Sailor Jim and the World's Most Fantastic Hobo Shack
In the summer of 1949, as a city kid transplanted into what was then "the country" between Lake Grove and Tualatin, I found myself faced with a mystery more challenging than any my fertile imagination had yet conceived.
Why, I wondered, did so many ragged old men come calling, hat in hand, to inquire if there were any odd jobs to be performed for a hot meal?
For one thing, the mile between my house and the railroad tracks seemed a long distance to walk on a muggy afternoon if the prospects of a meal were no better than fifty-fifty. Even more puzzling was the fact that not once had I ever seen one of these strangers stop at any of the half dozen or so other houses in my neighborhood.
The riddle might have remained unsolved to this day had it not been for a series of events one particularly hot July afternoon, events that opened a fascinating new world and led to high adventure of a sort most 12-year-old boys find only in books and movies.
It all began when a silver-haired gentleman rapped on the back door and announced to my mother that he was without a doubt the champion kindling chopper west of the Rockies.
He could have said, "Your money or your life," with no guarantee that I'd have paid much attention. But the word champion! That did it. The man had unwittingly gained a second shadow.
He wore a pea jacket restitched at the seams with thread of various colors, and a small blue cap with flat brass buttons. He took off his heavy jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves.
Good thing. It was 90 degrees in the shade of our woodshed. I set out to pick his brain: “Do you chop kindling for a living?”
He puffed out his round, ruddy cheeks and let loose a laugh. “I’m a sailor, lad! The captain of a proud merchantman in my day.”
“But you told my mother—”
"That I was a fair hand with an ax? I’m that, all right, and many things besides.”
“That you were a champion.”
“And who’s to say I’m not?” He pried the ax from the chopping block. “Ah, but I may have stretched the truth a bit. Sailors have been known to do that.”
One of the benefits of being twelve, for me at least, was an ability to shrug off a minor disappointment, especially when I was handed something equally intriguing. I immediately wanted to know everything about his life as a sailor.
He talked as he worked, and I drank in his stories of sleek clipper ships and exotic ports, and waves as high as the fir trees in the woods behind our house, and storms around Cape Horn that tore out the rigging and snapped masts as if they were toothpicks, and beauty beyond description when white sails billowed beneath a cloudless sky.
"Sailor Jim," as he introduced himself, left my house that day with an exceptionally fine meal in his stomach and his newly acquired shadow trailing at a safe distance.
My own second shadow, a black and white mutt named Stubby, trailed me at an equally safe distance. Stubby was so loyal that it was literally impossible for me to go anywhere on foot without him. He had learned that "Go home, Stubby!" meant he'd better stay back a little farther than a stone's throw. But this time I didn't shout or throw stones, and soon Stubby was happily trotting at my heels, wagging his peculiar corkscrew tail.
He knew where we were headed, even if he didn't know the special nature of our mission. We had ranged far and wide together, west through woods and fields, south to the Tualatin River for fishing, east to Lake Grove Park for swimming. North meant only one place during the summer, the swamps beside the railroad tracks.
This was Stubby's favorite playground, and mine as well. I had spent an entire day just two weeks earlier capturing and recapturing waterdogs until, toward evening, I'd gathered together a grand total of one hundred and thirty-seven. But the waterdogs, tadpoles, frogs and snakes would have to wait. And somehow Stubby would have to be kept from his principal pastime, flushing pheasants.
Sailor Jim followed the curve of the Southern Pacific roadbed toward the spot where the crumbly cliff beyond the swamps graded down to a wooded slope. I'd never ventured very close to that place before, because of a warning I'd received shortly after moving from Portland to the old farmhouse on Pilkington Road.
I had gone up to the swamps and had discovered a thirsty steam engine stopped beneath the water tower. After inviting me aboard, the engineer had asked, "How'd you like to take the throttle down to Remsen's Crossing?" Without waiting for me to finish stammering my reply, he plopped his striped cap down over my ears, tied a red bandana around my neck and motioned me onto his perch.
The thrill of that moment, of the mile or so I gripped the long handle and actually made the train move, might have stood as the greatest experience of my early life had it not been for the engineer's stern advice: "See the smoke trailing out of those woods? That's a hobo jungle, boy. You'd better watch your step 'round here, 'cause one of them might jump out of that jungle and grab you, and that's goodbye."
