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"Riding the Rails" captures an era of lonesome freedom.

By Stacey Richter

MARCH 2, 1998:  DURING THE GREAT Depression, about four million Americans tramped around the country on boxcars in hope of finding work. An estimated 250,000 were teenagers or even children displaced by the same economic factors that forced adults on the road: hunger, poverty, and a desire to support their families. Many of these "road kids" are still alive today, and their stories make up Riding the Rails, a fascinating documentary playing at the Screening Room this weekend.

Filmmakers Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell placed ads in national magazines like Modern Maturity, requesting letters from former teenagers who'd spent the Depression hopping trains. They received more than 3,000 responses, and decided to focus their film on the lives of seven especially interesting, articulate examples, including Bob "Guitar Whitey" Symmonds, a guitar-slinging septuagenarian who still hops boxcars every summer, for the sheer fun of it.

Most of the respondents said they wouldn't want to hop a train again, though the experience seems to have had an impact on all of their lives. They remember it as a time of excitement, education, extreme discomfort, and heartbreaking loneliness. Not all of the kids left home for economic reasons. The son of an ophthalmologist, John Fawcett, was 16 in 1938 when he ran away from home in search of adventure, only to find himself cold and starving. Peggy De Hart, the sole woman interviewed, left home at 15 after having an argument with her father (she had cussed in the barn). Clarence Lee, who was 16 in 1929 when he started riding the rails, took to the road after his father told him he had to leave. "Go fend for yourself," he said. "I cannot afford to have you around any longer."

Uys and Lovell intersperse modern-day interviews with these former road kids, who are now in their 70s and 80s, with archival footage from the 1930s, some from newsreels showing clusters of men hunkered down inside boxcars or riding the tops of trains. The archival footage is haunting--hollow-cheeked men and a few women, in dirty, tattered clothing, looking like they haven't had a meal in weeks. (In a sad comment on the fashion industry, they also look strangely stylish, with their Gatsby haircuts and visible bone structure). This contrasts sharply with the lives these ex-hobos are living today; the interviewees are now college professors, retired contractors, groundskeepers, all enjoying comfortable lives that were out of reach for most of them during the Great Depression.

Riding the Rails could have been a simple, historical documentary without the input of the still-living train-hoppers who enliven the film. Uys and Lovell have captured a vanishing piece of history by recording the vivid memories of these old guys (and a gal). The film has the feel of a family reunion where the young people start asking the older generation about their past and turn up amazing stories: De Hart hit the road with a friend who was three weeks pregnant, though she didn't know it at the time. The two of them repeatedly got thrown into jail for hopping trains. They split up a few months later when the friend insisted on traveling around with some rodeo cowboys they'd met, against Peggy's wishes.

Uys and Lovell have tried to portray the lives of roads kids as a rite of passage, but the film is more melancholy than that implies. Riding the rails was dangerous; the trains themselves, the railroad detectives, and other vagrants were all potential threats. The archival footage, accompanied by songs by Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers, and Doc Watson, has a blue and gritty tone; nobody seems to be smiling. These faces have no prospects, no hope. The footage from the Dust Bowl emigration is especially grim.

The recollections of the old guys reflect this sadness, but it's a sadness tinged with romanticism and nostalgia. They talk about the wonderful freedom of hopping trains, but add that the freedom had a price (proving once and for all that "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose"). But for these seven folks, at least, we know that the story turned out all right. They survived the Great Depression and their time on the road. Guitar Whitey is still singing about it.

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