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Tag Archives: Hobo Code

Depression Hobos and Aunt Annie Mae

The two-story boarding house proudly graced the corner of Green Street and Boyce Street in Union, South Carolina. It faced the Union Mill.

     Painted white, like all of the other mill village houses, the windows sparkled in the June sun. Annie Mae Bobo was an excellent cook, but she also took pride in keeping her household spic-and-span.

     Her eight male boarders felt blessed to pay room and board for one dollar a week. Two men shared each of the four upstairs rooms. The bachelor’s ages extended from sixteen to nineteen.

     Annie Mae and her daughter Noddie, a family nickname for Norma, washed the sheets and swept the rooms once a week. She provided her own handmade quilts for warmth in the winter. Opening the two windows in each room brought in fresh, and sometimes cool, air in the spring and summer. Available for spit baths and shaving were a pitcher, bowl, mirror, and towels.

          A single, light bulb in a brass socket, dangling from the ceiling, provided pale light at night. Two, black wires loosely crawled up the walls and across to the socket from the switch beside the door. Green tape partially held the two wires together.

     The outhouse was only yards from the back door. That forty-yard dash was not inconvenient to anyone, and it was a two-hole necessary house.

These are the opening lines of the short story, “Annie Mae” in my new book, Tales of a Cosmic Possum. (available October 14, 2017) Annie Mae was one of my husband John’s aunts, and she had a open heart. She often reminded her children, as well as all within earshot, to “do right by the good Lord, he’p yer own kin, he’p others ye meet along the way.”

Hobos lived a life on-the-go; most of them traveled from one job to another by train.

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In the hobo villages, family safety was a concern, and ingenuity was the answer.

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Finding food was a constant problem. Hobos often begged for food at a local farmhouse. If the farmer was generous, the hobo would mark the lane so that later hoboes would know this was a good place to beg. They took jobs no one else would take.

Hobos created items to sell for some spare change. This cup was made from a tin can, a hollow stick, and some copper wire.

The Hobo Code was quickly learned; it was a survival tool. Life as a hobo was difficult and dangerous. To help each other out, these vagabonds developed their own secret language to direct other hobos to food, water, or work – or away from dangerous situations. The Hobo Code helped add a small element of safety when traveling to new places.

The diverse symbols in the Hobo Code were scrawled in coal or chalk all across the country, near rail yards and in other places where hobos were likely to convene. The purpose of the code was not only to help other hobos find what they needed, but to keep the entire lifestyle possible for everyone. Hobos warned each other when authorities were cracking down on vagrants or when a particular town had had its fill of beggars; such helpful messages told other hobos to lie low and avoid causing trouble until their kind was no longer quite so unwelcome in those parts.

Since Annie Mae and her husband Roy’s house wasn’t far from the railroad, their home would have seen many of these hobos. This couple had little in the way of worldly possessions or ready-money, but they believed in and daily lived out the Golden Rule.

Matthew 7:12 (NIV) “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and Prophets.”

Whether a cup of cold water from their well, several apples picked from the apple tree in the back, or a left over biscuit from breakfast, Annie Mae shared what she had. She loved her neighbor.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But…the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

Perhaps the question for me and you today is “Who is my neighbor?” Annie Mae would tell us anyone we meet “along the way.”

 

 


 

 

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