“Think you have it tough?” That was the gist of the conversation I often had with my friends who grew up on the west side of Salt Lake City. We not only romanticized the good ol days, but even embellished them a bit. They would say how tough they had it living on the west side of the tracks; but I always trumped them by saying I didn’t live on the other side of the tracks, I lived in between them.
Our home was an old yellow railroad passenger car that, after the wheels were taken off, was dropped in the middle of a web of railroad tracks on 6th West between 6th and 7th South. It was housing my dad was allowed to use since he was a day laborer for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. Today, it would be called a modular home located in the soon-to-be trendy Granary Row. Commuting for my father was a snap; he only had to walk a hundred yards to the tool shed where they kept the pushcart. My joy was to sit on old railroad ties and wait for my dad to walk home, because in his lunch box he always left a treat for me to eat.
My world was bordered by the tracks, Burbidge Coal Co., Portland Cement and vacant lots. In my mind, the rest of the world was west of the railroad tracks; east of them was another world out of my realm, or so I thought back then. We had no yard. The tracks were our yard — no grass — only dirt and cinder where nothing grew. The only grass I ever saw was when the family walked to Liberty Park on holidays once in awhile.
Water was a luxury. We had to haul our water ourselves from the railroad’s water tower a half block away. The water was hauled by my father in two five-gallon cans, one on each end of a pole across his shoulders. I helped my father haul the water in two small Rex Lard cans attached to each end of a board across my shoulders — which I barely balanced as I followed him around. Daily showers were unheard of, and the only baths we had were on Saturdays when my mother filled an old galvanized tub with water she heated on a coal stove. My brother and sister would argue as to who would be first to take a bath since the last one got cold water with rings around the tub.
My playground was the railroad track yard. Like so many kids at the time, we had freedom to create our own fun and thrills, and sometimes it was dangerous like playing on the tracks, jumping in boxcars and having them move. We had limited supervision, no penciled-in playtime. Life was good — no baths or adults to structure our playtime. But we knew our parents and neighbors were keeping an eye out and would be there when needed.
It’s kids today that have a hard time. Their lives are often planned with little time for free play, to explore, risk and experience failure. The hazards they face are different than moving trains, and they have more rules to follow. But then again, one day they may well be telling their kids and friends of how tough they had it in the old days.
Utah native John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee, as Utah industrial commissioner and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and on the Commission on Hispanic Education. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org