My Story Through Houses: The Dugoutcomments (4) December 13th, 2010 in Blogs
“I’ve been havin’ some hard travelin’, I thought you knowed.”
Dugouts were still around until I was in my teens. I used to visit an old man who lived in one when I was out riding my beloved pinto horse. I was working for a rancher, looking for some of his cows that might have strayed down along the White River. His name was Charley and he lived in a home dug back into a bank along this River up until the late 1940s. He lived alone and worked now and then for ranchers cleaning chicken coops, painting a shed, fixing fences. This gave him a little money for food. His rent was free!
I got to know him some over a period of several months always stopping by to say hello. One day he invited me in for a cup of coffee. In the west, you don’t refuse that kind of an offer no matter who it comes from. Once my eyes became used to the darkness, I saw that his place measured about 10 ft. x 10 ft. His table and chairs were tree rounds cut from a nearby cottonwood. His bed was a pile of rags in a corner. On the small, iron stove sat a tea kettle, a frying pan, and a coffee pot. The orange crate cabinet held a few dishes. He reached for a couple of cups, wiped them out with another rag, and poured us both a hot cup of coffee.
I could feel his loneliness as he told me part of his story. He used to be a painter living in San Francisco with a woman who “did him wrong.” I never had the chance to get the woman’s side of the story. Once she left, he drifted north living in Washington and then Montana for a time. And now here he was, heartbroken, living out his days in a place little better than a rabbit hole. He showed me a couple of figures, cowboys on horses, he had drawn with charcoal on butcher paper. I held them to the light and gave him praise. He died that fall when I was back in school. They buried him on the prairie far from any kin, another unknown resting in a different type of dugout.
I never told my mother I visited him in his place. If he had bed bugs, they must have preferred his blood to mine and, lucky for me, I didn’t bring any home.
Life in those ‘great depression’ times really was hard. Unlike today, class distinctions were practically non-existent. Everyone I knew was poor, struggling to keep food on their tables and clothes on their backs.
Hard times then and now seem to breed two types of people. Some become more generous, willing to share what little they have. Others seem obsessed to find someone to blame for their troubles. Sound familiar? It was during the 30s that there was a big resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activity all across the prairie states. What do you do when there are no Jews or Blacks around as the focal point for your frustration and hatred? That’s an easy one. We were the only catholic family in the entire county.
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