Hooverville Hobo

(reading time 5 minutes)

We exited the interstate highway.  The sun had just gone down, the rain stopped. There was ground fog all along the east side of the Mississippi River, in East St. Louis, Illinois. A foggy glow from the city lights hovered above St. Louis, across on the west side of the river.  A sign ahead cut through the fog identifying a well-known campground.  It gave relief to two weary travelers, us, ready to call it a day after a 300-mile drive in our motorhome.

We pulled up to a gate activated by an attendant, which glided open for our entrance.  It was the first time we saw such security at a campground.  A sign read: “Attendant on duty, 24 hours daily. Please blink lights at night for gate openings.” It gave us a comfortable feeling knowing it was secure.  We registered and paid in advance, before we were directed to where we could park.  The sight was level and clean with full hookups. It was in front of the laundry and shower room at the far end of the campground. I made all of the connections. We were ready for a cocktail and a snack, and then off to slumber-land for a great night to sleep.  Weather was perfect for late August. A breeze flowed through the motorhome open windows all night.

I was awakened in the morning by the usual sounds of other campers unhooking, and getting ready to hit the road in their individual directions.  Winnie, my bride, was not yet awake. I decided to have a glass of juice and walk around the campground while the coffee was cooking for our breakfast.  I hurriedly pulled on my jeans and polo shirt, then went to see where we were.  I saw the famous St. Louis arch on the other side of the river and the city rising up along the Mississippi river banks.  A truly exciting and historic vista.   The air seemed fresh, just right for a morning walk among the various campers.

As I walked along the inside of a high eight-foot fence, I noticed round rolls of razor wire along the top. I was reminded of prison grounds in television programs, a little much for a campground.  A neighboring camper was unhooking his motorhome and greeted me with “good morning.”  “Nice day,” I said. “Why all the razor wire and high fence?” He replied, “Did you notice the neighboring area when you arrived?”  “No, as a matter of fact,” I said. “We got here after dark and in fog.”  “Have you ever heard of Hooverville?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. “Shanty towns where homeless families lived in the depression during the Hoover administration.  They were literally shacks made of scrap lumber and corrugated metal sheets.”  “Right,” said my fellow camper. “Look across the street,” he said.  I hadn’t noticed until he directed my attention.  There it was, a real Hooverville, remnants of the ‘30s.  Scores of men were loafing and milling around typical shacks, just like the Grapes of Wrath.  I was now a little uncomfortable. I bade the neighbor farewell and continued with my walk.

As I walked around back of the shower room, an unkempt and dirty small man hurriedly emerged from a back service door of the building.  He bumped into me, almost knocking me down. The man reached to help me up, with his hands all over me.  I instinctively felt for my wallet. It was missing. He must be an itinerate from Hooverville, I reasoned.  He was small, and I didn’t see a weapon, so I grabbed him with a choke hold, and yelled, “The wallet, give me the wallet!” “OK OK,” he said, and handed me the wallet.  I put it in my pocket, released him and said, “Get out of here before I call the cops.”  He ran away and disappeared in the campground.

Out of breath and a fast beating heart, I hurried back to our motorhome, sat down and told my wife Winnie about the happening.  She was startled and said, “Let’s get out of here!” I agreed and started to change my clothes for the drive, when my wife Winnie said, “Russ, isn’t this your wallet on the bureau?” I reached in my trousers, and the wallet in my pocket was an old black leather one, with two dollars, and a picture of a lady and a little girl with the inscription:  “Please come home to us soon Daddy. We love you, Patty.”