What I learned from hobos

When I worked for the Burlington Northern Railroad some 40 years ago, We encountered hobos frequently. The above picture is one I took on a long freight train across western Nebraska but there were many more all across the system. The railroad police always tried to get rid of them but it was a losing battle. I happened to look up the word hobo to see how it is defined today and believe it or not, the word is considered "politically correct". People tend to have fond memories of hobos if they ever encountered them and I certainly encountered them not just in my railroad career but as a kid bumming around the railroad in Atlanta.

My brother Steve and I were very close as kids, as we were "Irish twins". I was born on January 1, causing my father to lose the tax deduction for the previous year but he made up for it by producing Steve the same year on December 30. Hence the term Irish twins. Steve and I loved to explore the railroads around Atlanta, primarily the Southern Railway and the Seaboard Coastline Railroad. One day, while walking along the Seaboard tracks with a friend, Walter Huber, we spotted smoke back up off the tracks. Curious, we walked several hundred feet down a well-worn trail until we came to a group of hobos sitting on rocks and stumps underneath a canopy of pine trees. They had a big campfire going and a large can in the center of the fire.

"Come on boys, come sit down with us and visit" cried out an old disheveled man with dirty red hair and missing front teeth. I looked at my brother and Walter and the fear in their eyes told me they wanted to run but I smiled at them, turned to the old man, and said "sure". I had always been curious about hobos and now was a genuine chance to find out exactly who they were.

Walter and I were both 12 years old and Steve, my Irish twin, was 11. There were several old logs nearby that we were able to drag up near the fire and the three of us sat down. There were three hobos, one for each of us, and while they looked rough and smelled a little ripe, even with the wind blowing through the pine trees, they didn't seem threatening. "I'm Red", the red haired hobo identified himself, "and this here's Slim", pointing to a scrawny man stirring what looked like beans in an old rusty can. "That just leaves Laredo, who doesn't speak too much because he comes from South of the border". "We all get along though and we've been traveling together now probably three years, is that right boys?" Slim and Laredo both nodded.

"Want some beans boys?" Red asked, and I spoke for our group and told him yes. I figured it would be bad manners to decline and Red scraped some beans out of the main pot into a smaller tin can and handed me the can with a rusty spoon and said "you boys will have to share because we don't have too many bowls and saucers here". I introduced Steve, Walter and myself to the hobos and asked Red where they were going next.

Red scratched his head and pondered my question. I took a bite of the beans and thought I tasted a little sand, and handed the can and spoon over to Steve. He looked horrified. About that time Red cleared his throat and responded to my question, "Well Bill, (talking to me) I guess where the next freight train takes us, as long as it's going in the right direction, isn't that right boys,?" Slim and Laredo grunted yes and continued eating their beans.

"Where will that be?", I asked. "Fall is coming soon so maybe we'll head toward Laredo's way down to Texas or maybe even over to Florida where it will be nice and warm. We might be able to get some jobs down there picking grapefruit or something like that". Red continued, "we sure don't want to go to Minnesota do we boys?"

I blurted out "gosh, I'd like to go with you guys, could I do that? Red just laughed as Steve grabbed my arm hoping he could pull me back from making a terrible mistake. Life on the rails sure sounded much better than daily drudgery at school, being berated by the nuns for not applying myself like they thought I should. And then there was my perpetually grumpy father. Yep, life as a hobo sounded great. I couldn't wait.

Red punctured my balloon. "No boy, you'll need that school and trust me, the life of a hobo is not all that great". I didn't believe him. But he clearly wasn't going to take me and it was starting to get dark. Time to go home and get ready for school the next day.

We never saw Red or his traveling companions again but to this day, I'll always have that sense of adventure I learned from Red, who was always ready to go where the next train took him.

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