“The Green-Willow Flute,” Friend, Mar. 1989, 32
The gaunt figure came ambling up the rutted road leading to our slab-sided house on the hill. He was dressed in tattered pants and jacket, and his cap was nothing more than a bill, four heavy seams, and a button on top. His shoes consisted of shoestrings, bits of worn leather, and cardboard.
Poverty was not new to us. Dad worked on a public works program for the county, and we knew what it was to do without. Mom, however, always planted a garden, and it was the garden that helped us survive those long years of the Depression. We never went hungry.
The hobo’s look of uncertainty made me feel sad as I watched him come toward us. Bobby, my oldest brother, had already run to tell Mom, and my two younger brothers just stood there trying to decide whether this bundle of rags was a threat or just a curiosity. As for me, I was impressed that anyone so thin could climb the hill to our house.
Mom came out of the house, letting the screen door slam behind her. With the warmth of an angel, she greeted this stranger with all the dignity and pleasure that one would give a close friend. “You look kind of beat, young man,” she said. “Just step over to the well, and I’ll get you a pan of hot water so that you can wash up.” Pointing to the well, she went back to the house.
We were no different from any of our friends in the community; none of us had running water in our houses. My dad had dug the well years before when he had first built our house, and we took turns drawing water from the well for everything from drinking to bathing and washing clothes.
In a few minutes Mom was back carrying a wash pan, soap, towel, and Dad’s shaving cream and razor. “You’ll feel just like a million dollars, young man, if you get yourself shaved. After you’ve had a bite to eat, I’ll give you a haircut, seeing as how you could certainly use one.” With this declaration, she turned to the task of fixing him breakfast.
The four of us stood wide-eyed and watched the stranger as he washed and combed his hair. Then very carefully he shaved off his long beard with Dad’s razor, leaving his face tanned at the top and white at the bottom. We looked at each other and giggled, but never did he speak to us or we to him. Perhaps he was as puzzled by us as we were of him.
I was second to the oldest child, and the only girl, so I felt that perhaps I should take over the duties of hostess. The smell of hotcakes came drifting from the open door, and even though we had eaten, it was a heavenly smell. The stranger’s eyes shifted to the kitchen door and back to us. Digging my big toe into the dirt, I said, “My mom’s a really good cook. You’ll like her hotcakes.”
The man just nodded and said nothing. Shifting from one foot to the other, he gazed around the yard, taking in the picnic table that my dad had built and the old cookstove sitting in quiet dignity on cement blocks beside the well house.
“Why don’t you sit down,” I said, moving toward him cautiously. I wasn’t sure whether Mom intended for this bundle of rags to come into the house or not, but I felt that good manners forced me to say something.
Again he nodded. Moving to the table, he threw his long, thin legs over the seat and collapsed like a deflated inner tube.
With a flourish of pot holders and warming pan, Mom pushed open the screen door with her shoulder. She carried a stack of hotcakes, homemade syrup, and butter and set them on the table. She turned to me. “Sissy, run into the house and get this hungry young man a plate and a glass. And bring the pitcher of milk while you’re at it.” When I returned, she gave the table a last-minute check, then said, “Now, young man, you just dig right into these hotcakes, and you’ll feel better in no time.”
I have never seen food disappear so fast in my life! He was so hungry that it made me want to cry. I was thirteen years old, and I had never been hungry a day in my life. Most of the time our food was plain, but we always had plenty to eat.
As fast as the hotcakes were eaten, Mom put more onto his plate. I poured milk into his glass as fast as it vanished down his throat. At last he stood up and wiped his mouth with his ragged sleeve. “How can I thank you, ma’am?” he asked as he backed away from the table. “I’d be glad to chop some wood for you to pay for my meal—or whatever else you could find for me to do.”
“Well, I’ll tell you, young man, we’ll talk about that after I give you a haircut.” Mom smiled at him, then sailed into the house for her clippers and shears. Long hair was not something that she could abide on a man. It was an absolute sign of sinful neglect, and getting it cut neatly was your first step on the road to salvation, according to her. Mom was sure that the eleventh commandment was—or should have been—“Thou shalt be clean, with hair trimmed.” In no time at all, the young man was seated under the big old weeping willow tree, having his hair expertly cut.
There was something about my mom that made you feel right at home. She visited with the stranger, and in no time he was telling us who he was and where he’d come from, just as though he had known us all his life.
His name was Tad Bellows, and he was barely nineteen. He’d been raised in Missouri and had three brothers and four sisters, all younger than himself. His father had died when he was sixteen, and he’d left home, hoping to find work.
As Mom cut his hair, I saw this whole new person emerge. My mind remembered him as he had arrived, and matched it against this clean-cut young man. I wondered if his mother and brothers and sisters missed him. I wondered what it would be like to be a hobo, riding the rails among strangers—hungry, cold, and tired. I knew that some folks were hard on hoboes, thinking that they were just bums and having nothing to do with them. I quickly looked around at the home and family that I loved, and I silently thanked Heavenly Father for them.
“Just a minute, Tad,” Mom said as she shook out the old sheet she had put around him while cutting his hair. “I think that Dad has an extra cap you might as well have. The poor thing that you have has had its day.” She hurried into the house and returned with a cap and one of Dad’s old jackets.
Tad shuffled his feet in embarrassment but took the things that she handed him and headed for the woodpile. All morning we could hear him chopping away, and by noon we figured that he must have cut a stack high enough to build a fort.
At noon Mom called to Tad to eat lunch with us, and he did so gratefully, filling himself as though he had not eaten all those hotcakes just a few hours before.
My brothers and I were all blond and curly headed. We were each just two years apart in age, and during the summer Mom dressed us all in overalls, even me. They were easier to clean and much sturdier than dresses. We never wore shoes in the summer, except to church on Sundays or when we went berrying, so we must have looked funny to Tad. Our eyes never strayed from his face as we sat on the picnic bench, eating our sandwiches. Our blond curls and freckled faces shone in the sun, and our bare feet swung in perfect rhythm.
All of a sudden Tad winked at us and pulled a piece of green willow wood from his pocket. Placing it to his lips, he began to play. Soft at first, the melody floated across the yard and into the summer air as though seeking escape. Tad’s long thin fingers moved swiftly over the tiny holes, and the gentle melody grew and danced in the air like butterflies in flight. I wanted to sing along with its beauty, but the lump in my throat made it difficult.
We sat spellbound by the magic of it all, and when he lowered his arms, we clapped our hands and cried out with glee, urging him to play some more. Instead, he stood up quietly, tapped the simple flute gently in the palm of his hand, and stuffed it back into his ragged pocket. Looking at each of us in turn, he said, “I made it from one of God’s little miracles.”
He worked long into the afternoon, and we wondered what Dad would say when he came home to find half the backyard stacked with chopped wood. We each had our own chores to do before Dad came home from work, so the hours passed swiftly. It wasn’t until our stomachs began to tell us that it was time for dinner that we realized how silent it was in the backyard.
Hurrying around the stack of wood, and stumbling over each other, we were stunned to find that Tad was gone! But lying on the chopping block was a package of flower seeds and—wonder of wonders!—the magical little instrument that he had played for us. Written in a childlike scrawl on an old scrap of paper was, “Beauty has nothing to do with money. It is a gift of God!”