It was Fall of 1985 in Lansing, Michigan, sixty years after the last hobo class had been taught in America. Dusting my clothes after a rough and tumble summer in boxcars, jungles and skid rows around the country, it dawned on me as the first snowflakes fell on my nose that those who can hobo do, and those who won’t any more teach.
There is no more fertile ground to plant a romantic theme than a campus. I walked cold into the Sociology department at Lansing, Michigan College and shook hands with Dr. Dean Heater. ‘My name is Doc Bo, and I want to teach a class about hobo life in America.’ He turned white behind that red tie but his blue eyes twinkled and he surprisingly replied, “Tell me more.”
‘This is the season,’ I explained, ‘when hobos beat a path to winter quarters, and I haven’t picked mine.’ I enumerated that I was a jack-of-trades including a veterinarian, author and publisher, pro jock, landlord, speculator, and world traveler. I had been a boxcar tourist for ten summers in riding all the high irons west of the Mississippi, plus many of the mains to the East. I had attended five national hobo conventions in Britt, Iowa, collected maybe the world’s only and largest hobo library and, smiling quickly, added, ‘I need to make a stake for the spring.’
“Okay,” said Dr. Heater slapping his thigh. ‘Sign up the minimum eight students and you have a hobo class.’ I pumped his hand optimistically and blurt, ‘I’ll call it ‘Hobo Life in America’.
Promotion was the first step. I tacked green posters on every building and telephone pole within tramping distance of the college. These portrayed a Weary Willie with a beer in one hand and text in the other under the banner, ‘Hobo Class- I Want You!’ I also notified local barbers, waitresses and college teachers to spread the word. The responders were eclectic but with three strange commonalities: They were sober, stable and eager.
The first two, a deaf mute and an attorney, trailed the sparkling hallway to the sociology office and paid for the course. Three more, an anthropologist, electrician and historian signed to threaten the class minimum_ and then, as Dr. Heater announced, ‘All hell broke loose!’ when thirty-six enrolled. They included a deejay, accountant, computer programmer, two secretaries, three housewives, waitresses, many local students, and a couple in-house professors.
The next step was to fulfill Dr. Heater’s sudden order to produce a syllabus and class text. Most of the students I had previewed sought the course for fun, a little bite of the hobo life, and four easy credits, but they hadn’t reckoned how leather-tough their prof had turned from those tens of thousands of rail miles.
I rented a basement for $100 per month and bought a $50 coffin from the college woodshop teacher who was desperate for cash. It was a simple pine coffin that I lined with electric blankets against the blast of icy Michigan winds through the window cracks, and each night prior to the first class a week away, I lowered the lid with growing distress. I hadn’t been in front of a crowd in years.
Next to the coffin lay an unused door that I put on blocks as a desk and piled it high with old hobo books. I had perceived that teaching hobo life at a college was original and novel, but reading late one night I’d found an amazing precedent. Sixty years earlier, Dr. Ben Reitman started a Hobo College in Chicago. Dr. Reitman was an oddball hybrid of physician and hobo king during an era when syphilis and steam trains were very hot stuff about the nation. The iron roads across America crawled with itinerant workers, families adrift, travelers with dream-filled knapsacks, and boxcar vacationers looking at the scenery. Thus, each Fall as chilly winds sniffed up their cuffs in the Windy City, hundreds of enrollees poured into the heated Hobo College. They were a fascinating stew of the road including educated home guards, apple knockers, harvest hands, gandy dancers, and nobody knew who else that tumbled from a freight and rambled along back streets and into the Hobo College. They initially entered a warm, spacious room to swap soup line and slave market addresses, exchange Bull tales, sing out bawdy tramping songs, and bury their noses deep in the hobo library. One and all awaited the arrival of Doc Reitman.
I read, as if there, that he strode into the hall with an easy, confident purpose as befits a traveled man. He spoke from the hip with animation on topics ranging from self-image as the first rung in the ladder in life; to the tramp in the American work ethic; to practical advice on pocketing urinal soap against gray soldiers (lice). The throng sat enthralled. Group courses followed Reitman’s introductory remarks on English composition, philosophy, public speaking and law. In the evening, the Doc invited in noteworthy speakers such as E.W. Burgess (sociology), Herman Adler (psychology) and Jim Tully (literature) to round the education.
However, the main thrust daily was clean and simple: Identify the void in a person and fill it. Predictably, a week after entering the College, a down-at-the-heels walk-on could ‘graduate’ with a job, flop, clean clothes, extended vocabulary, and the association of peers. How often anywhere at any time in the United States have the masses received these options in rounding a bend toward prosperity?
School doors swung open each Fall and closed every Spring for two decades through smoky criticism, so that by the end of the 1920’s thousands of men roaming the countryside had been educated at the first Hobo College in Chicago. I sat on the edge of my bed and determined that my course would run as parallel to Reitman’s as a set of old rails.
Inspired by his muse, I bore down and in two all-nighters in the basement wrote the 100-page combined syllabus/text called ‘The Hobo Training Manual’. The next day, just hours before the term’s opening bell, I placed it in Dr. Heater’s hand. The Dean thoughtfully paged for ten minutes, nodded and proclaimed, ‘It’s a go, Doc Bo!’
That night the wide-eyed arrivals to the first class entered not a classroom but a hoboemia of RR maps, steam engine photos, company flags, early Salvation Army posters, and on one corner table a hundred-book hobo library. The rolling lyrics of the “Wabash Cannonball” echoed from wall to wall, and the math teacher in the next room took one peek in and shut my door. However, I saw it all from outside my room window, and then down at the lavatory with the backwards trots. I drew purpose there from the memory of Reitman, rose tall as I could, and strode down the hard hallway and into my door.
