It was one of those typical just before Spring days. Not what you would call warm but definitely not cold. Just warm enough so that you would be comfortable in a sweater as long as you did not spend a lot of time in the shade. It was Monday March 12, 1908.
There was a small group of men that seemed not quite sure of their function, on the steps of the Rococo building that was the home to "The New York World", one of New York City's major newspapers. The Newpaper office was located in downtown Manhattan on Park Row, facing the East side of City Hall Park. Three of the men were wearing what could only be described as uniforms. They were actually brown coveralls with the "World" logo embroidered on the left breast pocket. The men also wore cowboy hats and high topped boots. Off to the right and several steps below these men was a man unfolding the tripod of his large portrait camera.
"I just wish we could get going said the youngest member of the coveralled trio." He was probably in his late teens. His name was Emile Telmosse and he had the build of an athlete. Strong arms and hands, the thin waste of youth and a powerful lower body. His full head of brown hair was always a little on the unkempt side but did not detract from a pair of beautiful brown eyes. Emile was a carpenter over in Jersey City at Powers Film Company studios , which would later become famous as Pathe' studio. And in his pocket was his trusty little emergency kit that his mother had given him years ago. It contained a needle, thread, buttons, and some string. "You never know when you'll have to do some quick mending", she had said.
"Oh, just keep your pants on kid. This is the important part for the paper." said the oldest of the trio. His name was Charles White. Charles was definitely not in the best physical shape. He was rather portly and would always take the elevator over the stairs, even if he was only going up one floor and there was a five minute wait ! Charles had a full black beard and a not so full head of hair, he worked in his fathers grocery store.
The third member of the group was in his early twenties. His name was Gussy Giovanni. He was in excellent physical shape and was the son of a tailor and also an apprentice. Gussy was the tallest and the lightest of the three. Everything about him was well kept, from his blond hair and beard to his uniform.
Charles, Emile and Gussy all lived in Hoboken and were quite the trio. They read an article in the New York World asking for volunteers to walk across the United States. All expenses would be paid and a rather handsome prize would be awarded to each if they beat the existing record of 28 days. Their responsibility was to wire the newspaper daily with a brief account of the days adventure. Emile had actually talked the two of them into the venture. He had been hopping freights since he was twelve and had seen most of the country already.
"OK, gentlemen, if you would all get together so I can get these pictures for this evenings paper we can be out of here."
The three men got their gear together and made a small pyramid of rucksacks and canteens. They then assembled themselves on the step behind the gear. The photographer took two shots, just in case the flash was a little premature, late or in some way not just right.
"Remember, we want this to be part race against the record for crossing the United State of foot, and part human interest story. So keep your eyes peeled for things that our readers will enjoy." Said a man in a very expensive three piece suit who was the editor of "The New York World". His name was John Stewart and this walk was his brainstorm.
"Don't worry Mr. Stewart. This will be a piece of cake." said Charles. All the while wondering how he had ever gotten himself into this mess. He didn't know if he could make it to the end of the block much less California. But there was the prize money if they somehow set a new record!
The three of them hefted their rucksacks over their shoulders and slung the canteens across their backs and headed to the ferry that would take them to New Jersey
"So Emile, how far do ya think we'll get today? said Gussy.
"Philly, that's a three hour train ride, it must be a million miles," moaned Gussy.
"Do you guys have to keep reminding me about this idiotic idea? Maybe we could get a cab to the ferry and then start walking from there. At least we wouldn't have everybody staring at us in these ridiculous outfits." added Charles.
"Mister Stewart said the overalls were so that people would recognize us when we went by and know that we really did walk across the country." said Gussy.
"OK, but I still think a cab would be alright."
It was a few blocks to the ferry, and Charles was right about people looking at them. This was going to take some time to get used to, as none of them had ever had any experience with notoriety.
"I think it will get worse when people start to read about our walk in the paper." said Gussy. "Then they will know who we are and why we are dressed this way."
"Maybe, we will be able to get some food if they feel sorry for us." Emile said, as his stomach started to speak to him of hunger.
"Now , that is the most sensible thing that has come out of either of you." said Charles. "It must be lunch time by now."
Emile took out the pocket watch he had received from his grandfather and noticed that it was in fact eleven fifty.
"Close enough, lets find a Horn and Hardharts and grab some lunch. I think there is one by the ferry" said Charles.
The three men entered the cafeteria and filled their trays with soup, sandwiches, pie and coffee. Charles paid as he was the only one with the expense money for the trip. They would have money wired at predetermined locations, so they did have to budget.
After lunch they continued on their walk as the Spring day blossomed into one of those perfect days you have once a year. The odors of the city melded with the fragrances of Spring.
"Hey kid, what kind of name is Telmosse? Italian? asked Gussy.
"Nah, its French. Well, actually French Canadian. My father was a big wheel in Montreal. Some sort of politician, I think." answered Emile.