I learned soon enough that the hobos didn't pose any threat, but the jungle was another matter. Still, if a man like Sailor Jim planned to stay there, Stubby and I could at least sneak up to the edge and peek in. That's what we intended to do, and that's probably all we would have done if Stubby's keen nose hadn't detected a pheasant less than ten yards from our destination.
Two hobos also had sighted the bird and were stalking it with slingshot and gunnysack. I wasn't sure just what they were doing until Stubby dashed between them, and the pheasant took off with a lot of loud squawking and furious flapping. The two hobos were just as loud and furious.
A rough hand grabbed me by the back of the neck, and I was obliged to stand up straight.
"Do you know," the man with the rough hand demanded, "what you and that dog of yours just did?"
I knew, but I couldn't find my voice.
"Hey, Boxcar," someone yelled, "that's a mighty funny bird you just caught!"
"Looks kinda scrawny from here," someone else yelled.
"Might get one good meal out of it!"
"But how you ever gonna squeeze it into the pot?"
By this time, the rough hand had relaxed its grip and the man was laughing along with the others. But I wasn't able to join in. I still entertained visions of being stuffed into a pot and cooked. Then I saw Sailor Jim approaching and knew I was safe.
"Well, lad, what brings you here?" he said, eyes twinkling. "Wait, don't tell me. You caught a whiff of Boxcar's world famous mulligan all the way from your place and decided to put in for a plateful."
"You're more than welcome," said Boxcar, patting me on the shoulder. "But if you'd only come five minutes later we'd all be eating pheasant stew. Oh, and I guess that crazy looking mutt is welcome, too."
Stubby had reappeared, panting hard, and had plopped down in the thick dust beside a cardboard shack. Similar shacks were strung up and down the slope at points where the zigzag trail turned. A few boasted soot blackened metal roofs and lath and tarpaper siding.
At each occupied shack or open campsite, Sailor Jim stopped and introduced me as "the lad who lives in the old house with the white board fence a mile down the road." Several men smiled and nodded with expressions that seemed to say, "Oh yes, that house."
The sun was low by the time Boxcar announced the first call for chow. I ate mulligan from a pie tin with a battered spoon bent like a ladle, while Stubby was served on a piece of cardboard turned up along the edges. I like to think I can still taste that thick, mysteriously seasoned stew if I put my memory to work.
After dinner, we sat around a campfire. I listened from a spot in Sailor Jim's shadow as one hobo after another described exploits and adventures which were totally beyond my ken. I know now, of course, that most of what I heard could be classed as embroidery. But they spoke so matter-of-factly, and in such soft, low tones, that I was convinced I'd fallen in with Paul Bunyan, John Henry and every other folk hero I'd ever heard or read about.
Suddenly realizing the sky was pitch black and my parents had no idea where I was, I sprang to my feet and told Sailor Jim I had to leave.
"I was beginning to wonder, lad. Thought maybe you'd decided to become a 'bo. Come and see me again."
My folks must have been puzzled by my reaction when I was told I'd have to go to bed without supper: I grinned.
The following morning, as Stubby and I skipped down the tracks toward the jungle, I realized I'd forgotten to ask the most important question of all. I promptly did.
"How do so many 'bos know to come to my house?"
"Well now," Sailor Jim replied, "if I told you that, it'd be like you showing someone your secret hiding place."
I persisted, promising on my honor that I wouldn't tell a soul. It was then that I was introduced to the private language of the vagabond, the mystic symbols which cover virtually every situation or condition a stranger might face.
There are signs to warn of dogs that bite, of people who shoot, of water that's unsafe to drink. On the other hand, there are signs telling of good things. Two such signs had been scratched on the fence in front of my house, along with a mild warning.
I'm sure I was the proudest 12 year old in the world when I walked up to my own fence, found the marks I'd somehow overlooked for months, and read: "Here, this is it, a good place for a handout," and "Good food is available here, but you will have to work for it."
I laughed when I read the third sign. It said, in effect, that Stubby's bark was worse than his bite.
