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28 September, 2012

THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER WAS A HOBO

I was doing some work on a special project recently and was reminded of an era in Canadian history that is all but gone and forgotten.

The 1920s and 1930s were unquestionably the leanest and most difficult period of the 20th Century.  The country was still in the throes of getting back on its feet after World War 1 when it was plunged into more than a decade of The Great Depression.  No one escaped the devastating effects of the depressed "Dirty Thirties".  Unemployment was at an all time high and there was a general tightening of the belt at all levels of society.  People out of necessity learned to make do with very little, relying on thrift and resourcefulness for survival.
Many who lost their jobs in the 1930s, women included, were forced to leave their homes in search of a better life.  In most of the cases they felt like a burden to their families or felt ashamed because they had no jobs and no money.  As they drifted across the country, they relied heavily on the generosity of others for subsistence.  It became the era of the "hobo" (not to be confused with tramps, bums or yeggs).  Hobos were simply people who were down on their luck through no particular fault of their own.

As a youngster growing up in Southwestern Ontario in the late 1930s and early 40s, it was not unusual to see at least one or two hobos passing through my hometown of Dresden every day, carrying their worldly possessions in a sack flung over their shoulder.  Most of them "rode the rails" and would come into town on Pere Marquette freight cars, a dangerous mode of travel to say the least.

The Canadian Division of Pere Marquette included lines in Windsor and Sarnia via Dresden and Blenheim through to St. Thomas and (via trackage rights) east to Buffalo, so our hobo friends came from a wide area of the country and from both sides of the border.

One hot summer evening around supper time, we had a knock at our front door.  I saw the unfamiliar, dishevelled figure of a middle aged man on the other side of the screened door. "How can I help you?" ask my mother.  "I was wondering, lady, if you could spare a sandwich...I haven't had anything to eat since yesterday," came the reply.

My mother invited him to have a seat on our front porch, brought him a large glass of ice water and proceeded to fill a plate with hot roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy and vegetables -- exactly what we ourselves were going to have for supper that evening.  She finished off the handout with two pieces of bread and butter and a generous slice of lemon meuringe pie (there'd be no seconds for my dad that night).

In no time at all, our guest(?) was knocking on the door again with empty plates in hand.  "Thanks very much lady," he said.  "I feel just as good now as if I'd had a full course meal."

My mother was speechless, hardly knowing how to take the comment.  We sat silent as the man made his way down the sidewalk.  When he was out of hearing distance, we broke out in uncontrolable laughter over what was truly a lefthanded compliment.

From that day on, I never finished one of my mother's meals without saying, "Thank you very much lady...I feel just as good now as if I'd had a full course meal."  It became a family saying that did not go away with the passage of time.

I'd give anything today to be able to repeat that hobo's words just one more time.

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