Recordially, Lou Curtiss

Tales from My Dad

My dad was 14 years old when he hopped the Great Northern Freight Train, determined to see the world and work his way doing it. In his 70 years he managed a good piece of things, met a lot of people, became a member of the board of the Hobos Union, joined a bunch of unions, became a journeyman electrician, and finally met my mom in 1938 and sort of settled down in Seattle. When I was a boy we’d take long walks in the woods and he’d tell me stories about his days on the road.

Dad and his buddy Doc were walking down the highway outside San Luis Obispo (hobos called it San Luis No Biscuits because of the poor pickins) and Dad had picked up some carrots, which Doc detested. They came upon a small hobo jungle and a single cook pot. An invitation was made and they sat down and ate. After that they bedded down. In the morning they were eating scraps when the hobo asked them what they thought of the meal. He said, “Well, it’s been pretty scarce eatin’, so last night you boys got some fresh Tomcat.

Dad worked for a high-class vaudeville venue (the Seattle Music Hall) for a time. He was backstage director for acts like the Cotton Club Revue and got to work with Cab Calloway’s band, Duke Ellington, the Nicholas Brothers, Ethel Waters, and many more when they were on tour. That is where he got into electrical tasks. Working backstage he’d do the lights for the shows

Dad worked in a cannery, he was a cowboy, he was in the Civilian Conservation Corp, he was a fisherman, a railroad brakeman, and even did a little rum running during the Prohibition years. After he got married he got into union politics “UAW-CIO makes the Army Roll and Go” was the slogan of the greater Washington Conservation Corp, which he continued to be involved with after with after the War. That was the group that first called their series of concerts “hootenannys.” Dad was on the board that picked the title. He was always proud of the fact that he had voted to call the series “WingDings” and later used to rib me when I’d go to a hoot night at a coffee house.

Dad was working in a sawmill on the line when he heard a scream and shout, “Look out, boy, here come my fingers” and, sure enough, all five came down the line on a log. Dad’s union work got him into politics with the American Independent Party and the Henry Wallace campaign. He stayed involved until we moved to California in 1951. After that he got a warehouse job at National Steel and didn’t talk politics except to tell me the old hobo stories. We left Washington real quick and I always figured Dad was in some kind of trouble. He never would talk about it and wouldn’t answer questions. Neither would Mom.

Dad played the harmonica and a bit of mandolin. He always said his dad was the real mandolin player. He played in the IWW band with Joe Hill and knew Haywire Mac and other industrial worker musicians. I never knew my grandfather. I wish I had. I sure had some great times that I wish I could live again with my Dad.

Recordially,
Lou Curtiss

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