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True Stories by Steve Keely
Executive Hobos and 9/11 (Part 16) "Carpe Diem"
Art "Wiz" Tyde returned to his loving wife after the rail trip, they divorced, and he left Linux-Care to start Sputnik Communications. He bought a condo in the Philippines. Omid "Big Apple" Malekan, in the old American tradition of leaving the girl to hit the rail, returned a bachelor to New York but failed to shake the cigarette habit. He works at a startup fund and trades client money as well. Bryce "Clown" Bradley won All-Canada comedian honors using material from the hobo trip, and quickly took off on a career as a globe-jetting gold broker.
Brian "Pronto" Molver awakened me on his San Francisco couch following the Executive Hobo Trip. It was the morning of September 11, 2001 that I was to fly to New York City. "You can go back to sleep," Pronto alarmed. "The office just called me... Terrorists bombed the World Trade Center and your flight's been cancelled. I'll be busy for a while."
September 11 shook the nation as well as hobodom clear to the Roseville, Ca. bridge. Homeland Security police rousted a bridge "troll" there who told the press, "It's all over! The whole thing. The police want everybody out, and you can blame 9/11 for it." Railroad security clamped down nationwide, bulls proliferated, railroad town newspapers denounced open boxcars as conveyance for terrorists, and tramp numbers plus the good hobo name plummeted to the lowest in decades signaling, some claimed, the end of a hobo epoch. The executives slid in under the wire.
In balance, I tell everyone that as long as trains run executives shall ride. Four years after this grandest hob trip in history and 9/11, in 2005, two more dynamic executive trips would dawn: One through the Canadian Rockies and another across Mexico's Copper Canyon.
This original story was contracted to a
cannonball editor for a glossy national magazine but, as you see, 9/11 derailed
that. So read this account in the hobo spirit and, if you get to Sparks as I
recently did, check the growing message, America: CARPE DIEM!
About the author
His vicissitudes parallel Buck the dog's in Jack London's Call of the Wild. Raised in loving confines, Bo Keeley later battled around the world of adventure that led in 1997 to the trail-less outdoors. He is a man built like a scarecrow with baggy clothes and a Jack-o-lantern smile with the wisdom teeth long gone but remaining memories, some of the best from railroading. Six years ago, thinking there wasn't much left to do, Doc Keeley, moved to the American southwest desert and discovered otherwise, a peaceful place Buck never reached. He lives and writes from a burrow behind his rickety house. Sample more writings at www.dailyspeculations.com and www.greatspeculations.com.
Freight hopping is potentially dangerous and is illegal, and the author, executives and publisher don't condone that anyone engage in an illegal activity. The usual penalty for getting collared by the bull is being ordered off the premises or a petty trespassing charge. The author and publisher recommend that no one hobo without permission from the railroad. Historically, freight jumping is encouraged to transport seasonal laborers who run the same risks as executives.
Hobo Book Picks
Autobiography of a Super Tramp Williams Davies
Beggars of Life Jim Tully
Bound for Glory Woody Guthrie
Damndest Radical Roger Bruns
Deep Enough: A Working Stiff Frank Crampton
Fishbones: Hoboing in the 1930's Fishbones
Freighthopper's Manual for North America Daniel Leen
Good Company Douglas Harper
Hard Times Studs Terkel
Hard Travellin' Ken Allsop
Hobo: A Young Man's Thoughts Eddy Joe Cotton
Hobo Life in America: Training Manual Steven Keeley
"Hobos" Peter Spielmann, Penthouse, pp. 138-45, May 1979
Knights of the Road Roger Bruns
On Hobos and Homelessness Nels Anderson
Rand McNally Handy Railroad Atlas
Riding the Rails Michael Mathers
Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move Errol Lincoln Uys
Rolling Nowhere Ted Conover
Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha Ben Reitman
South of Heaven Jim Thompson
Tales of the Iron Road Steam Train Maury Graham
The American Tramp and Underworld Slang Godfrey Irwin
The Last Great American Hobo Dale Maharidge
The Road Jack London
Tramping with Tramps Willard Flynt
Tramping on Life Harry Kemp
Hobo Websites the Execs used
What the Executives Took Train
Day's food supply
Gallon water jug
Hand-held computer for E-mail
Hats with straps
Journal & pen
Scanner and frequency list
Tarp or tube tent
Wallet tethered to clothes
Cars they Rode or Explored
The venerable Boxcar or "empty" is the standard hobo ride. It's out-of-sight yet there's a "window" or open door, the equivalent of a wide-screen TV. Bulls don't much care if tramps hold down boxcars, gondolas and covered hoppers, but regularly kick them off piggybacks, container cars, double-stacks, and definitely the units. You can string a hammock across a boxcar, or once I played handball since it's the right length until the ball flew out the door. The floor is five feet above the ballast making getting on or off "the fly" dangerous.
