July 9, 1932

By Gregory Clark, July 9, 1932.

The best place to ride a really long journey on a freight is on an empty refrigerator car.

“At each end,” says James H. Fleming of Toronto, a travellin’ man since he was 11 years old, “is trap door in the roof leading down into the reefer, as we call it, or ice box, into which a ton or two of broken ice is packed when the car is loaded.

“You climb aboard and locate a refrigerator car empty. You lift the lid of the reefer and there is a cosy little chamber, fit for a king.

“Cool, shaded, free from dust and cinders, you can curl up and sleep the hundreds of miles away, unless a dick comes along and puts you out. But as a rule, you travel with a friend, and one or the other of you must be a light sleeper. So that when you pull into railroad yards, you can get up and be ready to vacate.

“My worst experience was in Texas on the Southern Pacific. I had been travellin’ for several days and was tired. I had no partner at the time, and I got into a reefer alone, and as it was very hot, I slept solidly for several hours.

“I was waked by the train shunting. As I sat up, I realized we had been shunting for some little time, and I knew I was in some yards I heard voices talking and hauled myself up to take a cautious look around.

“We were in railroad yards. Within a few feet of me was the spout or chute of the ice house, and the brakemen were shunting the refrigerator car I was in to spot it under the chute to dump a ton or two of ice into the reefer I was in. Within a few seconds I would have been iced mackerel!

“I made one grand leap and never stopped until I was half a mile from that ice house. Ice still gives me the chills, and I never ride in a reefer now unless I am palled up with a real good light sleeper.”

James H. Fleming, now 25 years of age, ran away from his home in Toronto at the age of 11.

“To-day,” says Fleming, “it is getting harder all the time to run away from home.

“There are all kinds of laws creeping over boyhood. He has got to go to school until he is sixteen. There are juvenile courts to attend to him. It he does run away, they put his picture in the papers and everybody is looking for him. In the olden days, I think all boys ran away from home when they were 11.”

The way Fleming ran away was very simple. His father discovered, to his dismay, that the 11-year-old youngster had quit school, and was working at a lumber yard on Royce Ave. handling a team of horses. The father insisted that the boy go back to school. So James H., aged 11, beat his way to Owen Sound and after prospecting the town, got a job as cook on a fishing tug.

He said he could cook.

The first meal he attempted, he was sent out on deck and told to stay there until dry land was sighted, when he would be put ashore. It was at an Indian village on the Georgian Bay that he was given the air by the outraged crew. From the village, Fleming, after a few days, got a boat for Sault Ste. Marie. From there, in slow and somewhat inefficient stages, he beat his way back to Toronto, where, in some fear, he holed up at the West End Y. for several weeks, working at odd Jobs as delivery boy for merchants, and besides paying his board, amassing all of five dollars to stake him on the next adventurous stage of that journey which, at 25, makes him to-day an extensively travelled man.

A Real Brotherhood

Buffalo was his objective. And when he crossed the border on a half-fare ticket, he told the immigration men, in those easy-going days of 1918, that he was visiting an uncle in Buffalo. In a few minutes he stopped ashore in the land of his 11-year dreams.

How boy of 11 could land into Buffalo and make his way might appear trifling to a reader of the novels of Horatio Alger. But nowadays when boys are children by law until they are sixteen, it may not appear so easy.

“I just walked around town,” says Fleming, “until I saw a newsboy I liked the look of. Then I went up to him and told him I had run away from my home in Canada and had to have some place to go. So he took me right under his wing, and I was selling papers within six hours of hitting Buffalo and my home was the newsboys’ hostel in downtown Buffalo. That is the thing that has impressed me more than any other thing in life so far and you settled and civilized people don’t know anything about it. You don’t even guess it.

“And it’s this: that amongst the unsettled and drifting people of this world there is a brotherhood fuller and more real than all your religious and your social organizations and society. It’s tough. It’s hard. You must stand by the rules or take a sharp and sudden trimming. But the brotherhood is real and it’s at the bottom not at the top of the social scale.”

He was a newsboy for several years in Buffalo. Lost to his family and his country, he became wise in the world, all through his early teens, while he devoted his attention to the arts of prize-fighting, baseball and those matters that appeal to newsboys and the minor adventurers of life.

At fifteen, announcing that he was twenty-one years of age, he enlisted in the United States army for three years. The 28th Infantry division. Being in the habit of running away whenever he felt the need, he had his little troubles and was sentenced by his commanding officers three times for taking vacations.

