Mississippi had some of the most picturesque oak trees in the world. One oak tree in particular stands out in my youthful memories, one my siblings and I affectionately called the Live Oak Hotel.
In Pass Christian, the small coastal town where I was born and lived during the peak of the Great Depression, our house nestled along the Louisville and Nashville railroad tracks on the corner of Railroad Street and Mercier Avenue.
The Live Oak Hotel was just about a half-mile down the tracks from the house, and while I have many memories of the L&N Railroad, those I like the most are the half-mile trips to visit that favorite old oak tree. It must have been several hundred years old. It was huge, with large limbs, and draped with Spanish moss that hung down all around, clear to the ground. The moss formed a screen around the tree, giving privacy to the hobos who often camped there.
Many times we passed the hotel and saw laundry hanging on the tree’s limbs and smoke rising through its branches. We knew there were travelers camping under the tree. They would wash their clothes in the nearby ditch and hang them out to dry. From a distance, we couldn’t see under the tree because the draping moss hid them from view.
At times, the hobos would see us and invite us to come under the tree. They would talk for hours as we sat on the ground huddled close, since our mother and grandmother warned us to beware of strangers. Soon enough, we lost all fear of these men and enjoyed watching them cook their skimpy meals in old, rusty tin cans. At times, some would ask if we would go home and ask our mother if she could spare an onion or a potato or two. Our mother was usually at work, and we children, being filled with generosity and pity, would go home and raid our cupboard and give them the food that we ourselves needed. We had seven mouths to feed and little money coming in. Our father was hospitalized at the Veterans Hospital, and Mother had to work on the WPA, with only a meager monthly wage. But I don’t remember her ever complaining about us feeding the hobos.
I will never forget the time I loaned Mother’s entire new set of aluminum cookware to two hobos who came to the house and asked to borrow some pots. The pots were sooty from cooking on the old kitchen woodstove, so I saw no harm in handing them over. Besides, I felt sorry for the hobos having to cook in rusty tin cans, and they did promise to return the pots as soon as they finished. I trusted them and thought to myself, “Mother won’t know about it. The pots will be returned before she comes home from work.” Not so! Here it was almost dark and there was no sign of the men returning the pots. I began to worry.
My mother had no sooner gotten in the house when my tattletale sister told her what I had done. Needless to say, I was patriotic; I saw stars and stripes, as the old saying goes. Besides whipping me with her favorite peach tree switch, she scolded me in a not-so-soft voice and sent me to bed without any supper. This punishment didn’t bother me because it was nothing new. Many times we went to bed hungry in those days. The whipping didn’t bother me much either, but it did upset me that our friends had not kept their promise.
Early the next morning, there was a loud knock on the back-porch screen door. Mother answered it and, lo and behold, there stood the two men to whom I had loaned the pots. They had cleaned all the soot off with sand, and the pots were as shiny as new. One of the men apologized for not returning them the night before, and he could not thank her enough for her kindness.
Mother’s face showed an expression of surprise, and she thanked the men for cleaning and returning her pots. She even offered them a cup of coffee, but they said they already had some and thanked her, just the same. They were going to hop a freight train and return home to their families.
Mother told me she was sorry she had scolded me so severely, but she stood firm on not ever loaning out her pots again. She also reminded me she was still paying the Jewel Tea Co. for her pots and could not afford to buy more. Others may not be as honest as those two men. She also lectured us for the umpteenth time about visiting the Live Oak Hotel. She might just as well have told us to quit breathing.
I will always cherish this time in my life, and I will never forget that beautiful old oak. I can imagine that it was the only tree in the world that could claim an award (if there was such a thing) for being so generous to provide so many men with shelter in a time of need.