Coal cars are open-top gondolas with V-bottoms that unlatch to release coal. It's a dirty ride and everyone talks about the bottoms releasing but It would be rare and I sit on top on a tarp and tie myself to the side. Coal cars are usually strung in a mile-long "unit" train going from or to the mines
Container cars are similar to piggybacks except without wheels. They haul overseas or intra-country merchandise. There's usually a well in which to sit at the end of the container on the flat car, and it's advisable to take the rear one to avoid a shifting load in an emergency stop.
Double-stacks are containers mounted two-high on a flatcar.
Engines are the most comfortable rides in poor weather where you sit in the cab or hide on the deck of one of the "trailing units" behind the lead one. These are boarded either with permission from the engineer, or secretly after the crew has checked the locomotives before the train pulls out. The cab has all the high comforts: heater, light, bathroom and fridge stocked with bottled water. Also called the "power", units or locomotives.
Flat cars are emergency choices to ride off which I've lost gear and also been nabbed. Always tie everything down including yourself.
Gondolas resemble rolling shoeboxes without lids and haul pipe and scrap. Of all cars, this is the most touch-and-go for "shifting load" - the third most frequent killer of tramps (after boarding "on the fly" and "silent rollers"). The sides vary from waist to above-head high and have the advantages of an out-of-sight and windless ride, but they can make the car an oven on a sunny day.
Lumber cars are flat with a vertical lengthwise center piece to which lumber is secured. At either end is a phone booth size area that can be ridden for short hops.
Oil tankers and some others have only a ladder and 2-foot bumper to ride, so they're inadvisable.
The Portable parking lot or automobile carrier has two tiers with, nowadays, impenetrable mesh all around. The older unenclosed carriers were favorites for 'bos to sit in the pickup beds or car seats and listen to the radio or stereo with the heater on during winter. The automobile ignition keys are often taped where tramps know where to look. Sometimes autos are vandalized so if the bull nabs you on one it's usually straight to jail. There's a window sticker with the vehicle destination, a big help if you know where you're going.
The Piggyback is a flatcar that carries semi-truck trailers. One leans against the big tires and views 360-degrees of rolling scenery under the trailer belly. The piggyback doors are sealed and bulls frown on pig riders, so hobos secret between the rear wheels. I've also ridden side-saddle shielded outside the tires through hot yards. Things blow around and away on "pigs", so rope everything down.
Hobo argot is lavish, and these are the terms the Executives used and heard:
Airedale. Someone who travels alone rather than in the company of others. Lone wolf.
Angel food. Mission sermon.
Back (or front) porch. Metal platform at either end of a grain hopper. These have curved sides and are a favored ride with a viewing area and shelter via a portal into the car bulwark.
Bad Order. A car or track in need of repair.
Beggardom. The world of a full-time beggar. The area they panhandle.
Bindle stiff. The "roll", "bindle" or "balloon" was popular in olden days, rarer now with modern backpacks, when tramps picked up their bed and walked or rode.
Big Rock Candy Mountains. Hobo paradise as described in song by Harry McClintock.
Blowed-in-the-glass 'bo. Born to be a hobo.
Boxcar. See "Cars the executives rode". Also side-door Pullman.
Boxcar art. Inscriptions, monikers or hobo graffiti on trains and in yards. Different from "tramp art" below.
