It was morning. The first light of day was barely visible as he looked hazily over the horizon toward the bay. The warm Florida sun had just begun its long, slow climb over the tall pines that surrounded his little campsite.
Richard slowly made his way to an old folding chair next to what was left of last evening’s fire. Taking advantage of a few glowing embers that managed to survive the night, he used the end of his cane to rouse the fire back to life.
Even though the little campsite was only a stone’s throw away from a bustling interstate ramp, it was a tranquil and lonesome place. Secluded and hidden among the pines, it offered solace and rest to old Richard Webb. It was the place that he affectionately called “my summer home.”
Richard spent a few moments groping around inside an old weather-beaten ice cooler searching for the morning’s provisions. The old cooler had lost its ability to hold ice long ago, but still served effectively as a rustic pantry of sorts. Before long, his withered hands settled on a partial sleeve of saltine crackers, a small can of potted meat, and a bottle of water.
A satisfied smile made its way across his face. “A meal fit for a king,” he said to aloud to himself in a gruff and rusty voice. It wasn’t much, but he didn’t require much to find pleasure in life. Richard was a man of quiet contentment and innately filled with a sense of gratitude – understanding that there was always someone, somewhere with far less than he had.
As a younger man, Richard was strong and able. He had made his living in the construction business. And as it turned out, he was good at it. He had a strong back and unyielding work ethic to match. The details mattered to Richard and he had never finished a job that he was ashamed to sign his name to. But those days were only cherished memory now.
Thirty-five years on the job had taken its toll on the old fellow’s body. He might have extended his career by a few years more had it not been for a debilitating stroke which forced him into an earlier retirement than he would have liked.
The truth is that he hadn’t done alone. For more than forty years, wherever Richard was to be found, Ms. Betty wasn’t far behind. She was a feisty little woman – not more than five feet tall, but more than capable of keeping the cantankerous old Richard Webb on his toes.
Richard responded well to therapy and worked hard to regain what the stroke had stolen from him. Mostly, he fought for Betty. He was determined not to burden her. After all he thought, “This is supposed to be her retirement too.”
Unfortunately, victory would be short-lived. Betty had been diagnosed with breast cancer while Richard lay ill in the hospital, but she refused to tell him while he recovered. Her health faded quickly and she was hospitalized shortly after he returned home. She died within a month of being admitted. Richard was devastated.
Within the span of a single year, he had lost everything counted dear to him. In what seemed like the blink of eye, the course of his life was radically and irreversibly changed.
Despite the personal tragedy that Richard had already endured – fate would deal him one final blow. Richard would soon be homeless. The expenses that accompany illness and death were simply more than the cripple old man could manage.
This is Richard Webb’s story. Sadly, it’s not an uncommonly special one as homelessness stories go, but it’s Richard’s story nonetheless. This is the story that Richard shared with me as he leaned on his cane on a hot, humid August afternoon near Exit 22 just across the Bay Bridge on I-10 – a few yards from his campsite.
He’s one of the strongest men I’ve ever known. Though he was forced to trade a contractor’s clipboard for a cardboard sign, he’s still willing, if he isn’t able, to take life by the horns and to run with it. Richard would say it this way, “It ain’t much, but it’s my life. Might as well make the most of it.”
The world would be a better place if we would only follow the example of the old man at Exit 22.
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