Friday, May 4, 2012

700 Hoboes: Hobo Zero and DDT

There wasn't much that could scare a hobo.  They had hard lives without home or hearth, safety or love.  They were shunned by polite society, chased from any comfort or rest they found - usually by cruel policemen and mean, barking dogs.  When they weren't running for their miserable little lives, they could often be found starving, or dying of rickets or poison ivy.  Death itself didn't frighten most hoboes.  But there was one thing that did:  Hobo Zero.

The mere mention of his name struck fear in the hearts of hoboes from Delaware to California.  Well, not his given name, which was Grover.  Grover is not scary.  Hobo Zero.  That name made the average hobo lose control of his bladder.  This doesn't say much, since the average hobo didn't have particularly good command of his bladder to begin with, but the point is that this man was profoundly frightening.  He was terrifying not for what he was, but for what he was not.  What he was not, according to legend, was alive.

It is widely believed by the hoboes that Grover froze to death in 1927, while sleeping under the trestle that carried the B&O over Wills Creek at Hyndman, Pennsylvania.  They say he rose a day and a half later and continued tramping about the rails from Baltimore to Chicago for the next ten years as a walking corpse.  Hobo Zero, they say, was a zombie.  

Most hoboes had never seen a movie, let alone a 1920s-era horror flick, and many had never heard the word "zombie," but it they knew that a man rising from the dead and staggering about as a reanimated vagabond was surely an abomination.  Creepy stories began to circulate, but almost all of them were second- or third-hand accounts, at best.  All except two.

The first was told by the only witnesses of Hobo Zero's rise from the dead.  The McTavish brothers lived in Hyndman, and played on and around the railroad tracks often, even during the cold Pennsylvania winter.  Henry and James, six-year old twins, had been dropping rocks from the trestle onto the frozen creek below when they spotted the corpse, visible through the railroad ties under the west end of the bridge.  Being boys, and recognizing that it was a hobo, they first hurled a few rocks at the bum and called him names.  When he did not so much as flinch - even after several direct hits - they climbed down the steep embankment and approached  the body, poking it several times with a stick.  He was as gray as ash, and clearly dead.

The twins ran home to fetch their 13-year old brother Thomas, and the three of them returned to the bridge a half-hour later.  The body was not there.  They easily followed its freshly-laid tracks through the snow, along the bank of Wills Creek to a small cave, known to the local kids as "the cave."  Thomas went in first.  They had no torch to light the way, so they stopped about fifteen feet into the cave and waited for their eyes to adjust, straining to see by the ambient light from outside. That's when they heard it.  It couldn't have been but a foot in front of poor Thomas.  Labored, slurping, gurgling breaths.  He turned to accuse his little brothers of putting him on, but the wide-eyed horror on their faces told him that was not the case.  When Thomas turned back to face the sound, the pale dead face of Hobo Zero emerged from the blackness, gasped and growled and lunged forward, all eleven of its teeth reaching for the boy's face.

The McTavish brothers' screams brought the town to life, first the mothers, then the fathers.  Led by the local Constable, all the men in Hyndman - and their dogs - tracked the undead hobo for days, but never found him.

The other credible eyewitness account of a Hobo Zero sighting came some four years later, in the summer of 1931, when hobo Dan'l Dinsmore Tackadoo ran afoul of the wandering dead man in a track-side garbage dump near Cincinnati.  Dan'l Dinsmore Tackadoo's testimony is considered solid on account of his reputation for honesty.  He described - consistently and repeatedly over several decades - hearing a dog barking, then yelping, then crying near the Pennsylvania RR freight yard.  He told of following the waning whimpers into the adjacent trash dump until he came upon a particularly raggedy hobo, hunched over the eviscerated remains of a fat Saint Bernard.  

Tackadoo reported vomiting before he could say a word to the man, who lurched to his feet and turned, bloody canine entrails dangling from his rotting mouth, and snarled at him, sounding like a grizzly bear.  Hobo Zero lunged at him, but Tackadoo swore he landed a mighty right hook on the dead man's left cheek.  He said his fist went through Zero's face, taking his lower jawbone with it, but the zombie only paused to stare at his wayward bone for a moment, then came at him again.  Dan'l turned and ran, found a group of men at the yard's east tower, eventually convinced them that his story was worth investigating and returned to the dump with them, the yard inspector and a city cop.

They found most of the dog and a trail of bloody footprints, and again a search was launched, complete with a pack of hounds with vengeance on their minds.  Again, Hobo Zero was not found.

By then, the zombie tramp's legend was commonly known among the hoboes, so they had no problem believing Tackadoo.  "Why would I lie about something like that?" he would ask, and they would nod in agreement.  Indeed, why would he?

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