Brake test. The engineer tests the brakes just before starting to ensure the brakeline is pressurized. There is an accompanying electronic click along the train that's the standard cue to be ready to pull out.
Britt, Iowa. Home of the annual August National Hobo Convention for the last century.
Build a train. To assemble or "make up" a train by piecing together sets of cars bound for a general destination.
Bull. A railroad policeman. Also special agent, cinder dick.
Bull horrors. A pathological fear of bulls seeded by stories along the grapevine (and Hollywood) of bull mistreatment of hobos.
Bum. A low-status "homeguard", or "local", who may have let himself go, dressed in inside-out shirts and mismatched shoes padding the streets smelling like a brewery.
Bumper. The small platform at the ends of boxcars, oilers and others, a two-foot wide steel mesh that's used to climb across cars or ridden in a crisis.
Cabbage head. Someone who's used so many drugs in a lifetime that recovery is improbable.
California blanket. Rolled newspapers under the clothes.
Cannonball. A fast freight, hotshot.
Carry the Banner. Walk the streets all night.
Catchout. To jump a freight. The catch-out yard is usually a division town.
Call (the train). A new crew is phoned at their homes or motel when a freight's arrival into the RR yard, or completion of the train being built, is anticipated by about one hour. A tramp asks for the "call time" to know when he should come back to board in time before it moves out. One asks for the call time rather than ETD.
Catwalk. Walkway atop boxcars and others sometimes used to "deck" a car and jump from one to another.
Container. See "Cars the executives rode".
Control tower. The highest building in the yard occupied by the overseeing yardmaster.
Crew. The operators of the train including the engineer, conductor and perhaps brakeman, who ride in the lead unit. The conductor used to travel in the caboose until FRED came of age.
Cross-bar hotel. Same as jail, calaboose, hoosegow, or the "can".
Crumbs. Lice, or gray soldiers. "Crummy" is to be lousy that requires "boiling up" or cooking the clothes in a pot, a common sight in jungle yesteryear. Many hobos refuse to stay in missions where crumbs abound.
Crummy. An unoccupied caboose in transit in the middle of a train that hobos sometimes ride.
Cushions. Amtrak, a passenger train.
Cut-out. To drop or "cut loose" cars at a RR yard or siding. Will mine be cut out? is the hobo concern. To "break a train" or "shuffle the deck" is to rearrange the cars.
Dead-end siding. One that leaves the mainline and doesn't come back to meet it at the other end. Here the rider may find his car and self cut from the train, and afoot.
Dead soldier. Empty booze bottle lying beside the road or jungle.
Deck. To ride atop a car looking forward to bridges.
Dirty face. The head locomotive, also used to name a train, e.g. the Salt Lake dirty face.
Ditched. To be thrown off the train.
Division point. The major yard or city where a crew changes. These points form a cross-country string of knots about ten hours apart where hobos may detrain alongside the crew to eat and freshen, knowing another freight will stop within hours. Division towns are replete with transients and amenities such as the Mission, Goody and Sally.
Dog. Slow freight train. Slang for the Greyhound bus.
Doughnut philosopher. A satisfied fellow with the price of a coffee and feed in a bread line. He doesn't object to a doughnut hole getting larger because it will take more dough to go around it.
DPU. Distributed Power Unit, a locomotive set added to the middle or rear of heavy trains for a boost up steep grades. It is remote-controlled from the lead engines. Also called a "helper".
Drag. A train of mixed freight that makes a "milk-run" stopping at many local yards and sidings. Also, a work train or "turnaround". This lowest priority train is eschewed by riders.
Dynamite. When the engines uncouple from the rest of the train with a resounding blast from the air brake being released at that point and heard to the last car.
Ear Pounding. The sermon before the meal at a mission.
Engine. See "Cars the executives rode". Also called "power", units or locomotives.
Executive hobo. Boxcar tourists with a regular well-paid managerial or administrative job, and usually millionaires.
Fish. Newcomer rider, greenhorn.
Flat car. See "Cars the executives rode".
