BY ELDON ROOT
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In the late 20's and early 30's bums were a normal part of everyday life. When a freight train went by in Paso Robles, sometimes we would go down to the track and count the cars and count the bums. That was when we lived in town.
When we lived in the country, the bums kept to the highways on the way to . . . who knew where? Our family lived in Whitley Gardens within a stone's throw of the old cement highway U.S. 466. It is now called 46 West. Bums could be seen, trudging along, east or west, it didn't seem to matter. They all looked the same to me, gaunt, gray men, all hairy and with skin the color of a walnut.
Bums, hobos, tramps. We didn't have fancy names for them in those days. We took it for granted that they were homeless. If someone said they were "vocationally disadvantaged" you'd think that person was one sandwich short of a picnic.
Sometimes the bums would knock on the back door and ask Mom for a handout. She would always have a chore for them to do to earn their meal. Believe it or not they would do it. Usually the chore was to clean out the chicken house, much to my delight because that was also my chore, which I hated.
When they finished, Mom gave them fresh milk, prunes, and almonds, of which we had plenty, even in the depression. She would also scramble up a mess of eggs, accompanied by toast and fresh butter to complete the meal. They were usually polite and very grateful.
There were two drawbacks to being this sort of a good Samaritan, however. Quite often the next morning, one of the milk cows would be mysteriously dry. And this dry spell would only last one day. At the evening milking, "Old Betsy" would be full of that high-test, creamy milk once again.
The other drawback was that there must have been some secret sign the bums put out because if you fed one bum, you got another and another and another. They had a communications setup almost as good as the Bell Party Line.
One morning I was out early, tilting at imaginary dragons with a willow stick for a sword. In the barn I spied a bunch of blankets spread out as if they were drying or airing out. Maybe Dad had put them there for some reason.
Whatever, I saw them as an easy dragon to slay and one good swat wouldn't hurt Dad's blankets at all. I gave it all the strength I had.
A bum came roaring up out of those blankets all grizzly and snaggle-toothed. He must have thought the devil had him or something worse.
As for me? Have you ever seen a gray haired seven-year-old-kid? I'm sure I aged ten years in that moment. I was that scared. I high-tailed it for the house with the bum calling out to me, "Don't be scared kid, don't be scared."
Hah! It was way past time for scared. I was well into panic by this time. As soon as I got to the house, I explained to Dad in shattered syntax what I had done, and that there was a terrible bum in the barn. Dad went out and calmly told the bum that he was worried about people starting fires in the hay, so he ought to have asked permission before he settled in for the night.
Besides, the bum had really frightened the children. The bum allowed that he was pretty scared himself there, for a few minutes.
Actually, the guy was really polite and said he was sorry he scared me, but he just didn't know what was happening to him. As I remember it, Dad realized that the bum and I had a mutual part to play in this incident, and he made me say I was sorry, too.
I didn't need coaxing.