Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

May 2, 2014

Everyone has a story

Kokomo Tribune

---- — I’ve finally figured out what my grandma has known for years: Everyone has a story to tell, even the ones who claim to be boring.

I’ve told you before that my grandmother is a writer. What I haven’t told you is that she was also a reporter once, too. She had no formal training for the job, but she had her own column in our church’s bulletin called “Up Close and Personal.”

She’d interview church members and write a compelling story about their lives – similar to what I sometimes do in my column now. Let’s be honest, though, I still have a lot to learn from her. It seems she had a knack for getting people to open up and share little golden nuggets about their lives, details that captivated the people who picked up the bulletin each month.

I came across one of these columns recently. It was a brilliant piece about an ordinary man in the church parish who was once a train-hopping hobo. I’m sharing part of the story with you today, readers, because it was just too good to pass up.

“I had the good fortune recently to listen to Ray Breivogel’s story unfold into a beautiful story of life,” Grandma wrote. “Ray loves to tell stories. His memory is sharper than most people’s, especially mine. I hope I can remember his story long enough to put down his adventures that make the life of Huckleberry Finn’s seem dull.”

Ray grew up in a family of 12 children. When he graduated from eighth-grade, he pretty much fended for himself. By 1928, the Depression was just around the corner and there were no jobs. So Ray and his friend hitched a ride on a train to Kansas City hoping to find work at harvest time.

When they got to Kansas City, though, they weren’t allowed off the train. There weren’t enough jobs for the people there, much less these guys jumping trains. Instead, the two men rode the rails across the country, getting off when they thought they could find work. Often times, they worked for meals to keep themselves from starving.

The only clothes they had were on their backs, and Ray said his coat was his blanket. When he slept on top of the box cars, he laid on his stomach with his head on his hands because it was so bumpy.

Sometimes he found other places to sleep. Once it was in the doorway of a building to keep warm. That time police showed up and told him and his friend to move on. But then the cop told them they could sleep in the jail overnight and have a warm breakfast in the morning. They couldn’t pass that up.

Other times they slept in train yards. He remembered a time in Lincoln, Nebraska, when a policeman came with a flashlight, a .38 revolver and a garden hose he used as a whip. They later learned the train cars there had been broken into and police thought they were responsible.

Ray recalled another time he tore his only pair of pants while jumping a train. When he reached town, he stopped at a home and asked for a needle and a thread. The lady of the house was kind enough to give him that plus a jelly bread sandwich.

“I told Ray I thought his hoboing life was a hard life,” my grandmother wrote. “He said ‘it was like going to college, only harder.’”

The story had a happy ending, though. Ray finally found a job at Sunbeam working for 25 cents an hour. He rode a bicycle eight miles to and from work. But it sure beat hopping trains.

The moral of this column is that even ordinary people often have extraordinary stories to tell. So next time you have the opportunity to speak with someone new, give them a chance to really tell you about themselves.

You may find the kind of golden nugget that my grandma was so good at digging up.

—Lindsey Ziliak

[friday] editor / still learning from Grandma