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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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"Thumb Fun"

John L. Sullivan, '36

The Magpie, January 1936, v. 37, n. 1, p. 31.

Desiring admission into the inner sanctum of the "Royal Order of Knights of the Road," John O'Donnell and I decided to go hitch hiking. We share in common a great interest in sailing ships especially whalers, and to get first-hand information to aid us in our model building, we chose New Bedford, Massachusetts, the whaling city, as our goal.

Bright and early Monday morning, I called for O'Donnell and then headed for the Boston Post Road. Our total resources consisted of eight dollars and two tooth brushes. The road maps, when consulted gave New Bedford as two hundred and eight miles away as the crow flies, but changing this into as the thumb wags it was more like two-hundred and fifty. Fortune smiled on us the first part of our journey, and by nine o'clock we were hearing the familiar bark of the Yale bulldog at New Haven. For the next three hours we drifted into the horse latitudes and were becalmed in the doldrums, making only twelve knots in three hours. During this spell the biggest part of the trucks seemed to be the, "no riders" signs which appeared with monotonous regularity. In the next few hours, business picked up again and one lift brought us to Westerly, Rhode Island, where our wind again left us. During the next few hours we rode in three different cars of the pre-war period which never once failed to hit every bump in the road. In these short lifts, the drivers were not averse to talking and brought out all their tales of woe, how the mills had to close down because of foreign competition, how wages had been cut right and left, and many other stories all of which were met with sympathetic ears.

On the other side of Westerly, we got another lift which carried us right through Providence, Fall River, and then to New Bedford. In this lift, the cab of the car was the acme of mechanical perfection. A fish truck by choice, it contained a radio, automatic heater, fan, bunk for the "swamper," and double transmission gears with fourteen different shifts.

Once in New Bedford we secured accommodations for the night, sent home postcards, and were soon slumbering in the arms of Morpheus. When we awoke in the morning, we dressed quickly and ran down to the Whaling Museum only to find that we were two hours too early. We spent these two hours profitably by sauntering along the waterfront, where the odor of whale oil could still be found on the wharves, although it was years since it had been a major commercial industry.

The doors of the museum were finally thrown open and we proceeded to make a methodical examination of the premises. Inside were many interesting exhibits. Especially interesting was the half size model of the whaler "Lagoda" all ready for a voyage. The real Lagoda had been one of the most successful whalers, and on a few of its trips, had had as its captain a certain Edward Lewis, a distant relative of our own Miss Lewis of the Program Room. Around the walls of the museum are harpoons, lances, and other gear used in the whale fishery. In an adjacent room stands a completely equipped whale boat. These boats, modeled after the Indian canoe, were the speediest and most easily managed of any type of boat. This particular one has four notches cut in the gunwhale of her starboard bow to signify that she had captured four whales. The planking of the hull on the underside is cracked where it was once stove in by a whale. It was on the "Wanderer," the last of the New Bedford whalers which broke up on the Cuttyhunk Rocks outside the harbor when it was making its last trip. Various other parts of the wreck adorn the walls. The equipment of one of these boats is very complex, and to the greenhorn seems superfluous. Every article on board plays a definite part, from the keg of biscuit to the ax, and the loss of just one of these may be the margin of safety between life and death.

In the basement of the museum is a rare collection of models. Probably the greatest of them all is that of the two-hundred and twelve gun ship of the line "Caledonia," once the pride of the British Navy. This model is made of solid ivory, and took years of patient toil to complete. Every type of boat is represented in the museum from the slow dutch poon to the fast Yankee clippers! One model in particular has a very interesting history. It was made by an American seaman imprisoned during the War of 1812 in Dartmoor Prison, England. This model is about a foot long, and made out of pork bones which the prisoner saved from his meals. The workmanship is marvelous, and so small that you would think it an impossibility to have so much detail. For rigging, human hair was used, and it is my guess that after the model was completed, the maker must have had a head like a door knob. The model was allowed to leave the prison only after a British flag had been placed on it.

Besides the Lagoda, the models, and the whaling gear, the museum has many log books. In one, the log of the ship Acushnet, which left in 1841, is found the name of Herman Melville who shipped as a sailor and got the material for his whaling classic, "Moby Dick." Across the street from the museum is the Seamen's Bethel which Melville also used in his book. Samples of schrimshaw or the various ornaments made by the sailors out of whales' teeth, a jag wheel belonging to Robert Louis Stevenson, were some of the exhibits we enjoyed most. The one exhibit that is lacking which the museum would like to have very much is Captain Ahab's leg which was made from the jawbone of a whale.

So interested did we become in these exhibits that we had forgotten about our meals, so along about one o'clock we ate a combined breakfast and lunch. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around the streets of the town which abound in historic splendor, and in stopping O'Donnell from buying up every print in town. I did not meet with much success in this line, and because of his hobby of collecting prints and mine of collecting weight, we soon reached the bottom of the sock. We remained one day longer, and after taking a final look at the museum, we took the cast of our thumbs and put them in motion.

