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JACK SMITH ON SUNDAY

Bum Rap : A Man Can Talk for Years About One Summer of Life as a Hobo

July 16, 1989|JACK SMITH

IN WRITING RECENTLY about the meaning of life, I mentioned that I had once contemplated that question while lying on a boxcar and looking up at the stars.

That clue brought a response from Bobb Hopkins, founding director of the National Hobo Assn., inviting me to one of its meetings.

"You don't have to say," he said, "but the mystery of whether or not the boxcar you were reclining on was moving will remain a secret--one of the untold mysteries of life."

Evidently Hopkins means that if the boxcar was not moving, then I am not truly a hobo, and the invitation can only be honorary.

To tell the truth, the boxcar on which I reclined was not moving.

It was standing on the tracks beside March Field, the Army Air Corps Base near Riverside. I was then stationed at March Field in the Civilian Conservation Corps, and I was much given to metaphysical speculation.

I was then only 18, but I believe I had already established my credentials as a hobo.

The previous summer, I had quit my job as a theater usher and hit the road. I hitchhiked to Colton, the railroad center near San Bernardino, and climbed into a gondola--an open car designed to carry coal or ore.

I had no idea where it was going, just as I had no idea where I was going.

It was going to Yuma, Ariz. It was July, and the coal gondola was an oven. By the time we got to Yuma, I was seriously dehydrated.

My tongue was swollen. I left the car and walked to a nearby house, where I found a hose in the back yard. I watered my tongue, being careful not to drink too much.

I headed back to the railroad yards, determined to get out of that hellhole.

As I was walking alongside a freight train, I encountered a stocky man who was wearing a brown uniform--the dreaded railroad bull.

Today, I suppose, he would be called a security officer.

He asked me if I had any money. I confessed that I had a $20 bill hidden in my shoe. In those days, that was a lot of money.

He gave me my choice. I could buy a ticket to Phoenix or I could do 30 days in the Yuma road camp. I knew that 30 days in the Yuma road camp in July would kill me.

So I took off my shoe and retrieved the folded $20 bill. The railroad bull led me to the depot, and I bought a ticket to Phoenix.

In Phoenix that night, I slept in a park, and the next day I hitchhiked to Albuquerque. From Albuquerque, I hitchhiked up through Santa Fe and Taos to Denver, where I paid 15 cents for a hotel room and was almost devoured by bedbugs. From Denver, I caught a freight train headed for Salt Lake City.

The route turned out to be one famous for its tolerance of hobos. It seems that years before, a train had run away on a downgrade, and it was saved by hobos manning the brakes.

I was almost asphyxiated when we went through a long tunnel, but otherwise it was an exhilarating trip.

In Salt Lake City, I saw the Mormon Temple. From Utah, I headed west, hitchhiking.

In Elko, Nev., I slept one night in the bed of a truck on a used-car lot.

The next morning, as I was combing my hair in the truck's side mirror, a police car pulled up alongside me.

The cop at the wheel was all for arresting me.

But the lieutenant sitting at his side said to him, "He's only combing his hair."

To me, he said, "Move on, kid. There's nothing for you here."

Near Dollar Lake, I was picked up by a woman at the wheel of a pickup truck.

She told me I could ride in back. She was gruff.

Somewhere along the road she stopped at a restaurant and bought me a meal, but she still made me ride in back of her pickup truck.

Those were not great adventures, but I think they qualify me as a hobo.

Telling these stories years later gives me a chance to thank the railroad bull in Yuma, Ariz. (who could have taken my money); the police lieutenant in Elko, Nev. (who could have slapped me in jail), and the gruff woman who made me ride in the back of her pickup truck but bought me a meal.

In these mean times, I still think most Americans are like that.

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