I base my little tale on the actual life events of my grandfather, Wilburn Elliott. The Elliott characters in the story are all real, and I used their real names. However, the other men who appear in this tale are all fictional people I created to fill in the gaps in the story. You see, I know very little of what happened on his journey, to include the names of the hobos that helped him get back to his family. I grew up hearing the story of my grandfather’s journey through the Southwestern desert. It was my grandfather’s favorite tale, then my grandmother’s. My grandmother especially loved telling the story after he passed away. He died in 1985. I was eight years old, and he was the best man I ever knew.
The main bones of the story are nonfiction, and I’ve filled in the gaps with fictional elements from my imagination. I grilled my mother and my Aunt Ida for as many details as I could get out of them. I also used a memoir my grand-aunt Carrie made that helped me figure out the dates and ages of those involved. The family-owned a three-hundred-acre watermelon farm in Hall County, Texas. My grandfather was born on that farm, but when my great grandmother was diagnosed with consumption, it was time to pick up stakes. My great grandfather did the only thing he could. He sold everything, the farm included, and headed west in 1929 at the brink of the Great Depression.
For years I couldn’t puzzle out how my great grandfather could let his three under-aged boys travel by themselves across the southwest and by train-hopping no less — a rather precarious and dangerous way to travel. As I researched my family tree, I discovered a cousin shared a copy of my Aunt Carrie’s memoir with the family, and it solved the puzzle that has plagued me. Only two of the boys were underage. Homer was twenty-two years old in 1929, Woodrow was fifteen, and Wilburn was ten. I finally got it, and I have to admit I felt a whole lot better about the entire thing after discovering that.
So, the Elliott boys train-hopping adventure was true. They got separated; however, the facts about how and where that happened are unknown. All we ever knew was that his older brothers lost him on the journey. He wandered into a hobo jungle. Those hobos helped him across the desert and reunited my grandfather with his brothers. The nickname Hobo Willie is my creation. He stole that pie, though. However, we never knew what kind of pie it was, and it never occurred to me to wonder what kind of pie it was until I started writing, but I do recall taking that pie truly was his one regret during his time with the hobos.
My grandfather worked for The Southern Pacific Railroad until his retirement. He spent his time on the rails, continually paying back the kindness of those hobos from his youth. He never felt he gave enough in repayment. He also collected hobo memorabilia and displayed it around the house. His fondness for hobos never wavered. As a child, I remember listening to him tell his story as I gazed at the many hobo figurines he’d collected over the years.
Recently, I felt compelled to write this story about my grandfather. It was his love of hobos and all things Hobo related that sparks my fascination with the hobo culture. In a way, I also feel underlying gratitude for those hobos. After all, the likelihood of him surviving out there on his own was slim. If it weren’t for their courage and caring of my grandfather, he never would’ve met my grandmother, and I never would’ve been born.
The Hobo has been a part of the American landscape since the late nineteenth-century. It is a culture unique unto itself. “Many subcultures have developed their own way of doing things, and the hobo community is no exception” (Hacha). Hobo culture has many different terms and phrases, words ranging from bindlestiff, bull, and gandy dancer. They also created signs and symbols that they would leave at the entrance of towns, in alleys, or at individual homes. “They could communicate with each other about safe and unsafe camps and neighborhoods; mark a good road to follow; warn about barking or vicious dogs; leave their initials, a date, and the direction they were traveling so a friend could find them later; or show where a doctor who would provide services” (Hacha). Other symbols included warnings like a man with a gun, dishonest man, dangerous neighborhood, or unsafe place. They also had signs or symbols that told other hobos where kindhearted ladies lived. These women would feed them a meal in exchange for a chore or two. They would also mark safe places to camp, indicate if the area was a dry town or one that allows alcohol.
Creative hobos would make Hobo Nickels out of buffalo nickels. They would transform the head side of the coin into different types of men and sometimes chisel images on the reverse side, as well. “When the nickel was finished, a hobo could use it as a currency that bought more than a nickel’s worth of something, often trading it for a meal or a night’s lodging” (Hacha). They were a resourceful group that did the best they could to make honest wages when jobs were scarce.
The Hobo will take offense if they’re referred to as a bum or a tramp. They are nothing like that breed of wonderer. Hobos took to the rails in search of work and to fulfill the wanderlust spirit. By definition, wanderlust is a strong desire to travel. While they go from place to place, looking unkempt and filthy from life on the road, “Hobos are not bums. Hobos fully embrace the Protestant work ethic, bouncing from place to place, looking for short-term jobs to earn their keep, while bums and tramps want to just bum everything—money, food, or cigarettes […] Both have traveled the rails, starting in the 19th century, much to the chagrin of the railroad owners” (Hix, par. 3). Hobos have received a bad rap over the years due to people in towns confusing them for the other two types of wanderers that would grace the town limits. Sometimes they would be beaten, jailed, harassed by the cops, or run out of town. However, hobos found allies in certain cities and were also the migratory workers that could work in the east in the winter, make their way west in the fall, and be in the south and west in time for harvest, all while they were disparaged as derelicts and vagrants, “hobos helped build the very rails they traveled on, as well as the sewer systems, water lines, roads, bridges, and homes that have filled up the West” (Hix, par. 4).
Hobos worked to distinguish themselves as different from the rest of the railroad travelers, so they created a union and a code of ethics that members must abide by. They would meet in hobo jungles (which is where Wilburn met his hobo companions). “According to the code, a hobo is expected to clean up after himself and pitch in with chores when he stays in the jungle. Hobo jungles […] have been located off the beaten path, but near a stream and reasonably close to a rail yard—and ideally near a small town” (Hix, par. 19). Thievery and other undesirable behaviors will get you banned from the hobo community. “Those who left the camp in poor shape or stole from sleeping hoboes, a crime referred to as ‘high-jacking’ committed by ‘yeggs,’ were driven away and ostracized by the larger community” (Hix, par. 21). These are, but a few examples of the kind of men and women hobos were. They were hard-working, honest, and caring folk who enjoyed traveling by way of the rails. It was a hard life, but one that strikes in the heart of the wanderlust traveler of today.
So it is to the hobos who saved my grandfather, and reuniting him with his family, that I dedicate this story too. Though you may be gone from this world, you are not forgotten. Your kindness, caring, generosity, courage, and brotherly devotion are a tribute to the human spirit. Without the men that saved my grandfather, my family wouldn’t exist. I thank you and my family thanks you.
This short story is also published through Coffee House Writers
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