Once Upon a (Life)time
Ridin' the Rails
Ridin' the Rails - Part 2

Mildred is widowed in the middle of the Great Depression.

As usual, I was going from somewhere to somewhere else with two small youngsters. The two-year-old, of course, had to make a bathroom run. I couldn't take the baby too, so I left her on the seat with her bottle propped up to keep her quiet and folded the blankets alongside her so she wouldn't roll off, hopefully. Although I hurried as much as possible I didn't get back soon enough. A little trickle of milk came creeping down the aisle to meet me. Following that came a perturbed brakeman looking accusingly at me through bushy eyebrows. He was pushing an old towel along with his foot, mopping up the spills. He must have picked up the broken bottle, too. I don't remember doing it. I was too mortified to even utter an apology.

From somewhere that I don't remember we moved to Turah, just east of Missoula. The regular foreman had gone on vacation to Japan and it sounded like a worthwhile couple of months. We didn't mind the place although the house stood only about twenty five yards from the tracks and the freight trains shook the old building and rattled the windows day and night. But again someone with more seniority wanted the job and on the twelfth day the roadmaster called at five minutes before 5 p.m. "Are the men in yet?" No I answered, they weren't.
He called every five minutes until 5:25 and finally said, "Could you be ready to move by train time tomorrow morning?" And without verification he added, "Okay, have your stuff out by the tracks when the "stub" comes along in the morning."

Well, the "stub" passed Turah around 8:30 on its way to butte each morning and we were being dropped off at gold creek. When the men came in I was already sorting and prepared for packing. Not knowing where in the universe gold creek was, nor what I would find when I got there, I sat up and washed and dried clothes in the house until nearly daylight. At 8:30 a.m. Our "stuff" was waiting beside the tracks ready to be loaded on the butte stub baggage car. I deposited the (now) four kids in a double seat, the laborers were helping to load the whatnot boxes the "huckleberry trunk," bedroll, and suitcases. Oh horrors! I had forgotten something! I raced out of there and landed on the stepstool just in the nick of time and went sprinting toward the house. The startled conductor raised up and yelled "hey, come back here!" it was plain to see that the poor man thought I was headed for the tall timber leaving him with four very small children as well as a delayed passenger run. But I kept running toward the house and around to the back door. I had left a very important item on the kitchen table and no steam locomotive or irate conductor was any match for my nine-month-old son when he found himself deprived of his bottle. It was about this time that the train men stopped telling me what good little kids I had and started looking at me as if they wished I wouldn't come with them.

Then, back to Lookout Pass. This time our stay would be indefinite. The railroad would provide a box car and, oh joy, I could have my furniture and household goods. When we arrived this second time, spring was upon us, the snow barks were dwindling and there was small resemblance to the eleven feet of white stuff that we'd left there three years before. The mountains and timber were beautiful. The air was pure. There was a highway of sorts, but it wasn't open yet and was no better than the logging roads even of that time.
The local freight had to make two trips to get all its string of cars up the four percent grade and nearly always there were transients who came on the first half and had to wait around for an hour or more while the engine and crew went back down the hill for the second half. Almost everyday one or two of the free travelers would knock at our door, hungry, and I always found something for them to eat.

We soon found that we needed transportation to get to Wallace or Mullan, Idaho for grocery shopping and whatever. We found a good enough car for $250-a lot of money then, but we managed. I took the four youngsters and buzzed up and down that steep and crooked hill that I would hesitate to ride a saddle horse over now. (Not that I was brave or competent. Just that I didn't know enough to be afraid.)

I came face to face with my first bear in that mountain-top huckleberry patch. I looked at his black shiny face and he looked at my pasty white one. Then he wheeled and went up the hill, clearing every log, bush or other obstacle before him. And I, afraid he might change his mind, wheeled and went down the hill, clearing everything that lay in front of me. Later, I got used to bears but that is another story.

The summer waned and winter come again. We made our last trip of the season to Wallace on October 15. The laborers warned us that we might get caught in a snowstorm and we did. We had pushed our luck to the limit and made it home, but just barely. We put the car in the little makeshift garage and shoveled it out over seven months later on Memorial Day. The road wasn't kept open then. There was no machinery to handle that kind of snowfall. There wasn't much snow that next winter. Only five feet and our water supply, a spring from up the hill, almost went dry. By letting it trickle constantly we could get enough for cooking and drinking, but I melted snow for laundering and soon, that would be gone. But there was a huge icicle outside the kitchen window. It didn't hang, it stood on the ground and reached the eaves and grew in circumference with every thaw. Ha! I grabbed the ax and chopped it down jumping to get out of the way when it tipped over. Now I had water enough for nearly three washings. I enjoyed writing letters and telling people that I washed in Montana and hung my clothes out in Idaho!

Then one day I went out to cut some kindling and with the same ax that had chopped down the icicle I took out half of my left thumb nail. We had no Band-Aids or adhesive tape then and I did all my work for the next two months with my thumb tied up in a strip of cloth.

The second summer went smoothly and too fast. September came and we started our first-born in the first grade at Saltese. She rode the main to school in the mornings, had "supper" with the section foreman's family, and rode the train home at night.

Through the summer we had seen a number of men, women and families with three or four children hitchhiking through the country. We hadn't heard the rumblings yet but it was the beginning of the Great Depression. People had begun to lose jobs and homes. October arrived and we got orders to move on again, this time to Mullan, Idaho. It would be an indefinite stay, also, they told us. Although it was only nine miles, we had all our belongings so we were allowed a boxcar to move our furniture again. However, there was one problem. All through the summer we had visited a fruit stand outside of Wallace where they practically gave fruit away. I bought boxes of the beautiful stuff and rustled jars to put it in, thinking ahead to the snowy months when there wouldn't be any. Now we had to move it. I remembered the huckleberry incident and resigned myself to losing a large portion of it. We nailed some more boxes together, four I believe, that would hold about thirty quart jars each. It took two men to carry them. Well, maybe some of it will come through, I told myself, and at least the juice would stay in the box car!

We found a house in Mullan that was built into a hillside and there were sixteen steps up to the front porch. We also found a man willing to help carry the heavy things up those steps. He furnished his own helper and charged us five dollars. We looked up the school, got everything situated, stayed ten days and paid the same man another five dollars to carry everything down again. This time we went home to Arlee and the railroad all but fell apart. The work week was cut in half and many sections and depots were closed. However, we were half a work- week better off than many, many people. And four boxes of fruit came through without a single break.

Working conditions improved a little and now our family included five little Morkerts. Then came the day of the terrible railroad accident that took their daddy's and another man's life, leaving me numbed and trying to make a life for us alone. The railroad company gave me a settlement but I'd had no experience in managing money. I'd never had any money to manage. I built us a house on five acres of a tract that I bought and thought I could grow enough stuff to help take care of our needs. But I had to learn about that the hard way, since I'd had no experience with that, either.