The Hermit's Home
by Norris Chambers
Clifton and I talked about it a little, but pretty well dismissed it from our minds until one day when we were 'possum hunting up that way. It was an isolated section of an eight or ten mile stretch of rugged country where there were no roads. There were a few wagon tracks to some parts of the area, but generally it was not accessible to any vehicle. There were a few very small farms, but mostly it was just pasture land inhabited by beef cattle.
Red Creek wound through the low places between the hills and made its way, eventually, into Pecan Bayou and on through Lake Brownwood to other waterways to the gulf. There were a few deep holes that held water even through dry summers. A big rain brought a roaring torrent of water that overflowed its banks in all low places.
It was good 'possum country, and we usually hit pay dirt when we climbed the hollow trees in this vast area. It was on this hunt that we met the hermit.
We had built a big fire in a dry branch just above the creek bed and were in the process of skinning two 'possums. Suddenly, the brush parted and we were startled to hear a friendly exclamation.
"Hello, boys." We turned and were just as startled to see a very young man standing there.
"Looks like you got a couple of fine 'possums," he said, stepping closer to the fire. He was young, but his hair was long and he had a full face of beard. He was dressed in ragged blue denims and a shirt in similar condition. His shoes were intact, but in pretty poor condition.
We told him that the hunting had been good and inquired where he lived. Neither of us had ever seen him, and we thought we knew about everybody within ten or twelve miles.
"Oh", he returned, "my name is Ben Gray. I live up the creek here a little ways. What are you going to do with the 'possums. Most people throw them away, but I eat them. They are real good eating." We told him that we just left them where we skinned them.
He said he'd like to have them, if we didn't mind. Of course we were glad to let him have them. We had heard of people eating 'possum, but had never tried it. It was very good looking meat. Parts of it was pretty fat, but other parts looked very good. Ben took one of the animals and after taking a nice looking pocket knife out of his denim pants pocket, proceed to cut out three choice pieces of 'possum meat and skewer it on a willow switch that he cut from a nearby tree. He then stuck it over the fire and held it while it cooked.
While the meat was cooking, we talked about several things, and became quite friendly with Ben.
He told us that he lived alone and had been there about three years. "I don't have any family," he explained. He had been raised in an orphanage down near Waco and when he was falsely accused of stealing something, he ran away. He came to this area because the kind man who gave him a ride was going no farther than Rising Star. After walking in the country for several hours, he arrived here at night and camped on the bank of the creek. The area was isolated and there was plenty of food. He gathered pecans up and down the creek and sold them, along with some hides, for enough money to buy things he needed. He liked the place and started building his shelter.
"I don't need much." he told us. "Just enough for clothes and a few tools and some food items that I can't grow or find in the woods. I'm real happy here."
"Are you the hermit that they say lives up in this area?" Clifton asked.
" I guess so," he replied. "No one else lives within three or four miles of here. Once in a while Mr. Miller, who owns this land and the cattle, comes by on horseback. He says he doesn't care if I live here and have a little garden and fish and hunt."
We both thought it sounded great. By this time the meat was ready. It smelled great cooking. We decided to take a taste. I didn't think I was hungry enough to eat the whole piece, but I carefully bit off a small portion. It wasn't bad. I continued until I had eaten the whole chunk. Clifton was having similar doubts. But he managed to eat his, too. It was well past dinner time and had been a long time since breakfast. We both assured Ben that the 'possum was good. He told us that young 'possums were better. The one we ate was definitely mature and was a little bit tough.
Ben invited us to come see his living quarters. We walked off up the creek, Ben carrying the 'possums and Clifton carrying our hides.
We probably would not have seen his living quarters. There was a thick patch of brush near the bottom of a high hill, also covered in brush. We followed a trail to a flat spot a few feet up the incline, and on the side of the hill there was a home-made door. It opened directly into the hill. He opened it and we walked into a short hallway about three feet wide, lined with rock. The ceiling was of logs with the bark peeled off, placed side by side. The hallway opened into a room about 10 feet wide and 14 feet long. It, too, was lined with flat sandstone, placed one on top of the other without mortar. The ceiling was about seven feet from the floor and was made of logs. On the right side was an old ducking cot with a few blankets piled on it. On the left was a crude table, constructed of smaller logs. On top was a piece of sheet iron that had been flattened to form a smooth surface. This was his cooking and eating area. There were several lard buckets with lids arranged along the wall side and on one end was a big ten gallon can with a tight fitting lid. This was his flour bin. Probably the fanciest thing was the fireplace in the end of the room. There was an area about two feet wide and two feet deep made of rock. Directly from this box, leading up through the ceiling was about an eight inch steel pipe. I figured that he had salvaged it from an oil well site. On the bed side of the room was a large metal box with a lid. This was the type used around drilling rigs for a tool box. There were three or four wooden stools, apparently built from salvaged lumber. He invited us to sit and we did.
"It's real comfortable here," He explained. "I have everything I need. This cave is warm in the winter and cool in the summer."
"Don't you ever get lonesome?" I asked. He admitted that he did occasionally. Especially he missed not having a radio.
I told him I would bring him a crystal radio with a headset. "It doesn't use any batteries, and with a long antenna and a good ground it will get one station in the daytime and three or four at night.." This pleased him. "And," I continued, "why don't you come visit us. We live about three and a half miles south. We'd be glad to have you visit us."
Clifton told him that we would show him some 'possum hollows that almost always held a sleeping 'possum in the daytime.
He walked back with us so we could show him the hollows and where I lived. He came in the house with us and after a brief introduction, my mother offered to cut his hair. This pleased him. Apparently he hadn't had a haircut since leaving the orphanage. We gave him an old .22 rifle and a box of cartridges along with three or four old steel traps. Mama insisted that he take some canned vegetables and berries back with him. When he left he was a very happy boy. I told him I would come by in a day or so and bring the crystal set and some wire for an antenna.
We strung the antenna through the tops of some tall trees for about two hundred feet, and the crystal set worked well.
For the next year we saw each other often. We worked together shocking grain and when the thresher crew was assembled, he got a job traveling with the thresher. The thresher crew went from farm to farm during the grain harvest and camped where they were at night. This was hard work, but it was an enjoyable time for those involved.
I was at home for brief periods during the next three years. Mama and Papa said that Ben hadn't been around for several months and that he had told them on his last visit that he was thinking of joining the army. I heard later that he was in the South Pacific after Pearl Harbor, but never knew if he survived. We visited the cave on one of my visits home, and it was still intact. The door was closed and barred and the antenna was still strung through the trees.
Ben is the only hermit I ever met. Knowing him gave me a better impression of them and I like to feel like Clifton and I made his life a little better and started him on the road to a life outside of a cave.
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