The devastation of the Great Depression reached virtually every person in the United States. The rich lost their riches, the middle class became destitute, and the poor turned to dust and blew away. The financial impacts were obvious, immediate and overwhelming, but there were a number of other losses.
One non-monetary, but equally destructive, loss experienced by millions of Americans was that of faith. For every penniless bum and wandering hobo who prayed his or her way through the Depression, there was one who found no solace in religion. For some, God was deemed to have died. For others, the higher power had turned its back on them. Many more simply abandoned their faith, concluding that they had been on their own all along.
The rampant faithlessness among the nation's hoboes makes the life of Achilles Snail-Hair the Buddha one of the more surprising of the stories I've uncovered to date.
Achilles' path from a normal life to hobodom was unremarkable. He was the only child of young Greek immigrants. His father, a grocer, was accidentally crushed to death under a truckload of honeydew melons when Achilles was five. Before he turned thirteen, his mother was gone, as well. She was a hairdresser, and was giving her son a "snail do" when she badly burned her hand on a hot iron curler. The wound became infected, and within two weeks she had succumbed. From there, Achilles, who kept the snail hairdo for the rest of his days, went quickly from odd jobs to blah blah blah to hobo.
He had been raised Greek Orthodox, but there was little room in his difficult vagrant life for such strict and solemn worship. As the 1930s - and Achilles' twenties - dragged on, his faith waned. He kept mostly to himself, but when he met other hoboes, he was always warm, cordial and quietly friendly. He grew wise. He made no enemies, but many lifelong friends.
None of this is what makes his story stand out. What was unique was the way people sought Achilles, now called Achilles Snail-Hair the Buddha, for words of wisdom, hope and enlightenment. He was respected for his gentle, sage advice and insights, and loved for his genuine compassion and love for all of his fellow humans. His reputation grew, but as it did so, it turned into something it shouldn't have.
He was thought to be some kind of enlightened spiritual leader, a preacher, a Buddha, but the fact is, he had almost no faith left. He was just a really sweet little man, with a strong belief in the goodness of his brethren. If you asked him a question, he would smile thoughtfully and give you the answer. He was also short, and had a plump, round belly that protruded as though he might be a mannish-looking mother-to-be. In Hobo Nation, a quiet, wise, friendly man who looked like the Buddha was assumed to be a Buddha.
He was frequently found sitting as the Buddha sat - on Jefferson Rock, high above Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He made his home, so to speak, in the thick woods along the Shenandoah River, and lived out his years, content with his scarce material necessities. He continued to serve as the secretly-faithless spiritual teacher to a generation of the wandering poor along the B&O, happy to be of whatever help it was that he was being.
Yet another writing prompt, "PLUMP," from my friends at STUDIO 30 PLUS.