Oprah Winfrey has featured some "Heroes in Hard Times," individuals who have pursued altruistic leadings. Seeing one of her programs recently reminded me of how I came up with one such pursuit.
Not long after I retired from teaching at the University of Missouri-Kansas City a decade ago and moved back to my hometown of Tucson, Ariz., my wife and I bought a Winnebago RV, and I couldn't wait to head for regular trips to scenic areas.
My fantasies were glowing. The vehicle had everything needed for a sojourning or vacationing couple – a closet-size toilet and shower, a kitchenette, and a booth where we could sit and gaze out the window, read, or write, or if needed, we could take down the table and use it to join the facing seats, thus turning the plaid cushions into a guest bed.
In the years we had the vehicle it spent most of its time parked in the alley behind our house. We took about a dozen trips in it, and then we bought a small second home in New Mexico, a run-down adobe casita, and parked the vehicle in the yard. I intended to use it as a studio for writing. Once more, for month after month between our brief stays renovating the house, the RV sat neglected, driven only now and then around the scenic surrounding hills to keep the battery charged.
In efforts to modernize the century-old casita, we went through a series of workers who were, to say the least, disappointments. But after many bad experiences we finally found a worker with many skills, truly a handyman, and he did what he was paid to do. He had carpentry skills, roofing skills, and was a good chum to talk to. However, he was also an alcoholic, an ex-convict, and a scapegoat, quickly blamed for any local crime.
He made some repairs on the Winnebago, which was just sitting there, a redundant vehicle. He himself lived in a battered school bus in a trailer park, a rigged wreck lacking all conveniences. When he was told that he would be evicted from that site he shared his dilemma with my wife and me as if we were surrogate parents. I felt embarrassed that we were holding onto an RV that was, compared with his miserable school bus, luxurious.
At first I encouraged him not to despair. Something would turn up. But as the date for his eviction drew near, my compassionate listening became ever more painful. I asked my wife if we shouldn't just give Billy the Winnebago. This was not altogether an altruistic leading, a vestigial virtue from my Boy Scout days, for I assumed our generosity might change our relationship somewhat. I had been paying him a salary that was twice as much as anyone else in town paid him. Perhaps he'd do a bit of volunteer work now and then. The house still needed a lot of work, including exterior painting.
I mentioned that hope. "There'll be no obligation," I said, as I dangled the keys to the vehicle, "but while we're gone if you want to do some volunteer painting or something you see that needs doing we'd certainly be appreciative. But we won't insist on it." I was happy; he was happy. I assumed my wife was happy, for she'd agreed to our decision.
I handed Billy the keys, and the next morning stopped in the post office and had the postmistress notarize the transfer of title. The lady lifted her eyebrows and said, "Are you sure you want to do this?" I said, "Sure, we're swapping it to Billy for some labor." The woman looked skeptical.
After I gave Billy the title, the Winnebago disappeared for a few days and I had no idea where he had taken it. He was no longer available as a worker, either paid or on a volunteer basis, for it turned out that a wealthy rancher a few miles away had hired him now that he had a home he could park on a nearby hill.
Since then I've spotted the white Winnebago atop the hill every time we've driven to and from New Mexico. It looks as elegant as Jefferson's Monticello. I was struck with deep nostalgia and regret that we had not gone camping at least once a month for the past several years. The view must be spectacular from up there. But the chummy employer-worker relationship is gone, the friendship has vanished, and the Winnebago I signed over to Billy is just another pipe dream.
Do I regret giving that dream away and receiving nothing in return? No, for sometimes we must sometimes practice the principles we preach even when they do not have the outcomes we'd prefer and that we may have been foolish enough to expect.
And therefore when I heard Oprah's program on "Heroes in Hard Times," I realized that I had come upon a notion that should be put into action.. There are thousands of RV owners whose vehicles are parked year after year in yards, lots, or alleys, and they could give them to the homeless. The government could encourage this by offering tax breaks to such donors.
Or they could just do what I did – let it go, which is the wise Hakuin Ekaku's advice, "letting go your hold." They had the chance to become campers, fishermen, and sojourners of national parks. They could have awakened in the wilderness, but they didn't. They could have slept on the roof and gazed at the stars.
However, is it not a good thing that a homeless man is now in out of the rain? Sometimes friendship is one-sided.