Brother, Can You Spare a Ride?
“My father said to me, I had to leave. . . . ‘Go fend for yourself. I can’t afford to have you around any longer.’ ”
--Clarence Lee, who left Louisiana in 1929 at age 16.
They are old now, men and women in their 70s and 80s, with gray hair, bittersweet smiles and vivid memories of fearless youth--when, as teenagers, they hopped a nearby freight and crisscrossed America during the Great Depression.
Jim Mitchell, who left his Wisconsin home in 1933 at age 16, placed a note on a pillow saying he would write.
Rene Champion, who left Pennsylvania in 1937 at 16, had endured an abusive upbringing but he also yearned to discover the “big world out there.”
Peggy DeHart, who left Wyoming in 1938 at 15, heard her father say as she walked out the door, “You’ll be back for supper.”
Their personal and often heartfelt odysseys are captured in a moving documentary called “Riding the Rails,” researched and filmed over the past five years by Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell, a husband-wife team from Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.
The 72-minute documentary, which became a hot property for ticket scalpers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah, weaves the stories of 10 men and women with vintage black-and-white footage of a staggered and restless nation gleaned from the United States National Archives, as well as a soundtrack featuring Woodie Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers and Doc Watson.
It was an era, say Uys and Lovell, when one-third of Americans were thrown out of work and 250,000 teenagers decided to live life on the road.
It was also an era, they add, when Los Angeles police, alarmed over the influx of homeless people into their city, went to the California state line and, in a move that was clearly unconstitutional, spent six weeks blocking admittance to anyone who didn’t carry at least $100.
In newsreels that bespeak the times, transients can be seen riding atop moving boxcars, being led off to jail by railroad detectives (known in hobo jargon as bulls) or gathered around flickering campfires in so-called jungles as the camera records their stilted words when asked how they got to this point in their lives.
What brought Uys and Lovell to this project
began with a suggestion from Uys’ father that he read a 1934 book called “Boy and Girl Tramps in America” by Thomas Minehan, who taught sociology at the University of Minnesota.
“The book is a moving account of how bad these kids’ lives were, what they were going through,” Uys recalled. Minehan had researched his book by disguising himself as something of a bum, much like Joel McCrea’s wealthy character does in the classic 1941 Preston Sturges comedy “Sullivan’s Travels.”
In reading about the teens Minehan interviewed in the 1930s, Uys thought what they might be doing today. “I figured they would be in their mid- to late 70s now.”
The South African-born Uys, 32, is a New York University film school graduate who made ends meet making commercials for products like Elizabeth Arden perfume. Lovell, 37, studied history at Yale and worked in public television and on documentaries and feature films. They met at a directors’ workshop and were married while making the documentary.
Hoping to make contact with people who had ridden the rails, the filmmakers wrote letters to more than two dozen newspapers and magazines telling about their project and requesting information. One of those was Modern Maturity, a magazine with 2.1-million circulation published by the American Assn. of Retired Persons.
The response was overwhelming. “We received over 3,000 letters and we’re still getting them,” Lovell said.
“Some hadn’t spoken [of their experiences] in 60 years,” her husband added. “They were just pouring their hearts out to us. We would get 60-page handwritten letters.” Lovell said some letters were written in ballpoint pen, words spilling into the margins.
Occasionally, a letter writer would include a snapshot taken with a Brownie box camera of him and a buddy atop a boxcar.
From the 3,000 letters, Uys and Lovell selected around 500 people whose stories seemed the best for the documentary. For two months in 1993, they telephoned the letter writers.
“To some, they couldn’t understand why we were interested in what they were doing as teenagers,” Uys recalled. “They didn’t think of it as history. To others, we were like an old friend because we were interested.”
From 500, they eventually pared the list down to 20 people whom they would film. Ten ultimately made it into the film.
“The more we got into it,” Uys said, “the bigger the subject was. It became how a generation almost formed their values.”
“If you could see how marked they were,” added Lovell, who recounted the story of one man who had been so marked by the experiences of the Depression that he missed only five days of work in a job he held for 42 years.
“They so much didn’t want to be rootless after experiencing that,” Uys said. “After the Depression years, they went right into World War II and came back and created the baby boom. Their lives were on such a linear track that they didn’t have time to find themselves like they do nowadays. This wasn’t Jack Kerouac.”
To aid in their research, the filmmakers received input from authors Studs Terkel (“Hard Times”) and Howard Zinn (“A People’s History of the United States”). Zinn, himself a scholar, told the producers not to put any scholars in their film.
Funding for the project came from a variety of sources. The first grant of about $10,000 came from the New York Council for the Humanities. A $3,000 check came from the Harburg Foundation, named for E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, who wrote the Depression-era tune “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
Because the film was shot in 25 states, Uys and Lovell discovered they could apply for grants from the humanities’ councils in each state. They picked up 15 such grants, as well as two others from private foundations.
In their own journey, the filmmakers met many colorful people like Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds, who still rides the rails for excitement at age 72. And Charley Bull, who demonstrated how to hop on a train and not get hurt. And Clarence Lee, an African American who told of being let off in a swamp by a train crew--and likely had his life saved--when rumors got back to them that a lynch mob was looking for a suspected rapist who resembled Lee in a nearby Southern town.
Uys and Lovell also learned how to hop freights. In Roseville, outside Sacramento, Uys and his camera crew hid in the bushes until a freight appeared.
“I just went for it,” Uys recalled. “I went to a ladder on a grain car. I thought, ‘Why am I doing this movie? I’m going to get my legs cut off.’ But I was committed at that point. The cameraman was waiting 100 feet down the track. He handed me the camera and then he got on. One hundred feet farther down the sound man handed me the sound package and then he got on.”
For the next 10 to 12 hours, they rode the rails to Klamath Falls, Ore.
Lovell later got into the act herself, jumping onto a freight in San Luis Obispo and taking it to Santa Barbara.
The film will be released theatrically beginning Friday for a one-week-only engagement at Laemmle’s Grande 4-Plex in downtown Los Angeles, ushering in the theater’s Documentary Days series. The film will be shown in New York City the following week and is being booked in about 20 other cities.
“Iron Memories: Riding the Rails,” a book based on letters sent to the filmmakers, is being compiled by Uys’ father, Errol Lincoln. It is scheduled to be published next spring.
Meanwhile, Uys and Lovell say the people they filmed have had a chance to view the documentary (one man featured died before it was finished), and now they want to meet one another to swap stories.
“It’s complicated when they look back,” Uys said. “It’s a blend of nostalgia and pain, the freedom and the reality of how bad it was.”