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Jack Smith

Hobo Is King on Social Scale of Itinerants

September 06, 1989|Jack Smith

I try not to be pretentious, so I am embarrassed to learn that in calling myself a one-time hobo, I was encroaching on a class of itinerants that defines itself by certain rules and guards its identity jealously.

I was recalling a youthful adventure of mine in which I made a loop through the southwestern states by hitchhiking and hopping freight trains. As a result of that odyssey, I wrote, "I believe I had already established my credentials as a hobo."

Bill Sweet of Garden Grove insists that a hobo is "a migratory worker. A migratory non-worker, he says, is a tramp , and a non-migratory non-worker is a bum ."

When he was a hobo, Sweet recalls, he and his fellow workers used to follow the harvests, starting in the spring in the South, and moving into Canada. "A few of us had cars, but for the most part, we used the freight trains."

I don't like to argue with an expert, but it seems to me that a man with a car is not a hobo.

Sweet recalls that his only encounter with a railroad bull (policeman) was at Tennessee Pass, where the bull took all his money (less than $40) for a ticket to Pueblo, Colo. (The bull I encountered in Yuma took only $6 of my $20 for a ticket to Phoenix.)

William J. Casey of San Juan Capistrano is more direct. "Permit me to correct you. You were not a hobo, you were a vagabond at best; further down on the social scale you were either a tramp or a bum."

Rubbing it in, he adds: "For those of us who, because of a disjointed economic system, were forced to seek temporary employment (in the 1930s), the term hobo set us off from the shiftless and lazy vagrants who only looked for handouts."

Webster's New World Dictionary corroborates Casey's definition: " hobo , a migratory worker; so used by such workers themselves." Vagrant and tramp are given as secondary meanings.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition, noting that the term is of American origin, is rather more snooty: "hobo, an idle shiftless wandering workman; ranking scarcely above a tramp."

Casey writes eloquently of the hobo life, noting that the word is derived from hoe boy , a name given to the hordes of farm workers who roamed the Eastern Seabord before mechanized farm equipment displaced them. They were also drawn to the cities by the mobilization of World War II.

"As they trudged from farm to farm they carried a hoe and as often as not a scythe, especially in the late summer and early fall. They labored from 'can see to can't see' for the princely sum of 'two bits and found." (Found being boiled potatoes and tough boiled beef.)

Sweet and Casey are right in guessing that I did not work. Of course, the Southwest being rather dry, there weren't that many opportunities for a hobo--or should I say a tramp--to work in the fields. I suspect, however, that I would have passed them by. I was, in fact, a sightseer, and I tended to avoid hard work.

It is perhaps relevant to note that later, when I got into the Civilian Conservation Corps, I exploited my typing ability to get the job of company clerk, thus avoiding the common lot, which was to work in the mountains building fire breaks.

Casey recalls that riding boxcars, though faster, was much more dangerous than hitchhiking. "Death and dismemberment were not unknown companions. 'Yardbulls' (were) a constant problem."

"Where I was," he says, "there weren't too many vagabonds or sightseers, and the tramps or bums usually stayed in one location, at least until they had worn out their welcome. We were jealous and proud of being hobos; we were following in an ancient and honorable tradition brought over from Europe by the first settlers.

"You told a nice story," he concludes, "one that awakened some long-forgotten memories, but unless you shocked rye or barley and had the beards begin digging into your skin, or pitched bundles under a blazing sky for a 16-hour day, or chopped lettuce, or picked fruit or did any of the other jobs that helped get the crops in from the fields you weren't a hobo."

OK. I was a vagabond. But I wasn't a bum.

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