Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Short Story: Across the Tracks


I joined the “baby boomers” in December 1947; born and raised in a small North Central Montana farming community. Growing up in Montana in the 1950’s was an experience ripe with fond memories. Not only were the days in my little world comfortable but our country was experiencing a comfortable time oblivious of what the future would bring. Most were starting fresh after the end of a world war. Not much money was available—but a dollar was actually worth a dollar.

Farm towns on the Highline usually sprouted-up with an approximate ten mile distance between. The reason for the consistent distance of these communities was a matter of convenience for the local farmers. Rail was the way grain elevators shipped the grain that they had purchased from the farmers. The ten mile distance seemed to be a comfortable distance for farmers to deliver their harvest. Most little communities had a Railway station and grain elevators for this purpose. Interestingly the elevators were built only on one side of the rail tracks (I suppose for the loading of grain into the rail cars). I don’t recall a farming community or any community for that matter without the Rail Road Station.

Our parents were from a generation of want. They had experienced the days of the Great Depression and a stale time in American innovation. I believe our parents, after the war, wanted comfort and affluence, and were willing to give honest work in exchange for that influx.
My parents resided at the lower end of the middle class spectrum. I believe that my father’s monthly income was around $275. They bought a new two bedroom house in an area called the housing project. The homes were built to accommodate those returning WWII soldiers and their new brides. The homes were extremely modest. My mother and father financed their new home for twenty years and purchased the house for nine thousand dollars. The importance in their mind, of course, was that they actually owned their own home, and it was on the “right side of the tracks.”

While it was hardly important to the children of the community we all knew that there was a right and wrong side of the tracks. Front Street was the street that had the bars on one side and the railroad station and grain elevators on the other, the dividing line for the community. Although in those days we could travel our community with abandon; we could never cross Front Street or the railroad tracks. Front Street had its back to the good side of the town. We sometimes wondered what horrible thing must be “across the tracks.”
The homes across the tracks were some of the oldest in the community. Most were covered with tar paper and had lath strips nailed indiscriminately to hold the tar paper in place and to sustain it during the perpetual favonian wind. They housed mostly farm workers (the lowest paid labor in our town). There were also several families of Philippine origin that eked out a living without ever having steady employment. They made their way by going through the garbage’s from the local butcher shop and grocery store and homes of the more affluent from the “right side of the tracks.” They also exploited jobs of opportunity which were not considered steady employment.

Having a store bought hair cut was extremely important in those days. Our town had three barbers but we were allowed to patronize one of them. One had a shop connected to the bar in the local hotel. He had magazines for the grown-up patrons to read while waiting. Argosy and True Detective were always popular. On his walls were pin-ups of scantily clothed girls. We were not allowed to go to this barber. Another had his shop next to the local pool hall. The pool hall was patronized usually by those “across the tracks” youngsters who never attended school, smoked cigarettes and spent their days playing billiards (snooker was the game of choice). The barber that we were able to use had a shop on the town’s main street. He had the total patronage of the town’s “right side of the tracks.” Although our parents were often in need of things; they always scrounged the money for their young boys to have a fresh hair cut. No one cut hair at home. The kids from “across the tracks” always had hair that touched their ears and usually hung down on the back of their necks. Hair cuts were an important symbol of one’s station in our little community. For the girls, it was not the hair cut but the condition of the white socks that they wore. Holes in the heels of their socks showing above the back of their shoe, was the cross the little girls from “across the tracks” had to bare.

The “across the tracks” community was primarily itinerant. Farm hand families came and went. Sometimes their children attended the local schools.

At the time, seventh grade boys were just starting to have an interest in girls. The boy girl ratio in the little town was fairly even and usually worked out for boyfriend and girlfriend pairs. The problem that arose was that whatever attractions for whatever reasons was not dictated by which side of the tracks one lived. I remember having amorous visions of one little girl named Carla. I finally convinced her to let me walk her home and carry her books one day after school. That was the first time I had ventured across the tracks. In my eyes she was gorgeous and the holes in her socks (which had precluded any friendly relationship with the other girls in our school) did not bother me in the least. I went a long way out of my way to walk her home. The round trip for me took the better part of an hour. My mother was concerned that I was forty five minutes late getting home. I explained. Strangely, she had a smile an attitude that I did not expect when I told her that I walked the little girl home and she lived across the tracks. I was beginning to believe that the “across the tracks” thing was not as important as we were led to believe.

As time rolled on the “wrong side of the tracks” was hardly ever mentioned. When I was in high school my best friend (who was also the most popular kid in school) had a steady girlfriend whose family lived on the wrong side of the tracks. There were those in school (mostly girls) who treated her with measured scorn to begin with. Because she was the steady girl of the most popular kid in school changed her station drastically—she was elected as a cheerleader for all four years of high school.
Sometimes now I go back to my little farming community and watch and remember. I have noticed now that there is no “wrong side of the tracks.” Each time I go back my faith in man is renewed.

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