“A funny thing, the American army,” says Fleming. “It wasn’t what I expected. Just a mob, with no respect for the noncommissioned officers, with the old soldiers living in it for life, and the young recruits trying to get by against the stiff organization of the old soldiers, the n.c.o.’s powerless to enforce discipline, and the officers waiting, waiting for something that never happens. I did a good deal of my army life in the clink.”

Life is funny. It calls you with a sweet, sound from where you are to some place else, and you go, and then the call comes, more sweetly still, from just beyond the hill.

Fleming is one of those who has been hearing this sweet call since he was a child.

In the army, which he joined in answer to the recruiting posters to “see the world,” he saw nothing. But in the voices of his comrades in the “mob,” he heard the faint, far, sweet call. And when he got out, after resting only long enough to raspberry his old mates in olive drab, he took to the business of travellin’.

He has travelled. A thousand miles at a stretch. This way and that. In winter and summer, with friends picked up by the way. On freights, on the roof of speeding Greyhound busses, across the wide and adventurous southwest. Rarely working. Hunting for something that could not be defined. Steeping himself in that rich brotherhood of the lowly which philosophers and teachers and statesmen are trying to find for us all.

“I looked for the famous southern hospitality, for instance,” says Fleming. “It is the bunk. It may live in the houses of the well-to-do, but they put it on like their Sunday clothes, for occasions. Or they wear it like a quaint old costume, the way the Mexicans dress up for fiesta. But I found the hospitable south to be the meanest and toughest spot on earth. Tallahassee, Florida, is probably the most hostile town on earth. To the tourist, they kiss the ground at his feet. As for the homely bum, who probably deserves it anyway, they take him by the neck at one end of the town, rush him across in a truck and drop him at the other. If we come back, we go before the judge, who gives us a month on the chain gang. That’s the way Florida gets her beautiful tourist highways. They are built by bums, chained together like convicts, who have made the mistake of coming back to a town when they were passed through.

Meeting Tough Texas Slim

The cow towns of Texas and Oklahoma are another big laugh. Everybody wants to be sheriff. All these hicks want is to stand around wearing a star and pistol on their hip. You can see an amateur sheriff in everybody in these towns and they are all just standing around. You land into one of these cow towns in the romantic southwest, and all eyes, the whole hundred of them, watch you sternly, like in a Zane Grey novel. You feel unreal and prickly. You are glad to get on your way.

“Everything fixed and settled is unreal and comic. Only the things that are moving, the bums, the trains, the wayside shrines where the hoboes gather, outside the yards, these are real and filled with life and meaning.”

But it is a meaning they cannot understand. Fleming spent five years travelling from Oregon to Florida, from Maine to California.

His adventure of nearly being iced in the refrigerator car occurred in this period. He had many quaint experiences, and if you think of hoboes as soulless human amoeba, drifting purposelessly about the earth, you are wrong. Each move they make is to see something, to be some place, to add another head to the rosary of their lives.

Texas Slim, for example.

All through the southwest ran the legend that there was a railroad detective named Texas Slim, on the Texas-Pacific Railroad who was tough. Oh, so tough! Scores of hoboes were willing to testify to this agent’s toughness. And the story the bums had was that Texas Slim’s father had been killed by hoboes as a result of which Texas Slim was filled with an implacable hatred of hoboes and that he persecuted them one and all.

Hoboes are pilgrims. They never find their holy land, but they feel they should be respected by mankind because they are pilgrims who want little and harm nobody. Texas Slim was a sort of Saul of Tarsus to the hoboes of the southwest.

“My partner, O’Leary and I,” says Fleming, “decided one day that we would like to see this Texas Slim. There was nothing better to do. We ought to be amongst those who had met Texas Slim. It added to our weight. So, starting from San Antone, Texas, we got an empty box car and headed for Atoya, Texas, where Texas Slim was likely to be.

“It so happened that we fell asleep in the box car and when we woke up, it was because man was kicking our feet as he towered above us. He was tall, slim, powerful man with a dangerous look about him. The kind of man who could beat you at anything.

“Where you boys from?” asked the stranger, who was obviously a railway dick.

“We told him we were from another district of Texas, in the proper Texas drawl. Bums become very adept at speaking all the dialects of the United States because it pays you to belong to the state you are in, any time you meet a dick.

