Southern Life

Daddy was a traveling salesman. Each week he would board the train with his case of samples and head out for worlds unknown, at least to me. We lived in the country, in the middle of a field, by the railroad tracks, in a renovated sharecropper house.

World War II was over and Mother and Daddy, like so many other Americans were struggling to find their roles in a very different society than before the war.

Daddy was a member of the greatest generation. He had survived the Battle of the Bulge, a supply officer who spent the horrible winter scrounging for any supplies that he could find for the man actually in battle. Daddy and his driver often went behind German lines to scrounge abandoned German supplies. Daddy told me that once he and his driver both had violent diarrhea. They stopped on the side of a road and ran into the woods to relieve themselves. His driver dropped his pants, squatted down to take care of business, and looked up into the face of a German storm trooper. He froze and shouted to Daddy to run. Daddy pulled his gun and ran over to check on his driver who was standing there with his hands in the air, his pants around his ankles, looking into the face of a dead frozen solid German. Daddy said after recovering they both had a good laugh, but from then on looked before they squatted.

Anyway, on most Sunday evenings Daddy would go to the railroad tracks with a pile of newspaper and wait. When he heard the rattling of the West Georgia steam engine, he balled the paper and lit it. When the engineer saw the little fire, he would stop the train and Daddy would climb aboard the engine to begin his sales route. Those were the days when many men hobo’d. Hobos were not tramps or bums, but men who travelled seeking work. Daddy had spent a number of years as a hobo before the war. As the train pulled away, I ran across the field to our house where Mother had stood carefully watching me.

When I got a little older, Daddy often took me with him on his sales trips. These were incredible experiences for a small child. Many times we rode in the engine and I can still remember the smells, the heat from the firebox, the chugging, and huffing of those wonderful old steam engines. Sometimes the engineer let me blow the whistle, and I still feel the frustration I experienced since I was too small to ring the bell.

We went to exotic places like Macon, Albany, Augusta, Valdosta, Columbus and places along the way, often we rode on two or three different trains. We stayed in big old hotels or boarding houses. Sometimes Daddy left me with the hostess at a boarding house while he made his sales calls. He travelled his routes many times and having never met a stranger, he knew everyone at the places he stayed. Daddy only travelled with one suit, his toiletries, and a change of underwear. At night, he would wash our dirty underwear and his white shirt and hang them up to dry so we had a clean change the next day. Sometimes the bathrooms were in our rooms, other times they were communal facilities down the hall.

Once, about Christmas time, Daddy took me on a trip to Atlanta. I remember that it was Christmas because he had purchased a rocking horse for my sister. He finished his work a couple of hours before the train was to leave headed south so we went to the Fox Theater to see a movie. It was a cowboy and Indian movie and I remember a scene when the Indians killed many cowboys. I was terrified so I tucked my head under Daddy’s shoulder where I found a place of safety and went to sleep. Suddenly, Daddy woke me up in quite a rush and we hurried out of the theater with me in one hand and the rocking horse under his arm. We got to the train station just as the train was pulling out. Daddy took off running down the platform with me under one arm and the rocking horse under the other. He ran faster and faster until we were even with a large open door. Daddy threw the horse in the door, then me, and jumped in after us. It was the mail car and one of the postmen insisted that we could not ride in the mail car. Daddy said, “What do you want us to do, jump out?” By that time the train was moving quite rapidly so that settled it, we rode in the mail car.

The mail car was a fascinating place. There was a large block of ice sitting over a grate. It was the bathroom where the men peed. I thought that was just too cool and worked up a case of little boy pee so that I could christen that block of ice. The men were working busily sorting the mail. There was a large pile of hay in one corner, which I still don’t its purpose, but it was a great place for a little boy to seep. The train rumbled and rocked and I fell asleep, suddenly Daddy woke me up, we were home.

Those were wonderful days, especially for a little boy with a wonderful Mother and Daddy. Mother told me years later how difficult times were, but she and Daddy loved each other deeply and that love spilled over to their children as we came along. I don’t remember any bad times, but only being nurtured, safe, and loved with a fascination with steam engines.

I still love trains and steam engines in particular. With all the ridiculous, miserable crap (er, sorry) that goes on with flying today, I intend to take the train more often when I can’t drive. Every chance I have to ride a steam driven train, believe it, I’m all aboard.

Jack deJarnette

Jack deJarnette

I am a United Methodist Minister who in June 2008, was placed on incapacity leave due to kidney failure.  My kidneys failed due to immusuppression medications secondary to a heart transplant in 1997. The ministry is my second career having spent 12 previous years at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta as Chief Respiratory Therapist and Technical Director of Life Support Systems at Emory University School of Medicine. I  have a wonderful wife of 45 years, two super children, and four grandchildren. My life has been exciting, challenging, and full of wonder as in my early years I was concerned with saving lives and in my later years saving souls I was graduated  from Georgia Military Academy in 1961 (Woodward Academy). I attended Emory-at-Oxford College, The University of Georgia, Georgia State University, and Emory University for postgraduate work. I received my ministry credentials through the United Methodist Church Course of Study at Emory's candler School of Theology. My Theology is primarily Wesleyan and varies with the particular topic under discussion. I refuse to be labeled either liberal or conservative. My politics are moderate embracing what I hope is the best of all parties. I have a deep love for Christ, the Church, and the United States of America. Bev (my wife) and I are deeply thankful to God for the blessings that have been showered on us throughout our lives.

  1. Bill Phillips

    There’s nothing better than train stories. I didn’t know you could flag down a freight train and hop a ride. Of course, your father was a salesman, so he must have been pretty persuasive and made friends with the train crews. My summers in Wadley, Georgia (“Number 55 in the Blue Book,” recently posted on Like the Dew) were pretty dull except for the one flash of excitement at 9:00 am every morning as I walked down to the train track to watch the Nancy Hanks roar through on it’s way from Savannah to Atlanta. Actually, it did stop, maybe for 30 seconds. The greatest thrill of one summer was actually being able to get on the train for a short ride.

  2. Your story reminds me of the stories my husband tells of his childhood growing up in Decatur, Alabama in the 50s and 60s. His dad was the manager of the Walgreens store downtown, complete with the lunch counter. After the store closed in the early 70s, his dad became a traveling salesman.

    One of my husband’s favorite memories was when the trains would come through downtown Decatur. They would slow down when approaching downtown, almost to a crawl, and my husband, then somewhere around 10 or 12, would jump on an open boxcar with his best friend Bobby. They would ride the train through town, then just as the train would pick up speed in preparation for crossing the Tennessee River bridge, he and Bobby would jump off, and run the mile or so back to the drug store downtown. You can imagine the horror his mother felt when she learned of this decades later.

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