He was barely 5 feet tall. His leather-like skin neatly held his 60-year-old frame together and his eyes were bright with intellect. Suspenders made with small pieces of chain link held up his old baggy pants sewn together from flowery patches cut from cotton flour sacks. His tattered sandals barely covered his sunburned feet and his duffle bag was the size of a torpedo.
I could see his wool cap was his prize possession. It was decorated with pins and buttons from all over the world and represented memories of his life’s travels. The World Series, Olympic Games and political campaign buttons held his tattered hat together. His favorite button was the one that read “Yes on Roosevelt-No on Hoover.”
Freddie Austin was a hobo. He traveled with a group of men up and down the East Coast looking for odd jobs and living from day to day. They were honest, hardworking men migrating south in the winter and north in the summer.
Freddie and I became friends. With my father’s permission, I visited the hobos’ campsite almost every night. All the men had something interesting to talk about. They never mentioned anyone’s first name. They called each other “Joe.” It was their way of trust, respect and acceptance of each other.
One evening, Freddie told us the story of his experience in Washington, D.C. A veteran of the First World War, he was part of the “bonus army” that protested in the streets of Washington in 1932, attempting to get money the government had promised to pay them.
More than 15,000 veterans and their families camped out on the streets of the capital exercising their rights by peacefully demonstrating and petitioning Congress for deserved back wages.
President Hoover, in an effort to put down the uprising, brought in federal troops headed by Douglas MacArthur. Tanks and troops with 2,500 gas canisters were sent to the middle of the demonstration. Violating the protesters’ human and civil rights, the Army opened fire, killed three veterans and injured countless women and children. Evidently, if you live in a democracy you can kill your own people to put down demonstrations against the government and conveniently forget the rules for war signed at the Geneva Convention. Yet, we want everyone else in the world to protect human rights of their own people. What hypocrisy!
China gladly followed our example during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Last week, following our strategy of preemptive war with the Muslims, the Russians’ chief of defense reportedly warned that his country also was prepared to use “destructive force preemptively” to stop the United States from creating a missile-defense system in Europe. We must be good teachers.
With autumn chill and early frost in the air, it was time to go. Hot steam from the locomotive jetted out across the tracks. Remaining embers flickering from the morning campfires seemed to reach out, begging the men to stay. Freddie shook my hand and asked me to check the campfire after he left and said there was something there for me.
With a sudden thud, the train slowly gathered speed for its long journey south. The men quietly picked up their gear and climbed on the crawling empty boxcars. With very little emotion they dissolved into the morning mist. Hiding my tears, I knew my friend was gone forever.
Returning to the campsite I found a brown paper bag with my name on it. I quickly tore it open and there was a note, a corn cob pipe and the wool cap bearing all of the treasures of Freddie’s beautiful life. As I read the note, I couldn’t hide my tears any longer. The note was signed with the first names of all the men in camp and read “Goodbye Joe.”
David Farside is a Sparks resident and political activist. He can be contacted at email@example.com.