Riding The Rails In The Great Depression...

California Dreaming

This is the third in a series of stories about the founder of Weller Tractor Salvage, Ralph Weller. He is a man of character who grew up along with America in this century. Born in 1916, his generation is slowly leaving us and we must honor them by remembering their stories and telling them. Here's the story Ralph's kids bring up when their risky behavior is on the line!

It was a happy day for the Weller family when Ralph graduated from Paradise High School in 1934. He was a football hero in a class of three girls and four boys and was bound for university on a football scholarship - a very big deal for a small-town Kansas boy in 1934. He had the scholarship, a job provided by the university, an off-campus house shared with six guys from Paradise and he got to play football!

Classes were a distant second to football and the nightly poker game at the house. His freshman year passed pleasantly but when he returned in the fall, his enthusiasm for school was at a low point and as soon as the football season was over, he stopped going to classes and spent his time hanging out and playing poker until the wee hours every morning. Even though he'd "dropped out" he returned to school and his career as a card shark after the Christmas break because he hadn't mustered the courage to tell his Dad that he wasn't attending college anymore.

Late one night, during a poker game fueled by a little hooch and a lot of high spirits, one of the guys bet Ralph he couldn't make it to Los Angeles on a freight train. Everyone joined in, laughing and putting up their cash until they had a hundred bucks. Still laughing, they followed Ralph to the train station where he hopped on a west-bound freight car.

Believing Ralph would hop off as soon as they left, his buddies headed home. "That Ralph is a real corker. Can you believe he came down here in the middle of the night and got on that freight car? He'll be back looking for breakfast in a couple of hours!" But, Ralph sat in that freight car until it pulled out of the Hays, Kansas station at 10:00 a.m. the next morning He was on his way to California with the shirts on his back (he was wearing three) and $40 in his pocket.

The train headed for Salt Lake City and as it neared Monarch Pass, the temperature began to drop in Ralph's private car. He wrapped himself in packing paper and ran back and forth to keep warm. At Monarch Pass, the car knocker (a man with a big stick whose job was to keep the empty cars empty) spotted the big, young, paper-wrapped man. "You're not going to make it over the pass, son. Come with me. You can kick down coal until we get to Salt Lake City." Ralph's wholesome face, soft voice, and hilarious story appealed to the old railroaders. They took him to a diner for a meal and he rode the warm coal-fired engine into Salt Lake City. After hearing about the poker game and the hundred dollar dare, the brakeman told Ralph how and where he could catch a freight car to Reno, Nevada.

Will Ralph make it to California and win the hundred dollars? Read the next installment here.

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