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Vagrant or Free Spirit?

June 30, 2011 - Mom always taught me that no matter how bad things get it's possible, and very likely, that somebody else has it worse. Her admonitions were never the "Eat your food there are starving children in Africa" type, but more in the style of "Try to appreciate what you have, because there are those that don't have this much - and believe me, Kiddo, I've been one of them."

My mother had been a child of the Depression Era, and from a broken home to boot. She knew full well what it was like to be shuffled from one house to another as my grandmother and grandfather struggled to make a living at a time when jobs were scarce and employers took advantage of the situation.

 

Grampa was a World War I veteran, one of five brothers that had a reputation in their small Michigan town. They were hell raisers that at one time or another had been on the giving or taking end of a stick meant to keep people in line. Grampa and a couple of the brothers naturally took to a strident style of union organizing. So, from a practical standpoint of keeping peace in the family, Mom learned not to judge people too harshly from outward appearances. She had lots of friends in her life that she cherished, but thay were not the best examples of community involvement and leadership. Each had visible problems, but each also had some redeeming quality that put the life into acceptable balance.

Watching Mom offer small acts of assistance to those that needed help was a subtle lesson for me. From her example I learned never to judge people too harshly until I knew a bit more about them than the clothes they wore or where they lived.

Today I rode south on US-17, from Conway to Georgetown, in no particular mood other than pondering just why Americans have this overwhelming desire to destroy beautiful places. South Carolina beaches were once some of the most restful places on the Atlanic Seaboard. Simple cottages and homes complimented a lifestyle of intimate family conversations. Summer meals were full of farm produce and seafood cooked in any way that avoided being in a hot kitchen. Not much to describe, but a lot to savor, enjoy and remember.

 Not long ago Myrtle Beach, and all of the villages north and south of it, became a 'Destination', 'Retirement Mecca', 'Tourism Hot Spot.' Most of all a place where folks from all levels could find a job. It might not pay much, but it's a job. The condos rising from the beach do spoil the view, but they represent jobs. South Cafrolina beach communities, like so many seaside areas of the Southeastern United States have beco just another urban traffic jam. The only difference between this and Cleveland is the salt air rusting your car instead of the acid rain. But it's got jobs. Traffic is terrible.  Prices for everything are noticeably higher. Living isn't as easy as it once was. But for those with a job it can be tolerated.

Oscar's Story

I was about to take the first photo in a small cemetery when I heard a cheery voice,"If you look over in the far corner you'll find some graves from the 1700's. It's awesome!" I turned to see a fella a bit younger than me on the other side of the cemetery fence. He carried two back packs and it was immediately evident this guy was homeless. I overlooked the obvious and responded to his comment. A moment later we were two strangers sharing our stories.

There are two ways to handle an encounter with a vagrant. The first is to put your hand over your wallet and walk quickly from the area, closing your ears to the assaulting comments that will be tossed your way. This is usually followed by some well meaning citizen calling the police to come and restore order. Which means the vagrant is either placed in jail on some insanely stupid charge, or he's run out of town. Doesn't make a difference in which direction, as long as he's gone from here and our law abiding citizens.

The second method of dealing with an itinerant is to understand that few of us are so financially secure that we will never, EVER, face the possibility of being homeless. Yes, we know that fella is going to try to put the bite on us, but think about the indignity of living this way - could you handle it without being a bit surly at times?

The first few back and forth admissions of who we were and what we did were guarded and set the tone for some civil discourse. It wasn't long before I asked my new friend, Oscar, if he was better described as an itinerant or a Free Spirit? "I'm not a bum or hobo. I came home from work ten years ago and my wife said she'd had enough and that I had to go. Okay, I went." In the last ten years he's wandered from New Jersey to Miami and back two or three times.

He's been in jail. Admits that for a while he was "The crack head from hell!" And he freely says, "I'll talk you out of as much money as I think you can afford, but I won't steal from you." I believe him, for one of the first things I told him was that my only asset was my motorcycle and for all intent and purpose I too was an itinerant. Throughout a conversation that lasted nearly an hour he never once asked me for money or suggested that I should help him in any way.

We talked politics and I was surprised that he had a good grasp of what the current situation was and what options the nation had. His father, Oscar explained, was an immigrant from Blackpool, England, who had insisted that his son would have the skills to read, write, and otherwise aptly communicate in the English language. Jefferson and Lincoln are heroes and icons. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton are examples of power gone wrong.

It didn't take long before we got into philosophy. Believe me, I've been in some oddball conversations with street people that started with simple philosophical questions. The stable ones are fun to engage, the unstable can be a handful. Oscar is stable, but knows he has self esteem issues - and the scars from an attempted suicide prove that point.

We talked about how two people engaged in a civil discussion can be each other's bridge to understanding of self and others. At that point he pulled a simple palmetto frond from one of his packs and he began to create a 'flower bud' by weaving and twisting the frond in various ways. As he did the work he explained he had recently been taught the craft by an 84 year old black school teacher down at the Battery in Charleston. He didn't know exactly how true her statement was, but she had told to him that these flower buds had served as a sort of 'dog tag' for Negro soldiers in the Civil War.

A loved one of each soldier would weave a frond and etch the soldiers name onto the stalk of the 'flower'. If the soldier fell in battle his friends would collect the flower bud and send it home, letting those still on the plantation know that their son would not be coming home.

Wow. An hour long conversation with a Free Spirit leads me to a piece of history about those that fought in the Civil War. The time has been well spent, indeed.

I took the flower and tossed it into my hard bag and gave it to my wife a few minutes after arriving home. She raved about its' simple beauty and that it would be great to have more with which to make a decorative display. "He could make money selling these!" she said. Sadly, he can't. The cops in both Charleston and Savannah picked him up for not having a vendors license. Charleston just kicked him out of town. Savannah arrested him and took him to jail for a day before kicking him out of town.

Oscar, when you read this do me a favor, build those bridges back to your family. Even a Free Spirit needs a place to call home.

 

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