Doug and Lefty riding the rails

They claim they weren’t hobos but they experienced the life of the vagabond. Over 50 years later, Lefty Norling and Doug Anderson are still sharing the stories of the summer they lived on the rail. The two friends graduated in 1956 from Willmar High School. They didn’t have jobs for the summer, so Doug decided that they should hop a freight train to California. “I won’t take all the blame for this,” Doug laughed, adding that he, Lefty and two other guys in their class were sitting around one day shortly after graduation and started talking about finding jobs for the summer. They decided that whoever didn’t have a job in two weeks would take the trip.    Two weeks later, Lefty and Doug were still unemployed so they each packed up a few clothes in well used suitcases, stuck their graduation money of $100 each in their socks and began their venture to California. A friend dropped Doug and Lefty off by the large railroad yard near the First Street bridge at 7 a.m. But they encountered a problem immediately as there are twenty sets of tracks and they didn’t know which train to catch a ride. “We kept jumping on trains but never got out of the yard as the trains kept stopping and switching tracks,” said Doug, who now lives in Mankato. “So around noon we finally asked a switchman what train was going out of town and he told us to go down to Track 5.” The two young men succeeded by jumping on to a slow moving flat car that was already occupied by some other guys they didn’t know. Asking if they could ride along, the strangers okayed the new travelers with a wink and a nod. “When we got into Hancock, I knew we were finally on our way,” said Lefty, who lives in Kandiyohi. “And what an adventure it was!” Their first stop was the next morning at Jamestown, N.D. The two young men walked into town to have breakfast. The next train they caught stopped at nearly every town so they learned to ask when the next “hot shot” train was leaving, a term used for a fast, nonstop, freight train that travels a long distance at high speed. Such trains have priority over slower local trains, which are stopped or moved to another track to let the hotshot train pass. While traveling through North Dakota, the friends shared a box car with an older man. The trio sat in the open doorway with their feet hanging out the door. “It was an endless trip with nothing but time,” Doug recalled. “The conversation was slow. One of us would ask a question but there might not be a response for five minutes.” Doug and Lefty always welcomed advice from the many hobos they met. When they reached eastern Montana, the older gentleman who was with them said, “God created the whole world but when he got to Montana, he didn’t have anything left.” They stopped in Havre, Mont., to discover their money would run out fast if they kept eating in restaurants, so they decided to beg for food. They knocked on many doors and finally a woman who answered the door of the rectory near the Catholic Church, gave the weary boys a hot dog. “We had to be persistent,” said Lefty, “and we learned to tolerate many kinds of people both on and off the train.” They decided to go to a grocery store in Havre where they begged and received over-ripe fruit. “It was a long day so we went to the train depot and tried to sleep on the hard wooden benches that look like church pews,” Doug recalled.  “A man at the depot told us to go to the used car lot and sleep in the cars as they were unlocked.” The boys followed his advice. On the third day of the trip, their train arrived in Whitefish, Mont.. The boys hadn’t bathed during that time so they decided to get a room at an old hotel so they could clean up. However, the woman at the front desk said she would not rent rooms to drunks. She drew that conclusion from the wine bottles that the boys carried that were wrapped in newspapers. They explained that there was only water in the bottles and they wrapped them in papers to keep the water cold. It was just another tip they got from one of the box car companions. “The woman finally let us have a room and we took our first showers and the soot and coal dust just ran off!” Lefty laughed. The two men chuckled when they began the story of their arrival in Spokane, WA, at 4 a.m. “We were hungry so we went to a restaurant where we ordered pancakes,” said Doug. “Lefty liked his food and he was nearly half done eating his pancakes when I told him that the cakes didn’t taste good and there was a sour taste to them. Lefty stopped eating, looked at his plate, stood up and said loudly for everyone to hear, ‘These are the worst pancakes I’ve ever eaten!’ The waitress replaced them with a new batch.” According to Doug, who remembers the adventure in detail, the only activity in Wishram, Wash., was the trains coming and going. As they strolled through the small town, the two Willmar graduates, who had played basketball in high school, took on three local guys on an outdoor basketball court. The two-man team was victorious. That night they slept in the town’s park but woke up to find some young people standing around them. Word of the victory in basketball the night before had spread and the two Willmar Cardinals had to chase girls who had taken their suitcases. The prank was done in jest and the suitcases were retrieved. The weather turned colder after they caught a train from Wishram heading south through the mountains to Portland. Using the good advice again from various travel companions, the boys wrapped newspapers around themselves and used twine to keep the paper in place. From Portland, the tracks led to Sacramento, Los Angeles and finally to Pasadena where Lefty got in touch with the postmaster who was a friend of his family. It took the Willmar travelers about eight days to reach their destination. They wore the same clothes for the entire trip. After they got off the train in Pasadena, they started walking toward the YMCA. On their way they met two good looking girls whom they stopped to talk to. “But those girls wouldn’t even look at us let alone talk to us,” Lefty laughed, “and when we got to the Y and looked in a mirror, we knew why! We were so dirty!” After spending several days in California the twosome decided to hitchhike home which they found was faster and cleaner. Standing along the highway, they held a sign that said Las Vegas, which was Doug’s idea. He disagreed with Lefty’s idea to make a sign that said Willmar.  Doug remembered the first car to pick them up was a man driving a 1952 light green Chevy. The man kept taking swigs from a bottle of whiskey so the boys offered to drive. They made it half way to Vegas. Then a truck driver, who was delivering the latest edition of the Los Angeles Times to Las Vegas, gave Doug and Lefty a ride to the city of lights. A cowboy driving a station wagon was their means of transportation from Vegas to near Salt Lake City. After he picked up the boys, he also stopped to pick up a “peroxide blonde in tight-fitting clothes” who was also hitchhiking. “We had to sit in the back seat so that she could be in the front with the cowboy,” Doug recalled. “It wasn’t long before he stopped the car and told us to get so that he could be with his new friend.” A fast driving Marine drove the boys from Salt Lake City to Mitchell, S.D, and then they hitched a ride with a man driving a shiny new Mercury. The back seat was filled with fur coats that he was bringing to Minneapolis to be cleaned. He said he knew of Havick’s Department Store in Willmar. Arriving in Jackson, Doug and Lefty bid farewell and caught their final ride back to Willmar, five days after leaving the West Coast. “I was thankful to get there and thankful to get back home,” concluded Lefty, adding that it was very educational trip as well. Doug agreed with his friend. “The entire trip was an adventure! Every day was different. There was different scenery every day and we met a lot of people.” Doug admitted that he never told his mother that he and Lefty were going to ride freight trains to California. “She thought we were going to hitchhike the entire time,” he said. “But I told her when we got back home and she was relieved we were okay.” Doug enrolled that fall at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. Lefty began working at Norling Silo in Svea, a company owned by his uncle. As the men reminisced about their trip, Doug said they met a variety of men who depended on the freight trains as a means to see the world make a few buck here and there, and who shared why they were living on the rail. “I remember one time when we were riding on a flat car that was hauling moving equipment. There was a man on the car with us that looked so old,” Doug said. “He had bags on the bags under his eyes and he was an alcoholic. He told me he had been a dentist but that alcohol took his life from him. Back then, I figured he was just telling me some story, but through the years as I think of the man, he probably had been a dentist.” Looking back at their summer adventure, both men agreed that they are glad they made the trip and they have no regrets. But both agreed that in today’s society, it may not be a very safe venture.

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