"Boy, for a kid who seems so smart, I wonder." chimed in Charles. "What kind of Italian name is Emile? French Italian, I guess." he laughed. In fact he laughed so hard his side hurt and they had to stop walking for about five minutes.
"If your dad is such a big wig why are you so poor?" asked Gussy.
"He died, and my mom met this guy, and we moved to Maine." replied Emile.
"So, you really never knew your dad then." said Charles, having regained his composure.
"I wish he was still alive, I hate my stepfather. I ran away when I was fifteen and came down here to live with my uncle. He's a carpenter at Powers and he got me my job." said Emile.
"Ya know, I think I'm going to call you 'Frenchy' from now on, it fits you perfectly. The true romantic. Always dreaming. You should be in those movies instead of making the sets." said Gussy.
"So, Frenchy what will you do with the prize money, when we're done?" said Charles. "Treat your wife and kid to some new furniture or a vacation."
"Hadn't really thought about it, probably cost that much just to get Marian to talk to me, she was a little upset when I told her I was going. Even when I explained about the prize money. You know woman, they like that paycheck coming in every week." was Frenchy's rather unromantic answer.
They continued on across the Hudson river and onto route One. The day was as perfect as you could plan. The dust from the road and the occasional horse and carriage were their biggest problems.
"Hey Frenchy, what's it like to travel by yourself?" asked Gussy.
"I don't know, never thought of it as by myself. Your always meeting someone, another guy, a hobo, always somebody else going your way." replied Frenchy.
"D'ya ever get scared? What about money? Food? Sleeping? asked Charles.
"Once we got caught in a tremendous thunderstorm, so we ducked into an old woodshed to get out of the rain. That was me, Woody the hobo and a guy named Sal. We were in Indiana, on our way out West. Anyway, the next morning we opened the shed door and there were about forty men surrounding tat shed, all with guns and all yelling "murderers, we got you".
"Well, we just looked at each other, and put our hands up, real slow like. So they could see we was unarmed. And hoping they wouldn't shoot first, the ask questions." said Frenchy.
Gussy and Charles were walking in utter silence, their minds racing to imagine the fear their comrade must have felt, and the fear they would have felt.
"Now Sal, he was some talker, real smooth like. You gentelemen do have a problem but we are not the answer. Because first of all you can see we have nothing but the shirts on our backs, and you won't find anything in this here shed either. And second, not knowing when this here murder occurred, I can tell you that we just got off the six thirty aaaaa mmmmm freight coming from Indianapolis. So unless you are the fastest posse in the world, and we are the fastest murderers in the world, I think ya got the wrong guys.
Now that made them fellers stop. They had a quick pow wow and I guess what Sal said made sense to them, because they just left. Now, how Sal knew about that freight was any bodies guess. Maybe he heard it in the night. Maybe he just made it up, all I know is it worked." finished Frenchy.
"Wow, if that Sal feller wasn't so quick with his mouth they could of thrown you in jail and hung ya." said Gussy.
They walked on a little further with Charles and Gussy ruminating about the story Frenchy had told. Probably not true, Gussy was thinking. What would the odds be of that happening again? A million to one, thought Charles. The seeds of fear and doubt about this adventure were forming.
"Did you guys know that hobo's have their own way of signaling? asked Frenchy.
"You mean like Morse code?" asked Charles.
"Nah, more like pictures. If ya see a pussy cat it means there is a really kind lady. A cross means if you talk about God you'll get food , a T means food for work or a plane cross means the people are OK. There are hundreds of different signs that they leave on fences, outside town, by culverts, all over." said Frenchy.
"So, that;s how you get food. You beg or work for it, huh." said Gussy.
They arrived in Trenton early in the evening and after a plain supper of roast beef, potatoes and green beans turned in early at the guest house that would be one of many on their journey. Charles had wired the newspaper from the Western Union office at the train station as soon as they arrived. His account for the readers included a near miss with a vicious dog, numerous encounters with small children and several other episodes that came from Charles' rather active imagination. His rational being that if he had to go through this torture, why not use the chance to test his literary skills as a writer. The truth being, that up to now the trip had been extremely boring. There was little if no contact with passerby and even the dogs seemed to ignore them. The most excitement they had was avoiding horses and wagons and the ever present horse droppings. He ended with an explanation about blisters to explain why they had not made it to Philadelphia the first stop on their original itinerary and hopped it would not cause any problems at the newspaper.
Tuesday morning came quickly. When Frenchy rolled over on the bed he noticed that he was alone. He just figured that Charles was in the bathroom or maybe was downstairs getting a head start on breakfast. Gussy was just waking up on the cot and looked over to see if anyone else was awake. "Where's Charles? he asked. "Guess he's in the bathroom, I'll go down the hall and check." replied Frenchy.
When Frenchy returned he informed Gussy that Charles was no where to be found, not in the bathroom, the dining room, nowhere! They had a quick breakfast and paid the bill with the little money they had between them.
