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Men off the Road

by Gertrude Springer

Photographs by Lewis Hine

September 1934

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HE had little time for me, that was plain. As he answered my questions his eyes were on the men across the field.

"There's nothin' 'bout me, ma'am. I'm jes' one of these federal transients. My folks is what's called po' white trash where I comes from. No ma'am, I ain't never worked what you'd call reg'lar,—not for money anyways. Seemed like I might's well get out, so 'bout a yeah back I hit the road. Long's I kep' movin' I got by. Then a fella was comin' to New York, so I come. But say, that's a tough place. Then I heard about this camp and so I went to a place where a lady talked to me and pretty soon she said I could come. My folks? Oh, they don't care. They've got it plenty hard without me. No ma'am, there's nothin' 'bout me. I reckon I better be goin'. A fahmah down yondah give us some tomata plants that's gotta get set out before it rains."

Maybe he was telling the truth about himself, maybe not. It did not matter. What mattered was that this sunbrowned, muscular, young American citizen was no longer adrift in the dim world of the road, the jungle and the flophouse and that he, grimly schooled in irresponsibility, was actually concerned with getting tomato plants set out at the right moment.

Two months before, chiefly because New York was tough, he had drifted into the Transient Bureau, and presently found himself on the way to the camp deep in the hills of Putnam County. He figured that it was probably just a new kind of a jail„he knew all about jails—but he'd take a chance. He could always hit it out again, just go "over the hill,"—any hill.

And so he came to the frame barracks sprawled on the edge of a wood. Darkly suspicious of everything, he heard the director's assurance that this was a place where everybody played fair. He knew that line, and he knew where the catches were. But the place looked good for " three squares" and he might as well try it. That night he found himself hanging over the old piano where a "bar-room professor"—"Yes'm, I've played my way through every state in the Union and don't know one note from another,"—was pounding out anything anybody asked for. And presently he was swapping tall stories of the road and getting a big laugh for that fast one he and Big Red had pulled on the bulls in Scranton. No one asked him any questions—just took him for granted. The next morning he was assigned to a worksquad. This was probably the catch, but the other fellows said it was OK, so he went on.

Men in Camp II

That day and the next he got onto things a little, and decided to stay out the week and help the gang finish the job it was on. The next week he stayed because the camp ballteam had a game on. The week after that—well, he just stayed and to his own faint surprise heard himself counseling a newcomer to "give this dump a chance. Take it from me, kid, it beats the road.' Now he has risen to be a squad leader, has hardened up and gained in weight. He has learned to box and aspires to the camp championship. He has written to his folks and has saved $4.25 from his cash allowance toward some decent clothes for a "front" when he gets a chance at a job. Pretty soon now he is going to brace the camp director and see what he thinks he ought to do next. This dump's all right, but after all a fellow likes to be on his own, and it seems like there ought to be a regular job some place for him. Just look at that muscle!


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003