I Sir, Am Not a Bum

arden-chatfield-seatedArden was the wanderer in the family, a vagabond of sorts. He traveled the country by hitchhiking and rail, seeing every state except Oklahoma through his dark glasses. Even on the road he was immaculately dressed, favoring light colored slacks and shirts, his shoes always shined. Story has it that he wore two shirts, two pair of pants, and two pairs of socks so he could travel empty handed.

Arden broke the rules—and sometimes he broke the law. He was once hauled into court in front of a local judge who had lost all patience with him. “You sir,” the judge shouted, “are a bum,” implying Arden was someone too lazy to work and wasted his life wandering. “I sir,” Arden replied with dignity, “am not a bum. I am a hobo.” My mother’s brother had deliberately chosen a wandering life.

circa 1930s, Chico Enterprise, Chico, California:
TRANSIENT BOOKED Arden Chatfield, a transient, is scheduled to appear in police court tomorrow following his arrest at 7:15 p.m. last night at Humbolds Road and Mill streets on a charge of vagrancy.

arden-chatfield-fag1935, Chico Enterprise, Chico, California:
BANDIT SUSPECT FREED BY DEATH Because death wouldn’t take a holiday, Arden Chatfield, a 25-year-old youth, yesterday escaped a robbery trial. Chico authorities were notified by the police that the complaining witness died two weeks ago and prosecution would be useless. Judge Carraghar sentenced Chatfield to 30 days in the county jail for technical vagrancy. He was arrested by Sergeant Lee Parker, who testified he found several cans of marijuana in Chatfield’s pockets.

arden-chatfield-standingOct 5, 1981, Chico Enterprise, Chico, California:
Arden Chatfield. Services will be held at 11:00 a.m Wednesday at Brusie Funeral Home for Arden Sherman Chatfield, 71, of Chico. He died Saturday in a local hospital. Born Aug 29, 1910, to Mr. and Mrs. Charles Chatfield in Sanders, Montana, his family moved to Chico when he was five. He was reared and educated here. He served in World War II and worked as a farm laborer for 30 years. He retired when he was 65 years old. Survivors include two sisters, Ina Fouch of Yuba City and Nellie McElhiney of Martinez; and a brother, Charles of Paradise. The Rev. John Crowley will officiate at the service. Burial will be at the Chico cemetery. Visitation will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. today at the Brusie Funeral Home.

Arden Sherman Chatfield
8th of 10 children of Charles Henry Chatfield & Nellie Belle Chamberlin
Born: Aug 29, 1910, Sanders, Rosebud (now Treasure) Co., Montana
Died: Oct 3, 1981 (age 71), Chico, Butte County, California; heart failure
Buried: Oct 7, 1981, Chico Cemetery (Veteran’s Section) in Chico, Butte Co., California
Never married, no children
Military Service: US Army Private, Co. G Infantry Division 184th Regiment; cook
Occupation: Farm laborer, Chico Ice Company, cook, waiter, busboy
Avocation: Hobo, traveled the United States of America hopping trains


Arden served as a cook at Camp Merriam (established in 1928 as an Army National Guard training camp in San Luis Obispo Co., CA). He is in white with cook’s hat, second from left, middle row.


From River of Steel, by Ed Davis
There was a time when a river of steel coursed through this land. It flowed from the midst of the sprawling cities to the smallest hamlets, its tributaries traversing defiant mountain ranges, spanning impossibly vast prairies, and linking the remotest corners of the country, one to another, as they had never been linked before. Until the rails came virtually to their doorsteps, most people lived within a day’s walk of their birthplace. Now they could embark upon this man made river and follow it as far as their wallets, their wits, or their wanderlust would take them. Created for profit by men of power, it provided a benefit, largely unforeseen, to men who had none. They and their country had recently survived a ghastly war. As the nation began to heal itself, its veterans, wounded in body or wounded in spirit, looked for ways to heal themselves. Some, no longer recognizing their homes or their place within their homes, sought solace in movement. Railroads gave them the means. The hobo was born.

Those who still remember these days will tell you that hobos worked and wandered. Tramps just wandered. Bums did neither. But there were as many varieties of hobos as there were rides to catch, trades to ply, or reasons to be on the road. There were boomers who followed railroad jobs around the country, woodheads who hired out as lumberjacks, beachcombers who traveled the coasts looking for dock work. Pearl divers washed dishes, mushfakers repaired umbrellas, gandy dancers worked as section hands. And crumb bosses swept the bunk houses and mucked out the cook shacks of countless work camps in places so remote they had no names. All honest work. Usually hard, often dangerous. Always temporary. Loose associations of these traveling tradesmen formed guilds of the road, passing word of a good job or a bad one to those searching for a decent pay streak.

Other hobos practiced skills that were less honest. A dip might pick your pocket, a hoop chiseler sell you a watch that didn’t work, and a mission stiff would get his soul saved again and again for free food and a flop. Worse still were the jack rollers and jungle buzzards who preyed on other hobos, the safe-blowing yeggs with black powder in their bindles, and the smoke wagon gang with their Colt revolvers and cold eyes. Jockers lured unsuspecting boys to a life on the road with tales of the big rock candy mountain, only to entrap them as prushins, slaves for begging, thieving, and sex. Banding together, this criminal class also formed a guild, a secret one, calling itself “The Johnson Family” for reasons now lost to antiquity. Known to one another by special amulets of primitive design; careless, crude, and cruel, they were avoided by those who could stay out of their way, feared by those who couldn’t.

One final class of hobo called themselves professional, or just profesh. Skilled at many trades of the road, they were most proficient in the ways of the trains themselves. They traveled light and worked only enough for the means to travel more. Never at peace unless on the move, profesh would streamline coast-to-coast faster than a paying passenger could get there on the plush. Honest by nature and by unwritten code, they were yet not above the occasional petty theft at need. Where one of The Johnsons would kill your chickens then burn down your hen house for spite, a profesh might help himself to an egg or two, but never take more than he left. Careful in dress, economical in movements, and averse to confrontation unless provoked, profesh were everything that Johnsons were not, and The Johnsons despised them for it.

The river of steel still flows through the land, but it is a changed land and a changed river. Its tributaries no longer reach into every corner, its currents are no longer inviting. The hobos that once were are no more, having caught the westbound long ago. At the time of this tale, late in the last century, their golden age was already a distant memory, their legacy known to but a dwindling few.

Ed Davis began his writing career forty years ago, pausing in boxcars, under streetlamps and in hobo jungles to record the beats and rhythms of the road as he caught freight trains and vagabonded around the Pacific Northwest and Canada. He is the author of In All Things: A Return to the Drooling Ward, Road Stories, and is currently looking for a home for his latest novel, River of Steel.


Arden often sent postcards to the family in Chico, letting them know where he was.



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  1. Thanks for including an excerpt of River of Steel in this great posting, and for hosting me on your radio show!


  2. This is a really touching and heartful tale. Did you ever meet your Uncle Arden? I wonder if he was a wanderer by nature or dealing with post-war trauma. I find his life path quite admirable, tho it might have been a lonely one. It looks like he cared for his family (that sweet postcard). Amazing that the only address he needed was Chico, Calif.!!! I really like Ed’s writing too and wish him luck finding a publisher!

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