Dean Stiff (Nels Anderson)


We hear the merry jingle,
The rumble and the roar,
As she dashes through the woodland,
As she creeps along the shore.
We hear the engine's whistle
And the hardy hobos call,
As we ride the rods and brakebeams
On the Wabash Cannonball.

From a hobo road song.

SOMETIMES the hobo is assumed to be a hiker on the railroad. That is a mistake. In the main, hobos are riding animals, just as much fixtures of the railroads as the wheels under the box cars. If they differ from one another, it is in the manner of riding or the speed with which they get over the country. Some travel much and others little, some fast and some slow, some ride the freights and others the cannonballs; but they all ride. To the hobo the railroad is a secondary system of circulation.

An excellent confirmation of the above point is the intimacy existing between the hobo and the railroad. He knows his railroads as the gangster knows the street corner. His intimacy is revealed in the pet names he has for the different roads of his acquaintance. He nicknames them in the light of his experience with them, or with the natives along their routes. Sit down beside the track with an old timer and listen while he rattles off the names of the box cars that pass. He sees a D. & R. G. car from the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad and he calls out "Damn Rotten Grub." A Toledo, Peoria and Western car reminds him of the common reputation that the Illinois jerk-water line has, and the initials become a warning, "Take Patience and Walk." The F. W. & D. C. reminds him of a strip of steel stretched across the desert from Fort Worth to Denver and he is reminded of "Foul Water and Dirty Cars." Certainly, the hobo is not a walking animal.

While we are on railroad initials, it may be in order to give a few more. Take the M. K. T., or the "Katy," the Bible-belt railroad of Missouri, Kansas and Texas. It is aptly known among hobos as "Moral, Klannish and Theological." As for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul, that becomes "Canned Milk and Stale Punk (bread)." The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, with its reputation for speed, is called "Less Sleep and More Speed." The Grand Trunk Pacific is said to "Give Tie Passes." Thus the hobo, in his attempts to use a railroad or to live along its route, tends to associate the name of the road with his experience on it. This being true, it is easy to understand why the Oberlin, Hampton and Eastern becomes the "Original Ham and Egg Route," and the Boston and Maine is known as the "Bread and Milk Route."

It is no accident that the hobo identifies his natural highway, the railroad, with gastronomic associations. A good example of this is a short branch line running into the mining camps of Montana. This railroad is still called the "Jawbone," after the manner of its building. The rawjawed teameos and muckers, dynoes and shantymen who built that railroad got little or no hard cash. They got their tobacco and chuck, and credit in the company store, but nothing more. Credit like that was known as "Jawbone." To this day most of them have never received a red cent in real money, so the Jawbone lives in bitter memory.

Often the hobos speak of a railroad as a "milk and honey route." The original milk and honey route was a railroad from Salt Lake City southward through the valleys of Utah. Along this line were the Mormon villages so euphoniously named, Moroni, Manti, Nephi, Lehi and Juab. In the early days, before the Latter Day Saints got disillusioned by the great influx of bums and yeggs, or, what is worse, the auto tramps, this was the greatest feeding ground for hobos. Hence the name, milk and honey route, which has since become a household term among hobos. Any railroad running through a valley of plenty may be called a milk and honey line. But this is a transient term; what may be a milk and honey route to one hobo may not be so to another. A hobo may fare well on a route one time and another time fare ill. Again, it may be milk and honey for a road kid but not for an old timer. For Jewish hobos, the trombenicks of the road, every road is always milk and honey, which explains in part why Jews never lack partners on the road.

What has just been said about milk and honey routes may lead to a false notion about the interests of the hobo in railroads. This may seem to be contradictory to later descriptions of the hobo as a migratory worker. It is true that the hobo is a worker, but he is not a walking, beaten worker. He travels a great deal, going from job to job. He travels from town to job and from job to town. Often he travels from town to town. When not in a town or on a job he is en route between them. If he has to travel a goodly part of his time, whether a third, a half or even two-thirds of his time, he is none the less a migratory worker. When traveling he has to live, indeed he has to live well, and he does. How he manages to keep his body fit and his mind alert while seeking and testing these milk and honey routes is discussed in the chapter on panhandling.

It is not the purpose of this chapter to tell the young novice how to get over the road. That would be like telling the groundling how to fly. If your foot is swift, your hand deft and your eye keen, the rest will come easy. To roam the roads of Hobohemia you need to be ready of wit, for ill fares the witless hobo. You may be as sure of yourself as any greenling, but too often self-confidence backed only by desire may outstrip your sanity and lead you to grief.

It is on this subject of getting over the road that the hobo "authorities" have confused the facts most. If you listen to them the hobo's life is one merry train ride after another, full of hazards but never discouraging. They would have you flipping trains going thirty miles an hour, flipping from a standing start at twenty miles an hour, and piling off without skinned shins at forty miles an hour. Those things do happen, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

There are many ways of riding a train and the preferences differ with different hobos. Some like the trucks and bumpers, while others prefer the blinds or the deck. Road kids may be found riding the tool boxes, the ice boxes or the Pullman steps; again we find them crawling into the pilot. Some expert riders claim they can ride the hot boxes with sprinklers in their hands, or on the side of the box car dressed like a Swift Ham or the trade mark of Old Dutch Cleanser. It would be folly to undertake here to tell you how to become a train rider. You will have to develop your own style. If you want to take your style second-hand from a book then you must be content to remain a second-class hobo.

But there are things that the novice can learn in advance. He can learn in advance that in getting over the road it is better to avoid the train crews than to get in their way. A great many hobo writers who like to tell about their own adventures are full ready to tell the novice how to outwit the brakemen, or shacks. If you listen to me, you will keep out of sight. It is not necessary for the hobo ever to meet the engineer of the train, known among our kind as the "hogger," or "hoghead." Sometimes you will meet the fireman, or "tallowpot." Tallowpots are only interested in hobos to exploit them. They will put you to work pulling down coal. Sometimes, if the rest of the crew is hostile, this is the only way of getting over the road. Sometimes you may meet a good tallowpot who between jobs is a hobo himself.

As for the shacks and cons, or conductors, they are not all grafters demanding a dollar a division. Occasionally you meet a real boomer hobo among them. For the sake of these the hobo while riding should observe at least one little courtesy, that is, to keep out of sight. While going through the small towns it is the height of bad manners for a hobo to ride hanging his feet out of the side door of a box car, sitting in full view on top, or riding conspicuously in open gondolas.

On this matter of paying graft to the shacks: it should not be encouraged. The good hobo can ride without paying; indeed, if he knows the art, he can get along well without any money. If he doesn't know the art, not only is he going to be exploited if he has money, but his money will do him little good and he will make the going harder for others.

Traveling involves a certain previous knowledge of geography, but not as much as is sometimes assumed. Sometimes you find a hobo with a pocketful of timetables and railroad maps, studying them as though he were a general planning a campaign. This is a sure sign that he is a greenling in the business. The real hobo follows his nose and he needs no other map, for any road he takes is the right road. Since he has no objective, as the term is used by the natives, one direction is as good as any other. This is not so absurd as it may seem, for actually the intuitive hobo gets more of the milk and honey than the map-reader.

The road the real hobo follows is never ending. It is always heading into the sunset of promise but it never fully keeps its promise. Thus the road the hobo roams always beckons him on, much as does the undealt card in a game of stud. Every new bend of the road is disillusioning but never disappointing, so that once you get the spirit of the hobo you never reach the stone wall of utter disillusionment. You follow on hopefully from one bend of the road to another, until in the end you step off the cliff.


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