08/06/03
Kid Hoboes
    by John Cech

Brief sound clip

That's Woody Guthrie's son, Arlo, singing his haunting "Hobo's Lullaby" in honor of the National Hobo Convention, which takes place this week in Britt, Iowa. The 5 and 10k walks and runs, the flea market and festivities are a far cry from the actual life on the road, riding the blinds (those metal frameworks that once were suspended from the bottoms of railroad cars), or hitching from small town to small town through the great plains, working a little, swiping a little, panhandling a little, sleeping in fields and barns, hobo jungles and homeless shelters -- prey to the whims of local police and farmers, who might let you stay a day or two and give you work and meals, or who might just as easily sic their dogs on you and send you sprinting out of town. And that was the least of it. My grandmother, who lived in southern Illinois near a busy railroad line, was a soft touch, and the hoboes who passes through her little town always seems to find their way to her door where they asked for a meal -- they knew where to go because there was a hobo sign scratched into the paint of her picket fence -- a picture of a cat meant "kind-hearted lady."

Many of the hoboes during the Great Depression of the 1930s were young people, hundreds of thousands of teenage boys and girls, who left home because their families were barely scraping by or were broken up by death an illness and poverty, or because they simply rebelled against the authorities that be and, like Huck Finn, they "lit out for the territories" to preserve their freedom and autonomy. Thomas Minehanm a sociologist, rode the rails with these young people during the 1930s, taking down their life stories for the book he published in 1934, Boy and Girl Tramps of America. One of the boys he interviewed said he would rather take is licks than loose his liberty: "If they do give me a rap now nobody knows about it and if I haven't got a clean shirt there ain't nobody else showing off his sport roadster."

Minehan ended his study with an urgent plea for visionary reforms that could have been written last week, about our own young people who continue to wander down dangerous roads: "To reclaim the youth which we are losing will not be easy," he wrote. "It will require more than the voicing of lofty sentiments and the passing of pious resolutions of hope. It will require a redirection of national aims and ideals into a future in which youth will have a definite part."

Brief sound clip

Copyright 2003 John Cech

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Friday, 11-Jul-2003 15:34:50 EDT


"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."