The years have come and gone. His melodious sweet mellow voice is now forever stilled. Yet... , sometimes late at night, in my memory, if I listen closely, I can still hear my dad's soft voice, singing sweet and low, floating languidly, out of that old back bedroom.
One of the songs he often used to sing to my siblings and me, which we always loved, was entitled, "Hobo Bill's Last Ride." It was a song about the tragic life of a Hobo named Bill. That song, became my inspiration for this story about another Hobo. The Hobo, the other Railroad Bums used to affectionately call ... Hobo Jimmy
This one's for Pop.
Back in the day, I was known as Boxcar Jack. And... , I reckon I crisscrossed back and forth, from East to the West, across this great country more times
than even I care to remember.
In those days, when I rode an old freight train into a town, I made my home on the outskirts of the railroad yards along with all the other hobos. There, you would always find an odd assortment of characters; some of them unsavory, others were ilk of the finest kind. These ramshackle makeshift camps, in time, came to be commonly known throughout the Depression Era as Hobo Jungles.
But that was a long time ago. I'm off the Rails now. All I have left from those bittersweet days is a bunch of faded dusty memories.
But, even yet, every once in a while, usually late at night, I find myself imagining I can still hear the comforting sound of an old Southern Pacific Freight Train as it pulls out of the Railroad Yard gathering speed on its way through the comforting darkness of the desert. Ah, well... , memories...
I don't know why, but of late, I catch myself thinking back with a special fondness to the youngest hobo, a young boy that I met during my hungry years of riding the rails.
He would go on to later become known in many of the Hobo Jungles throughout the land as Hobo Jimmy.
Strangely enough and quite by chance, I achieved a sort of dubious royalty status. I was the first person to meet Jimmy the night he first wandered into our hobo camp located on the outskirts of the Southern California railroad yards.
I had just finished wolfing down a can of soup from the communal stew pot. He strayed into our camp a few minutes later. I could see he was looking over at the big cast iron stew pot that was simmering on the open campfire. It was obvious he was hungry.
"Hey kid, you hungry?" I said, smiling at the young boy.
"I sure am Mister," he said. "Real hungry."
"Okay, go on over there and get one of those empty cans near the Stew Pot, dip it in, and help yourself," I said. "By the way, kid... , What's your name?"
"Jimmy." He called back, already on his way over to the Stew Pot simmering away on the makeshift campfire.
A moment later, he was back, with his steaming can of soup. Sitting down next to me, for a few moments he was silent, busy devouring the contents of the can, and all the while munching on some day-old bread one of the other hobos had given him.
"I'm Boxcar Jack," I said, introducing myself. I was curious to find out just why someone as young as Jimmy would be riding the rails at such an early age.
"Thanks for the soup, Mister. I shore was hungry."
"Feeling better now?" I said.
"Hey, Kid," one of the sadistic unshaven men who had just strolled up said.
"Whatcha got in that black case?"
"My Guitar, Sir," Jimmy said.
"Well, get it out here. Let's see it," he said.
Jimmy unbuckled the latch and pulled it out of its black case. One look and we could all see the guitar had been very well taken care of; in fact, it looked much better than it's Owner. By the way the young boy looked at it, it was plain to see that guitar was his special pride and joy.
About then two of the man's unsavory friends came up and joined him.
"Hey, kid," one of the other men said, "Did you have something to eat out of our Stew Pot?"
"Yes Sir, and I shore thank you," Jimmy said, wanting to be polite.
"Well, since you didn't contribute anything, we'll just take your guitar for all that food you ate."
Not waiting for an answer, the man reach out and yanked the guitar out of the startled boy's hand.
Jimmy stood there helpless, near tears as the three bullies walked away with his most prized possession.
"Looks like the local pawnshop will be getting some business in the morning, " one of the other hobos said, shaking his head.
One of the unwritten rule in Hobo Jungles is you never get caught up in another person's problems. So... , as was the custom, none of the other men made a move to come to the young boy's assistance.
Later that evening
Shortly after dusk, the Jungle become quiet and started settling down. Here and there through the gathering darkness you could see the glow of cigarettes, hear the low murmur of conversations. Little groups of men, sat here and there, talking quietly, while others played cards.
"Hey, kid," a man named Slim said, "Why don't you play us some songs?"
Jimmy walked over toward them and picked up the guitar. Finding a seat on a empty freight carton, he softly strummed a few chords then he begin to sing.
The camp grew still. The soft murmur of conversations all but ceased. More confident now, his mellow voice grew louder. Almost immediately the hardened men, down on their luck, drew nearer to listen to the clear strong voice of the young hobo.
The first song was about daddy and home. I still remember the first few lines of the lyrics...
"I'm dreaming tonight of an old Southern Town,
And the best friend a man ever had.
I'm getting so tired of roaming around,
I'm going back home to Dad."
It was plain, his clear sweet voice brought back a world of bittersweet happy memories to the hard-bitten men gathered around him.
Here and there, I could see an occasional tear glistening in the eyes of some of the unshaven men who sit there listening. Rough hardened men, down on their luck, relived in their memory thoughts of mother and home—memories of happier days.
Jimmy sat there on that old crate and sang for us for almost an hour, answering almost every request. Down and out men who had lost all their worldly goods found hope. Somehow that hobo jungle didn't seem like such a lonely place to be as they listened to his plaintive voice drifting languidly over the camp.
A while later, when Slim and his two unsavory friends tried to take back the guitar, a strange thing happened. Almost to a man, the other men in the camp, stood up and silently surrounded the three would be thieves. Finally in a low voice filled with deadly menace, a man named Nevada spoke.
"The kid keeps his guitar. Anyone that even tries to steal this kid's guitar—we're going to ship you out feet first on the next Freight Train out of these yards. Then... , when that Freight train gets far enough out into the desert, we're gonna have someone throw you off the damned train, and let the coyotes enjoy your sorry carcass."
When we got up the next morning, we noticed boy and his guitar was gone.
"He musta got up bright and early, or slipped out sometime during the night," one grizzled old Timer said. "Ya can't blame him—those damned bums."
Around noon, I was out making my rounds of some of the cafés in the area. In those days, if you were going to survive riding the rails you needed to know where to find a handout in whatever town you happened to be passing through.
On that particular day, pickings were not so good. I showed up back in the Jungle with a few almost rotten vegetables, and some wormy apples. I had very little to donate to the communal Stew Pot.
Looks like the Stew's gonna be a little thin and watery tonight," an old hobo named Jake said as he stirred the pot.
About a half hour later, to our great surprise, Jimmy comes straggling into camp, toting his guitar. He was carrying something in a good size paper sack. Walking over to Jake, who was minding the stew Pot, he handed him the paper sack.
"Jake... , Here's a little something for the Stew Pot," he said.
"Wa'll, Jimmy," Jake said, "Let's see what you have in this sack."
Jake looked inside. He gave a little whistle of appreciation. Then he emptied the contents of Jimmy's sack into the simmering mix coming to a boil in the pot.
"Jimmy walked over then smiled at me in recognition. He pulled up an empty carton lying nearby and sit down next to me.
"Kid, " I said, "I hope you had better luck than I did."
Jake leaned over and whispered to one of his friends. "This kid brought a lot of meat he got from somewhere."
That night the hobo jungle took on a festive mood. Somehow it was a friendlier place. It was very rare to have that much meat in the pot. For that hungry crowd of hobos it was like attending a banquet.
When some of the men later asked Jimmy where he got it he smiled.
"I bought it with the nickles and dimes I made playing on one of the downtown street corner today."