Apparently sad at our leaving, the fair New Bedford sky turned black and, before we had proceeded fifty feet, it started to rain. After our clothes had reached the point of supersaturation, the rain stopped. Our return trip was facilitated by the use of a whale's tooth I had purchased, which I substituted for my thumb as a signal. This tooth brought remarkable results in the form of many lifts that would have been unheeded had we flagged with our thumbs. The lifts we got, however, were not of long duration, but usually from town to town. These stops gave O'Donnell ample time to snatch a hamburger, and as far as I can estimate he consumed, devoured, or caused to disappear: eight hamburgers, three hot dogs, one-half pound of cake, a pint of ice cream, three bottles of soda, seven cups of coffee, and a half a bag of peanuts. Not wanting to make a hog out of myself, I was satisfied with twice the amount, and consequently we got along splendidly.

We soon began to hit a nice clip and rapidly proceeded from town to town: New Bedford, Dartmouth, Westport, Fall River, and then Providence. There O'Donnell's imitation of a limp was so pathetic that our last lift came in the form of a beer truck headed for New London, Connecticut. I spent my time trying to sleep, while O'Donnell spent his trying to open one of the barrels. Our quarters in the truck were comfortable, with one exception. The beer barrels were not lashed and, whenever we went down a hill, the barrels would roll to the front of the truck only to come catapulting back at us when we went up hill. As the New England states are not noted for their long plains we spent the rest of the night dodging the barrels with little success, until O'Donnell hit upon the bright idea of standing them up on their ends. New London was finally reached, and another restaurant. It was getting along about eleven o'clock and our technique seemed lost, but nevertheless we kept on. At this juncture I had a mutiny on my hands. O'Donnell had developed a bad stomach ache. He wanted to spend the night in jail, where, we were told by some friends, we would be welcomed, given a night's sleep, and freedom in the morning. Partly because of previous experience and a sixth sense, I would have nothing to do with it, and the mutiny was on. I left him at a street corner, and started walking. I had noticed an arm of the law following me, and not wishing to have hospitality forced on me, continued on. I had not gone a block when a car stopped and picked me up. O'Donnell was inside, jubilant at the apparent success of his enterprise. The lift did not last long, but ended at a C.C.C. camp, ten miles from nowhere.

We started walking at a fast pace, but as the time increased and the lips decreased, our steps became slower. A thick fog rolled in from the Sound and blotted out the moon. The fog was so thick, that several business men have flavored it, frozen it, and sold it for ices. We kept on walking for a few more hours and, at two A.M., it seemed that we were a million miles from nowhere, so we decided to take out the map and find the distance to the nearest town. If the town was near, we would keep on walking, if it was far, we would stop and try to get some sleep. We took out the map and struck a match. In the fog it sputtered and died. We struck another; it did the same. We continued striking matches with the same result, so we decided to find the nearest sign post, and in the light of the next passing car find out where we were. O'Donnell ran into a sign post, and in the rays of an approaching car we made out the words D-R-I-N-K N-E-H-T. We gave up in disgust and decided to "turn in" at the nearest opportunity. The opportunity appeared in the form of a pine tree; we climbed under it and prepared to sleep till morning. No sooner had we started to sleep than a long stream of trucks began to pass. These trucks would keep us awake, and might provide us with a iift, so we again decided to press on to New York. We had not gone a hundred yards when, at a bend in the road, we could discern lights in the distance. We ran toward them at a speed that would make Ted Ellison look like a slow motion picture of Stepin Fetchit, and found it to be a combined restaurant and gas station. Parked outside were two trucks used to haul freight. We entered the restaurant and, between bites of a hamburger, found out that one of them was headed for New York. We waited outside until one of the drivers exited and, as he was boarding a truck, asked him if he were going to New York. He was, and having proven to his satisfaction that we were not running away from home, and actually did live in New York, we piled in and made ourselves as comfortable as possible for the homeward ride.

He turned on the ignition, shifted gears, released the brakes, and we were off. The skill of the driver was beyond compare. With the eight different shifts of the truck at his command he could make it race along at forty-five. He was an expert at keeping the truck on the road, and only on one occasion did he drive it over the white marker in the center. As we rode along we could see the sky in the east gradually turn from black to gray, gray to light blue, light blue to pink, and then to a fiery red, from which at five-thirteen emerged the sun, ushering in another day.

We kept rolling along, passing everything on the road and making the telephone poles look like a picket fence. Not once did he slacken speed or apply the brakes, pausing only to shift to a different gear as we reached the hills. We finally caught sight of Gun Hill Road and, as the car slowed down at the top of the hill, we climbed out. As I reached the ground, I noticed a narrow rod hanging down under the truck. I reported my discovery to the driver, who climbed down and examined it. "Well," he said, "what do you know about that? We didn't have any brakes."

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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