"How can we keep going with no money." asked Gussy.
"I'll wire Stewart and tell him that Charles split, he can wire us some money here." said Frenchy.
They went to the Western Union office and wired Mr. Stewart. They received a very terse reply about responsibility, contracts and lawyers and five dollars in about an hour.
"Hope this weather keeps up." said Gussy.
"The one thing we can be sure of, is that the weather will not be so great for the next month, so enjoy it but don't jinx us by talking about it". answered Frenchy
The next few hours saw those wispy cirrus clouds from the morning slowly turn gray and fill the sky. They were now stratus clouds, the harbingers of rain.
Although the men carried a rucksack it did not for some unknown reason contain a poncho or even a jacket to ward of the precipitation that was now falling in a very steady rain.
"This is sure fun." quipped Gussy.
"It's only a little rain, we'll probably walk right out of it in a few hours." said the ever optimistic Frenchy.
"Lets get some lunch and get out of the rain for awhile." said Gussy.
They found a small delicatessen in Elkins Park, just outside of Philadelphia and went inside. They were pretty wet and it took a few minutes to get their hair dry and to shake off as much water as they could. The proprietor did not seem curious about their outfits but did seem in a hurry to get their orders. They ordered corned beef sandwiches and hot soup, along with a beer.
After lunch, Gussy said he had to use the facilities and it would probably take awhile. He told Frenchy to head down the road and wait for him at the next intersection. Frenchy thought this was a rather unusual request, but did not mind. In fact, he actually relished the idea of walking by himself. It was more his style.
Frenchy got to the intersection and sat down on the porch of a deserted building. From the looks of it it was probably what was left of a small store. The porch was a little rickety, but the roof was in tact enough to keep him out of the drizzle. He placed his rucksack down and laid his head on it, expecting Gussy to be along any minute. He must have fallen asleep, because when he awoke it was dark and there was no Gussy.
Although he thought it rather strange, he decided to get something to eat and then make sort out his options. A mile or so down the road there was a tavern. Frenchy stopped in and inquired if there had been another man dressed in the same outfit passing through. The barkeep looked at him in his cowboy hat and overalls and wondered what was going on. "Nah, never seen nobody dressed like that before, and expect that I'll never see anybody dressed that way again," he said almost bursting into laughter.
Frenchy did not appreciate his humor, but did understand the mans feelings. He sat down, ordered a beer and a ham sandwich and waited some more. After an hour he had made up his mind. He was pretty sure that Gussy had also quit, and like Charles did not have the balls to tell him. Oh well, no sweat off his back. He still had a few dollars left from the fiver. he would just continue the adventure his way.
Frenchy walked up to Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, which was only a few miles away and hopped a freight train. It turned out the train was heading south and he wound up in Roanoke, Virginia.
The flat car he was riding on was occupied by two other souls of the road. They all acknowledged each other and kept to themselves, until they heard the unmistakable sound of heavy hobnailed boots running on top of a boxcar. To an old rail traveler that meant only one thing, the railroad police. Almost at once the three of them were up and running to the far end of their flat car. They hopped over to the boxcar that was running behind and clambered up the ladder. As they were running along the top of the boxcar they could hear the rapport of the cops gun and hear the bullets whistle by their heads. He was getting too close. For a cop he sure was in shape.
Frenchy looked over the side and saw that there was a pasture alongside. It looked like there was hay spread along the fence that ran parallel to the tracks. Without a moments hesitation, he jumped. Before he had reached the ground the others were also in the air. The object was to hit the ground and then tuck and roll. That way you would convert your momentum into a rolling momentum and not have your legs absorb all of the energy. That was the theory, and in fact it worked well many times for each of these three strangers, but this time it would be different. That hay that Frenchy had spotted was not hay but manure. When they hit they sank up to there knees, which more or less put an end to the tuck and roll idea. It was more like, hit, sink and then go face forward into the manure. The good news was that the railroad dick did not hit anyone, and hey, it was only manure. They checked their bodies for broken bones, had a good chuckle and started to look for a stream or river to wash up. They were alive and tomorrow would be another day.
Frenchy got cleaned up and then had a small epiphany. It was time for him to get home and start his life as a father. But the fates had one more surprise in store, a night in the slammer for vagrancy. Actually, he should have spent several months on a road gang, but fortunately for him there were just too many vagrants being arrested so a smart judge had him escorted to the county line, aimed at the railroad tracks heading North and Frenchy took the hint.
When Frenchy arrived home it was not to the warm or even cold welcome that he had expected. It was to an empty apartment. There was not even a note. The neighbors told him that Marian had taken little Willy to Boston to visit her parents. Frenchy new this was not a good sign. He thought about hopping a freight to Boston to try to talk his wife into returning but decided a letter would be better. He planned to write, get his old job back at the movie studio and prove to her that he was sincere this time.