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Another syzygetic pair, perhaps, signs are not always symbols.

One of my more useful skills has been an ability to detect patterns. Look at enough of anything and commonalities emerge: they seem more intense; they hover above the page. I see things that others don’t, however, which makes me wonder if those patterns are really there. At Medjugorje, does the Virgin appear only to those who expect her?

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Signs and Symbols

On the utility pole behind my great-grand-parents’ garage (it was a stable then and great-uncle Anson once lived in the converted hay loft), someone has carved a crude animal shape. It might be any of several species but my bet is on cat—the long tail, pointed ears and whiskers are a giveaway. But it’s carved well above the height a child would choose or even see. My network of “informants”—not really; we’re just a gang of rogue humanists—tell me there are other similar carvings around and about town that date from the 1930s and 40s, but the hobo life began at least fifty years before, certainly before 1900.

Agincourt was a railroad town, years before the rails skimmed its southern edge on the way to Sioux City. And with the railroad came prosperity and so much more. Especially during the Great Depression, for example, it brought riders-of-the-rails, knights-of-the-open-road, hobos and other euphemisms for citizens, mostly men, who had fallen (or chosen to fall) between the cracks. H.L. Mencken makes an hierarchical distinction among hobos, tramps and bums. Several eminent men chose the preferred hobo life—T.V. host Art Linkletter, poet Charles Bukowski, and writers Kerouac, London, Michener and Steinbeck—though for most it was hardly a choice. As a young boy, I met one who’d settled here, married and had a family, but who enjoyed reminiscing about the open road he’d known in his twenties.



At the top of Mencken’s list, hobos—in the tens of thousands—lived by a Code of Conduct. They also contributed several words to the English language and left coded messages (as simple carved symbols like my great-grandmother’s cat) passing along general information about fundamental issues of shelter and police activity and specifics about homes that were hobo friendly. After Jim Tennant died in 1919, his widow Martha relied on handymen (hobos included) for chores that her husband Jim or son Anson might have done. That was especially true during the Great Depression, when lemonade and pie were offered on dusty afternoons for yard work that didn’t really need doing. Or when the stable loft became an impromptu hostel. Many such Agincourt homes helped build our positive reputation among the hobos. Some saw great-grandmother as an easy mark; I choose another interpretation.

A Kindhearted Lady

“A kindhearted lady lives here” is what the cat symbol meant. Civility is an endangered species these days and with it kindness in short supply. But the kindness of tough economic times cannot ever be the prince tossing scraps to the pauper; no dignity exists there. A more satisfying answer comes from “kind” as noun, rather than adjective: it is our kind-ness—the state of having “the same nature or character”—that bridges the gap between lofty and lowly; recognizes the things that unite us as more significant than those that divide. 

There are hobos today, I suppose—free spirits—and I wish there were more. But there are also genuine parasites in our midst, the bums of Mencken’s list: Wall Street bankers and venture capitalists who sold us a bill of goods, gave us signs and symbols we mistook for truth, and laughed all the way home to Darien, Creve Couer and Edina in time for the cocktail hour. I yearn for the kind-ness of another generation.

Martha Tennant died when I was three and is buried in the family crypt beneath St Crispin’s Chapel; there is the outline of a cat carved on her casket. It’s reassuring to see that symbol as confirmation of my own childhood experience.

That symbol will let God know he’s welcoming a kind-hearted lady.

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