge of Greek and Latin, and he accomplished all this without ever finishing grade school.
Even into the late '40s, some of my classmates, such as Marion Borrell, Bernard Althoff, Eddie Paul, and "Chuck" Gagnon, hopped the freight trains and went to the grain harvests in North Dakota and Montana.
This article from Commonweal magazine brings these times back to life.
More hungry boys
By Bob Logan in Commonweal magazine.
"In the spring of 1933, I was 16-years old, plowing cotton from daylight to dark.
"The entire country was poor, but my family had been hit especially hard, going from the prosperous life of ranchers to being grateful for whatever work my dad, my older brother, or I could get.
"Every day I dreamed of leaving, not because I didn't like home. I did.
"But, life was sad, especially watching my mother's stoic endurance. She'd had such hopes for her children . . . good educations, good futures . . . but the great depression had taken away all her dreams. Now, her concern was whether there was enough food.
"A train came through our Texas town every day, always heading west. That train seemed my way out of the misery and sadness.
"Soon, on a sunny day, without any planning, I jumped into an empty box car. On the floor of the car was a plain wooden plank, and on that board I quickly carved 'Bob Logan gone west.'
"As the train passed the outskirts of town, I tossed the board at a road crossing where I hoped someone would see it and give it to my mother.
"After tossing out my only goodbye note, I settled down to contemplate the hobo life I'd jumped into. There were other hoboes on the train, men who had been riding 'rattlers,' the hobo name for freight trains, for years.
"Some helped me, others frightened me, but all taught me something. I learned a great many things during the next eight months of my life.
"I learned how cold the ride is on top of a box car when the sun goes down; I learned to make a stew from whatever was at hand; I learned to harvest Idaho potatoes, Dakota wheat, and New Mexico fruit.
"I learned to sing hobo songs and to read hobo signs on buildings, the notes left to help other hobo 'travelers.' I learned how wonderful a familiar face can be, and how to live under bridges, not trees; I learned the art of clever nicknames; and most of all, I learned there are no free rides.
"When the work finally ran out and winter invaded even the most southerly states, I learned that home was the place to be. So, just as I'd left . . . without a friend or money . . . I headed back to Texas.
"After two days of traveling and hungry as only a 16-year old without a meal in 48 hours can be, I left a train somewhere on the south side of Oklahoma City.
"I walked toward the closest eating establishment, a place with a sign proclaiming it 'Ralph's Cafe,' and I went inside.
Dirty, tired, and ravenous, I stood in the entrance and examined the crowd for any person who looked to be in charge. Eventually a short, slightly paunchy, 40-something man, Ralph, I assumed, walked over to me.
"He took a long look at the 140 pound teenager before him and said, without any hint of either cordiality or sarcasm, 'What can I do for you, son?'
"'Well, I'm on my way home to my family in Texas, but I don't have any money, and I'm mighty hungry,' I said.
"'Are you willing to work for your food?' 'Sure. Yes, sir.'
"'Come this way.'
"Ralph led me to a stool at the counter and pointed for me to sit. He went behind the counter, dished up a big bowl of vegetable soup, and put it in front of me. Then he turned to get some bread as I grabbed a spoon.
"A few minutes later, Ralph returned. 'Want some more?'
"'Yes sir. This is good.' He served up a second helping, and once I'd finished that, I felt ready to work, which I told Ralph.
"'Okay, then. Come with me.' He led me out the back of the cafe, first to a tool shed, where he handed me a sling blade and then to the edge of two acres of overgrown, weed-covered land.
"'Clear it,' he said. Then he turned and headed back toward the cafe.
"Surprised but still 16, I began cutting the waist high weeds. The first few minutes were awkward work, but after 10 minutes, I developed a rhythm and my young muscles were beginning to enjoy the movement. Just as I was starting to sweat, Ralph returned. He stood at the edge of the lot with his hands on his hips watching me.
"Suddenly, he yelled, 'That's enough. Stop.'
"'What?' I said. 'I've just started.'
"Ralph walked toward me, kicking aside the weeds I'd cut. He put out his hand for the sling blade and said, 'I know, son . . . But, there are more hungry boys out there who'll be coming along soon. And there ain't no free meals. Now give me that sling blade and head on home.'"
Bob Logan, a retired engineer for the Atomic Energy Commission, now lives in South Carolina.
The linotype machine
Although Marks McDonnell was an indisputable genius and jack of all trades, he didn't do all his own linotyping. He used to hire people from "the cities."
Most of them were deaf mutes, or in the more correct terminology of these days, "hearing impaired" or "auditorily challenged."
Linotyping was one of the courses at the Faribault School for the Deaf.
The thinking was that deaf people would not be bothered by the clatter of the machine, and they didn't have to be able to hear in order to type away all day.
Both Jimmy and Jerome Pususta, Marks' nephews, were Faribault students, but they were also skilled auto mechanics and didn't have to go the linotype route. The deafest of all went in for linotyping.
One of them, whom Marks hired ,was Johnny Baines. He had a column of his own, which is much better than mine is, because he could look out the window of The Waverly Star with a good view of Main Street, instead of observing Waverly from 1,600 miles away as I try to do.
His column was called "The Eyes, Not Ears, of the World."
Because of his ringside seat, if he saw Toby Zeller slip on the ice and take a pratfall, well, he'd fit it right into his column, telling us what a good laugh he got out of it. Ha, ha. Right, Toby?
Now, linotyping is an all but extinct trade.
Long before the internet-liberated documents from the printed page, a century before the earliest electronic pagination attempted to automate the assemblage of these pages, Ottmar Mergenthaler's first practical linecaster mechanized the task of manually composing lines of type.
His linotype changed publishing, and nowhere more so than at deadline driven dailies . . . and even weeklies such as The Waverly Star. The patent date was July 3, 1886. Sadly, Mergenthaler's achievement is all but forgotten.
Here, then, is a poem in memory of Mergenthaler's invention by Tonino Bergera, translated from the Italian by Gianni Ellena.
She still sings
With her old keyboard covered in dust, and the rust digging spiteful holes, with her space bands scattered in a drawer, the Linotype is now a relic of the past.
She stands black, naked, but with unchanged dignity she shows her thousand springs, her eccentric wheels and her moulds, while her heart, once hot, is now stone cold and empty.
Suddenly, I, too, feel old, all rusted up and lonely, and remember the many nights my fingers danced on the keys.
She knew how to make herself loved, with her perfect pitch, her hot pinches, her sudden jolts and quick restarts.
My darling, the curtains are down, but you'll live in me forever.
- Dedicated to Marks McDonnell and Johnny Baines.
Quote for the week
"What I do today is important because I am exchanging a day of my life for it"
- Jim Schoenberger
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