In the 1960 film “The Alamo” John Wayne, playing Davy Crockett, made this speech:
“Republic, I like the sound of the word. It means people can live free, come and go, buy or sell, drunk or sober, however they choose.”
Every once in a while I like to turn my thoughts to those who took that term “republic” literally, by refusing to be fitted into the shoe-box society, any society, Christian or pagan, attempted to squeeze them into, to come and go as they pleased, drunk or sober.
These men, and they largely are men, are not to be confused with the homeless or derelict “bums” from another time. Not to diminish those other people, or their plight, we spread our compassion around for those people every week; in shelters, soup kitchens and free clinics all over the country. My own YMCA invites them in for a free bath and sometimes a laundering while-u-wait this time a year. But except for some misfortune or mental illness (thank Jimmy Carter for putting many of these people on the streets) none of those are there by choice, and most would like to be somewhere more safe and secure.
Hobos are not that way.
There was a popular video of Arlo Guthrie’s “Hobo’s Lullaby”, shown below, in which many of the photo panels are of drunks sleeping over city grates or underneath newspapers on park benches. I had a running battle, when comments were still allowed, with several younger social commentators, who insisted they were all the same as hoboes. They are not.
My love for the common man began in the 1950s, in a hobo camp in my home town, where men laid off by the coal companies hobo’ed empty coal gondolas up to my town and then to the next coal town about 3 miles upstream, looking for work. In that town upstream the peelers were pretty rough on these fellows, so after being turned down, they’d hobo back to my town to spend the night. Our company cops were told to allow them to stay a couple of nights before heading back down the line. There was a regular trail of these men during the 1950s, long enough to know which house mistress would exchange a big breakfast for some cut firewood or who would sic the dog on them. It was like an underground railway, for if my mom didn’t have work she needed done, she had a list of phone number and then would send them over to Madge’s house. (It would be many years before I understood the unwritten contract that allowed my 5’0 mother to be unafraid of these men, but I never once heard of any incident in all those years)
These men made their camp across the tracks near an abandoned mine-car trestle that crossed the creek. There was a big rock outcrop where by dad had carved his name in the 30s, and since I was 9 I always used that rock as a marker to the trestle so I could cross the creek, where I would then climb up the mountain, my favorite weekend sport until I discovered girls. Until winter came on, there were usually 3-4 men there, bedrolls laid out, sometime frying fish from the creek. I could stop and sit and listen. They were always nice, hard, but not rough, if you know what I mean. Although I later learned to cuss pretty good, I don’t recall having ever learned any words there. That camp survived about six-seven years, then disappeared.
I even hobo’ed one of those trains myself. It was a rite of passage for teen boys, since it was strictly forbidden. I knew other kids to have tried it, and it seemed a safe bet, a long slow line of cars filled with coal, inching down the line about 3 miles to the next town, where it had always stopped to take on more cars. There I could jump and then hitchhike back just like all the pioneers who had gone before me. That was the plan. Only the car I hopped picked up speed and never stopped at Cumberland, not stopping until it reached Harlan, 25 miles away. And I held on for dear life on that steel ladder, roaring along at 15-20 mph, feeling like it was going 60. Safely on the ground, without a penny in my pocket, I made my way to the highway bridge leading back into the mountains, where, in about four hours, and three rides later, I was back home, late for supper.
So, with that introduction on Thanksgiving Weekend, 2015, I want to celebrate with some humor and pride about those Americans who still live free, dunk or sober.
What you may not know is that Carl Sandburg, the poet, a Millennial in his day, at 20, took off from home and went hoboing for four months. Sandburg Hobo Files. He published his hobo poem in his first book of poems in 1916.
I shall foot it
Down the roadway in the dusk,
Where shapes of hunger wander
And the fugitives of pain go by.
I shall foot it
In the silence of the morning,
See the night slur into dawn,
Hear the slow great winds arise
Where tall trees flank the way
and shoulder toward the sky… (Chicago Poems, 1916)
Kris Kristofferson also wrote of the hobo’s life, with a bottle close by his side. “The Best of All Possible World’s” He wrote some of this first hand, I’m sure…
“I was running through the summer rain, trying to catch the evening train
When I tipped my bottle back I ran into a cop I didn’t see”
“If booze were just a dime a bottle, boy, you couldn’t even buy the smell”
….as his friend and role model, Johnny Cash, who performed “Take Me Home”
“Not to mention all the times that I cut my fingers on a sardine can”
Finally, a melancholy farewell