Sunday, February 12, 2012

Our house was marked for hobos

Tomorrow, February 13th, would have been my mom’s 92nd birthday. Here’s a story I had never heard until a couple of years ago. It’s about my mom and her best friend, and it says a lot to me about their kindness and compassion.

My mom and Betty raised their kids together in Newington, Connecticut in the 1940s and ‘50s, and remained lifelong friends. Betty died a few years after my mom, in 2010. After her funeral, we all went back to the farmhouse in Cumberland, Maine, where she had grown up, to eat and tell stories. Three of my siblings and I were gathered with Betty's three sons when Ben, their youngest, asked if any of us had ever heard the story of “our houses being marked for hobos.”

None of us had.

Then Ben told us about waking up early one morning, before anyone else in the family was up, and going out the front door of their house, onto the tiny closed-in porch. There, he discovered a man, sound asleep. “A smelly man,” he remembered.

“I ran and told my mom, ‘There’s a smelly man sleeping on our porch,’” he said. “And she just said, ‘Yes, that’s because our house is marked for hobos.’” He looked at us. “She said your house was marked for hobos, too.”

Betty told Ben that hobos—homeless men who, ever since the Great Depression, had crisscrossed the country, riding the rails and camping on the outskirts of towns—had a system of marks, usually drawn with chalk, to let others know which houses were inhabited by friendly folks, and which to avoid. She told him that both their house and ours, across the street, bore a mark on the wooden front steps that conveyed “you can get a sandwich here, or a place to sleep protected from the weather.”

I don’t know if Betty’s husband, Elmer, and my dad were aware that their wives were considered a soft touch by the hobos who passed through Newington. Safety doesn’t seem to have been the concern back then that it would be today. I do know, however—because Ben told us this, too: whenever one of the dads put a new coat of paint on the front steps, the moms would take a piece of chalk and make the mark again.

After hearing Ben's story, I was curious about the "hobo marks." Poking around on the internet led me to an article by Erwin Van Swol that appeared in the August, 1960 issue of Coronet Magazine, entitled "The Hoboes' Secret Code." I found the magazine on Ebay (yes, I can be a little obsessive sometimes) and discovered that the mark on our house might have been one of these:

But, knowing my mom and Betty, I prefer to think this was the mark the hobos drew on their front steps:

PS: The more things change, the more they stay the same: This 1960 issue of Coronet also contains an article entitled "Can Catholics Ever Accept Birth Control?" An excerpt: "Catholics fear that the American Government may be pressured into policies that they regard as immoral."