"I won't hurt you!" the hobo yelled as I approached the railroad track where he sat. I was on my way home from school and I had a choice--either walk on the track past the hobo or walk through the pasture where Anderson's mean bull was sure to chase me. I decided to wait until the hobo was well on his way walking down the track before I ran home.
During the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl days of the "Dirty Thirties," there were many homeless who traveled by foot or rail and were known as "tramps" or "hobos." One hobo known as "Steam Train Maury" developed a "Hobo Code"--a way of marking posts near farms.
+ Good place for handouts
# Bad bull, stay out of yard
= Police officer lives here
W Poor water
Our farm, near Elwood, Nebraska, must have been favorably marked--we fed a lot of hobos. Some of them made "tramp art" (jewelry boxes and picture frames ornately carved from cigar boxes) and offered them in exchange for food.
Bands of gypsies had been roaming the countryside that spring and summer, stealing anything and everything that wasn't fastened down.
Dad was in the field plowing, but he had warned, "If they come here, just get to the house fast and lock the doors."
My mother and I were in the yard picking dandelion greens for supper when we heard my older brother, Harold, shouting, "Look, Mom, look! Gypsies are coming down the road." They were getting close enough for us to see the tired old nags pulling a dilapidated spring wagon. A makeshift tarp covered one end of the wagon and many of their possessions; pots, pans and tubs were hanging on the sides. Gaudily dressed characters were seated at the front, one of them cracking the reins and shouting in a language of his own.
My mother cried, "Get to the house quick! There's no telling what they might do to us." Clutching my kitten, I started running toward the house, but Harold--not so easily intimidated--wasn't about to run and hide and let those thieves ransack our farm.
"No, Mom," he said, "You and Sis go to the house; I'll hide in the shed and keep an eye on them." My mother reluctantly left him and half pulled, half carried me to the house.
Just seconds after the bolt lock was in place on the kitchen door, a red-kerchiefed head appeared in the little peephole. The doorknob turned and the whole door shivered as the strange woman shook it and cried " Let me in; let me in."
I crouched on the floor under the window; my mouth was dry and I was afraid to breathe. Would the hinge hold? Was Harold all right? My mother peeked through the crack between the drawn shade and the window. Neither of us said a word.
After what seemed like hours, all was quiet, and then we heard a gypsy man yell,"Giddup!" The creaking old wagon left the yard and traveled on. Harold hadn't stirred from his hiding place and only a bit of grain and a few chickens disappeared the day the gypsies visited. The hungry, homeless gypsies no doubt enjoyed a chicken dinner that night!