I turned down the music and began, ‘I’ve traveled the world, and hopped about 300 freights in this country. Dined in some of the finest restaurants in the land, and eaten on hobo jungle floors. Been surrounded by hostile lawyers on movie deals, and circled with grim men the last ounce in a community wine bottle. Crossed international borders with sleight of hand, and worked out of skid row jams by telling an anecdote from across the tracks… And found room in other tight spots by relating tales from the real hobo world to a group like you. This perspective, I believe, qualifies me as your instructor to talk the rest of this term about Hobo Life in America.’ I shut my mouth, shrank into my overalls, and stared out a buttonhole awaiting the class reaction.
They thundered applause!
Thereafter the victory, I loped into the room with a ready grin in overalls and a different suit coat from the Goodwill…tweed one night, a woolen the next, for variety. I climbed atop my desk at the front blackboard covered with RR maps, and instructed a bandana-blinded student to stick a pin with a ribbon into the country map behind me. I was challenged to produce a chestnut from my past within an inch of the tack. Thus my teaching method evolved to stoke them and then push home the lesson.
Each class presented a fresh sliver of the hobo life without ever stepping into a rail yard! Each topic had a new expert speaker: Michigan Supreme Court Justice Mike Cavanaugh explained ‘Law & the Hobo’; MSU economics professor Emeritus Charles Larrowe detailed ‘Bo-economics’; Reverend Moncrief pounded tramp religion at my class; English professor Mike Steinberg contrasted Huckleberry Finn to the modern tramp; an anthropologist traced hobo history back to the hoe-boys of the Civil War; a venerable steam train tramp named Ole Gravy reminisced his early rides, Peter Carrington taught wild edibles, professional dumpster diver Tom brought watermelon from his digs; psychiatrist Andrew Homa clarified the breakout of mental patients onto the rails in the 1970’s, and Boogie Bob Baldori of the Chuck Berrry Band ground out good old hobo blues on a mouth harp.
The class reaction? Lots of hand clampin’ and foot stompin’ every night. The deaf girl even brought a signer. I watched everyone hurrah and file out the room after each session, sometimes amused or shaken, but always eager to return.
Until one night a big RR Bull came to class. This is the railroad cop, the cinder dick, the hobo nightmare. He hulked in the frame of the class door with hardly a prior notice – as a good Bull should – as the period opened. I stood up front as we checked each other out in a classical Bull vs. Bo standoff. He was out of uniform in an impeccable coat-and- tie with a tiny gold lapel star, while I wore the flawless tramp attire of bib overalls and a Pendleton shirt. He eyed me even as I looked up and back. From the crow’s feet at his graying temples, I imagined he had ‘made’ a thousand stiffs like me, much as I had sized a hundred Bulls like him.
In a flash, we struck a warm accord. He walked in and introduced himself as the supervisor of security for Southern Pacific RR. ‘I’ve just driven ninety miles from Detroit to investigate this hobo course,’ he said simply. He squeezed into a front row desk. I took a deep breath myself, thought of what Ben Reigman would do, and started the lecture on Bulls. Things proceeded normally for twenty minutes until he suddenly rose from the desk and announced to all, ‘There is nothing wrong with this class. I am enjoying myself and want to make sure I’m not obstructing routine.’ I replied at once, ‘Please come to the podium,’ which he did. ‘The job of the railroad policeman.’ he spoke and held spellbound the class to hear the other side of the coin.
Maybe his concern about the course was justified. Over the weeks, word of the hobo experience spread from Lansing throughout Michigan and into neighboring states. The original glimmers appeared in a couple of local underground newspapers. Then the Lansing College newspaper burst a front-page banner, ‘Doc Bo teaches Hobo Life in America’. Two state university papers picked up the story, followed by public newspapers throughout Michigan. Letters to the editor surged with responses that were never tepid.
Meanwhile, my course chugged forward as more speakers rallied to the podium. Radio stations thrust mikes before my mug, and many television interviews followed. A movie crew showed in class to document a special on ‘Hobo Life in America’. I brought our house dog, Tramp, to throw the limelight off me but my blood pressure climbed and sleep became difficult.
One day out of the blue, Dr. Heater summoned me to lower a boom like a clanging traffic crossbar. ‘There’s bad news, Doc Bo,’ he cried plucking a letter from a stack on his desk. ‘What’s the bum doing teaching our young citizens to be street people?’ he read. ‘Get rid of that hobo or drop me from the Alumni Association,’ he quoted another, and then tapped one more note to the Governor of Michigan that he wouldn’t let me view. The exasperated Dr. Heater then looked up kindly and clarified, ‘You aren’t teaching that but it’s the public perception. This meeting is just to prepare for your future, Doc Bo.’ I left the Dean’s office feeling suffocated as if having passed through a tunnel of smoke in the Rockies.
A week later on graduation day, I pulled from my mailbox a notice bearing the Lansing College presidential seal. It was a ‘cease and desist’ order for the hobo class. The prez being untouchable, I stalked to Dr. Heater and asked, ‘What gives?’
‘Just as easily as your class door was opened by public interest, it was shut by public pressure. Your course, though successful in terms of pupil numbers and financial gain for the college, made life miserable in the sociology and president’s offices. Today an order for its termination came down from the highest.’ He shook my hand and bid, ‘I’m sorry. It was a grand class!’
Before the final bell toll, I returned the final exams to the students- everyone passed- and handed each a hobo diploma at the door. A few hats lofted through the air. I turned, locked the door, and slipped the key under the crack.
I saw the triumphant hobo class as just another curve in life. I’d made a spring stake, sold the coffin for a little on the side, and hit the road.