Skip to Content Skip to Navigation

Roger Holzheimer: Blog

Roamin' Johnny . . . .

Posted on February 15, 2016
My decompression is almost over.   It is hard to believe that a year ago I was preparing to leave Istanbul and return to the USA.  After arriving in the USA at the end of February it was time to decide . . . well . . . what’s next.  But first it was all about decompressing.  After so many years away from the USA it was time to re-familiarize myself with people, customs, attitudes and behaviors.  But the decompression is almost over.  So, while I decompress, as always, I think of where I have been. 


In Russia I always told my friends we were making “Rocking Chair Memories”.  Those are the thoughts and memories you have of oh so long ago while you sit on a front porch somewhere, rocking comfortably with a smile on your face, a smile that tells others you are far away, traveling roads long hidden away.  The longer you retreat the memories become a little clearer but will always have a tinge of the opaque as bits and pieces disappear forever.  So you make do with what is left.


If you can, remember your 10-year old self, the start of a summer vacation after a long nine months of elementary school . . . reading, writing, and arithmetic; the dusty blackboard erasers your teacher would occasionally throw at you before she sentenced you to the punishment of cleaning them after school, all because of some simple joke, sarcasm, or petty larceny you put forth for the sole purpose of entertaining your less imaginative classmates; the smell of sack lunches stored in the cloak rooms; the sensation of flight as you tried to swing so high at recess you flipped over the top bar but never could.   Those were the days when answers to questions like favorite time of school were answered by recess or lunch; favorite color was plaid; and you could either take or leave ambivalence, even if you were not knowledgeable of the definition.


All during the school year it would be hard for anyone to drag you out of bed to continue the drudgery from the days and weeks before.  But that first week after you ran down the steps of school on the last day you found yourself getting up with the sun and the birds, reveling in the fact that the days were yours to do with as you felt.  You knew the day was made for no one but you, the streets and neighborhoods were yours, fireflies were made for your enjoyment, and there was no way you could ever lose a game of kick the can or hide ‘n seek.


For me back then the days were full of mystery and magic, of discoveries to be made, of  “old” friends to see and new friends to make, of being able to do from sun up to sundown anything and everything.  Each day seemingly unplanned had a routine to it.  The early mornings relaxing in front of the large black and white console television watching children’s shows as they could only make in the 1950’s.  The late mornings and afternoons roaming the streets of small town Middle America on the fat-wheeled bicycle, the ever present baseball glove slipped onto the handlebars knowing that there was either a game of catch or a full-fledged game to be found.  And the evenings, ah, the evenings, when the sounds became more hushed and the shadows altered your sunshine world.  Those evenings were almost as if exploring a dream world where nothing was as it seemed, or it was as you wanted it to be in your vivid imagination.


Down alleys and side streets, across bridges and fields, through backyards and around businesses, I knew the town and its secret passageway.  In that middle-America small town there were two manufacturers, one an old shoe factory and one a very large storm door factory.  My father ran the latter.  But it was the former that fascinated me.  The Little League ballpark was adjacent, hard-packed earth, weeds for an outfield, a scoreboard elevated with those numbers you would hang inning by inning as the score changed (or didn’t, however good you were or the opposition was, whichever the case may be).  The snack bar was nothing more than a couple of the coolers you would find in the little mom and pop grocery, one for the soft drinks like Coke, Dr. Pepper, orange soda or Yahoo, and one for the frozen Snickers, Milky Ways, ice cream sandwiches, Fudgesicles, and Creamsicles which made up your 10 year old idea of the summertime food pyramid.  If you had a quarter, a dime, a nickel, and a few pennies you were rich.


These were carefree days when we knew nothing of predators and molesters.  These were days when innocence was inherent and mischief was prevalent in ten year olds whose lives revolved around stories of “Jack Armstrong The All American Boy” and fantasies depicted by book covers of pirates and adventurers painted by one of the great illustrators and artists of the time, N. C. Wyeth.  Ironically his son Andrew became one of my all time favorite artists.  N. C. brought swashbuckling and adventure to life.  But I digress . . .


Next to the shoe factory was the old railroad siding where the boxcars were shuttled from the main track and stood waiting for the cartons of shoes to be loaded and then sent off to parts unknown. Adventure was climbing aboard the empty boxcars to imagine the places the cars had been, the places they still had to go, and the numerous hoboes, tramps, and bums who had made the car theirs, if even only for a brief time.  And there was a difference between hobos, tramps and bums. Of the three, a hobo was someone who traveled from place to place looking for work; a tramp was someone who traveled but avoided work whenever possible; but a bum didn’t care to work or travel and did his best to avoid both.  Of the three, the tramp was my hero.  I could imagine ‘ol N. C. and how he would depict him.


The hot, dusty interior of the boxcars smelled of seasoned raw wood, tar softening in the heat, the oil of the door slides, and the lingering aroma of hot metal.  I remember ruining a brand new pair of dungarees by sitting in a nice pool of softening tar.  Most of the time these boxcars were visited as a group, playing Mumbley Peg on the wooden floor with the jack knife which every ten year old owned and always had in his pocket (along with various pieces of glass, rocks, a key for which there was no lock, and spare change).  But there were times when the fearless ten-year-old self wanted to be alone and explore. 


