Volume 17
An Online Literary Magazine
April 14, 2023


Playing Hobo: A Jim McCormick Story


Will Brooks


I told my brother we were going to ride the rails. He wasn’t so sure about this and protested that we’d get in trouble. I figured this was nonsense.



hen I was a boy, my parents lived on a farm just west of Niangua, Missouri. Behind the house, across a small pasture, was the Frisco railroad line. In the early ’50s the train still moved a lot of freight, and train depots were in about every town along the route, including one in Niangua.


The trains were also a favorite mode of transport for hobos. It wasn’t uncommon for a scruffy-looking individual to knock on the back door of our house, asking my mother if we could spare some food. Mother, who didn’t like it when my brother or I referred to them as hobos as Dad did, always referred to them as men down on their luck. She would listen to their story of how far they’d come and how long it had been since they last ate, usually through a locked screen door.


When they had finished she usually instructed the man to wait under a large white oak tree in the pasture between the railroad tracks and house and said she would send some food out shortly.


She would make them a plate of leftovers and send me out with orders not to dally around but come straight back to the house.



As a young boy I struggled to understand these men but was fascinated by the idea of just hopping on a train and riding. The tracks had a loop in back of our house, which meant that one train would stop and wait until a train coming the opposite direction passed, making it an ideal place for getting on and off.


The men would eat their meal, linger for bit, and hop back on the train, leaving the plate and utensil under the tree. Seeing the man gone, Momma would fill the teakettle and heat the kettle until it whistled. Then I would be instructed to fetch the plate and utensil only after I had poured the steaming water from the kettle over them.


One summer day my younger brother and I wandered off toward the tracks while playing. There was a train stationed in the loop, and an empty flatcar sat waiting like a stage. With the aid of a built-on ladder, we clambered on top and began running around, having a big time. It was then that I got the idea of playing hobo.


I told my little brother that we should pretend we were hobos, fresh from a meal under the oak tree. Not knowing what hobos really did, we just kept exploring every part of the flatcar.


When I heard the whistle from the train coming the opposite direction, we jumped off the flatcar and hid behind the wheels of the car, climbing back on after the locomotive passed.


I told my brother we were going to ride the rails. He wasn’t so sure about this and protested that we’d get in trouble. I figured this was nonsense. We’d simply ride the rails to the next stop, which would mostly likely be the depot at Niangua. Then we’d hop on the next train coming back by our house.


Remarkably, this soothed my brother’s fears, and we both smiled as we felt the train jolt forward. We were practically bursting with the excitement. Soon the train was going a good clip and we drew past Niangua. There at the loading dock of his hardware store was Dick Day, who waved at these two make-believe hobos coursing by on the train.


The train didn’t stop, nor at Conway or Lebanon. The thrill of the ride began to wane as we rolled through towns I didn’t know. I started to worry that the train would never stop. The thought crossed my mind to jump, but a quick glance at the ground as we hurtled by ended any notion of that.


We huddled together at the front of the car, where a boxcar in front of us broke some of the constant wind. After a long time the train began to slow.


When the train stopped a man approached within minutes. My brother and I stood up as he studied us. He had obviously been waiting for us.


“You boys want a soda pop?” he finally said.


“Yes, sir. We’d like that very much.”


We hopped down from the flatcar and followed the man across the street to a drugstore. The man gave us both a dime, and we each picked a soda from the machine, then followed him to a bench in front of the store. And waited and waited.


The man didn’t ask who we were, what we were doing on the train, or even where we were from. We just waited in silence. I was too relieved to be off the train to ask questions. Our father eventually pulled up in a pickup, our only family vehicle. To my surprise he didn’t jump out and start whipping us. He simply got out and walked toward us.


“These your boys?” asked the man, getting up from the bench.


“Yes, sir. They are.”


“You know this man, boys?”


“Yes, sir.”


“Well, then I release them into your custody,” he said to my father, then turned to us. “Good luck, boys.” I’d only heard the word custody in movies used around prisoners. Had we been under arrest this whole time? I didn’t ask and Dad made a motion for us to get in the truck.


I let my little brother ride in the middle next to Dad. Dad started the truck, lighted a cigarette, and backed out of the parking spot. I felt like I was sitting on needles, waiting any second for my dad to start interrogating us. I kept my head facing the windshield, only taking peeks out of the corner of my eye at Dad. He never turned to look at us the entire ride home. He was like a machine whose only job was to shift the truck into different gears and light new cigarettes.


The tension only grew as we drew closer to home. He was probably saving all his anger for the punishment that waited for us at home, I rationalized.


As we pulled in our drive, I saw Momma step out of the house and dry her hands on her apron. Daddy killed the truck and my brother and I hurried out. As we scuttled around the front of the truck, Dad cut us off. When our eyes met I didn’t see the anger in his I expected. He squatted so he was eye level with me and my brother.


“Boys, if I didn’t love you so much, I’d beat you until you bleed out,” he said, wrapping us in a hug. “Don’t ever do that again.”


“Yes, sir,” we said as the tension broke. “We won’t.”


“Now, go on. I imagine you’re hungry. Momma’s got supper ready,” he said, releasing us.


The tension returned as I looked at Momma on the porch. We walked toward the house, our heads down. Momma only opened the screen door and said:


“Supper’s ready, boys.”


My little brother, who was ahead of me, stopped and hugged her leg.


“It’s all right. Go on and eat now,” she said, lovingly rubbing his head. I stopped and hugged her as well.



Years later I learned that the train had taken us all the way to Newburg, where the roundhouse was located that turned trains around, some eighty miles by rail. Although my brother and I were never formally punished for the act, the topic was never open for discussion. How did Dad find out we were on the train? I assume Dick Day spotted us and called him. I don’t know who Dad called to figure out where to pick us up. We never played hobo again.


Author's note: Jim McCormick told me this story twice. I found the story interesting and even more so that it happened in our home county. This winter I decided to call Jim and ask if he would be interested in having the story written down. He generously said yes but that he was getting over some pneumonia, and he would call me back when he was feeling better. He never did. He passed away March 17, 2022, at the age of seventy-four. I wrote the story to the best of my memory and hope it is a good representation of the events that unfolded.



Will Brooks received his bachelor’s degree from Drury University, with a major in creative writing and a minor in business. He works for his family’s propane company. He loves working with his hands and enjoys many outdoor activities, hunting being his favorite pastime. He lives on a large farm in a house that was built with lumber harvested and milled right on the farm over sixty years ago. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in DASH Literary Magazine, Hedge Apple, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Evening Street Review, Pencil Box Press, State of the Ozarks, Ignatian Literary Review, Cobalt Review, Critical Pass Review, Door is a Jar, Stirring: A Literary Collection, and The Penmen Review.







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