A Dollar a Sop (or Don’t Run the Hobos out of the Woods until You Run the Crooks out of Washington)

Whenever it floods for weeks on end and Texas’ rivers spill out of their banks for the first time in 100 years, I try to think of other times and seasons when record cold and ice storms play havoc with humanity on and near the Gulf Coast of Texas.  It helps to get your mind off the reality at hand, e.g. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita of 2005.  Not to mention the sweltering heat of this time in the year right before the 4th of July.  Thinking of cold weather helps you forget the Great Floods of 2015 when the Brazos, the Trinity, the San Jacinto Rivers of South Texas flooded damn near everything and everybody downstream.  Bad times and misery makes for colorful conversation so it would appear by the news and all the press these times of stress bring.  It makes for great songs that sing of the misery of man, and we delight in this art form and call it ‘Blues.’

For as long as I could remember, my Dad talked about the Great Depression.  He sang the Blues, literally.  He had a cheap guitar, but could play it well, and yodel in a fine imitation and style of Jimmy Rogers, the “Singing Brakeman” of the 1930s when the times were the hardest.  People stole rides on the rails, as they traveled into the unknown, hoping to find work, food, and just a warm place that might feel like, say home, maybe, I don’t know.  Jimmy Rogers sang songs so sorrowful; he seemed to cry between refrains with what came to be known as a yodel.  In fact Jimmy Rogers’ nickname was the Blue Yodeler, too. 

Well Dad and my Mom both remembered the Great Depression all too well, and in its heyday, they both up and got married in secret in 1936 on the fall equinox in San Marcos, Texas.  They were young students at Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College, they called it back then.  Yes, they would become teachers.  Until they discovered there wasn’t a living to be made in the teaching profession.   In recalling their marriage night, though, often they laughed fondly at the irony of the event and the impromptu decision they had made to prepare and share a unique and humble wedding supper. It was fried baloney in a cast-iron skillet; onions cut and blackened at the tips, and fried cabbage in the baloney grease.  It was in the kitchen cubby hole of their own second-story, one-room apartment, just off campus of Southwest Texas Teachers College in San Marcos.  LBJ even gave their commencement address that year.

All my life I tried to be a good listener whenever they would relate their wonder at the significance of the Depression, but heck, my lot in life was pretty good:  3 squares a day, fresh-washed clothes, and a second-hand bicycle.  As a kid it was hard for me to relate to being poor back in the 1940s.  During WWII Dad had a job at Gulf Oil Refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, and Mom taught 1st Grade.  For all I knew we were pretty well off, so I became bored at then drop of a hat when these twice-told tales about the Great Depression would flare up. 

It is 2015 now, and my dear Mom and Dad have passed.  And as I wander through the broken chards of the past, I think of them and who they were.  Before he left, my Dad sat silent in the nursing home, and I do confess that I missed hearing either of them tell those old tales to me once again.  For some reason I miss that especially on a cold winter night, and I remembered with a smile those gas heaters in a main room that you would get up early and light with a wooden match.  The floor heaters attached to a nozzle that grew out of the cold wooden floor by means of a rubber hose braided over with a cloth-like weave of material, and I saw it all again in my mind when I warmed my face, then turned my backside to the flame.  The flame started out blue every time, and then it would caress the hundreds of small ceramic teeth that projected horizontally toward you and the room.  The flame was orange where it touched the teeth, but blue at the bottom where it came out of the jets.

It was the morning ritual from when you were young and had little means but didn’t know it exactly.  Naturally, you would turn your backside to the flame just as sure as breathing.  This is how you would warm up all parts of your body and soul after first stepping on the cold floor of an old house before people knew what central heat was.  We were poor, I suppose, looking back, but shoot fire our ritual was adequate enough, and it worked.  Your fireside body parts would heat up quick, as red as a lobster so then you turned your other side toward the flame and (presto) you were in business and temp-regulated to start the day.  It worked.  But no use to talk to me.  None of us kids back then knew what poverty was, much less that we were somehow victims of it.  All we knew back then was there were some things that we couldn’t have but we got over them in a minute and were headed full bore toward the next quest.  Imagine that.

And I miss the pulse of that generation that took such a battering to get us fed and raised so that we could walk the walk on our own.  They seemed to be a good-spirited folk, our parents and their brethren and friends who grew up in the 30s, married in the 40s, and well you know the bunch.

Here in my hometown of Humble, Texas (affectionately called Humility by some of us who would be poets) there are hobos.  They have a small little group in rags in the woods across from the Humble post office.  You can see them when you go get your mail, and you can see them receive visitors with paper bags who park on the other side of the road and get down from their trucks with brown paper bags they carry into the woods and give to the hobos.  Uncontrollably, I seem to keep drifting to winter, though it is scorching outside today at the tail end of July, 2015 and humid and muggy under the night sky just a bit north of Houston. 

