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To avoid detection, “land stowaways” like Kennedy often spent a whole trip “riding the rods” — hanging on to the brake rods or beams underneath freight or passenger cars, just above the wheels.If this seems like courting disaster, it was: In the two decades around the turn of the century, at least 32,000 hobos or tramps were killed on American railroads, whether by falls, encounters with railroad “bulls” (private security officers) or other misfortunes.“.00 to the winner, .00 to [the] loser,” he later recalled in a letter to a friend.“I was the loser far more often than the winner.” The big-money headline bouts were brutal affairs.Moreover, those howling “sports” — the cigar-chomping, derby-clad gamblers who attended these de facto prizefights — could be rough characters, and brawls and even riots broke out after some events.Seeing no future in that world, Kennedy would hang up his gloves after a few years.The diverse New York City neighborhood was in essence a rapidly growing frontier town. Modern brick tenements were being erected alongside old wooden shacks, all accommodating waves of Irish and Jewish immigrants as well as African-Americans. Kennedy, the second of nine children, went to work at age seven, selling newspapers on street corners.One of his brothers died at age six, possibly of the tuberculosis that plagued the overcrowded district.
Bill pushed heavy wheelbarrows full of bricks, and he carefully measured and staked cord lines where the walls would begin.
But if, as neuroscientists say, our perception of time slows down during traumatic moments, he might have cursed himself and wondered: How did a kid from the streets of Harlem end up on a rooftop in Iowa in the first place?