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The Wander Years

by Leslie Dunn for the Monterey County (CA) Herald, 12/17/2004

 

Riding the rails during the Depression was a way of life for many - including Carmel's Theodore Sarbin

A Southern Pacific freight train, its rusted boxcars clicking along the tracks, has become a spectral archtype of the American landscape.

To Theodore Sarbin, to America in the 1930s, the train carried more than grain and steel. It was a vehicle of hope and adventure.

Sarbin is a 93-year-old retired professor of psychology now living in Carmel. At age 20, he wanted to see the world and left Cleveland to ride the rails in 1931 at the onset of the Great Depression.

"I remember it was sometime in May. I took extra clothes, a frying pan and some Bisquick. I started off hitchhiking going west."

"I got as far as Illinois and I ran into a fellow my age from New York who said something about taking the freight trains. His name was Irv. He was out to seek his fortune, too. We were good company for each other."

Oh, sure there were stories about people losing their limbs hopping freight trains. Sarbin says he never saw that, "but you learned that if you grabbed the ladder wrong while the train was moving, it was easy to slip and get your foot caught underneath."

You were careful.

A train had no bounds. From the top of a boxcar, the open prairies, the blue skies above you - this land was your land, this land was my land - the train could lead you anywhere.

Travelling west, sometimes with hundreds of men, they were also bearing witness to a country "dying by inches" in the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

"Some of these guys were farmers from the Dust Bowl, hoping to get out to California where they thought there would be sunshine all the time and you could pick grapefruits off the trees. It was hard to get into California in 1931. They were cleaning out the railcars as they got close to the border."

But if you were 20, you had your life ahead of you. You could watch the sun rise over the Rocky Mountains. You helped each other.

"The train would stop in the morning and we'd get off and go into town. We'd look for a YMCA and pay a nickel for a towel and a bar of soap. We'd go up to a bakery. One of us would go in and ask the young woman behind the counter 'is there any work I can do?' Sometimes they'd give you work. Washing windows. They'd fill up a bag with bread and rolls.

"Then Irv would go in they'd say 'oh there's the basement that needs cleaning.' We'd get more rolls."

Theodore "Ted" Sarbin was born in 1911 in Cleveland, Ohio, to a Polish mother and a Russian father who made cigars for a living. He was one of six children.

Sarbin says he probably read too many adventure books and was seized with "wanderjahr" a German expression meaning "yearn to wander."

"It was a life without purpose," he says, "I have to admit that. You didn't need much." Sometimes he sent his parents a two-cent postcard from the road.

Sarbin and Irv rode the rails through Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada. In a way, location was beside the point. He remembers the plaintive sound of the train whistle.

"It meant moving on. I never felt sad or depressed out there. I always thought if I went without a meal, so what? You can always get on a freight train and go somewhere else. Maybe the girls in the next bakery will be kinder."

Sometimes they'd walk onto a farm and work in exchange for something to eat - fatback bacon, cornbread, gravy. Usually it was a sandwich out on the porch.

They'd sleep under newspapers in a park. If it rained, they discovered you could go into a police station and they'd let you sleep in a jail cell.

"There was no violence that I ever saw. If anything there was a spirit of cooperation. One time in Cheyenne, Wy., Irv and I were waiting for a train. An older hobo in his 40s asked the two if us if we'd had anything to eat. We hadn't eaten in a couple of days. He left and came back with coffee, lunchmeat, bread and so on. This fellow's name was Harry. I never saw him again."

If you fell asleep on a grassy field you could never be sure what you'd wake up to. Once it was to the sound of airplane engines. Another time a cow stood over them chewing its cud.

You had to watch your shoes.

"I remember it was summertime in St Louis. I woke up in a park and another hobo had his shoes stolen. So here was this fellow maybe 30 years old. Barefoot. Embarrassed to walk down the street. So I took it upon myself to find the Salvation Army and a very understanding woman gave me a pair of shoes. That was my turn to do a good deed for someone else."

By autumn, Irv and Ted had crossed Wyoming into the Great Plains. They'd seen a growing legion of footloose wanderers on the road. They saw the ravages of poverty in rural areas.

Hobos would congregate in the jungles next to the railroad lines. "We'd sit around the fire and talk and sometimes share food," Sarbin says. "There was a song the old ones used to sing (about railroad baron James J. Hill):

I know Jim Hill
And he's mighty fine
That's why I'm walkin down
Jim Hill's main line
Hallelujah I'm a bum."

At some point someone would ask, "are you a bum or a hobo? Bums won't work. Hobos will. On the road you learned it was important distinction and "sometimes," Sarbin says, "it was hard to tell the difference. If he said he'd been there three months then you knew he was a bum."

On through Chicago, Pennsylvania, "there was much talk about the government," Sarbin says. "People were ashamed to go on relief. Everybody was effected by the Depression. And everyone asked why couldn't the government do something about this?"

People were openly sympathetic to World War I vets who trekked across country by the thousands to ask Hoover in Washington for their war bonus. Droves of them were later dispersed in front of the capitol by the tanks of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

"As a matter of fact," Sarbin says, "I happened to be wearing khaki pants and shirt a lot of people thought I was one of the Bonus marchers. Even though I was too young to be a veteran."

Eventually the train pulled into New York and "Irv and I split up. He went home to Brooklyn and I found a room in a newsboy's dormitory and spent two weeks walking around the bowery learning about New York."

A few weeks later Sarbin cross the border into Ohio and went home. It was December. Christmastime. "I was glad to get out of the elements," Sarbin says, "except it was a little dull."

His father borrowed $20 from a friend to pay Sarbin's tuition at Ohio State University - an investment which in time justified his exile. Sarbin's career as a psychologist centers around the meaning of the stories we all acquire in our lives.

Sarbin taught psychology for two decades at the University of California, Berkeley, then went on to teach at the University of California at Santa Cruz where he is currently a professor emeritus of psychology and criminology.

In 1999 he was the recipient of the Award for Distinguished Theoretical and Philosophical Contributions to Psychology by the American Psychological Association.

"In retrospect my life on the road may have been a foolish thing to do but it helped me recognize the diversity of life, the capacity of people to be kind and helpful to strangers."

"I was a member of a dispossessed segment of society. I think that's always been in the background of my own story."