It was a comical and revealing sight to sit back and watch the tourists roam the campsite at the National Hobo Convention at Britt, Iowa, tape recorders set to go. Now all they needed was a "hobo" who would sit quietly and allow them to conduct an "interview." They would be milling around from the early morning on, all seeking to capture on film or tape, a real In-the-flesh hobo to take home to show to their friends and families - a souvenir to prove they rubbed shoulders with some of the few remaining and larger-than-life "Knights of the road."
There were always plenty of posers; friendly, accommodating fellows rigged up in bandannas, long hair and beards, funny clothes covered with pins, buttons and sewn-on patches showing the logos and names of railroads and train motifs of all kinds. Some carried walking sticks, some had books of stories and poems that were for sale. All in all they were a colorful bunch.
I'd noticed one old man who sort of sat by himself, not taking much part in the frivolities , just quietly looking on. He was a mild-mannered, softly spoken and retired sort, but who would gladly chat and answer questions amiably. Generally, though, he was overlooked and passed over. Tall, gaunt, slightly hunched over, sporting a wispy gray beard, wearing drab clothes, a floppy straw hat and often wrapping himself in an old, gray blanket – he wasn't the most colorful guy there, so most of the celebrity-stalkers simply ignored this old man and passed him by. Frankly, he didn't look like a hobo (whatever that is); no, he resembled more and elderly, senior citizen you might see in the city park – just putting in his time. He was nearly 80 years old, still smoked Marlboros and carried a manila envelope stuffed with photos of hobos he'd known dating back to the 30s.
He admitted he couldn't ride freights anymore – too stiff and creaky to get on and off, but did ride the Greyhound bus each summer from George, Washington (near his home) to Britt and back. To me, the Graydog was more punishing than most freights. He did what he could.
When asked about his own history, I noticed he had some stock stories. He'd often open up with, "I blinded my first passenger train when I was eight, I didn't get very far. They took me off, but that did give me a start. I had a taste and from then on for over 50 years I rode trains all over the country. My mother didn't take very good care of me so I lit out. Never went past the six grade – was never inside a school until I turned 50. I went to night school to learn to be a political activist."
"I was a road kid on the streets of Tulsa, living by my wits and stealing mostly. Growing up on the streets and in the jungles of the 1920s, we had only four priorities to stay alive: a safe place to sleep, something to eat, something to drink and a package of smoking tobacco. We sometimes live on nothing but coffee and Bull Durham cigarettes. Now there's no food value at all in coffee and sigs, but we got by.
"The cops were always chasing us, figuring we had just stolen something – or were just about to. They were mostly right, too
"Yes, I was married. My wife divorced me. Can't say I blame her – I was never home. Had three kids. No, they won't have anything to do with me anymore. They seem to be embarrassed by the way I was dressed, and by my outspoken opinions. They haven't written to me in years. I built this little shack along the Columbia River in a place called Beverly, used t be a crew change point on the Milwaukee. I stay pretty close to home now. This is the only gathering I attend – well, this and Roadhog's thing in California."
I found him irresistible – a fascinating and uncompromisingly truthful-speaking person. He made not the slightest effort to impress anyone. So sweet and mild! He was the ultimate non-aggressive, nonassertive, self-effacing – the kindest person I guess I ever known!
Visiting him once at his place in Beverly, I saw he had three vehicles; an old Chevy van that hardly ran, an Escort sedan, and an ancient Kawasaki motorcycle.
"Do you ride that? " I asked. He grinned like a little kid, "Yes, up until last year, when I laid it down and wrecked my leg. Haven't been on it since."
Unbelievably, I thought, riding a cycle at age 78. His main occupation these past years was publishing a little fold-over newsletter called "Hobo," which he put out all by himself, including the writing, typing, photo-copying and mailing. His spelling was hilarious! All phonetic but he didn't care - he got his message over. He accepted no money from anyone for subscriptions - just mailed it out free to anyone he considered deserving. His articles came out pretty gritty; He didn't mince around with his words but you instinctively knew this man was speaking the truth!
Oklahoma Slim had one unmistakable quality that out-shone all he did: that was integrity. His total income consisted of a Social Security check of around $500 a month. It arrived on the first day of each month. On the last day of each month he would drive up tot Wenatchee and buy groceries with whatever remaining dollars he hadn't used for his own Spartan-like existence, delivering this food to the three missions and food give-away places, and then return home flat broke - not one cent did he hold out for himself. Said that when he died he wanted to go out the same way he came in - with nothing.
He"d already taken care of his burial arrangements. Typical of Sim to do it all himself, not wanting to bother anyone else, by buying a cemetery plot and headstone in advance in the town of Quincy, Washington. The Memorable Park was located across the highway from the Burlington Northern mainline. At the time of purchasing the plot he told the man he wanted on at the end of the cemetery.
"Oh, Slim," the guy remonstrated - "not down there . . .you see, that's where all the Mexicans are planted. You'd be better off getting al plot hp at this end, okay?"
Slim didn't tell the man why he preferred the lower end, but he did tell me. "Whitey, I held out for this spot - this one right here - the closet on to the tracks. This way, when these freights come roaring by, he old-timers who knew me can wave as they pass - 'Hi-ya Slim,' I'd like that!"
His grave-marker was already set in place and carved. Just a plain slap of marble engraved with"OKLA SLIM. BORN 1913 DIED ____________ followed by his motto; "PLAN THE HAND THAT'S DEALT YOU."
It was easy seen he'd lived by that sage advice. It bothered me a little that this soft-spoken pioneer didn't receive more recognition at the Britt Convention. I'd seen him sitting quietly at the picnic table at three separate year's gatherings. I seemed to me that Slim had more experience - that is, road experience - than possibly any man there. Because of his shy, retiring nature and his dislike of spectacle, he always was overlooked. No one ever called him to the microphone to speak. He was not recognized or saluted by the chair-person, was not in vied to sit with the hobo kings and queen on the celebrity wagon dying the parade. He was just plain ignored. Maybe that's how he preferred it. I never heard him complain.
You couldn't blame the visitors and tourists for not spotting or appreciating this gent - but it did seem strange that none of the old timers recognized him either.
After all, the whole celebration - publicized nationwide - and attracting up to thirty thousand people to this tiny town of Britt, was ostensibly to honor and pay tribute to a fast-fading-away image of the Great American Hobo - and, there he was, sitting unobtrusively, uncomplainingly silent . . . OKLAHOMA SLIM . . . the genuine article!
Excerpt: Copied from Ridin' Free by Guitar Whitey, Zepher Rhoades Press, 2002