Personal Stories

Remembering Guitar Whitey

 Ron Kaminkow, Amtrak Engineer

 I had met Whitey a time or two, most likely at the Hobo Convention in Britt, IA in the 1990s, and I had seen him in the PBS documentary, Riding the Rails. So, I had an idea who he was when I went to visit him at his home in in San Luis Obispo, CA about 10 years or so ago.  I found him and his wife in their modest home in a nice little trailer park outside of town. Whitey was still in recovery from breaking his arm while attempting to traverse a drainage ditch on a walk from Weed to Black Butte earlier that summer. Instead of taking part in the “Railroad Days” festival, he ended up in hospital and then being carried back to SLO. His maiden trip to the BBCRC would have to wait until the following year. 

As a consequence of his mishap, he was unable to play the guitar during my visit. But despite this handicap, he seemed happy to sing along and displayed no remorse about his condition. He seemed to accept it completely. My friend Karen took requests and played Whitey’s guitar while he and I sang along. 

The four of us got along quite well. Karen has relatives in Liverpool, which is where Whitey’s wife June hails from. But it went deeper than that. Turns out Whitey and Joyce met during WWII, in England, when Whitey was in the merchant marine. After the war, she joined him back in the States where they would settle, marry and raise four children. My own father was in the Army during the war when he met my mom in London just before being deployed to the continent for the final battles of the war in 1944-45. Following the war, they would continue to correspond and ultimately marry, raising two children in Baltimore, MD, on the other side of the continent. Suffice to say, there was lots to talk about, and it was a very pleasant afternoon that August day at the Symmonds’ home. 

After encountering Whitey on a number of visits to Black Butte since then, the last time I saw Whitey was again in SLO in October of 2017. I was there to visit a fellow engineer, some other members of Railroad Workers United, and top meet with some rail advocates of the group RailPAC. I phoned in advance and we offered Whitey a ride to the festivities at the tracks but he refused, wishing to take the bus instead. We met him by the train station and a good time was had by all. At age 96 he was alert, lively, talkative and inquisitive. Whitey was one of those guys that insisted on being positive, refrained from trash-talking others, listened intently to what others had to say, and always kept his head up. After a few hours his wife came down to collect him, and after fond farewells, they drove off together in laughter and fine spirits.


Baltimore Red

May 2019