This is not Richard
I never took his picture, but this internet photo reminds me of Richard and his house-truck. The man in the photo looks a bit like a playful, less bearded version of the Richard I remember.
Fall Break of 1976
I met Richard while camping in the Ozarks with my friends Karen and Jan. Of course, some college students head for Cancun, but Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park was the best we could do. Instead of giggling over margaritas, we laughed over bowls of campfire stew.
After a chilly night in the tent, we headed to the Black River, which was probably more entertaining than a beach anyway. On that warm October day, the water had attracted lots of tourists wanting to play in the maze of boulders and waterfalls and swirling pools. We took a few turns tumbling down slick rock slides and stumbling back up to torture ourselves again.
And then we rested on the warm rocks to let our bruises begin to heal. Eyes shut, we listened to the roar of the water and the muffled squeals of children... with a little drunken hollering mixed in.
Occasionally we sat up and amused ourselves with some people watching. The distant children looked like elves and fairies as they hopped effortlessly from rock to rock...a sharp contrast to the noisy beer drinkers who fumbled clumsily with their 6-packs and cassette players. We 3 quietly teased about how someday we needed to get us some of them "Handsome Ozark Mountain Men "
There was one person we observed who didn't fit in, though. He had a long untended beard and white gauzy pants rolled up to the knee. He sat alone on a nearby rock for much of the afternoon. We didn't know if he was meditating, writing poetry or planning the next bank robbery.
We ended up chatting with the bearded man named, Richard. He seemed soft spoken and kind and a little mysterious. He said he had been fasting for a few days. He planned to start a hike the next day and hoped to finish at Elephant Rocks (another boulder filled park in the Missouri Ozarks) in time for the full moon on Friday. We hoped he could make it since he already looked pretty thin.
Richard seemed a bit eccentric to us, but there was nothing awkward as we sat chatting. He seemed like an amused older brother, as we shared funny stories and brainstormed ideas for silly Halloween costumes. He took us to the parking lot to see his "home" which was an old bread truck, covered in faded red paint. There were curtains in a window and even a little porch attached to the back. He gave us a loaf of bread before we said good-bye, reminding us he was fasting. We thanked him and told him to call if he ever made it to St. Louis. "If you're not fasting, we'll cook you up a big healthy meal!" We assured him.
St. Louis Visit
I must have given him my phone number because a week later I called Karen and Jan in a panic. "I didn't think he would REALLY call! He's coming to town and we promised him dinner!" So Karen and Jan came over to my duplex and we spent an afternoon making a huge mess trying to prepare a special feast for our vegetarian friend. By 8:30, the 4 of us were seated around a candle lit table eating scalloped eggplant, salad and potatoes along with homemade bread. The food was surprisingly delicious, but the atmosphere was surprisingly uncomfortable. It felt like we 4 were on some kind of a dreaded blind date. It was as if our group didn't know how to converse when we weren't sitting on sun baked rocks, lulled by the sound of the water.
Distracted with Dessert
Luckily we had invited some other friends to join us for our grand finale of Baked Alaska. The picture to the left is what it should have looked like. Ours was a melted disaster.
The extra guests broke the ice with new energy and jokes and stories...for a while. Then, Richard pulled out his guitar.
In 1976 it wasn't unusual to have a guitar come out at a gathering. Singing could be a cure for a dull party. But Richard's guitar playing added a whole new tension to our group. He squeezed his eyes shut while his hands almost spastically plucked at the strings. The melody he sang seemed to clash with the notes of the guitar.
Sad and Lonely
Maybe Richard's singing stirred up some old memories, because before long he began talking about a wife and 2 kids that he had lost touch with. In a soft voice Richard began to share his disappointment in himself and the world. I can't remember the specifics of the things he hated about the world, but he said he felt powerless to change any of it. He figured he would pretty much live the life of a hermit and concentrate on trying to change himself instead of the world. I suddenly realized how very sad and lonely this man was. I thought he had just been quiet and thoughtful.
Thank you, Richard
I was relieved when your red house on wheels pulled away from my curb. Your sadness scared me and I suddenly began to worry about what could happen when you invite an unhappy stranger into your home. So thanks for NOT being all those things that we read about in newspapers. Thank you for not overstaying your welcome or doing worse. But mostly thanks for sharing a little bit of your sadness. At 19, I was concerned with little more than my college world. It was good for me to stop and really think about the life of another.
I hope you're still alive somewhere. I like to picture you sharing your life with another person, maybe in a real house. But those are my wishes. Mostly I just hope you found happiness.
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers