Charles Elmer Fox - An Ardent Thumber Who Loves the Rails
By: Bernd Wechner
Charles Elmer Fox - An Ardent Thumber Who Loves the Rails
Author: Bernd Wechner
The Iowa Press republished Charles Elmer Fox's 1989 account of his hobo life in the States not too long ago. A copy landed on my desk for review, and I have to admit, I'm more than a little enamoured of it (and tardy in reviewing it). Fundamentally the story of a hobo's life, it touches uncannily close to the heart of "road" culture, yet almost refuses to engage it.
writes Charlie - though he wasn't really talking about hitch-hiking.
In fact when Charlie left home at the tender age of 15, in May of 1928, he did hitch almost 200 miles, much of it along dirt roads (what were to become national highways much later), moving from job to job, before hitting the rails the following March. He rode the rails for some 11 years, and then it seems turned back to thumbing (and walking - an integral part of the art of course) for a further 24 year until 1965.
Though he started thumbing, ended thumbing and thumbed more than he rode trains, his autobiographic collection of stories, focuses almost entirely upon life on the rails! It fascinates me how, after so much hitching, the memories seem eclipsed by the hobo's life on the rails. There are some clues as to why among his tales, and I'm sure they'll perk the interest of some avid contemporary hitchers.
Not least of all Hamish Campbell, who not so long ago, submitted a Masters dissertation on the itinerant life-style. Hamish may well have said something very similar to Charlie (c.f. above). Only where Charlie is talking about hobos, Hamish would be talking about hitch-hikers!
Charlie sees hitching as a most utilitarian affair. A way of getting around. But riding the rails embodies for him a distinct culture, a way of life. He describes most vividly the Hobo jungles he frequented, basically hobo camps in and around rail yards which bustled with life in the depression years of the '30s. There were after all some 60 to 100 thousand hoboes moving around the country then, only some 200 were left in the 70's claims Charlie.
He came down with asthma once and decided to head south to Arizona, where he's heard the air was just right for curing asthma. He "hitchhiked down there in order to stay as clean as I could, and you sure can't stay clean when you are riding trains" - almost as if hitching was a poor alternative to freight hopping, to lean on when needed. How things had changed by the 70's! Surely since then hitching would be the average vagabond's preferred option, riding the rails the poor alternative to lean on when needed.
Of course, thumbers never evolved the kind of culture Charlie describes the hobos as having. The shift in preference lies most probably in the decline of hobo "culture".
Riding the rails was and is certainly a dirtier more dangerous, uncomfortable way of getting around than hitching, and it was this culture than kept it popular. There were fellow hobos, in and around the yards, the hobo jungles, often sharing trains and it held the further advantage of very long reliable rides. There was a culture, a fraternity among hobos so much stronger than anything that ever existed among hitchers, most probably finding its roots in the depression, in the lack of and disillusionment with money and the money culture.
Hitchers on the other hand, chop and turn in a series of short rides, rely on luring unreliable rides and often view other hitchers with a competitive eye more often than a welcoming one -- all rather detrimental to a communal culture.
As the law came down hard on hobos, rail yards were better policed and hobos less openly tolerated. The culture declined, in the face of which decline, the creature comforts of an essentially legal, comfortable, clean, relatively safe, and in spite of it all, reasonably reliable alternative became the focus of a new culture.
Indeed Charlie muses:
not realising it seems, that this new breed of tramp had, by the 1970's well and truly established itself in the hitch-hiker. So strongly, in spite of his years practising it, is his view of hitching eclipsed by the rails. He couldn't see it I expect, because the culture of hitch-hikers seems so weak when compared to his descriptions of hobo culture.
The new breed of tramp Charlie was waiting for, was one as communal as the hobo was, and the hitch-hikers in their relative independence of one another escaped his attention. Which does them a little injustice, for all the same, there is a certain culture in the Keroac generation, the '70s Hippie Trail cutting through Europe and Asia, and more recently the hitching clubs and societies emerging from the east.
Charlie draws very strong lines between hobos, tramps and bums, and other low-life that collected in and around towns and hobo jungles in the depression years, and to the outsider were easily confused. The hobo, he tells us, was keen to work and earn his way, the tramps and bums were not (the tramps moving around, the bums staying put). Just some of his words:
Hoboing is a philosophy, a way of life that few can accept and cope with. The real hobo is purely and simply a wanderer at heart and enjoys this way of life. To work a few days and get a few bucks in his pocket to pay his way, then move on, is a hobo's idea of living in style.
The book is essentially a collection of some 95 anecdotes, short stories rarely longer than a page or two, not in any special order or strongly related. The format reminds me so intimately of my own work I can't help but warm to it. It makes for easy, entertaining reading, and provides a wonderful insight into the life of the hobo.
It is introduced most intriguingly by Lynne M. Adrian, who researched hobo autobiographies (funded in part by the University of Alabama). She identifies a distinct hobo sub-culture which emerged in the 1890s and mentions a sub-genre of about 40 autobiographies written by hoboes between 1880 and 1940 … closely paralleling the kind of research I've been engaged in regards hitch-hiking (whose culture emerged in the 1920's and also has a sub-genre of autobiographic accounts - as yet unnumbered).
Something the book is alas missing and it could do well with, is a table of contents. Indeed, it provides a wonderful reflection of the material, and I took some joy in collating one, recalling as I did, the stories behind each title. I hope it lends you some small insight into them as well:
Full tracing details for the diligent:
Charles Elmer Fox
University of Iowa Press, 1989