The people in the woods

Rick Ryckeley's picture

No one knows where the people in the woods actually came from or how long they had lived behind the vacant, dilapidated house on the corner of Flamingo Street and Beacher Hills. They had been there as long as any of us could remember. Some said they would always be among us.

Our parents warned us to stay away. Even a brief encounter could result in tragedy. But then again our parents were always warning us about stuff: “Don’t run with a pencil, you could trip and fall; if you stick your tongue out at your sister a bird will land on it; you can’t have a BB rifle because you’ll put your eye out; or — my personal favorite — don’t make an ugly face, it’ll get stuck that way.”

Okay, maybe that last one was for real – but you get my point. Our parents sure did worry a lot. So when, in the summer of our fifth-grade year, they said, “Y’all stay away from the people in the woods or something bad will happen,” we didn’t pay them much attention. Unfortunately, this time they were right.

Jimmy Bohanna – we all called him Jimbo for short — was a 10-year-old kid who hung around Flamingo Street. We didn’t know his dad had lost his job. We didn’t know his parents had very little money and no relatives they could go to for help. We didn’t know they had moved into the old dilapidated vacant house just to keep off the streets or that they had no gas or electricity and very little to eat.

We didn’t know any of that. To us, Jimbo was just a regular kid, just a little cleaner.

We played together all summer, swimming down in the arctic plunge of Cripple Creek. He helped us to dig a new room for Cliff Condos, our 3-year dig in the cliffs of the vacant lot next to Neighbor Thomas’s house.

Jimbo helped us win the Street Football Championship that year with that crushing block he threw on Preston Weston III. And through all of our adventures, Jimbo always had the cleanest clothes. Heck, his mama made him take a bath every day! And I thought once a week was bad.

At the end of the summer, it was Jimbo who threw the giant dirt clod that hit Bully Brad square in the back of the head and made him run away. Bully Brad didn’t mess with me for a whole month after that. Jimbo was a dead shot with a dirt clod.

That incident gave me the idea for the perfect Christmas gift for my new friend. A genuine David and Goliath slingshot. I saw a picture of it in Sunday school. Heck, I figured if it could bring down a giant, it could be used to fend off Bully Brad and his gang.

It took me two months, but I finally finished it. Unfortunately, I was never able to give Jimbo the giant killer slingshot I had made for him. He died just after Thanksgiving.

Back then we didn’t understand why we never saw him in school. Why, when it got cold out, he got that cough he never could get rid of. Why, when he got really sick, he just didn’t go to the doctor or take some bad-tasting medicine like Mom was always forcing us to swallow.

Now I know why. His parents couldn’t afford healthcare — like so many nowadays — so many of the people who live in the woods.

You may say that there are no people who live in the woods of our affluent county. You’ve never seen them. In our county — where most everyone lives in a big house with two cars, a golf cart and have plenty to eat — there couldn’t possibly be people who go to bed hungry, have worn-out clothes or even live in substandard housing with no money for heat.

“Not in our county,” you say. “I’ve never seen that.”

But what if there are and you just don’t see?

What if we’re too caught up in our everyday lives to notice the people who live in the woods, if we simply let them fade into the trees – like Jimbo and his family — then who will care for them? Who will bring those people hotdogs, cold drinks, a warm blanket and toys like we did for Jimbo?

A couple of wrong investments, a company going out of business, or one mistake made by us or our children that causes a vehicle crash with untold medical bills and our nest egg can be wiped out overnight. We too could become like the people who live in the woods: out in the cold, hungry, and sick with no money for heat, food or medicine.

This holiday season give to the needy — your time, your money, your heart. Not because you feel guilty. Not because you’re scared you or your children could one day become one of them. Give because you feel.

When you do, look into their eyes. You’ll see their silent gift back to you: eyes that moments before that were full of dark, gray hopelessness will be replaced with bright eyes brimming with tears of joy.

Someone actually saw them: The people who live in the woods.

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