Killer rides the rails with `romantic' hoboes

 

It's a tough time to be riding the rails in America as a hobo because the railroad police are on their biggest manhunt "since Jesse James". A Mexican immigrant who is suspected of being a serial killer and now is on the FBI "Most Wanted" list, used freight trains to move around the country.

Hence the massive manhunt concentrating on these slow-moving trains and the disruption to the hoboes who use them for free travel.

The President of the National Hobo Association (NHA), Buzz Potter, is angry at the bad publicity for his members. "This guy is a murderer not a hobo," Mr Potter - whose mother was a Burke from Castlebar, Co Mayo - told this correspondent who also comes from Castlebar but is not yet a hobo.

The term hobo is believed to come from "hoe boy". Farm labourers during the Depression years used to ride the trains with their hoes looking for work. Mr Potter, who also runs a mortgage company in Nisswa, Minnesota, says he is "head of 3,400 guys who would not hurt a fly". The NHA has a website which says: "Unlike tramps or bums, the hoboes are usually very resourceful, self-reliant and appreciative people. "As a group, they avoid long-term work commitments, preferring to be free to follow the call of the open road when it comes. They are, in general, well read, artistic, romantic and quick-witted. They survive in hostile conditions that others would shun," the NHA says.

According to Mr Potter, whose father came from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, about 10 per cent of NHA members "ride the rails" and the rest are ex-riders or "riders at heart" whose occupations range from "lawyers, professors and corporate executives to factory workers and construction guys". Mr Potter "rides once in a while for the hell of it" but physically he finds it very hard with the cold in the box cars and the jarring of mile-long trains moving at no more than 12 miles an hour.

You also have to avoid the "Bulls" or railway police who in the old days would often turn a blind eye to the hoboes, according to Mr Potter, but now they are more vigilant with the increase in crime on the rails and accidents.

Unfortunately, Mr Potter says, there is also "a gang of miscreants" known as the FTRA who prey on the other hobos. The FTRA - it stands for Freight Train Riders of America or F. . . The Reagan Administration - is a gang with violent initiation rites and linked to some of the murders of up to 300 hobos in the past 15 years.

Mr Potter is reluctant to talk about the FTRA whom he calls "ass-holes". One of their leaders, Robert Silveria, nicknamed "Sidetrack", was convicted of four killings but confessed to others.

In spite of Mr Potter's romantic description of hoboes, things have changed since he rode the rails as a 15-year-old kid travelling over 1,000 miles to pick apples. For him "it was a rite of passage" and "learning about the ways of life".

"Many of those who survived those days became fairly successful," he says with pride. Among those who began as hobos, the AHA claims, were a former Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas; the prize-winning novelist, James Michener; the film actor, Red Skelton; and the attorney, Melvin Belli.

"Many Fortune 500 companies have a hobo at their helm," says Mr Potter.

Railway workers say they are concerned that now there seems to be a growing interest in hobo life among adventure-seekers carrying credit cards and train timetables who plan two-week trips. There are also increasing numbers of illegal immigrants on the trains trying to find jobs or, as in the case of the suspected serial killer, seeking further victims living near railtracks.

Hoboes hold an annual convention in Britt, Iowa, which was the end of the line for one hobo route. One of the best known hoboes, Irving (Fishbones) Stevens, was crowned "King of the Hoboes" in 1988. Five years later, he crowned one of his daughters, Constance Hall, "Queen of the Hoboes".

Mr Stevens died two months ago and earned obituaries in the New York Times and the Economist. He had actually stopped being an active hobo when he joined the US air force during the second World War, but achieved fame when he published books about life as a hobo many years later.

Another hobo who has written about the experience is Duffy Littlejohn, who is a lawyer in California and author of Hopping Freight Trains in America. He estimates that he has travelled about 500,000 miles on the trains since 1970. He does it for the thrill. "There's risk because it's illegal. This is a rich, rich American tradition, riding the rails," says Mr Littlejohn.

And you may end up in the Supreme Court and get a first class obituary.