You can almost see the smoke from the hobos’ fire in the cold woods.  Last year, the city got complaints, and the police ran them out of there.  This year, I guess no one is complaining.  Maybe this year there is a little more empathy.  Before he died, my old friend Charlie Wilkinson had a store called the Furniture Shack across the street from the woods where the hobos dwelled, and we would discuss the hobos who lived in the woods, sometimes.  We would share a lunch together in his store, and Charlie had a deep connection with hobos and the “have-nots” of the world.  He knew what it was like to have nothing…………………and I talked to Charlie about them (seems like yesterday), and he knew them alright, for they lived diagonally across FM 1960 from where his old store in Humble still is, but it is a saloon now. 

CW mentioned the great Hemingway story, "The Battler" where Nick Adams, a young feller was thrown off a moving boxcar by a no-account brakeman, and he paced about, cussing to himself as he strolled into the hobo campfire of "The Battler" and his caretaker, a big black man.  The Battler was a former prize fighter who had seen too many fights, had taken many of the hard blows and wasn't just right.  He spoke as he scratched his cauliflower ears, and the black man nurtured him and looked after him.  The black caretaker invited Nick to join them in their camp near the tracks, and gave Nick some ham and bread and asked him if he wanted some grease for sopping.  Well Nick was pleased all right to join them, and the Battler (played in excellent form by Paul Newman in the movie) asked to see Nick's knife.  The black man told Nick that no matter what, not to let him have the knife.  Nick didn't.  As he ate, the Battler watched him and finally said:  "You come in here and eat my food, and then act uppity and won't let me see your knife.  Who do you think you are?"  Well, anyway the Battler got a little out of hand and his black man caretaker rapped him upside the head with a black jack.  He then told Nick that it might be best if he were gone when the Battler woke up.  I apologize for digressing, but it was an excellent story about us humans.  CW and I enjoy sharing things of the heart like that, real things, nitty gritty, no innuendo or judgment allowed, just bare-boned realities.  And the honest owning of our demons.

Tonight it will be cold, I thought.  But no way because it was July!  I digress to another season as easy as you please, but if you have nothing more to do, and the fish all have lock-jaw due to the heat, you wonder about the hobos in the woods, and hope they will have a roaring fire to keep them warm.  Drifting to other places is not so bad.  It reminds me of the Battler who had taken too many blows as a prizefighter.  Haven’t we all in so many ways?

I thought about all the times my Dad rode the rails, and how he used to talk about sleeping on the bottom of a cattle car with no bed clothes.  The human attention span may be limited to only those things of which a sliver of knowing is achieved, and I confess that I could no more relate to the poverty of the Depression than I could understand why anyone likes Rapp music.  But I thought of the Depression as best I could and saw my Dad out there shivering in the cold and sort of you know, empathized with that young man of long ago, somehow, that man who knew about such things, but whose only audience later on, were his peers who had seen the eye of the same dragon, the same hard times, the same Great Depression that broke everybody and everything.  You had to see it to know, I guess.  My Dad was always grateful not to have to endure such times again.  My Mom really backed him up on that because she was even poorer, so they had always agreed, but in such comparisons, once again, here I sat, glassy-eyed, unable to know or say whether a crow was blacker than a skunk's ass.  My generation just didn’t seem think about it much or care.  But I did.   I tried to walk in their shoes as best I could.  Without enlightenment.  I’m truly sorry.

It's a shame that some of our citizens have to forage and sleep in the cold at nights.  You hear about them in Reno, out under the stars with their pallets on the sand.  You can't help but recall that great heart-tugging line from the Bard:  "There, but for the grace of God, go I."  My Dad was pleased that he had overcome poverty and those hard times, and late in life he talked about it with smiling and knowing eyes.  "I don't care if syrup goes to a dollar a sop," he said, "for, if it does, I'll pay it."  There was an implied victory in his confidence in his solvency, but it was restrained and rinsed out, somehow.   Faded out.  The price of syrup seemed less meaningful to him, now.  He had lived a full life and was old.  And had always shared with his friends and family, bless him.  He seemed melancholy, somehow about the inability of the world to fix itself to where all could enjoy plenty and the bounty of the planet.  He really did.  He had always told me to "Leave some for the birds."  I asked him later in life what he meant by that.  He explained, simply, that you should not consume it all, your plenty, that is, for to do so would be greedy, so leave some for the birds and the less fortunate, for there was enough to go around.  Most all of us in my generation had known prosperity, and he could not talk in terms of first hand stuff about the Great Depression to me, but I was still, as always, a good listener.  The closest I can get to knowing is maybe in trying to pull as best as I can, for those people camped out in the woods near here, when winter does come to Humble.  I send them my best wishes.  I don’t think they are in the woods now during the July heat.  But tomorrow they surely will be.  And there will be ice then.  See, they’ve got all their skin in the game.  Who, among us, can say the same?  I can’t.  But I can bring them some brown bags when the cold comes.