Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Boxcar Dreams of Riding the Rails

Last night we watched a bit of Riding the Rails, a PBS show, part of the American Experience series (learn more here). In the 1930's, more than 250,000 children and teens were living on the road in America, many of them hopping on trains and riding across the country. I remember learning about this aspect of the Great Depression somewhere along the way, but I tended to see it as a grand adventure. Last night's show reminded us of the dangers and the lack of comfort.

And the hunger. I forget how many people were so very, very hungry in the 1930's. I remember reading a fact about World War II that talked about how many recruits had to wait to be shipped off to war so that they could be nourished and so that their diseases of malnutrition could be treated.

I share a birthday with Woody Guthrie, so I've always been fascinated with his life, the way we all know some of his songs (sing along: "This Land is Your Land"; you know the words, even if you don't know all the verses). Woody Guthrie rode the rails as a very young man, and it was a habit he returned to throughout his life.

When I read that biographical nugget, I didn't realize he had so much company, both in terms of young people (more than 250,000; what did that landscape look like?) and the older people who were on the move, looking for work. I also didn't realize how many of those children had been turned out of their houses, their parents pushing them out to fend for themselves in hopes that the younger children could be saved. How would that feel?

From a very young age, I felt the pull of the open road. I used to tell my parents that I wanted to be a trucker when I grew up (yes, I was a child of varied interests; I was going to be a Broadway star, a trucker, an Indian brave, a writer, a settler--my imagination was not constrained by gender or time period or wage requirements).

I still feel that pull occasionally. One summer, I went to a marvelous exhibit on Woody Guthrie at the National Museum of American History, one of the wonderful Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C. I got to see original manuscripts and pictures. It took my breath away, moved me to tears (yes, I'm emotional that way), and influenced my poetry for years to come.

Here's a poem that comes from that period. It remains unpublished, and I've largely stopped sending it out. I still like it, but I've written other poems that I like better. It still speaks to me on some level, that familial responsibility, that longing for freedom. When I wrote it, my mother-in-law had a lot of needs (and I added some fictional children for good measure). If I rewrote it today, I'd probably come at it from a different angle, something job related. Perhaps I'll play with this poem today. You play too. We could all write railroad poems and see what we came up with.

Boxcar Dreams

How did Woody Guthrie decide to leave
his children and women? What mad hope
made him leave?
Did guilt keep him awake at night?
Did he cry himself to sleep as he longed
for his left-behind loved ones?

I don’t dream of boxcars, but I price RVs
in my spare time. When family members call
with black holes of needs that suck
away time and space, I dream
of prairies and wide vistas,
western light and trees that touch the sky.

I buy maps but keep this evidence of my infidelity hidden.
As I drive the children to cheerleading practice, Cub
Scouts, soccer, violin lessons, I chart possible escape
routes. When my mother-in-law fills
the air with her inescapable chatter, I make mental
lists of all the supplies I’d need to stock in my camper.
I fall asleep, wondering how many miles
would erase their grasp.

Would great art come out of my mash dash
for freedom? Would I write songs that schoolchildren
will still sing a hundred years later?
Would I even make it to the state line
before the leash of responsibility pulled me home?

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