A father's journal / "Hobo-American"
Published 1:02 am, Wednesday, July 7, 2010
The last day of school was last week and we deviated from our traditional celebration. Normally we drive around Redding and Easton with a hobo in the back of our truck.
A few years ago on the last day of school, my wife was out of town, and I had to drop something off in Redding for work. I was driving my pickup truck with the girls in the front after school, when we noticed a man standing next to a broken-down car. I stopped and he explained that he had run out of gas. I said if he didn't mind he could hop in the back, which I believe is a violation of Connecticut Motor Vehicle law. He hopped in the back and we went out looking for a gas station. We were driving around the reservoirs for quite a while before we finally found a open station and got gas. Then we drove back with a strange guy and flammable liquids in the back. The whole return trip I was praying he was not a smoker. We finally got his car going. The entire experience took a little over an hour. But, we had nowhere to be. School was out for the summer.
I thought nothing of it until Laura got home the next day. She asked what we did after the last day of school. "We drove a hobo around Easton all afternoon," 7-year-old Julia said. My wife looked at me. Why am I am always on the defensive? Then my daughter Caroline filled in the details, but kept referring to our new friend as a "hobo."
"Where did you even find a hobo in Easton, and why would you let him in your car with our daughters?" My wife asked. I tried two lines of defense 1) He rode in the back. 2) It all depends on your definition of hobo. A hobo rides the rails. This guy had a car. It was an old broken down car, but it was a car.
"Did he look like a hobo?" My wife asked.
I responded, "Who uses the phrase hobo anymore? Is that even politically correct? Aren't they now called hobo-Americans? Hobo is Julia's term."
"Did he look like a hobo?" my wife asked.
"Yes, he looked like a hobo. However, I made him ride in the back. Illegally ... with a can of gas. I don't think he smoked. I'm pretty sure he didn't have matches."
"He could have killed our daughters. What were you thinking?"
"The guy needed help. He wasn't a hobo, although he looked like one, and he rode in the back. And why did you say that he could have killed the girls, what about me?"
"You picked up a hobo you would have deserved it."
I never won that argument, or any arguments, with the women of the family. So now, every year on the last day of school the girls ask if we are picking up a hobo and diving aimlessly around rural Connecticut. This year some of Laura's relatives came into town. We picked them up at the train station and they were allowed to ride inside the car. No hobos around the train station that we could see.
I only knew one hobo. Really a former hobo from the Golden Age of Hobos, The Great Depression. Walter Bullwinkle was a friend of my dad's. He just died a few months ago. Everyone called him Bullwinkle. He had stories of riding the rails as a young man.
Bullwinkle is a good hobo name. I can imagine Bullwinkle around the hobo camp. "Hey Bullwinkle do you have a can of beans?" "Hey Bullwinkle, do you want to hop in the back of the truck and drive around Easton looking for a gas station?" Bullwinkle was the kind of guy that before you finished the question would already be in the back of the truck.
When I was about 18, I remember sitting around a fire with Bullwinkle, and a guy name Charlie after another old timer George Woll died. The bottle was passed, and everyone told stories. I dared not speak. I had not yet earned the right to tell old time stores. I still don't think my hobo story qualifies.
Walter Henry Bullwinkle, 1915-2009.