During the depression even our small Midwest town grew familiar with homeless wanderers. They were chiefly men who rode the rods or hitchhiked in, looking for jobs or, in most cases, for any work they could exchange for a meal or two.
We 10-year-olds called these men ''hobos,'' for want of a better name; but we knew they were not ''bums.'' Whenever we saw one, with his crude bedroll-haversack slung across his shoulders, we knew that, if he stopped overnight, he'd stay in the ''hobo jungle.'' Situated in the southeast corner of town, about fifty yards from the stockyard and close to the railroad tracks, the jungle was a clearing in a sparse circle of trees bordered by bushes on all but the track side.
We boys knew the place well. On most summer days we walked past it along the tracks on our way to play in the pastures and woods of the nearby farms. We had investigated the jungle when it was unoccupied - had noted the circle of charred rocks where campfires had blazed, the bare-beaten earth of the clearing, the grassy areas beneath the trees where bedrolls had been spread. However, we never intruded when anyone was there.
Late one afternoon, as four of us - Aub, Norrie, Walter, and I - returned townward along the tracks, we spied smoke rising from the jungle. ''Whoever's there,'' Aub said, ''probably came in on the 2:30 freight.'' When we drew opposite the clearing we saw three men squatting around the fire - and also smelled an exotic, fruity aroma that wafted from the steaming billycan hung over the fire. We stopped, gazed, inhaled that aroma.
The men glanced across at us, and then the eldest, who looked about 30, waved a friendly hand. ''Hello, boys. Come on over.'' We hesitated a moment, exchanged inquiring looks with each other, and crossed over.
The men made room for us by the fire. Where'd we been? In the country. Doing what? Playing cowboys-and-Indians and swimming in the creek. Heading home? Pretty soon.
They had come in on the freight a few hours earlier - had been in Mankato, looking for work. Did we know of any around here? No, but we'd ask when we got home.
''It'd be nice if something turned up,'' sighed the youngest, still in his teens. ''I'm fed up with riding a freight into town, looking all day for work that don't exist, and then hopping another freight out next day.''
''Might's well o' stayed in Arkansas, and at least starved amongst kin,'' said the third, grinning thinly.
Standing near the campfire, we examined the contents of the billycan - a bubbling mixture of water, ripe wild grapes, and chunks of peeled apples. ''That's our supper,'' said the eldest, ''all we could scrounge up after we got in.''
''It sure smells good,'' Norrie observed.
The man nodded, smiling, and asked, ''Would you all like to eat with us?''
We gaped - then grinned. Would we? And how!
''Can we bring something for the meal, too?'' Aub burst out. Of course. Anything at all. We boys turned out our pockets and produced 24 cents - enough for a loaf of bread, a can of pork and beans, and a small can of condensed milk. Aub ran off to buy them. Walter, who lived nearby, hurried off to fetch spoons and plates for us boys, plus salt and butter. I ran off to help, too.
''Oh oh,'' I thought, as I neared home. ''What if Pa and Ma won't let me go back?'' After all, the men were strangers - and ''hobos'' at that - and the dining place was the ''hobo jungle.''
Ma's eyes widened when I told her what we were doing. She looked questioningly at Pa. ''What do you think?'' My heart in my throat, I waited. If Pa said, ''No'' that was it; he seldom reversed a decision. His face impassive, he said, ''You'd better give him some sugar to take along.''
Once returned to the jungle, we resumed our visit with the men. We learned that they had been traveling throughout the South and Midwest since early summer. ''But where there's been jobs opening up,'' the eldest said, ''they go to local folks. Which figures.'' And the youngest confided, ''Not everyone's treated us as friendly as you boys.''
At length came the pronouncement: ''Food's ready; pitch in.'' And we did, wholeheartedly. No matter that the menu was skimpy and the servings small.
In the nearly fifty years since that evening, the ''adventure'' has shrunk to its true dimensions. Nevertheless, it retains a special significance for me. The men had not let hardships overcome their better natures. And we - and our parents - instead of turning away from them because of suspicion or a sense of superiority, had responded warmly.
It doesn't take a depression, a ''hobo jungle,'' or a meeting with strangers to foster it. All that's needed is to follow the example of the eldest hobo - smile and say, ''Come on over.''