Flintstone Kid. The latest generation of hobby hobos who use credit cards and may dress the part.
Flip. To board or flip a moving freight. "On the fly".
Flop. To sleep, or a place to sleep. I coined the "bum flop" after years of watching with envy tramps stretch out on a park bench or boxcar and fall fast asleep in seconds. A flophouse is a cheap lodging place utilized by transients where the normal setup is a large room with many bunk beds.
Fly catch. To board or dismount a moving freight.
FRED. Flashing Red End Device. The blinking red taillight on the last car of a freight train that replaced cabooses with the shortening of crews during the 1980's. Hobos call it the Fu_____ Rear End Device when they miss the train.
Freight. A train made up of non-human cargo, often plus illegal riders. This article uses "train" synonymously with freight but most hobos wouldn't.
FTRA. Freight Train Riders of America, a loose collection of riders originating from a small core in the early 80's who display colors of their geographic set via bandanas. Spin-off gangs have been convicted of violent crimes, giving the whole lot a poor name.
500-mile paper. Cardboard used for padding and warmth on freight cars.
Frisk the train. To walk a freight before it pulls out in search of a ride. Sometimes you board at once or, if it's exposed like a piggyback, you hop on with the brake test.
Gandy Dancer. Laborer for the railroad.
Gentlemen of the road. Hobos who display mannerisms, speech or dress of having once been white-collar workers. "Executive Hobos" have the potential to become these.
Get into the world quick. An old expression embracing a young man bitten of wanderlust who takes the first opportunity to jump a freight train.
Gondola. See "Cars the executives rode".
Goody. Goodwill, source of used clothes and other items.
Gooseberry picking. Stealing clothes off a clothesline.
Grainer. Grain car, a curved-side hopper.
Grease the rails. To get run over by a train.
Grey soldier. Body lice.
Head up. The spot in the yard on the mainline where the locomotives pause for a crew change. This key information allows hobos to board before the freight moves out.
Helper (or pusher) engine. Extra units added to a train in the mountains to provide power uphill, then removed at the other side for trains climbing the opposite direction. Also DPU.
Highball. Equivalent of putting the pedal to the metal on a railway.
High iron. The mainline.
Hobby Hobo. One who rides as an avocation instead of a vocation. Also, boxcar tourist or weekend hobo.
Hobo. A person who rides freights from job to job. Used comparably with "tramp" in this article, however history splits hairs in a triarchy: At the bottom are street people, bums and "homeguard" none of whom travel. In the middle are tramps who rides freights and may take occasional jobs from town-to-town. At the top, hobos ride freights from job to job. My favorite distinction is that tramps and hobos both stuff newspapers under their clothes for insulation, but hobos read them first. Also, Knight of the Rail, King of the Road.
Hobo code or rules. The unspoken rules that govern hobo jungles and gatherings. For example, leave kitchenware for the next user, don't steal from the camp, share chores, and submit to the "kangaroo court" of peers if a rule is broken.
Hobo colleges. A man named Eads How organized the first string of hobo colleges in major cities in the 1910's, followed by the most successful, Ben Reitman's Chicago Hobo College. These were not formal teaching institutions but lecture halls where anyone could drift through to debate popular issues with speakers, and find assistance, work and brotherhood. The modern version was Doc Bo Keeley's 1985 sociology class "Hobo Life in America" at Lansing, Michigan Community College with guest speakers including a State Supreme Court Judge and where honorary degrees were awarded at graduation.
Hobo culture. Hobo life on the rails, jungles and at work. The history of American expansion within the continent is seeped in the culture. The fraternity of the rail had early beginnings in the 1890's and matched pace with track building. They had a lingo, written symbols, codes, colleges and a philosophy that creeps up today along the rails.
Hoboette. A female hobo. Sister of the road. Likewise, a "moll" pals with hobos. About 1-in-20 train hoppers is female.
Hobohemia. The area of the town inhabited by transients.
Hobo nickel. Originally, hobos carved nickels of wood for barter, then later used minted "Buffalo Head" nickels to file ornate designs on the face. Today they are collector's items.
