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Reflections January 2017

Hobo Lessons

By Don Johnson

I don't know that I learned anything from a hobo that was really culturally enlightening, but I did learn a few things. I learned to not be too judgmental with people when I didn't know all the facts. I learned that there was good in the worst of us and bad in the best of us, and that I'm not smart enough to correctly rank them on any kind of a scale.

In the early ‘30s the Great Depression raged across the nation — from sea to shining sea. Jobs were almost non-existent. Thousands of men (no one knows for sure just how many, maybe hundreds of thousands) took to the road in search of what jobs might exist.

There is nothing today even remotely equivalent to that army of men which spread over the country. Its mode of transportation was anything that was free. But by far, the main choice was by rail — riding the rods or slipping into an empty boxcar. Polite society referred to them as tramps or bums. They called themselves hobos or the derivative 'Bo for short.

They were generally considered by the general population to be a scourge, blamed for virtually anything bad that ever happened. They were generally thought to be lawless, but they actually created and enforced their own laws. They were thought to be shiftless and lazy, but most of them were really looking for work.

It's quite likely that an occasional chicken was liberated to serve as the main course at a hobo jungle feast. Sometimes virtually the entire crop of a fruit tree would disappear overnight. But these were minor losses generally borne without undue trauma by those fortunate enough to have gainful employment.

The real hobos I met were decent men who, through no fault of their own, were temporarily down on their luck. I was just a young kid not yet started to school. Our home was a couple of miles from the railroad track which ran through the edge of town.

No doubt there were hobo signs chalked along the way showing a path to our home as an easy touch for a handout. My mother always had a little spare food for any of these men who asked. Although they would invariably ask if there were chores they could perform in return for the food, I don't recall that we ever had any work needing to be done.

The procedure was always the same. The 'Bo would sit on the back steps, my mother would bring him a plate of food, I would plant myself, complete with my short pants and long brown stockings, on the top step where I could engage the man in conversation. I don't know how they really felt about a young squirt like me intruding with my many questions into their mealtime. But none of them ever complained, and I assumed they were glad for my company, although looking back on it now, I doubt that this assumption was entirely accurate.

I learned quite a bit about these men straight from their own mouths. I learned that most of them had some kind of family "back home" that they intended to send for as soon as they "found work."

Some of the men were ill from malnutrition and exposure to the weather. I'm sure the mortality rate was high within this nomadic group. I learned about the funerals they held for their own down in the "hobo jungle." These rites were held for those who died both of disease and accidents incurred while boarding a freight train tearing through the night at high speed. Life and death among the hoboes was immortalized by the late Jimmy Rogers with songs such as "Hobo Bill's Last Ride" and "Waiting For A Train."

I learned some of their recipes including "rock soup." This was a dish made by boiling rocks gathered from around the countryside. Both taste and nutrition were minimal from the fungus and algae that clung to the bottom of the rocks, but it filled the void that would otherwise have existed in their stomachs. Sometimes the food my mother supplied was wrapped in a paper napkin to be taken back to their companions where it was made part of the communal stew.

I don't know that I learned anything from a hobo that was really culturally enlightening, but I did learn a few things. I learned to not be too judgmental with people when I didn't know all the facts. I learned that there was good in the worst of us and bad in the best of us, and that I'm not smart enough to correctly rank them on any kind of a scale.

These men did perform some necessary work when given the chance. I'm not sure what the overall impact on our nation was. I'm inclined to believe it was mostly positive and worth the occasional loss of a chicken or a tree full of fruit.

So, here's a tip of the hat to 'Bo. May the farmer's trees be full of fruit and his barns be full of hay.

 

Don Johnson is a nonagenarian who lives in Palestine in East Texas. He writes articles that illuminate the human condition and frequently show the contrast between our lifestyle of today with that of yesterday. He welcomes your input at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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