“We spoke softly and politely. He asked us when we had eaten. We told him not for two days. He asked us where we were going and we said Florida. He gave us each quarter dollar. That is big money to hoboes. Beans and bread. Then we told him the truth, him standing there tall above us and us sitting on the box car floor, in the Texas summer. We told him we had just come down to meet Texas Slim, the bad man, and we knew that’s who he was. It was a great thing. He told us he was not tough, the only people he was rough with were the wise-crackers, the smart guys, the tough boys. He didn’t mind good, honest hoboes, in fact, he kind of liked them. But he wasn’t going to stand for any tough guys on the Texas Pacific in his district.

“Just that meeting. But it was interesting. It was a high spot in a hobo’s life, and maybe it will illustrate what I mean when I say we do things.”

If the dicks do board the train you do not always have to get off. If there are tank cars in the train, you run to them and stand on the running board around them, holding to the hand rails. There you can play tag all day if you like with the dicks and they can’t catch you. With the train going at thirty-five miles, it is usually the dicks who get weary of the game first.

Listening For Sweet Sounds

Fleming tells about riding five miles I clinging to the ladder on the side of a box car with his arms full of three loaves of bread and two cans of beans. He volunteered to run up to the store while the freight took on water, and collecting the necessary money from the gang in the box car to buy the stuff. When he came back the train was on its way and he grabbed the ladder, nearly jerking his arm off, clinging to the food which toppled in his arms. But he made it.

“You see, it would never do to miss the train or to lose any of the grub. If you say you’ll do a thing, you’ve got to do it or be classed as a fumbler. You might as well back and live in a city.”

One time he climbed up the back ladder of a Greyhound bus, got under the canvas cover for the baggage and rode six hundred miles into Florida and never was disturbed.

With a partner, with $6 between them, they beat their way from Los Angeles to Detroit and had 30 cents left.

“I always carry suit of overalls, a coverall like they wear in garages and around engines. I put it on when I jump freight so as to protect my suit and shirt Rolled up under my arm, this coverall also gives you an air of respectability, like a man looking for work. I rode 620 miles on the Sunset Limited, one of the crack trains of the south, to Los Angeles, and the way I got on was by wearing my coverall and an engineer’s cap, walking right into the station yard and when the train started, pulled in between the blind baggage and the tender.”

But at last they got him.

In Arizona, the dicks took him off a train and asked him where he was born. Foolishly, he said Gravenhurst, Ontario, Canada. He might have said Buffalo or Akron, Ohio, and all would have been well. But years had passed and it was no longer popular to be anything but a native son of the U.S. They took Fleming to Tucson, Arizona, and there locked him up on a charge of being an alien illegally entered.

The fact that he had served in the United States army made no difference.

He was held eleven months in the common jail of Tucson, Arizona, along with Mexican bandits, murderers, all manner of people, on the charge of being a Canadian.

He had the toothache for three months and got no service. He had the authorities write to Canada, but the Canadian authorities could not find his family, who had moved from their old location, and all the addresses Fleming knew were occupied by people who had never heard of the Flemings. There he pined, feeling very bitter about Canada and its authorities. And after checking up his record, and seeing that no relations could be found and that he had given Buffalo as his native city when enlisting in the U.S. army, and further in consideration of the fact that he had certain engagements with the authorities during his adventurous life in the States, the Canadian authorities were none too eager to acknowledge him as their son, unless relations could be found.

Eleven months in jail in Arizona, in summer, too. And then, when a lawyer, hired by a jail friend whose term was up, threatened habeas corpus, the Arizona officials set him free on condition that he would leave the country and return to Canada.

By easy stages, via Los Angeles and other dream cities he had read or heard about, he left the States.

In his good suit, he is a presentable young man. But no bands were at the Union Station to welcome our wandering boy back home. In fact, the band would have had to be out in the cinders in the Mimico yards to welcome him, for that is where he dropped off the train.

“What sweet sounds call you now?” I asked him. “What we settled and fixed people want to know is – does this wandering life make you lazy and fit for nothing?”

“You get tired of it,” said Fleming, “when you find that what you are seeking can’t be found. Because you don’t know yourself what it is. So now I am listening for the sound of a truck. I can drive trucks. I think I will settle down and get a job and get married.”

“And when you get a boy,” I said, “and he gets to be about eleven, what are you going to do about it?”

Fleming smiled.

“I’ll go with him,” said he.

Editor’s Notes: Horatio Alger wrote a lot of stories for young boys about “rags-to-riches”. Zane Grey was a famous writer of Westerns.

Saul of Tarsus was a persecutor of early Christians, but became the Apostle Paul after a religious conversion.