Charles Elmer Fox - An Ardent Thumber Who Loves the Rails

By: Bernd Wechner
© July 1, 2000

Charles Elmer Fox - An Ardent Thumber Who Loves the Rails

Charles Elmer Fox - An Ardent Thumber Who Loves the Rails

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: July 1, 2000

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.

    When you think about it honestly and in its proper perspective, what mode of life could be more conducive to philosophy than a life spent on the road.

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:

    The day of the hobo is gone, perhaps forever. It is logical to assume that a new breed of tramp will evolve out of all this confusion, and when this happens I hope they conduct themselves as well as the old-timers did.

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:

    The hobo was essentially a wanderer. A free spirited human, who put his personal freedom ahead of hs desire for worldly gain. He was neither greedy nor competitive. Nor did his philosophy detract from his character in any sense. Of course there were bad hoboes, just as there are bad people in all walks of life.

    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:

Preface xi
Introduction xv
Hoboes 1
Becoming a Hobo 10
The Denver Suit 12
Hitting the Cow at Lebec 14
Klamath Indians at the Dam 16
The Jews in the Roadside Park 18
Swimming in the Ocean in Oregon 20
End of Steel at Prince George 21
Stealing the Burritos at Midway 23
Mungo Shaving the Tramp 27
Bacon Butts 28
The First Ogden Fiasco 29
From St. Louis to Monet 32
Climbing Sherman Hill 34
Cotton Picker Hunter 35
The Three-Inch Drop 38
Ghost Town Killer 40
Hair Tonic 45
Wild Wheat 47
Chicken Dumplings 48
The Minnesota Killer 50
Beek Sneek Peek Lil Boy 52
Prickly Pears and Barrel Cactus 54
The Gyp Water 56
The Sidewinder 58
The Brownsville Bull 60
Here and There, Off and On, Now and Then 63
The Hobo Bed 65
Soup Bean Annie 66
The Monster of Oconto County 68
My Life as a Gypsy 71
The Jungle Benefactor at St. Joe 74
Between a Rock and a Hard Place 75
The Burning Boxcar 77
We're All the Way from Terre Haute 79
The Tarantulas of Texas 83
The First Vegetarian I Ever Met 85
Green Bay Jack 92
Death in the Lumber Car 93
From Winnipeg to the Wabash 96
Eating Rattlesnake 99
Good Days and Bad with Hoboes and Do-Gooders 102
Sandhouse Hotel 105
Notes on Hobo Jungles 109
Big Fish and Soap Bubble Prosperity 111
The Turkey of Kanawha River "Ka-Know-Ee" 113
The Lord Was With Me That Night 115
Catching the Manifest to Naptown 116
Clothes Make the Man 118
Hobo Life 120
The Second Ogden Fiasco 121
The Man with the White Eyes 124
Dingbats on the Road 126
Old Yellow Hair, Reefer, and Friends 128
Where Did They Go? 130
The Fast Buck Hustlers 132
The Switch Dolly Dive 133
A Pistol-Packing Mama 135
The Medicine of State House Park 136
The Rocks of Black River 139
The Effingham Flying Bath 141
Unwritten Law of the West 142
I Saw Them in the Moonlight 144
The Kingdom of Market and Broadway 146
The Hobo Aristocrat 148
Heir to Eads Bridge 150
Abalone Bay 151
Terre Haute Bos, Tramps, and Boosters 152
The Soup Was Too Rich For Me 156
The Important Brake Shoe Key 158
The Amazing Men of the Road 160
The Hobo Preacher 161
The Hobo Horse Doctor 163
He Cured the Malaria 165
The Fight at the Brooklyn Yards 167
River Tramps or Johnboat Hoboes 169
The Stick on the Coffee Pot 173
Essay on the American Hoboes and Tramps 174
Personal Hygiene and Mental Cleanliness 180
The Last Hobo 182
Railroad Lingo and Duties 183
Tribute to Tommy Connors 185
The All-Time Hobo King 186
The Rats Were Too Big 187
The Iowa Kid From Hollywood 190
The Drunk in the Casket 194
Old Shanty Town 196
Jeff Carr 199
Survival 202
Hobo Cookery and Tricks of the Road 203
The Road Dogs of Long Ago 205
Hobo History 211
The Sun-Down Gang 216
Mainline Slim 225

Full tracing details for the diligent:

    Tales of an American Hobo
    Charles Elmer Fox
    University of Iowa Press, 1989
    ISBN: 0-87745-251-2

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