I wasn’t in a very good mood one Saturday morning in the summer of 1938. School vacation was about over and I had a lot of things I wanted to do before school started. The morning before, Dad informed me that our first load of firewood was arriving that afternoon. This didn’t excite me very much. Then he dropped a bombshell! I was 14 and old and big enough to haul the wood to the woodshed and stack it inside the building. I made all kinds of excuses to no avail. I was roused out of bed at seven and told to get busy. He wanted the job finished by the time he got home from work that evening.
The wheelbarrow I used to move the wood about 20 feet was a homemade one with removable wooden sideboards. The wheel was an iron one taken from some piece of farm machinery and wobbled all over the place. About every third trip one of the sideboards fell off or the wheel would hit something and the load was dumped off. It was getting hot and I was getting madder and madder by the minute. I was going to take a break and drown my sorrows by drinking some homebrew. (Root beer made from Hires Root Beer extract).
I had put several bottles of the drink in the refrigerator the night before so it was good and cold and really hit the spot. I had almost finished drinking when I noticed somebody walking down the alley. As he got closer I realized he was one of the transient workers that I had seen while fishing near the hobo jungle the day before. When he got closer I waved at him. He waved back. I introduced myself and he told me his name was George O’Brien. I got excited when I heard that name. An actor by the same name was one of my all-time favorite western movie stars when I was just a kid. I was disappointed when I asked him if he was related to the star and he said no. I went to the kitchen and got two more bottles brew and handed him one. While we were enjoying the drink he asked if my parents were home and was disappointed when I told him no. He then asked if I knew anyone in the neighborhood that needed odd jobs done. He was awfully hungry and would accept food instead of money for wages. I came up with a great idea.
I was a pretty good cook by this time. My mother worked full time at the store helping my dad. I always fixed my own breakfast and lunch and I sometimes made supper for the family. Breakfast was usually a bowl of cereal and a couple of pieces of toast. I was also an expert egg fryer and made great French toast. I told George if he helped me move and stack the wood, I would cook him breakfast. He agreed but said he had to have something to eat before we started the job. Mom always canned a lot of peaches every fall. I got a quart of the fruit out of the cellar. My grandparents lived on a farm and supplied us with all the milk, cream, and eggs we could use. My aunt Lela baked us several loaves of bread every week. He WAS hungry - he ate the whole quart of peaches and three or four pieces of toast. Time to go to work. After the third loss of wood from the wheelbarrow he asked me if Dad had some tools he could use. Half an hour later the wheelbarrow was repaired and worked like a new one.
I’ll tell you what, I never had so much fun working in my life. It was a contest to see who could work the hardest and fastest. I almost hated to see the job completed.
While walking toward the house for breakfast he spotted an outside faucet with a hose attached and asked me if he could borrow some soap so he could wash up. I had a better idea. Why didn’t he take a bath in our bathtub? He gave me a startled look and asked me, “Won’t your parents care?” I shrugged my shoulders and replied, “What they don’t know won’t hurt them!” I noticed his clothes were very grimy so I handed him the coveralls Dad kept in the woodshed and told him to strip and put them on so we could wash his clothes.
We had one of those new fandangle Maytag washing machines with a wringer, but neither of us knew how to work it. Mom had two large washtubs, a copper washboard and a thing on a broomstick she called a plunger. George and I had both seen our mothers use these things so we had an idea of how they worked. A plumber had installed a new electric water heater in the house that spring so we had lots of hot water. We carried the tubs outside and began filling them with hot water by the bucketful from the kitchen. One tub was used for washing, the other for rinsing. I cut some slivers of soap from a bar of Fels Naphtha like I had seen mom do. I then swished my hand around in the water until suds appeared. We got a pretty good system going - he scrubbed and I plunged. We rinsed the garments and squeezed as much of the water as we could and then hung them on the clothesline to dry.
I started cooking our breakfast while he was taking a bath. French toast with butter, syrup or jelly, fried eggs with milk to drink. As we were eating he told me this story: he was born and raised on a small farm in Nebraska. He was the only child and his dad had set aside a small amount of money every year for his education. Then came the winds that destroyed the farmland. The family was one of the lucky ones in the community, as his dad got a job as a blacksmith in one of the local shops. The wages were very small but enough to keep the family in food and clothing. The money for college had run out in two years and he hoped he would make enough money that summer for another year of college.
After breakfast we scrubbed the bathtub, washed the dishes and mopped the kitchen floor. Going outside we put all the laundry equipment away leaving no trace of the afternoon activities. We visited while his clothes were drying. Before he left I made him two big sandwiches from some leftover roast beef.
I rechecked the kitchen, the bathtub and the yard for any evidence of the doings that afternoon. I was confident there were none. My parents arrived home after work. Dad was really surprised that I had completed the job and patted me on the back for a job well done. I thought I was home free. Dad went to the front room and began reading the Saturday Evening Post while Mom started preparing supper. When we went to the kitchen for supper Mom called Dad over and they began talking. I knew I was in trouble. Dad then asked me if I wanted to tell them something. I confessed to everything. Well, not everything. I neglected to tell them about the bath. I was told I wouldn’t be punished this time for doing such a stupid thing, but not to do it again. I was curious about what we had done to make them suspicious. Mom laughed and replied, “As hard as you worked today it was impossible for a kid your age to eat a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, half of the roast beef planned for our supper that night, and drink a gallon of milk.” Phew, she didn’t mention the peaches and cream.
The next morning we went on a picnic with some friends and did not get to visit the hobo jungle until that evening. I grabbed my fishing gear and went to the cellar to get some worms from the worm keg. A quart of peaches disappeared into my fishing creel. I knew my new friend would enjoy anther helping of home-canned peaches. However, he was not there. He had been picked by one of the farmers as part of a harvest crew. I never saw him again. We had exchanged mailing addresses, but never exchanged letters. I left the jar of fruit for his friends to enjoy.
In the present days of distrust and suspicion would I invite a “down and out” stranger into my home? Probably not. Gone is the “age of innocence” which, it seems we have lost to modern times.