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Camping Out with Hobo Harry

I'm not much of an outdoors type. My idea of roughing it is vacationing at a nice hotel with a classy restaurant for dinner, room service for breakfast and comfy transportation to the nearest sight-seeing spots.

Maybe it stems from my Brownie Scout days when my little troop camped out in the spooky woods actually, the back yard of our troop leader. Eight or so of us arrived at dusk, toasted weiners over a small campfire and listened to bedtime stories of ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night.

Pitched at the back edge of the yard, the inside of our tent was pretty dark considering the street light at the driveway and the kitchen lights at the back of the house. Still, it was a tent and a sleeping bag, not a soft bed with fluffy pillows. It was a grass floor, not thick pile carpet, and there were frogs. And bugs. And strange sounds in the trees behind our tent. And a bunch of scared, squirmy little girls, at least for the first hour.

Hour two cut our numbers somewhat. Several homesick Brownies who were unable to sleep made their way to the house with tales of tummy aches, wanting to go home. Hour three saw our tent being dismantled and the rest of us camped out on the den floor inside. The next morning I made myself a promise never to go camping again, and I never have.

My brother and his pals seemed to thrive on the outdoor stuff. I guess boys take to dirt and frogs and bugs better than most girls. Frank McKeel shared with me the following memories of one of his boyhood camping trips:

"For a ten year old boy, camping out was a big adventure. A camping trip was planned for several weeks and we eagerly made preparations. Equipment was gathered, tents checked for holes, sleeping bags aired out, cane fishing poles strung, and my 0.22 rifle cleaned. Finally the big day came. After school that Friday we gathered our gear and marched from the security of home to the wild woods.

"We were headed for the train trestle. As we walked, it seemed farther away than it actually was. We walked on the rails until we reached the trestle, then slid down the steep embankment to the area beneath, a perfect spot for a camp site. A small creek wiggled through the woods supplying all the water we needed. We pitched our tents, gathered firewood and put all our gear into place. Joe and Charles fished in the creek and caught some catfish and redbreast. I had five bullets for my Winchester single shot, bolt-action .22 rifle each one had to count. I shot three times and brought back two squirrels for the cook pot.

"When the fire was ready, the cast iron frying pan half-full of hot grease sizzled as Joe added the fish. The squirrels were simmering with onions, potatoes and carrots, and everything smelled good. We were going to have a big feast in camp tonight.

"About 8:00 PM we heard a southbound freight train cross on the trestle above us and stop a little farther down the tracks. Several minutes later we heard, "Hello down there, can I come into your camp?" Startled by the stranger's voice, we thought the boogie man was going to get us! "Who is it?" I called out. The voice answered, "It's me, Hobo Harry." A real train-riding hobo wanted to join us boys! This was great! We yelled back, "Come on in."

"The stranger carefully made his way down the steep embankment carrying a large suitcase tied shut with rope. He shook hands with each of us, introducing himself simply as "Hobo Harry." His hands were large and rough, his clothes patched in several places, and a small bit of hay clung to his coat. Maybe he had slept in a boxcar.

"We offered to share our supper with him and he gratefully accepted. He told us he was on his way from Maine to Florida to work in the orange groves, then began telling us of his adventures "riding the rails." He'd ridden many trains to all parts of the United States, he said, but the South was his favorite part of the country. The weather was pleasant and so were the people. He explained that hobos worked for a living, bums did not, and he was a working hobo. He could and would do any kind of work. He'd worked in the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma, spent a summer on a fishing boat off the coast of New Orleans, and had been a brick layer in Arizona. We were wide-eyed at Hobo Harry's exciting stories.

"After we finished all the fish, corn bread and squirrel stew, Hobo Harry entertained us with his harmonica, playing Dixie, Oh Susanna, Camp Town Races, and Amazing Grace. The hours wore on and sleep finally overtook us. The sun woke us up the next morning, revealing a new stack of firewood, clean pots and pans, and two words drawn in the sand. "Thank you." Hobo Harry was gone, having paid his way as best he could. We were grateful for having shared our camp fire and good food with good friends, and with the experiences of Hobo Harry."

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