Tonight we visited a home by the river. We had gone, at sunset, to take pictures of the old train bridge that crossed over the Missouri River, into Kansas. The view was beautiful. A wonderful old rusty train bridge nearby with nature all around, nearly hidden from the world’s view, but a stones throw from a bustling city street. Except for the occasional train, it was a quiet. There was a trail of smoke coming from a chimney, all indicating a warm toasty abode. But I was sad when I left there. Seems like this man had what a lot of people strive for and never get. Yet he paid a price to be there, and not in the way you would think.
His name is Kenneth. He lives with his dog, Lady, and cat, Ring-a-bell. They are all friendly. (Well, except towards Harley. Lady decided his head would make a good snack). Kenneth showed us around. He said we could take pictures and I snapped a few. A collection of what he called “fossils”, him and his little family of pets. But there was something holding me back. This man wasn’t proud to be here, I could tell. He really wished he could be somewhere else, in another place and perhaps another time .
See, this man was actually homeless. Well, homeless by our standards. He did have a home, cobbled together by tarps, buckets and rocks. His stove kept it warm enough. It was a cold evening though. And when I think of the bitter cold weather that has passed through the midwest this winter and yet here he is, living in the midst. In the summer his life will be better.
He lives by the goodness of other people. Few would know about him, some friends, maybe relatives and the those that have stumbled upon his camp. In his past he has seemingly burnt bridges with a few of them and quite possibly all, perhaps without even knowing it. You can’t know Kenneth very long before realizing this is one of America’s sad stories. A mental condition, mild in nature, but without the capacity to figure out how to exist except in the simplest and meanest of circumstances. Forgotten and nearly alone.
He was happy to welcome us as visitors to his home and I am happy we visited.
I grew up along this same river, about 180 miles north. I played along its banks for many a summer day, fantasizing that I was a pioneer, and dreaming about cabins, and fishing, and hunting for my existence. So when I saw the blue tarp shack with smoke coming from a chimney, it fired all kinds of childhood memories and fantasies.
I wanted Kenneth to be living my fantasy. Before I hailed the camp, I went up on the bridge above and searched the bank of the river for trot lines, fish traps, or evidence of that kind of thing. Nothing.
At my shouted “hello”, it took several minutes for him to appear, and when he did my hopes soared, because he looked a lot like I had pictured him in my mind; Physically fit, rough hands, wild unkempt hair. Denim shirt, open to the chill, and a good pair of boots.
He has lived there over a year, he used to live with relatives, but something happened, he used to get “government money”, but he doesn’t have a street address. He has fished in the past, but someone stole his simple fishing gear.
I was looking for someone that had made the choice to live like he did, but that was not the case.
I am proud of him for putting together the life that he has; he is sort of independent, (he didn’t ask me for a dime), but in talking to him, it is obvious that he would rather have a home, or at least a little room, to himself.
He will be fine for a while. The authorities leave him alone for now, but I wonder if part of the reason isn’t that he doesn’t hunt and fish, without a permit, and he doesn’t attempt to build a stronger cabin, again, without a permit.
For now at least, I have another person to pray for, and we do get down this way once in a while to check up on him. He will be OK.
My childhood dreams, not so much.