Pa hopped the boxcar as it chugged out of the station. I followed but couldn’t swing up my bum leg. Pa grabbed my overalls and yanked me inside.
The car was already crowded with bruised and tanned migrants who, like us, headed north where there was still corn to shuck and hay to bale before winter. Though I’d rather be in the ammunition factory in Gary, where my big brother works, Pa says too many factory workers hate America, even in these times of war. He wants me at his side until I turn 16.
In the boxcar, men lounged across every crate of canned rations. A few played poker in the corner but had to grab their chips every time the train shook.
“Pa,” I said, “there ain’t no place for me to sit.” My bum leg was aching after the five-mile walk to the railway.
Pa grunted. “A man stands when he needs to stand.”
Whenever Pa lectured or my leg ached, I reminded myself that I just had one year until Gary. Then no more scoldings, no more walking miles to get from job to job.
Pa added, “And I don’t wanna hear you flap your lip about it.”
“Easy there, sir,” said a young fellow standing nearby. “No need to damper the spirits of a young worker-comrade.”
Pa slurped a gob in his mouth as if he was about to spit. “My family is my business. You ought to mind your own.” A streak of light hit Pa’s dark eyes as he studied the stranger.
“You don’t fool me with your fancy talk,” Pa said. “I knew the moment I seen you, you was a red Wobblie rabble-rouser.”
The red grinned with all his teeth. “You’re a perceptive man,” he said. “As of this week, I’m a proud organizer for the I.W.W.”
Pa had told me how to recognize a red, but this man wasn’t a foreigner with cabbage on his breath. In fact, you could tell just by his fingernails he was a smart man. He didn’t ask me to buy anti-American literature, even though his suede satchel was bursting with papers.
The red pointed his clean chin into the crowd. “We’re trying to unite the migrant workers in the Midwest, just like we got the lumberjacks together out west, who now enjoy an eight-hour work day and higher pay.” Even in the tight space, he gestured broadly as he spoke.
“You, comrade,” he said pointing at me. “Are you happy slaving twelve hours a day for pennies while the master class gets fat?”
“I don’t know, sir,” I said. Pa glared when I answered.
“The boy doesn’t know if he’s happy?” The red exclaimed, turning towards the other men who were mostly going about their business. “That’s the kind of confusion the capitalist system creates. Boys don’t even know if they’re happy. They can’t see their own needs, just the needs of their masters.”
“Don’t listen to them serpent’s words, boy,” Pa said. “Them devils are in with the Kaiser, trying to sabotage the war effort.”
“Not true, comrade.” The red locked eyes with me. “Those are the lies of the exploiter class. They know there is power in the union so they use scare tactics to break it apart. But we’ll overcome. Just yesterday, a boy younger than you became a dues-paying member of our struggle.”
He patted his satchel as he spoke. I could see the outline of a coin purse in the outer pocket.
“A lot of folks signed up in Missouri?” I asked.
“Boy!” Pa said.
The red’s eyes flashed. “Nearly 100. You know, dues are just 50 cents. You have nothing to lose but your chains.”
I worked the math. Enough to get me to Gary and rent a room. I inched as close as I could to him. “Tell me more.”
When the train stopped in the Chicago stockyards, men poured out of both sides of the car. They stared at the sky like they was hoping to see the sun, but a black film of smog coated everything. They lit pipes and sighed before they had to dog over to the fields.
Pa wasn’t speaking to me. Still, he offered me a hand to help me to the ground. I jumped down on my own. My pockets were heavy with money, my head with dreams.
Valerie Lute recently graduated with an MFA from Chatham University. Her work has been featured in Prime Number Magazine and the Rusty Nail.