Kenny was 52 years old when we met in 1977. I was exploring an area in the Missouri Ozarks with some college classmates when we came upon what appeared to be a dump in the middle of the woods.
I can't recall when we first laid eyes on this jovial hermit, but I still have some notes and photos that bring back this interesting character.
Luckily Kenny wasn't bothered that we'd come upon his secret world. He shared a toothless grin and offered to show us his home. First he took us to his main home, a converted school bus. We walked past an old round washing machine and onto a sagging roofless porch and climbed the stairs into his home.
We stepped inside a cluttered, filthy space with a sagging mattress in the corner and kitchen counters built beside the windows. It was hard to imagine children sitting in this bus once. Kenny opened up a tiny refrigerator (I don't recall how this bus was powered) and offered us some of his brew that filled a large, chipped crock. Kenny used a mug to scoop out a sample of the beverage made from brown sugar, yeast and rice. I declined politely. I have a feeling this brew was the key to Kenny's good spirits.
The Saddest Part
Kenny didn't act like someone who wanted to be pitied. In his somewhat tipsy state, he seemed pretty proud to be tour guide. When I asked how long he'd lived there, he pointed to a tree through the window. "I ate a pear once and now there's a tree." I'm not sure I believed that, but I did believe that at one point Kenny had made this bus his "home". There were signs of attempts long ago to decorate. There were curtains on a back window and photos tucked above the side windows. There was one photo of a young Kenny with what I presume was a wife and children. I was haunted by that photo for a very long time. He had been a surprisingly good looking man, with a family.
Next door to the bus was a trailer. I don't remember if we even went inside, but I remember we said good-bye at the door.
We promised Kenny we would come back and visit.
We did return the next winter when there was snow on the ground. Kenny didn't offer us any brew and I remember he seemed sober. Maybe it was just the fact that he had on more clothes, but I like to think he was healthier.
You didn't run us off with a shot gun or hide inside to keep us wondering. You shared a little of yourself and we respected you for that. Maybe you really were content living that life, but I selfishly hope your life got a little better.
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