Coming of Age Drama

Let me tell you why I’m running away. My old man ran off with another woman and refused to pay child support. That means my mother has to work two low-paying jobs to make ends meet.  She hasn’t any time to cook or clean, and especially none for me. I have two twin brothers who are four years older than me and are supposed to help Ma by keeping the house clean and watching out for me, but instead, I have to do all the work while they sit around smoking dope.

 I saved up some money to buy a Fender Stratocaster knock-off, only to have them trade it for a bag of weed.   I have had it!  After stuffing my clothes, hiking boots, piggy bank, and bankbook into a duffle bag, I’m leaving tonight!

There isn’t anyone from school I will miss. No girlfriend, no friends at all. School is boring.  However, I do have a flair for history. But what does knowing history do for ya? I’ll have to make a plan, of course, but for now, I am enjoying the freedom. Three a.m. in the morning, and I’m walking down a dirt road to nowhere with the constellation Orion overhead, holding his sword high.   The planet Mercury shines like a spotlight off to the left. I smile and keep walking all night, never planning to return. 

 At seven o’clock, I stop by the side of the road and use a big rock to break open my piggy bank. There is one five-dollar bill and two one-dollar bills, a fist full of quarters, nickels, and pennies. I stop at a place called Benny Freedom’s Diner for a chocolate-covered doughnut and coffee. That cost me a dollar forty-four. I’ll have to watch my money until I can get to the bank.

The short-order cook and, I assume, the owner is watching me count my change when he approaches me. “Is there some problem? You look concerned.”  He’s wearing a white apron with a few grease stains and a name tag that reads Benny. He’d be average-looking if it weren’t for the scar that runs from his left cheek to his jawline. He spreads the money out flat and says, “Three seventy-five.”

“Yeah. That and the six dollars in bills are all I have in cash until I can go to the bank. It’s just that all this change is heavy in my pocket.” He pushes his lower lip out with his tongue while scratching his chin. “You in a hurry?” I shake my head no, and he says, “Good,” and pours more coffee. Sitting on a stool in the corner, he takes a pack of smokes out from under the counter and lights one up. “What’s your name, son?” When I don’t answer right away, he looks up. “What?” he throws up his hands. “It’s just a question. Believe me, I really don’t care one way or the other. It’s just that you look to be about fifteen or sixteen years old and not in school. Instead, you’re sitting in my diner drinking coffee. So I figure you’ve run away from home, and I would like to know why because I’m nosey. I won’t call the cops.” He takes another drag on his cigarette and leans back, waiting for my answer.

I stare at my reflection in the coffee cup and resent this guy for reminding me why I left home. “Timmy.” I quickly realize how childish that sounds, clear my throat to a lower octave, and repeat, “Tim.”

“Well, pleased to meet you, Tim.” With a single swipe of his hand, he clears all the coins from the counter and puts them in his pocket. He then takes out four dollar bills and hands them to me. “That should lighten your load.”

“Gee, thanks! I appreciate that.”

Benny taps his cigarette on the edge of the ashtray. “No problem. So, you’re running away from home for some reason. Make sure you call your parents no later than tomorrow. Let them know you’re okay. Just because you’re mad at them is no reason to torture them. What are you going to do next?”

“I don’t know. I thought I’d roam around the country for a bit. You know, see the sights.”

“So you’re gonna be a hobo, uh?”

Glancing into the distance, I mull that over. “A hobo, uh? Yeah, I like that idea! I’ll be a hobo!”

 Benny snorts a chuckle. “You know the difference between a hobo, a tramp, and a bum, don’t ya?”

 I take a sip of my coffee and scratch my head. “No, not exactly.”

Benny takes one last puff and crushes out his butt while exhaling through his nose. “A tramp is someone full of wanderlust. He travels around but tries to avoid work. He doesn’t like being told what to do. A bum, on the other hand, doesn’t travel or work. They mostly beg for a living. Why? I don’t know, but I suspect they have mental issues, so I feel sorry for them. And then there’s the hobo. Hobos travel because they like to feel free. However, they’re not afraid to work either for money or food. They tend to be honest and will work hard if work is offered. But more than likely, when the harvest is over, they’ll move on.”

I feel a sort of nostalgia in Benny’s gravelly voice. “You seem to know a lot about hobos.”

 A crooked smile distorts the scar on his face. “Well, I guess I should. I was one for thirty years.”

Blinking rapidly, I exclaim, “Thirty years! What was that like?”

“Pretty good at first. I was about your age when I took to the road. My parents had both died in a car crash, and I was sent to live with my grandmother in Illinois. She tried, but she was a little too old for a teenager full of piss and vinegar. So, to make it easy on her, I kissed her on the cheek one day and told her I would be back in a month. I never did make it back until I heard she had passed away. I still feel bad about that.”

Resting my elbows on the counter, I place my chin in the palm of my hand. “What made you want to be a hobo in the first place?”

Benny sticks out his bottom lip and taps the counter with his index finger a few times. “I don’t know. Probably the same reasons as you. I was disgruntled with my life and figured I could do a better job on my own. One of the first things I did was to go down by the river where I knew four or five hobos would be hanging out. They answered many questions, like what I should carry with me. Things I would need for cooking and first aid. They also told me to bring plenty of socks and get good hiking boots. Keeping your feet in good condition is the most important thing you can do. They were the same bunch of guys that gave me my name. One asked me who I was, and I said, Benny. Then this fella named Hawkeye Jones yells out, “Benny Freedom!” We all laughed, but the name stuck.”

