Sunday, February 03, 2013

Bo's and Bindlestiffs

Wilson Snell's House on Weddington Ave
Seeing that picture of the last surviving farmhouse in Charlotte where Wilson Snell lived, reminded me of a class of Americans that were fairly common when we were growing up, but have all but disappeared. 

Most often they arrived at the east end of Charlotte and disembarked the train just a few yards behind the Snell property…at which point the trains always slowed or even stopped…for some reason known only to the Southern Railway people.

 Most of these people are now resting in the Bone Orchard. They led dangerous lives, many wound up greasing the tracks since Flipping on the fly was so dangerous especially when it was a Cannonball. It was a hard existence,constantly being harassed by Bulls and Jungle Buzzards not to mention subsisting on spare biscuits and docandoberries, and sleeping on the ground with nothing but Hoover blankets for warmth.  And finally when these men caught the west bound, there were rarely any sky pilots around to utter final comforting words to their friends.

For thoseof you who don’t speak “HOBO,” I’ll translate:
Bone Orchard…graveyard
Greasing the tracks…being run over by a train
Flipping…boardinga moving train
Flipping on the fly…boarding a FAST moving train
Jungle Buzzards…a hobo who preys on his own
Spare biscuits…looking for food in garbage cans
Docandoberry…anythingthat grows on the side of a river that’s edible
 Hoover Blankets…newspapers
Catch the Westbound…to die
Sky Pilot…preacher

That’sright. Hobos.
The many  “historically challenged” Americans of today don’t know diddly squat about Hobos. That’s understandable, since unless they are in their 70’s chances are that they have never seen one. Now, I’m not talking about modern day homeless people that you see everywhere, there’s a big difference.

Mencken put it best in the 1920’s, when he wrote, 

Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but see themselves as sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but sooner or later he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Apart from either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police.”

Fairly often, one would knock on our door on East 5th street and offer to do work around our house in return for food. My Mom would usually fix him a sandwich whether she had any work for him or not. I never saw it, but  I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere our house was marked with a symbol only other Hobos could understand.   They had their own written language.

I recall that most of the Hobos I saw had rolled up newspapers slung over their backs.  Those were the “Hoover Blankets” they used to keep warm while sleeping on the ground on chilly nights.
I’ve read where,contrary to what you would assume, they really do work surprisingly well.

Eric Severeid

Something else you are going to find hard to believe, but it’s true; Eric Servereid, the debonair, masterful commentator who you will remember appeared regularly on the TV news with Walter Cronkite, once lived as a Hobo.
(You can check it out from his autobiography  “Not so Wild a Dream.”)

In addition to their symbols, and colorful language, the Hobos had their own code of ethics…which they adopted at their National Hobo Convention in St. Louis is1889:
1.     Decide your own life, don’t let another person run or rule you.
2.     When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
3.     Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hoboes.
4.     Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but insure employment should you return to that town again.
5.     When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
6.     Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals treatment of other hoboes.
7.     When jungling (living) in town,respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as bad, if not worse than you.
8.     Always respect nature, do not  leave garbage where you are jungling.
9.     If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
10.   Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
11.   When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.
12.   Do not cause problems in a train yard, Another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
13.   Do not allow other hoboes to molest children, expose to authorities all molesters, they are the worst garbage to infest any society.
14.   Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
15.   Help your fellow hoboes whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.

Hobos have never received the credit they deserve, but they were extremely important to the industrialisation of our country. The railroads would not have been able to expand as rapidly as they did without the itinerant labor force the Hobos provided. Neither could the farmers who depended on them to harvest the crops before they rotted.

One of the largest employers of the hobo during the first two decades of the 20th century, the wheat belt of the Middle West and Great Plains provides a perfect example of a hobo-dependent industry and landscape. The wheat harvest began in Texas in early June, then moved steadily northward until reaching North Dakota and Canada by middle August. Although machines reduced the amount of labor needed to sow the crop, large scale, intensive labor was required for the harvesting. To meet this need, farms called on roughly 250,000 men annually to temporarily "shock" and thresh the grain, then move northward with the ripening crop

 Even though the hobo was an essential member of the industrial and agricultural workforce, society deemed his lifestyle inappropriate and, when not working, relegated him to uninhabited areas outside of the city, or extremely undesirable areas inside of it. The former was known as the jungle, and it served as the home for the constantly fluctuating population of hobos who were traveling to and from job sites.

As far as I know there is no "Save the Hobos" movement afoot.  Nor should there be. Their time has passed.
Bur the least we can do is to understand who they were and honor them for their contributions and  for heaven sakes, stop calling them "tramps" and "bums."

They were HOBOS...and proud of it.

Hark' 'I hear her whistling,  
I must catch her on the fly:  
One more scoop of beer I'd like,  
Once more before I die.'  
The hobo stopped, his head fell back,  
he'd sung his last refrain.  
His partner took his hat and shoes,  
and caught the east-bound train.
-Hobo poem

(A Bo what Hobos call each other. A Bindlestiff is a Hobo who carries a bindle (collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tied to a stick.)