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A Bum Trip
by Jim Christy

THE NORTH AMERICAN railroad boom coincided with the end of the American Civil War. Many veterans, who discovered there was nothing waiting for them at home, just kept on going. There was always seasonal work, and anyone so inclined could ride a sidedoor Pullman from ranch to farm, forest to harvest, and keep busy nearly all year round. A genuine hobo, or boomer worker, rode freight from job to job as a point of pride that had its roots in the trade-union and craft movements of Europe. Up until the Dirty Thirties people pursued this way of life because they wanted to, not because they were bums, tramps, or malcontents. As long as there have been hobos there have been memoirs of the life, most notably by A-1 and Boxcar Bertha. Apart from Depression material, there is virtually no literature on the subject in Canada. So I picked up Oscar Brooks`s Legs: A Hobo`s Life on the Road, chronicling three years in the life of a Canadian hobo, with great anticipation. In 1924, the 15-year-old Brooks leaves the Saskatchewan farm of his aunt and uncle and, with an older pal, sets out on a quest for freedom and adventure. At 18, back in Saskatchewan, he files on a homestead and leaves the road. This book is an account of the in-between: the jobs and friendships, the hassles and hardships, all of which occur, alas, in the United States. Nothing exceptional happens to Brooks. There is nothing here that isn`t in the other memoirs - not that there has to be. It is personality that holds together a stranger`s autobiography. Unfortunately, there is no personality here, or at least not that of an old man looking back on his days of knocking around; Legs sounds more like a young man with an M.A. in creative writing trying to adopt the vernacular of the underbelly. Inauthentic, in other words, and dull. The result for me, being somewhat familiar with that life in its last days, is that Legs simply falls flat. For someone who knows nothing of the rich hobo subculture Legs, I fear, won`t even get started. I don`t mind being expected to believe that Brooks can recall, verbatim, conversations of nearly 70 years ago, but I have to wonder why they are recalled. There are pages and pages of dialogue recounted for no discernible reason; conversations in restaurants, pool halls, and freight cars that neither impart interesting information nor reveal things about the speakers, nor set up events to come, nor reveal the sheer joy of talking. Furthermore, every speaker sounds the same. Despite its claim to cover three years, Legs only deals with the first months following the author`s departure from one farm, and the very last months before he settles on another. The two-and-a-half years in between are referred to only on a couple of occasions near the end of the book. These reminiscences within the memoir are the only times Brooks even begins to sound like a hobo: "It brought to mind a thumping I got from a yard bull in De Queen, Arkansas..." and "I remembered Big Jim Morrison, a farmer I worked for in Texas. He was framed on a rape charge..." Two things in particular distinguished the archetypal knight of the road. One was his politics. He was no "scissorbill" (a nonor anti-union worker); most were part of a radical tradition that lasted until the `60s. There is really none of that here, but one has to believe it was there in Brooks`s orientation. He gives us tantalizing hints. He mentions passing time in a second-hand bookstore reading a volume of Gorky. Three days after running away from the farm he is busted, and all his jailmates "sing old Wobbly songs:" Later, in Chicago, passing Washington Park, known as "Bughouse Square;" Brooks notes that "Habitues mounted soapboxes and harangued their audiences on everything from religion to revolution:" Actually, in the `20s Chicago in general, and Bughouse Square in particular, was the most radical environment in North America. One could not have avoided anarchist influence. Hell, in the West you could hardly get hired without proof you were an anarchist or at least a radical socialist. Then, on the very last page of the book, in a coda to the experiences just related, Brooks refers to what would come later the failure of his homestead, work in mines - and mentions "I organized for unions, carried a Wobbly card, led some strikes, and did time for doing it." This mature `30s political consciousness would have at least been nascent in the mid-`20s. The other thing that distinguished the hobo was language. These men not only were well read, they worked at developing a storytelling style. Seven out of 10 were great talkers, guys like James Langford, a.k.a. Lord Open Road, and the Greely Kid, Floyd Wallace; the other three would rank with, say, Peter Ustinov. Snakes, tile pots, crummies, blinds, and riding the plush. A guy tells the protagonist, "You`Il feel better once you get outside a steak:" There may be lingo in Legs, but no language. No old Us with tin cups of java in their mitts cutting up jackpots around a fire. I`m sorry to say I cant see the fire crackling or the red card waving, don`t taste the good slum Bullion, and most of all I just cant hear that lonesome whistle blow.

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