Hobo poetry. Tramp flatulence, especially around a campfire.
Hobo Sign. Tramp pictographs rarely seen now but necessarily popular in depression era hoboing. Examples are: A comb with teeth (cruel dog), a stick figure in triangle dress (kind woman). See attachment "Some Hobo Signs".
Hogger. The engineer or "hoghead". The "hog" is an in-yard locomotive.
Hopper. A covered grain car, also called a "grainier". The curved-sided hoppers have "front and back porches" used by 'bo's to stay out of sight or bad weather during a journey.
Home guard. Local street people who don't hop freights.
Hotshot. A high priority, fast train that others side for. Its status is due to cargo such as mail, containers and piggybacks.
Hot yard. One busy with bulls chasing hobos.
Hump. The raised ground in a "hump yard" used to classify and build trains by gravity. Strings of cars are pushed up the hump, uncoupled in sets, and roll downhill to a widening funnel of destination tracks where switches are remote controlled.
In-the-hole. A train on a siding. Also "sided" or "on the farm". It occurs with two trains bound in opposite direction or when one overtakes another in the same direction on one mainline - the lower priority train must wait on a sidetrack until the other passes.
Jack-roll. Rob a drunk.
Joint. The seam in a track where two rails meet and are bolted together. Joints cause the railroad's clickity-clack and provide an indicator of speed, so are the tramp "alarm clock" if the train slows down to get off. Most modern main rail is "continuous" or smoothly welded at the joints, so the wheels glide over them silently. Also, slang for prison.
Jungle. Hobo camp site.
King of the Road. The well-placed hobo. Anyone who feels the freedom of flipping a freight. The title of Roger Miller's hit song. Also, the perennial title bestowed at hobo conventions to the most experienced, best representative of the open road. The host popular event is the Britt, Iowa national hobo convention, since 1910, where the King is crowned with tin cans, but always it's a solemn event.
Knight of the Rail. Respectful term for a hobo.
Library bird. Those who roost in libraries to pass time, poor weather, or educate themselves in soft chairs.
Mainline. The major rails between cities that form the American railroad gridiron. Most follow original right-of-ways established in the nineteenth century. There are regularly two mainlines - one in each direction so trains needn't side often - except in the mountains where it is often single.
Man. The freight train, e.g. the Denver Man bound for same city.
Manifest. The goods a freight carries. Also the list kept by the conductor showing each car contents, origin and destination. A hobo may ask him to check for an "empty" going to a particular destination.
Mission. A place, usually sponsored by a church, for free food, short-term lodging and spiritual counseling.
Mission stiff. A tramp who lives in a mission or shelter most the year. Some volunteer to get "saved" by the sponsor for the free flop and food. Missions are also the elephant graveyard for the elderly and retired bo's, or the first step of a new road kid to cleaning up, getting a job and leaving the road for straight society.
Moniker. A hobo's nickname or handle. The road name provides privacy and often tells a bit about the person.
Mulligan stew. Hobo stew.
Open Raod. The system of railroads that can take you anywhere you like, as in the "Call of the open road".
Piggyback. See "Cars the executives rode". Also pig, or pig train.
Pie in the Sky. The reward in the hereafter after one catches the last "westbound'. A culminating phrase of a mission sermon is often "There ain't no pie in the sky."
Pound the ear. Sleep in a bed.
Priority train. Based on importance of cargo hence speed of travel, the highest priority train is Amtrak, next the mail trains, followed by container cars and piggybacks, then mixed freights, and, finally, drags.
Portable parking lot. See "Cars the executives rode".
Profesh. Experienced hobo.
Punk. Young tramp, fish, tenderfoot, road kid.
Reefer. Refrigerated boxcar.
Rubber Tramp. Migrant workers traveling by car began to put a dent in the hobo population with the rise of the automobile in the 1920's.
Sally. The Salvation Army helps million of Americans yearly. Most familiar at Christmas time as bell-ringers with alms kettles, this is the small evangelical church of 125,000 members called soldiers. Officers are ordained ministers who work long hours for scanty wages. The Army raised $88 million following 9/11. Donations are distributed to soup kitchens, shelters, toys for kids, and thrift stores that many tramps shop.
