A citizen’s responsibility #1

This is the title story from the book “A Colored Man in Exeter – Sketches of Lee – Volume 1”. Volume 1 contains 30 stories total. 

The Greatest Generation is exiting, its race run and won. The twin terrors of the Depression and WW2 fostered in them the belief that we are all in this together. Many came from nothing. From that standpoint, they understood that fate is the master, and life is beyond human control. The current trends of “Beating the poor” and “Demonizing the hungry” are foreign to them.

Contrast this with the succeeding generation. We are oblivious. The concepts of a “hungry nation” or of a “national fear” are mere literary abstractions.

Against that background…

It always puzzled me why my father, Harold Ward, stayed in the Navy. About 20 years ago I asked him, “Dad, why did you stay in after they discriminated against you?”

“They fed me Michael. I was an orphan in the Depression. After Grandfather Ward had his stroke no one fed me. Hell, no one wanted me. I was hungry. The Navy fed me three meals a day. Nobody else did.”

Which takes me back to the mid-sixties in Exeter N.H.

The hobo was in his forties. His hair was shaggy, brown, but mostly gray. The long coat he wore had been nice once, but not anymore. It had surrendered to its owner’s reality… unkempt, tired, and ragged on the edges. He showed up at the back door of my father’s restaurant, “Harold’s Place” at 191 Water St. late one Saturday fall morning.

“Sir, I don’t have any money. Could I please have some food?”
“Sure. Why don’t you wash up in the restroom first? There’s a razor and shaving cream if you need a shave.”

I found this odd, because Dad always shaved at home.

The hobo came out of the restroom, reveling as he wiped on the after shave. He looked much better and smiled,

“Thank you, sir. Nothing like a shave to set you right.”
“I know what you mean. Would you like some coffee?” Dad was smiling as he said this.
“Yes sir. If you don’t mind, could I have it with cream and two sugars please, sir?
“Michael, get the gentleman some coffee. Bring a setup and a glass of water with you when you come back.”

I was surprised to hear Dad refer to him as a “gentleman”. I mean, he was a hobo.

Dad rolled a small cask of flour over to the prep bench.

“Have a seat.” Then he fed him some hot stew, rolls, pie and coffee.

“Did you get enough to eat? Would you like another cup of coffee?”
“No, Sir. Thank you, I’m fine.” He was unstintingly polite.
“Where are you headed?”
“Lawrence, Sir. I’m looking for work.”
“What do you do?”

“I had fifteen years in as a laster, but my factory closed last spring. There’s no work up in Bangor. I don’t like being out of work. I won’t take ‘the dole’. I hate ‘the dole.’”
“I don’t like ‘the dole’ either, it’s no way to live. It ruins a man and takes his honor.”

The hobo brightened upon hearing this affirmation of his belief.

“The dole” was slang for welfare. For men who had experienced the Depression and were able to work, there was nothing more humiliating than relying on “government assistance” to get by.

“Do you have a family?”
“We ran out of money. My wife left me, she couldn’t take it.
“Sorry about that…”
“Yeah, but my kids are living with my brother. He’s got a farm… they’re doing okay. My sister in Lawrence says there’s work there. I won’t be doing my trade, but I can send money home.”
“How did you end up at my place?”
“Sir, I heard up the line in Bangor that there was a colored man in Exeter who would feed you if you were short. So when the freight slowed down I hopped off. I asked for directions at the station and they sent me down here.”

“Did you serve?”
“Yes, Sir, in the Army during WW2 in Europe.”
“How’s your coat? Do you need shoes?” Dad asked.
“They’re fine Sir. Thanks for asking.”

If they were poorly clothed or shod he’d send them down to George and Phillips. The owner, Mr. Friedman, would then provide them with clothes and shoes.

“Here’s $5. Sorry I can’t give you more.” 
“No, Sir, this is just fine. I can get dinner and breakfast with this. Thank you, and God bless you.”

I stared at him as he went out the backdoor and down the steps into the parking lot.

Dad’s voice was sharp. “Michael, don’t stare at him! He’s a veteran down on his luck. He has served his country and must be treated with respect. Don’t say anything about this out front. Some of the customers will get upset.”

The hobo took a left around the end of the building and disappeared. Looking out over the Exeter River dad spoke.

“Michael, we’ve got our problems, but this is the best country in the world. The Soviets don’t care about their people. They starve them. We’re better than that. We fought and won a war to prove that we are better than that. A government has no excuse for not feeding their people when they’re down. I was hungry as a child. I will not let anyone, especially a veteran, go hungry.”

Then he sat on the flour cask, shook his head and laughed sadly.

“They know about me all the way up in Bangor.”

From 1964 until 1970, hoboes riding the Boston & Maine knew… “Go to the backdoor of 191 Water St. in Exeter, NH… the “Colored Man” there will feed you.”

Virginia Ward

My mother, Virginia, made sure there was always a shaving kit and soap in the restroom for the hoboes.

You can buy the book on Amazon here.