Hobos once rode the rails in this country looking for work. Folks wrote stories about them, songs, even poetry. Now the concept of a hobo has become a ghost, and sometimes when I hear or see a train I think of Hobo Charlie.
On a Friday night, not long after Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in the presidential race, my father patted me on the shoulder.
"I have some work to do in the morning. How'd you like to go downtown with your old pappy?"
I didn't. Saturday mornings were for cartoons and friends both real and imagined.
Mom insisted, so I went.
I'm not sure what he accomplished other than showing me what he did for a living, wanting me to be impressed.
Finally about eleven-thirty, he said, “Time to go, Chief. Let’s stop and get some lunch before we head home. There’s a diner just around the corner.”
The building my father worked in, which he reverently called the “Main Office,” stood about half-a-mile from the railroad yard.
We turned the corner, and an elderly man looking like a scarecrow in rags approached us. His beard and long hair looked he'd fashioned them from a bale of hay. I reckoned that this was what folks called a hobo.
I had once asked my father for money beyond my allowance, only to have him lecture me on the “value of a dollar” and something called a "work ethic." And here was this poor, old man asking my dad, who my mother had more than once called a “skinflint,” for money.
This couldn't end well.
“I'm gonna have to be honest with you,” my father said, and I readied myself for the lecture, “I don’t give money to strangers because I’m afraid they’ll buy liquor.”
“I understand, sir,” the hobo said, bowing his head and turning to go.
He looked like an old stray basset hound.
“Hang on, now,” my father said. “I won’t give you any money, but I'll buy you anything you want to eat.”
“Thank you, sir,” the ‘bo replied, “but I hate troubling you like that.”
“No trouble at all. My son and I were headed to the diner at the end of the block, and you’re more than welcome to join us.”
Even a kid like me could see the old man was torn. He was hungry, no doubt. Didn't have enough meat on him to feed a bird, but something bothered him.
“I ain't exactly dressed for dinin’,” he said.
“Come on,” my father replied. “I’ll vouch for you.”
The old man nodded. “That’s mighty kind of you, sir. I'm much obliged.”
“What’s your name?” my father asked.
“You can just call me Charlie,” he said.
“Well, I’m Roy, and this is my son Rocky.”
“Pleased to meet you both.”
I’ll save the fascinating tales this old man told of ridin’ the rails since the twenties for another time, but they fascinated me. I'm sure my eyes were as big as fifty-cent peaches. He talked about having stowed away on ships to and from Hawaii, and seeing every state and all of Canada just hopping trains.
Sounded like a life to me.
“I’d sure like to do that,” I said.
The old man smiled having finished his cheeseburger basket and milkshake, “Little man, whatever you do in life, don’t become like me. I ain’t got no home. No family. No friends to speak of, really. You let your daddy help you along the way, and things’ll be fine for you.”
He meant it kindly, and I took it that way.
“Okay, Charlie,” I said.
He mussed my hair. “Atta boy.”
My father bought him a couple of more cheeseburgers for the road and gave him ten dollars. Charlie offered his hand. My father took it.
I shook Charlie's hand, too, and liked the new twinkle in his eyes. Behind them, I saw the ghost of a handsome young man.
On our way home I stared at my father wondering at his out-of-character generosity, then asked. “Why did you do that for him, Daddy?”
He thought a second then said, “Son, there’s an old saying, ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’”
Charlie's image and his tales of the rails continue to haunt me.