Benny excused himself when a customer came in. He was an over-the-road trucker by the name of Lou. Benny seemed to know him real well, and hitching a thumb in my direction told Lou that I was thinking of becoming a hobo. “Oh yeah? Well, make sure he knows the ropes before you let him go.” Benny said he would and handed Lou a packed lunch to go. As Lou was leaving, he stopped to slap me on my back. “Welcome to the road, son. Stay safe.”

Benny returns to the corner and strikes up another cigarette. “You know, Tim, I’ve been thinking. It costs a lot of money to buy everything you’ll need for living in the wild, as we call it.   And even though you have a bank account, you’ll need a lot more scratch than that. So here’s the deal- you can work for me for a while. You know, until you’re ready to travel. I’m getting older and could use the help. You’d do dishes, wipe down tables, take out the trash, and things like that. What do you say?”   He scratches his cheek while waiting for my answer.

I take a moment to think about it. I mean, I just met this guy and don’t know him. And yet, I’m totally fascinated by his tale about being a hobo.  I think I can learn a lot from him. “Okay! I’ll take your offer.” I stick out my hand, and we shake to close the deal.

Over the next couple of years, he had me doing everything but washing the dishes. I resurfaced the parking lot, fixed the pipes under the kitchen sink, and reshingled part of the diner’s roof! He would regale me with stories of his adventures as a hobo. Like he had said, it was good initially, but things began to change as time passed. They weren’t just hobos and tramps anymore. Drifters and people that were hiding from the law. Drug addicts would smash your head in for the few pennies you had to buy drugs. It was becoming more dangerous all the time. Then came the night he got cut in the face.

“Like I said, it was getting more dangerous because some of these guys were plain mean. One night, three of us were sitting around a campfire when this stranger walked up and squatted down to warm his hands. Big Nose Bobby says, “Welcome, brother. Have a cup of joe!” Right from the start, I could tell he was a nasty S.O.B.  just from the look on his face. He kept staring at me from across the fire, just waiting for me to say something so he could attack. After fifteen minutes, I stood up and said, “I don’t know what your problem is, friend, but I suggest you leave and take it with you.”  He was on his feet in a flash, with a switchblade headed for my left eye. I managed to duck enough to save my eye but got this deep cut on my left cheek.”

“Oh, God!” I exclaim, “What’d you do?”

“The only thing I could do.  I killed him. I had enough witnesses not to get charged with murder but self-defense.   That’s when I decided to settle down. I looked around until I found this diner for sale, and the rest is history.”

After a while, Benny started teaching me how to cook to help out in the kitchen when things got busy. I got pretty good at it, too.

We don’t take much time off, but we close the diner every second weekend in August to attend the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. The “Jungle” is open to the public. Some events include the Hobo King and Queen coronation, hobo arts and crafts, outdoor church service, and a hobo memorial service. There is also plenty of hobo entertainment and music. There is always an abundance of food and Mulligan stew. 

 Benny approaches me after coming home from the doctor. “Tim, I hate to ask you this, but I need some of that grubstake you’ve been saving.

“Sure thing, Benny. What’s up?”

“Doc says I have pancreatic cancer, and it doesn’t look like I have much longer to live. So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to start making funeral arrangements, but I need some money.”

Tears threatening to overflow, I try to fight it but to no avail.  The floodgates open, and I grab Benny and hug him with all I have.

“Aw, come on now, Tim. I’m okay with it. I’m pretty old and tired and need a break. He says ‘break’ like he’s going on a trip!

I’ve left a will leaving everything to you. I know you can handle it. Hell, I’ve been teaching you since you first arrived twenty-five years ago! Laughing, Benny says, “I thought for sure you’d quit when I had you pave the parking lot! 

“Oh, Benny, you’ve been the best thing that ever happened to me. A guy couldn’t ask for a better mentor.”

“Thanks, kid. You were pretty cool yourself. There is just one other thing I’d like you to do for me. After I’m gone, would you attend the convention and look up Pete Sells? He’s the man that keeps the book for the memorial service, and tell him I’m on the big walk home.”

“Sure thing, Benny. Anything for you.”


After Benny passed, I went to that year’s National Hobo Convention, and Pete Sell announced to the crowd that Benny Freedom had passed away.  He asked me if I would say a few words.

“My name is Tim Ward, and Benny took me, a runaway kid, under his wing and gave me a wonderful life. So, if it is alright with everyone here, I would like to adopt my mentor’s name and become Tim Freedom.” A huge cheer rose from the crowd in approval.

October 31, 2023 13:21

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13:07 Nov 04, 2023

Great story! I have never thought about the differences between hobo, tramp, and bum. For some reason, that is where my ADD riddled brain zoomed in. Your story evokes tales my daddy told about the depression. Thank you for sharing.


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Karen McDermott
11:58 Nov 04, 2023

Such a wholesome story (even with the scarring). I could use a Benny Freedom in my life.


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Mary Bendickson
18:36 Nov 01, 2023

Well, you old hobo. You brought a tear to my eye.😪


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Shirley Medhurst
14:47 Nov 10, 2023

Awww Ralph, I loved your story. It is realistic, tragic yet the ending is uplifting (I liked your definitions of hobo, tramp & bum, BTW)


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Ralph Aldrich
13:09 Nov 04, 2023

Thanks for all the support


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