Archive for the ‘Merle Miller’ Tag

Harry Truman, Hoboes and the Santa Fe Railroad   9 comments

Harry S Truman (1884-1972) was the 33rd president of the United States. Below is an excerpt from Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S Truman by Merle Miller.

Pages 41-43:

[Merle Miller] Mr. President, I understand that when you were still a boy, you got a job working as timekeeper for the Santa Fe Railroad.

[President Truman] “I worked for an old fellow named Smith, L.J. Smith his name was, and he was head of the construction company that was building the double track for the Santa Fe Railroad down here from Eaton Falls to where the Missouri Pacific comes into the Santa Fe down at Sheffield.

“I was eighteen years old, and I’d just finished high school and knew I wasn’t going to get to go to West Point. So I took this job as a timekeeper. I took it to help out at home, to keep my brother, Vivian, and my sister, Mary, in school. My father was having a hard time with finances just then.

“Old man Smith had three camps, and there were about a hundred hoboes in each camp, and I got very well acquainted with them. My job was to keep tabs on them, to keep track of how much time they put in, and then I’d write out their paychecks for them. I’d usually write those checks in a saloon called Pogunpo’s or in old man Schmidt’s saloon in Sheffield. I used to sit there and pay off those hoboes. And they weren’t bad fellows. They’d work for two weeks. They’d get discounted if they drew their checks before that time. So they’d work two weeks, and then they’d spend all their money for whiskey in the saloon and come back to work the next Monday morning. I’d pay them off on Saturday night.

“But they weren’t bad fellows. Not in any way. Most of them had backgrounds that caused them to be hoboes. Either they’d had family troubles or they’d been in jail for some damn fool thing that wasn’t a penitentiary offense. But they weren’t bad citizens at all. I remember one time I told the old man that ran the saloon, he was an old Dutchman and wore whiskers, I told him, I said, ‘This old bastard is the blacksmith out there on the railroad, and we need him. So try to cut out on his whiskey.'”

“Well, damn old Schmidt went out and told this blacksmith what I’d said, and I never got a better cussing in my life than I did for interfering with the freedom of an American citizen. And he was right. And that taught me something.

“But after that I guess the blacksmith was grateful for it because he took a file, a regular ordinary file about that long and made a butcher knife out of it and tempered it so that the edge would never come off. He made two of them for me, and I think one of them is still around the house somewhere. . . . So he didn’t hold it against me that I was trying to keep him from getting drunk.”

[Miller] When you said camps, what were they, houses or tents?

[Truman] “Tents mostly. There were tents, and I had a tricycle car on the railroad that I went up and down on. I had to make a list of the men that were working every morning at seven thirty, and then I had to go back at one thirty in the afternoon to be sure that they were still there. So when the time came for their being paid, I had the records. No one ever doubted the records I kept.”

[Miller] How much did those men make?

[Truman] “They made eleven dollars for two weeks’ work, and as I say, they’d get paid on Saturday, and by Monday morning most of them had drunk it all up. But it was one of the best experiences that I ever had because that was when I began to understand who the underdog was and what he thought about the people who were the high hats. They felt just like I did about them. They didn’t have any time for them. And neither did I. I always liked the underdog better than the high hats. I still do.”

[Miller] Weren’t you ever uneasy? I mean, you were a reader of books and wore glasses and, as you say, you’d been called a sissy.

[Truman] “No. No. I never had any trouble with those birds. They were just as nice as they could be, and when I left, the foreman down there in Sheffield said, ‘Harry’s all right from the navel out in every direction.’ Which when you come to think of it is just about the highest compliment I ever have been paid.

“Some of those hoboes had better educations than the president of Ha-vud University, and they weren’t stuck up about it either. The average of them was just as smart as the smartest people in the country, and they’d had experiences, and a lot of them told me about their experiences. I hope I profited from it, and I think I did. I had to quit at the end of the summer, but my goodness. That was a great experience for me.”

[Miller] I understand you learned a few cuss words that summer.

[Truman] “I did. The words some of those men knew I’d never heard before, but later when I was in the Army, there was an occasion or two when those words came in handy, and I used them.

“That experience also taught me that the lower classes so called are better than the high hats and the counterfeits, and they can be trusted more, too.

“About this counterfeit business. My Grandfather Young felt the same way. We had a church in the front yard where the cemetery is now. And the Baptists and the Methodists and all of them used it. And Grandfather Young when I was six years old, he died when I was eight, he told me that whenever the customers in any of those denominations prayed too loud in the Amen corner, you’d better go home and lock your smokehouse.

“And I found that to be true. I’ve never cared much for the loud pray-ers or for people who do that much going on about religion.”

[Originally published by Digihitch.com]

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