The dictionary describes a hobo as a vagrant. Some people described them as "bums," "tramps" or just plain "drifters." Whatever they were called, they were a world apart from the so called "homeless" people of today.
Hoboes traveled from place to place by "hopping" a train, generally a freight train. You could see them standing in the open doors of box cars, between the cars on the small platforms, looking out of the short sided cars, or out of the gondolas as the trains rumbled past day or night.
Hoboes sometimes got themselves locked inside of cars, and there were many Hoboes that died either by suffocation, starvation or being frozen inside reefers (similar to refrigerated cars of today).
I lived alongside the railroad track in Pompano, and we were not unaccustomed to seeing Hoboes daily with many of them coming to our door and offering to do chores for a food hand-out. My mother never refused a Hobo a meal and never had them do any chores to "earn" food.
Years ago rail cars that were used to ship produce from the Farmers Market were parked on the side tracks bordering North Flagler Ave, which was a rock road, and terminated at a sand road that is now N.E. 10th St.
One day I walked alongside the row of cars that were waiting to be iced. These cars had bunkers at each end. The ice company would use a truck with an elevated conveyor to lift the hundred-pound blocks of ice up onto the top of the car and into the bunkers. This kept cool the produce that was being shipped. As I walked. I heard a very faint sound.
Finally I realized it was coming from one of the refrigerated cars. I opened it up and there lying inside the door, which was six inches thick with insulation, lay a man, more dead than alive. He told me later he had been locked up in this cold car for about a week.
He had nothing to eat but bell peppers that had spilled out of the crates when they were being unloaded up north. He had just about given up any hope of getting out alive when he heard the noise I made letting the compressed air out of the car.
He yelled and pounded on the door. I got him out and took him to our house. We fed him and he went on his way, weak and grateful.
There were several "Hobo Jungles" around Pompano. The biggest and most active one was roughly some ten or more acres of pine, palmetto and scrub oak land. It was located just west of the Seaboard Railroad tracks and north of the Pompano Canal. It could only be reached by driving a car alongside the canal from Old Dixie Highway to the railroad tracks, parking and walking into the jungle. This was home to dozens of hoboes.
Robert Mitchell, a patrolman on the Pompano police force, always worked the midnight to 8 a.m. shift on the west side of town. On many nights, he would swing by my house and pick me up to ride with him and keep him company.
Sometime during his shift, especially in the winter time when it was cold, we would head out to the Hobo Jungle. We would park the car at the tracks and walk into the camp of hoboes. Robert was known to them and he was welcome in their camp. They would bring a cup and bowl and pour us coffee and dip us a bowl of "soup," or whatever it was, out of the pot that never seemed to empty. Someone was continually adding to it, and most times Robert would bring his contribution to add to it.
Some of the hoboes stayed around for weeks or months, depending on the time of the year and the weather. Some only came in for a night or two. There was a never-ending procession of men, and stories were always being told. That was one of the reasons we visited their camp.
Some of them were a little leery of having a policeman sitting around their campfire. This fire never burned out. It was maintained day and night, as were individual fires scattered throughout the camp. A piece of tin, folded in the middle served as a cover over the pot during rainy weather.
Stories were told over and over. Some of the stories were hard to believe, but then again, you could listen. You didn't have to believe. The hoboes could tell you the names, and sometimes the names of the families of certain railroad or police officers in cities all over the country. They had a network that was continually updated with reports of the good guys and the bad guys. Wherever a hobo might go, someone knew of these people and their treatment of the hoboes.
Hoboes had a language of symbols that only they could understand. Whenever a 'bo' entered a new town or city, the first thing he would do was 'read-up' on the place: where to go, where not to go, where to get a good meal, where to stay away from, how he might be treated, and what to expect.
One of their "customs," if it could be called that, was very strange. I really didn't believe it when I first heard about it, but it was confirmed by a distant relative of ours. He had been a hobo, and stayed with us in the later years of his life.
He told me many things about hoboes, this included: After being in a "good" town for a few days, they would be sitting around their fire talking about food. It seems this was always one of their main concerns. One would speak up and say, "I think I will have fried chicken with rice tonight for supper." Another would say, "I had chicken last night, think I'll have pork chops tonight." Another might say, "I think I will have meat loaf," and on down the line.
Now, one might wonder how these men could get a handout meal at someone's back door and "order" their choice of food as if they were handed a menu. Not so! The Bo that was looking for chicken would accept whatever was handed him, give his thanks and depart. When he was away from that house, he would peek under the napkin. If it was chicken he would find a place, sit down and eat. If it wasn't chicken he would pitch it into the weeds and go to the next house. On and on he would go until he got the chicken he wanted.
The same with the rest of the group who had decided on their evening meal. Sometimes it might take a couple of hours to get what they wanted. Later there would be much conversation, about how they had accomplished their desires. Most of the night would be spent going over their successes. This wasn't something they did every night, just whenever they were complacent.
Hoboes were not thieves or violent men. Quite the contrary. They would help their fellow man in any way they could. I was never afraid of them, and I guess I saw as many or more of them than most people ever did. They bothered no one and kept pretty much to themselves.
I have never seen a hobo in the Old Pompano jail or even being "transported" by the police. Some towns would not allow them. They would pick them up and dump them at the city or county line and be told not to return. That is why most hoboes would jump off trains as they slowed down in some towns and would walk around town and catch another on the way out. Some of the railroad detectives were really hard on them, but once they were in a "jungle" they were safe.
Robert and I spent many hours in the Hobo Jungles of Pompano many years ago-- listening to their stories, drinking their coffee, eating their stew. Civilization finally destroyed the "jungle" we knew. Times changed, they moved on, we moved on. I suppose there are still true hoboes around. Occasionally as a freight train goes by I get a glimpse of someone standing straddle-legged between those swaying box cars and I get a feeling that's hard to describe.
The life they led could turn tragic. One night at a late hour, we were awakened by someone screaming. We went outside, and there alongside the tracks lay a Hobo that had missed his hand-hold trying to hop a train. He fell on the tracks and the train ran over him and cut off both of his legs. There were no telephones near. There was no 911 number to get help. The nearest hospital was in Ft. Lauderdale, nine miles away. There were no ambulances. There was no trained help available. The hobo died.