Hobo Code — by Debbie Theiss

I see him walk between railroad tracks,

black braids sway back and forth,

beads interwoven,

long fringed vest jangles,

entwined stones collide.


A dog, black and sleek nudges his leg at ready.

Above his head a metal rod with prongs

looms like a goalpost.

Two hawks perch

stately, poised.


Hunter? Wanderer?


I scramble to the railroad trestle

keeping him in sight,

grass bites bare legs,

my hand runs along outcropped rock,

traces charred hobo codes


left by transient workers

during the Great Depression,

lined drawings, meant to guide

simplistic signs

danger ahead, shelter, food.


Now draped across his back

the folded platform.

On his shoulders, the hawks hunker

yellow-banded curved beaks

yellow claws clutch.


Shelter taken in the shade

of persimmon trees that line the field’s edge.

His fingers probe the bark

small, square blocks

as if searching for signs.

Note: During the Great Depression, nomadic workers traveled on freight trains to garner work that they could find, not spending too much time in any one town. A unique Hobo Code (hoboglyphics) was developed to communicate and give information about places to camp or find a meal or dangers that lay ahead. In Parsons, Kansas a quilt designed with hobo codes was auctioned during Katy Days in celebration of the strong heritage of freight life in Kansas.

Debbie Theiss is an emerging poet. She won 3rd place in the Japanese Haiku Festival Contest and published poems in the Skinny Journal, Paddle Shots: A River Pretty Anthology, Vol. 2, I-70 Review (September, 2016) and was accepted in Interpretations IV in Columbia, MO. She enjoys nature, bicycling, and gardening.

Guest Editor Denise Low: The University of Nebraska Press published Denise Low’s 2017 memoir The Turtle’s Beating Heart, about her grandfather’s Lenape heritage. Other recent books are A Casino Bestiary: Poems (Spartan Press 2017), Mélange Block: Poems (Red Mt. Press), Jackalope (short fiction, Red Mt. Press), and Natural Theologies: Essays (The Backwaters Press). Low is former Kansas poet laureate and past board president of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs. She teaches for Baker University’s School of Professional and Graduate Studies.


4 thoughts on “Hobo Code — by Debbie Theiss

  1. This brings back memories. My uncles were young during the Great Depression and they traveled around the country looking for work. Once WWII started, most of them were drafted, and they found jobs when they got home. Your imagery captures that time in a powerful way.

  2. Your delicate words evoke memories in my heart……Not that I lived thru those days..but my parents and grandparents sure did…….Thank you for sharing your beautiful talent…Charlotte

  3. In this verse your well-developed conjoining of storytelling and mystery leaves us suspended in both past and present history, curious and hunkering down not unlike the hawks on the perch. While I love ALL your work this is one of my top three favorites. Well done, Debbie.

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