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"Hallelujah, I'm a Bum"

They took to the road in jobless thousands to escape failure, seek work — or find a kind of freedom

In a journey back to the world of the hobo, James R. Chiles describes life in the hobo jungles, the struggle to escape from angry "bulls" (railroad police), the difference between "bums" and "yeggs" and "tramps," and what it was like to hop a freight. "I grab it as tight as I can," a young hobo recalls. "I think my arms will be jerked out of their sockets." Hoboes had their own do's and don'ts, Chiles reports. Stealing from the general public was kept to a minimum. It might be OK to filch a piece of pie or a clean shirt from a laundry line, but breaking into someone's house was an extremely serious offense--it might lead friendly householders to stop giving back porch meals in return for splitting wood or carrying water.

Restless and displaced veterans began riding the rails soon after the Civil War, as more and more railroads were extended west, but Chiles' account concentrates on the Depression era when hoboes became something of a national preoccupation. In the 1870s there were only 53,000 miles of railroad track. By 1930 there were 230,000. In the 1890s stories generally described men on the bum as "demented vagrants" or "depraved savages" or "symbols of primitive evil." But in the 1930s Americans sympathized; one in five of the able-bodied population was out of work. Besides, the public had fallen in love with Charlie Chaplin as the touching Little Tramp; and in 1941 a celebrated film, Sullivan's Travels, with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, made people understand what it was like to ride the rails, and to face the world as down-and-outers.

Hoboes are often thought of as losers, but Chiles notes that included among them at various times were such future notables as novelist Louis L'Amour, oil billionaire H. L. Hunt, journalist Eric Sevareid and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Included also was Chiles himself, who, some years back, rode the rails briefly to get a taste of hobo life.

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