My friend Oats is not a bum. He’s a hobo.
“A hobo will travel to work,” Oats says. “A tramp travels but won’t work, and a bum won’t travel or work.”
Oats wrote from the 108th annual National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. He was there to run in the 5K footrace, and to renew acquaintance with hoboes he’s met in years past.
Oats and I taught school on an Indian reservation 30 years ago. I drifted into other, disreputable work, but Oats stayed on the rez – on a lot of rezzes, actually. He saved his money so he could retire in his 50s, and now he drives around all summer, and some of the fall, running in 5K races. He wants to run races in all 50 states. He’s run in 37 of them.
Oats – who’s a Hoosier – came by my place a while ago to run in Vermont. While he was here he knocked off races in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York. He’ll put 30,000 miles on his 1990 Oldsmobile van this year – 1,000 miles for each of the 30 races he’ll run, in 13 states. He’s got a bed in the back, and dried food, and a lighting system hooked up to a spare battery.
When winter comes, he’ll head back to Arizona and go back to work on a reservation. They always need teachers on the reservations, and Oats likes the rez. He just doesn’t like to work.
He palled around with the other hoboes at the Hobo Convention, and saw Connecticut Tootsie and Stretch crowned as this year’s Hobo Queen and King. The good folks of Britt made mulligan stew for 5,000 on the closing day of the festival: “900 lbs. of potatoes, 450 lbs. of beef, 250 lbs. of carrots, cooked in 20 pots made from 50-gallon barrels cut in half … you get the idea.”
Stretch and Connecticut Tootsie were crowned with a coffee can and a straw hat. As hobo royalty, they get no money, but they get to travel around this year “to inform people about the hobo of past and present.”
Oats – whose other name is Bill Wright – says there’s many theories about where the word hobo came from. He seems to favor the theory that they were originally called hoe boys, because they worked the fields as they bummed around – excuse me – as they hoboed around during the Great Depression.
“Each year there’s a memorial service at the cemetery in an area called the Hobo National Memorial for the hobos that have ‘caught the westbound,'” Oats writes. “This year was unusually high, with seven taking their last ride.”
A well-known hobo named Jerry “Liberty Justice” Justice died on April 23. “Liberty Justice was a songwriter & singer, veteran, truck driver, Hobo King (’96), family man, wood carver, and friend to many,” Oats writes. Liberty’s memorial service included the Pledge of Allegiance, and closed with Luther The Jet singing “one of Liberty’s most popular songs, ‘Let Me Ride to Heaven on a Train.’
“They came from all areas of the country to remember a past that has little future, a hard way of a chosen life that has come and gone,” Oats writes.
Oats’ itinerary this year included stops, and 5K races, on the Hopi rez in early June, followed by a race in Santa Fe, N.M., then home to Indiana to rest up for his New England trip, where he ran six races in 12 days.
He’s run a “clothing optional” 5K in his jockstrap. He ran the “Will Run For Beer 5K” in New Hampshire, then drove hard to LaCrosse, Wis., for the “Shithouse 5K,” which starts at the LaCrosse sewage treatment center – “and it did stink” – and heads down the Mississippi River. “Because of my travels I was awarded the ‘Spirit of the Race Award,'” Oats says.
Then he headed to Red Wing, Minn., and then down in Georgia for five races in 12 days, “one at 8 a.m. on Saturday followed by a midnight race 200 miles away.”
Over Labor Day weekend, he ran three races in three days in three Georgia cities.
Oats calls himself a retired schoolteacher, though he can’t seem to stop himself from working half of each school year. What he really is, he says, is “a rubber tire hobo, not looking for work, but races.”
As I lead my boring life, working, staying put, mowing the lawn, paying taxes, I like to think of my friend Oats, out on the road, “not looking for work, but races.”
Oats knocks off his 5Ks in around 20 minutes flat. Not bad for an old hobo.
My friend Oats is not a bum. He’s a hobo.