For the next three weeks, I spent every minute of my free time with Sailor Jim, listening to his seemingly inexhaustible fund of stories while together we constructed a veritable palace among hobo shacks, away from the jungle, in a grove of trees beside a clear pond.
At a nearby landfill, we found discarded sheets of construction plywood and corrugated iron, lumber, concrete blocks, used bricks and even a half-full bag of cement. Sailor Jim pounded nails as fast as I could pull them from boards and straighten them.
We sawed plywood to fit the frame, tacked tar paper to the plywood, mixed mortar and laid bricks until we ran out. The landfill also provided a door in reasonably good repair, a window frame missing only one of its four panes of glass, a fifty-gallon oil drum easily converted into a combination stove and furnace, paneling for interior decor and strips of worn carpeting for the raised plywood floor.
This was to be Sailor Jim's "wintering-in" quarters. He planned to return in time to enjoy Christmas Eve before a crackling fire, and in the meantime, I was to guard the place. As my reward, he promised to spend the remainder of the winter crafting a scale model of a China clipper.
As he was preparing to leave, he told me he wanted me to see an object so precious he'd never so much as mentioned its existence to anyone before. Looking around to make sure no one was lurking nearby, he slowly drew a gold chain from his bindle.
Then it emerged, the most dazzlingly beautiful watch I ever hope to see. Solid gold, with a filigree of inlaid platinum outlining a clipper ship in full sail on frothy seas, framed by an intricate compass. The face was no less beautiful, with six small dials encircling the one that told the time.
Once again I found myself at a loss for words, but his expression told me he understood, that he knew the proper words hadn't been invented. I cried as I watched him trudge down the tracks and around the bend.
I never saw Sailor Jim again. The saddest part is, I'll never know if he simply kept on going or if he returned on Christmas Eve and, finding his shack destroyed, moved on.
Protecting the place was, I soon realized, an impossible task. Once school started in the fall, I found interests other than the swamps and the jungle. I went over every day for several weeks, then every other day, then only one day a week. It was on a Sunday afternoon in mid-December, 25 years ago now, that I found the shack in pieces, bricks scattered over a wide area, tarpaper torn to shreds, the stove bashed in with the concrete blocks we'd so carefully arranged as a level base for the big drum.
It wasn't too many years later that the hobo began to disappear from the American scene. Today, the true "knight of the open road" belongs on this country's list of endangered species.
It's a pity, too. He was a gentleman, he earned his own way, he practiced what many people merely preach about tolerance. His mind was open, his spirit free. He had neither wealth nor possessions, but was willing to share what little he had and always eager to lend a helping hand to anyone in need. These are the lessons I learned from Sailor Jim.
My oldest son, Michael, was 12 when I took him to the wooded slope beyond the swamps and pointed out, as best I could, the spot where Boxcar had cooked his world famous mulligan, and where I'd sat near the campfire in Sailor Jim's shadow, listening as the 'bos swapped tall tails. And, of course, where the world's most fantastic hobo shack had stood.
Mike's reaction was predictable: "Gee, Dad, you were really lucky."
I was. I am.
* * *
You may have seen them.
Chalked on curbs and sidewalks or scratched into roadside rocks and telephone poles, hobo signs once served as guides to those who knew the code, steering them away from discomfort and danger or pointing the way to good food and a feather bed.
Most of the private language of the hobo originated with European Gypsies. Because of their unique position as a formal nation of vagabonds, they were able to assign uniform meanings to the various symbols and to enforce those meanings long enough for them to solidify.
Drawn largely from the symbolism of medieval magic and the mystic alphabet of the cabala, these signs were in widespread use until the general affluence of the 1950s, coupled with harsher attitudes of government and railroad officials and the public signaled the virtual disappearance of the true hobo from the American scene.
There are thousands of hobo signs for thousands of situations. My own limited “vocabulary” of close to 300 signs served me well during numerous cross-country jaunts and three summers on the harvest circuit.
But times seems to have erased the centuries-old symbolic language of the wanderer. Even though I know where to look and what to look for, it’s been 10 years since I’ve come across any hobo signs.
You may have seen them.
Published in The Oregonian's Northwest Magazine, Sunday, January 19, 1975.
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