Evan occasionally refers to any scruffy looking man beside the road as a hobo. Little did he know (until I told him) that his own Papaw had hopped freight trains back in the Great Depression back when such people were really called hobos.

As usual, I myself heard the story while we were watching History Channel and Dad made an off-handed comment about the show we were watching. The show involved hopping freight trains and I mistakenly thought the phrase meant that you actually hopped on board while it passed by. He said:

“No, you just got on before the train started. It wasn’t hard.”

I was incredulous. I said:

“You mean you’ve done it?”

As If he’d been a criminal or something.

He told me all about it.

“Lot’s of men hopped freights back then. We were all out of work and had nothing else to do. We’d hear gossip about how there might be jobs in some other town and we’d hop a freight there.”

Apparently if they got where they were going and there weren’t jobs (which was most of the time), they’d just hop a freight back. Evidently it was easy to find out what the train schedules were and freight trains apparently kept to a regular schedule.

You’d just find a good spot and get on before the train started and stay hidden as best you could. He said it wasn’t too hard unless they had Pinkerton guards which they called “bulls”.

The best spots were underneath some boxcars where there were pieces of metal hanging down. If you could find some boards to lay across these, you’d have a fairly comfortable place to lay down for quite awhile but the ‘professional’ hobos usually got those spots.

If you were lucky, a boxcar would be open or unlocked and you could hide in there. The worst spots were the spaces between the cars standing on a coupler or hanging on the ladder. That was also dangerous.

His most memorable trip was from Camden to Memphis where he couldn’t find a good spot and ended up behind the tender between it and the first boxcar.

The fireman quickly noticed him after they were underway and motioned him forward into the cab. He was then given a choice: he could jump off right then and there or he could shovel coal for the fireman. He chose the shoveling.

So from about Hampton to Memphis, he shoveled coal into the firebox and eventually emptied the entire tender, stopping for a break only when the train stopped for water. He said that he had never in his life been more tired or more dirty. He was covered head to toe in coal dust and was not fit to apply for any jobs had there been any to apply for.

That did not stop him or anybody else though. His only other story involved being forced off a train as it pulled out of town. Apparently a railroad bull with a .38 caliber revolver is incentive enough to jump from a moving train even at the expense of a sprained ankle.

These stories always make me wonder what other stories there were that I never got the chance to hear.

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