If I discovered a bum along the tracks I avoided him.  Even I knew at such a young age that a bum was someone to fear.  Although never told the difference, a ten year old knew, he just knew . . . There was a feeling, a look, stealth in the way he moved.  Yeah, we all knew to avoid the bum.


A hobo, though, maintained an air of respectability and never really had the time for a ten year old looking for adventure or stories to be shared.  His time was spent walking the same small town streets I did looking for someone who may have a yard to be mowed, a garage to clean, or a tree to be trimmed. He may stay in town a day, a week, or even a month before deciding to move on to the next small town or farm looking for a means of survival.  For his efforts he knew he would receive a small amount of cash, a warm lunch, and maybe even a pallet to sleep on in an out building or under the stars for a night. 


Ahhhhh, but the tramp!  The tramp had time.  The tramp had his way of making do with what he could.  Unlike the hobo, the tramp chose not to participate in the economics of the world, the tramp embraced his transience, the tramp loved his freedom, was a teller of tales, and a singer of songs.  The tramp was born to be free.  The tramp was the epitome of wanderlust.  The tramp wanted and gave no trouble.


It was a tramp named Roamin’ Johnny (somehow I will always remember that name) I encountered on one of my solo adventures to the tracks and the empty boxcars.  Clambering aboard a boxcar on a particularly warm July afternoon I at first didn’t see Roamin’ Johnny, but his presence was felt.  My sensible side told me to leave immediately, but my adventurous side told me to stay.  As a ten year old the adventurous side won.  With the drawl and accent of one who has lived nowhere and everywhere, greeted me with a question.  “You a ‘bo, a bum, or a tramp like me?”  From the doorway of the boxcar, silhouetted by the afternoon sun I asked him what was the difference.  He explained.  After his explanation and definition, there could be no doubt on that summer afternoon I was a tramp like Roamin’ Johnny.  “Well then, sit.  Train ain’t movin’ for a bit.  Plenty of room for me to share” he said.  I said, “Thank you sir,” and he replied “Ain’t no sir, I’m a person, yes”.


Thus began an afternoon of mutual respect and stories.  I will save the stories for another, but in that few hours on a warm July afternoon in the shade of a boxcar on a railroad siding, within 100 feet of my Little League ball field yet a million miles away, I traveled from New York City to San Francisco, from Chicago to New Orleans, and even from Omaha to Mexico.  I felt the cities, I saw the people, and I felt the rumble of the steel wheels as they carried me between the worlds in my ten-year-old mind. 


At the end of our short time together, probably an hour and a half but what was an eternity, Roamin’ Johnny told me I had a lot of time to grow, to choose paths, to live life to the fullest.  He also told me “to get along home now tramp” and placed his large weather worn hand in mine and shook.  Although it was hard to fully see his expression in the dim light I did see a smile as I shook his hands and he said, “see ya tramp”.


Over the years you forget such experiences, or file them away, or choose to see them only as fragments of dreams, of roads less traveled, or of a time of innocence - “rocking chair” memories.  I look back and realize that I have never been a bum, just not part of my nature or how I was raised or what I ever wanted to be.   I have known a few in my time though. At times my life, though, was that of a hobo, albeit a “modern day hobo”, with a job and a family and a place to live but always on the road, and always participating in the realities of the work-a-day economy. 


Some of my favorite memories are my times as a tramp like Johnny.  My boxcar may have been an airplane, or an automobile, or a bus, or on miles long walks through the vast country, villages, towns, and cities.  The times it was a train though it was with a purchased ticket and a seat with a window, not an open boxcar door.   But somehow, still a tramp.  It’s been a lifetime since I was a tramp, albeit a “modified tramp”.


After so many years, so many miles, so many experiences and adventures, each day feels as it did when school let out for summer when I was ten years old.  There’s no bicycle with the ever-present glove on the handle bars, no more games of kick the can or hide ‘n seek, no black and white console television watched on an early morning, and walking and running through town and its streets and allies seems lately to take a physical toll as the arthritis sets in.  I find myself now in a place some refer to as Heaven’s Waiting Room, otherwise known as Florida, USA.  But somehow the mornings begin to feel the same as then, the afternoons vaguely familiar, and the evenings have a resemblance to that dream world.


I have seen all the places Roamin’ Johnny talked about and so many more.  But even now as I have “almost” decompressed after all the years of traveling to and fro as a respectable citizen of the world and someone who, just maybe added a little to this world of ours, it is as if I have once again become the ten-year-old living through the stories and memories my tramp friend shared with me. 


I am sure Roamin’ Johnny’s travels ended with his passing many years ago, as he was old when I met him, but I can still hear him asking “You a ‘bo, a bum or a tramp like me?”  He touched my mind that warm July day.  He allowed me to see a world to explore, cities to see, and people to meet.  And God knows I have explored the world, seen the cities, and met the people.  And there is so much more to do and see.  Just saying.  Thanks Johnny . . .



Dunedin, FL

February 2016