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October 27th, 2008
Hap Mansfield’s Blog: On hobos and Halloween

Woody GuthrieBy HAP MANSFIELD
Scene Editor

A homemade Halloween costume is always cooler than a store-bought one. In my neighborhood, we always felt sorry for the kid in the garish, satiny, mass-produced, poorly printed costume with the cheap plastic mask.  Creating a costume with things that were available for use around the house was half the fun of dressing up.

My all-time favorite costume was the fairy princess one my mom invented. I liked it because I got to wear her lilac, taffeta, formal dress that was festooned with rhinestones and featured yards of organdy frippery. She made a “magic wand” out of a long Lucite drink stirrer to which she attached a pink rhinestone, star-shaped brooch. I never felt more pretty and girly.

As I got older, though, I wanted to appear less girly and more devil-may-care. So I fell back on the all-time standard hobo costume. Going as a hobo was the most comfortable of costumes: Bibb overalls or big pants, big old boots, a denim shirt and an old cigar stub were the key elements. If you could wrangle up a beat-to-hell suit jacket or a care-worn pork pie hat you were really doing it up big. Of course, a five o’clock shadow made with a piece of cork blackened by a lit kitchen match was essential. If you really wanted to be authentic and you had a stick and a bandana, you could even make a bindle, the fabric-folded pack carried over the shoulder.

I suppose, looking at this costume in our politically correct sensitive era, that it seemed that we were making fun of the homeless. Nothing could be further from the truth.

My grandpa, the immortal Frank Mansfield, was a hobo for several years in his youth. Those were the days, in the late 1920’s, when you could ride the rails, cook up a stew in a old tin can, travel the country and work odd jobs at various households to get some coin.  The romantic stories he told of being on the road, free as the wind, became one of the juiciest parts of our family history (well, that, and the time Frank shot his brother because he wouldn’t get out of bed and go to work, and then there was the relative who killed her husband with an axe, but that’s a whole other Halloween costume).

Even though the hobo seems to be an out-cropping of the depression, the original hobos were soldiers coming back from the Civil War. In my family, at least, being a hobo was the mark of a resourceful person making his own destiny and greeting the world with a sharp eye and a strong back. And that is why, to this day, our family is broke.

Grandpa could never stand the sight of coconut and he told the tale of how he and bunch of other hobos raided a boxcar full of fresh coconuts. They ate so much raw coconut meat and drank so much coconut milk that they got mighty sick. The stuff, after that, forever disgusted him. He told the story of boiling his clothes, at a hobo jungle (a place just off the tracks where hobos often gathered to sleep and eat) to rid them of lice. When his suit coat dried it was three sizes smaller but he had to wear it anyway. These stories always made us laugh, even when he told them for the hundredth time.

Hobos often played music and sang in the jungles and my grandpa was a whiz on the “sweet potato” or what I believe is called an ocarina today. He used to sing “Wabash Cannonball” and “Drill Ye Tarriers, Drill!” in his big alto voice as well as songs he made up such as “I Like Bananas ‘Cause They Ain’t Got No Bones” (he would insert any boneless food into this song. It still makes me laugh). Woody Guthrie is probably the most familiar musician who spent time riding the rails. Music was almost as essential to the hobo as good mulligan stew or a piece of freshly baked pie.

Grandpa talked very little about the marks they made on bridges and homes that told other hobos, in code, about the town’s disposition towards vagrants. He was silent about “the brotherhood” feeling that their secrets should stay as such. You can see some of the hobo “marks” at www.horailroad.com.  He did say he made a few signs for food (his penmanship with any instrument of writing or painting was extraordinary) and it was not uncommon for hobos to draw pictures in exchange for some biscuits and gravy or a slab of layer cake.

Being a hobo was dangerous and difficult seventy years ago, but today it would be a downright death wish. I suppose Jack Kerouac and his ilk were the 1950s and ‘60s version of hobos on the highway, another thing you cannot do with any pleasant results now.

I have a pal who tried to ride the rails in Chicago a few years back. He packed up some chewing tobacco and a small flask of rotgut and hit the boxcars. He was caught twenty miles from home, where generous and slightly bemused policemen benevolently relayed him from precinct to precinct.  He was cautioned in each squad car about the dangers of what he’d done.

I knew a guy who belonged to some nutty witches coven and he said that they believed whatever you dress up like at Halloween is a metaphor for what you will experience in the years to come. This could explain a lot about my life considering all the years I dressed as a hobo. But if I were going to costume myself today, I’d put on a beat-up hat and carry a guitar that says, “This machine kills fascists.” It’s a comfortable costume and it would do just about anybody good to be Woody Guthrie.

I don’t think I could even fit into that fairy princess dress, now, anyway.

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