Shuffle the deck. To change the order of cars in a train. This occurs within a yard or en route when a string is added or cut off.
Shooting snipes. Tramps too poor to afford "tailor-made" (store bought) cigarettes collect butts from the ground until enough accumulates to roll their own.
Sky pilot. Mission preacher.
Side. To pull off on a parallel side rail to allow a priority train to pass.
Silent roller. A car or string that glides engine-less, without light and quietly - and dangerously - along a yard rail especially in the hump yard.
Slave market. Employment agency.
Slow order track. One that's in bad order or under repair so engineers are required to slow. It's an opportunity for a 'bo to get on or off at a slow roll.
Snipe shooting. To hunt for snipes or cigarette butts in the gutter.
Snowbird. Tramps who use trains instead of RV's to follow warm weather to the south, especially California, in the wintertime where they camp out or stay in missions.
Stack train. One made up of flat cars or well cars that are loaded with shipping containers, sometimes double-stacked. Also called an intermodal or container unit freight.
Staging trains. Trains holding for release on a mainline due to a backup of traffic at a point on line, for example, to allow room within the next yard to build trains on the receiving track. "Trains held out" is the number stacked to enter the yard.
Stake the door. To block the door of a boxcar preventing it from sliding shut on an inclined track.
Stamp tramp. One who rides town-to-town, often in a grand loop of the country, to collect food stamps or other assistance using different identities. New food stamp restrictions have greatly reduced their numbers. Also called stamp collector, circuit tramp.
Standard gauge. The usual track gauge of 4 feet 8 ½ inches, one giant step, used in the United States and many other industrialized countries. The other less common is narrow gauge.
Stiff. A tramp. There are working stiffs, mission stiffs, etc.
Streamline. To travel without or with only a light pack for the purpose of disguise and agility from freight yard to yard.
Surf. The top of most cars has a metal walkway along which a tramp may go with peril and hop from car to car. To "deck" or ride the top of a freight car.
Switch. To move a car or train from one track to another at a junction in the rail that is controlled by the "switchman" who throws a "switch".
Switchman. Employee in a yard who throws switches at track junctures. Modern switching may be via remote control.
The Road. The open road, traveling freely, living the life of a hobo.
Through train. Or a "run through", this freight usually doesn't take on or drop cars at yards, and sides only for higher priority trains and stops only for crew changes.
Tied down. A train waiting on line for a relief crew or other reason with the power still on.
Touching hearts. Begging. panhandling, or putting the "touch" on someone for money.
Tramp. Used synonymously in this article with hobo, a tramp is traditionally thought of as a non-working hobo.
Tramp art. Artwork by hobos and itinerants often made of wood and carved using a simple tool such as a pocketknife. Hobos used to fashion ornate furniture and carve "hobo nickels" in exchange for a meal, room, or money.
Unit. An engine, the "power" or locomotive. The engineer and conductor ride in the "head" or lead unit, while the "trailing units" are normally unoccupied. It's a great offense for a hobo to be caught aboard any unit unless by rare invitation of the crew. Most hotshot freights boast 2-4 units.
Unit train. One made up of a single commodity, e.g. coal, piggybacks, or containers.
Varnish. A passenger train such as Amtrak. Also called "riding the cushions".
Westbound. A train a hobo dies on. To catch the westbound, die or find the "big hole of the sky".
Willy. Good Will Industries of the Methodists.
Yard. The location where freight trains are made up and crews change. Generally, two main lines funnel from either end into a yard of some dozens of parallel rails used for storage and shunting cars. There's usually a maintenance section, and a "hump" area where yard engines back cars to the apex, the couplers are released, and car strings roll by gravity to a switch point and onto one of a number of tracks in building a train.
Yard master. The railroad man in charge of a yard stationed in the main tower.
Yard worker. The "brakies" (brakemen) and switchmen who work a rail yard from whom hobos solicit train information.
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