Before traveling to Iowa for the Hobo convention, I travelled to Seattle and spent some time at different locations with former railroad policeman Dean O’Shea.
As with all good journalism, research was paramount and Dean’s book The Yard Bull was an important starting point in finding out how railroad policemen operate.
In his book, Dean is very frank about the different kinds of “transient” he’s spent thirty years dealing with:
The police bulletin described what had happened once the train pulled out of the yard: the transients knifed the boy in the stomach, disemboweling him in front of his girlfriend. A few miles out of town, they threw his body off the train and turned their attention to the traumatised girl, holding her hostage for several hours while they repeatedly beat and raped her. When her captors dozed off, she risked a dangerous escape by jumping off the moving boxcar in the middle of the night. She followed the tracks until reaching a town where she made a frantic 911 call from a pay phone.
O’Shea goes on to tell us:
The young girls horrific nightmare reminded me once more of the public’s naive image of harmless hobos cooking a can of beans over an open fire. Those days were long gone, the rails now the domain of violent gangs, felons on the run, and thieves looking for easy victims. And as for hopping on a moving train, one misstep in keeping with the trains pace and you’d be pulled under and sliced by steel wheels carrying tonnes of freight. Noise from the engine would drown out your screams.
O’Shea paints a very different picture of the Hobo lifestyle. During his Twilight of the Hobo interview he talks about the changing face of the hobos he’s encountered on the rails, the dangers associated with hopping freight, and explains why so many Yard Bull’s give Hobos a hard time.