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'It's a memory I have not forgotten in 67 years'

September 03, 1997|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Kenneth Ulrich grew up milking cows and shucking corn on a ranch in Portland, Ore.

Then he moved with his family to Orange County, where he attended Tustin High. One summer, the lanky 15-year-old got "wanderlust germ real bad." Yearning for the covered bridges and swimming holes of his boyhood, he took off on his prized Harley motorcycle--solo. It was 1930, one year after the stock market collapse.

"With about $45 I'd earned in the school cafeteria and on odd jobs, I left," Ulrich recalled, "parents and siblings apprehensive, but not I."

All too soon, a piston on his bike busted. Without blinking, he made a friend and hopped a northbound freight train out of Modesto.

"It's a memory I have not forgotten in 67 years," he said.

As the son of a foreman of an orange, lemon and avocado ranch in Lemon Heights, Ulrich had never gone long without a meal. But the freight trains often trundled along for days without stopping near a town.

In Klamath Falls, Ore., after riding for hundreds of miles in a boxcar, he finally had the chance to buy himself and his unemployed locomotive engineer friend a ham, egg and hot-cake breakfast for 35 cents a plate.

"It was our first meal in three or four days," Ulrich said during an interview at his Santa Ana home, "though we had eaten wild berries by the handful at mountain stops."

Staying warm at night was also a challenge. Using for a pillow the roll of clothing he had packed, he would stretch out on "on some large steal beams which had retained some of the 100-degree heat from the day."

Another scary encounter came after he and his buddy had parted, and Ulrich was headed home. At the Salem, Ore., depot, Ulrich recalled, a rail detective warned weary [illegal] travelers, including a pair of brothers from Texas, away from a refrigerated "fruit special." They would freeze if they tried to ride it, he said.

"Then, all of a sudden," Ulrich said, "the engineer blasted a long whistle and spun the wheels in a fast getaway, and the brothers made a dash for it. One climbed on, but the other was dragged by his leg for two or three car lengths until he kicked himself free.

"He was hurt, skinned up, but the greatest injury to his Texas pride was the loss of his 10-gallon hat, cut up by the wheels."

Ulrich said he never got hurt, but on his most horrifying ride he lay for hours flat on his belly along the exterior walking plank of an oil car speeding along at 100 mph, he said.

"I had to wrap my arms and legs around the plank . . . to keep from being blown off," said Ulrich, a spry great-grandfather of four. "I was just hanging on for dear life, but survival, that's what you had foremost in your mind."

And survive he did for two weeks, with a little help in the home stretch. The wife of a dance-band leader gave him a 300-mile lift, dropping him off in Santa Ana. There, for 35 cents, he rode the Red Car back to Tustin.

"I got home with $9 in my shoe and a wonderful experience."

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