Rob Oxford: Camperman

Thursday, September 27, 2018

"Camperman" Joe
Sketch by one of the regulars at the Kaffeeklatsch
where Joe enjoyed his coffee
By Rob Oxford

Nearly 20 years ago we moved into the home we currently occupy and if truth be told, we have no plans of ever leaving. 

I often say that when the time comes "they'll be carrying me out of here in a pine box" or whatever it is they make coffins of these days.

At the end of our street there once stood what I considered to be a dilapidated old shack. It was, however, a home. A home that at one time hosted family get together's and holiday dinners. It had seen children off to school and welcomed them back home. 

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it was now a dilapidated old shack. So dilapidated in fact that its current owner lived outside... in a tent.

Overgrown with trees and brush, I am assured that it had seen much better days. In fact longtime residents of our neighborhood recall it as being a quaint little place with flower beds and a lawn that needed regular cuttings.

Sadly it now needed more love and attention than anyone could possibly provide. A prime piece of real estate, I am certain offers to purchase this corner lot were constantly being made.

To me, although I am now somewhat embarrassed to admit, it was an eyesore. New families were moving into our neighborhood all the time. There were newlyweds buying their "starter" homes, bachelors looking for "fixer uppers" as well as retired couples enjoying their twilight years.

On an given weekend, weather permitting, I'd find myself running to the nursery for flowers, plants or beauty bark. Each time I had to drive by that dilapidated old shack and each time "Camperman" would be sitting outside at a tiny card table with only one chair. "Camperman" is what my sons called him. After all, he "camped" outside... all year long.

At first I would act like I didn't see him. I would avoid eye contact pretending to be looking for something on the dash of my truck or on the seat beside me. Other times when I was wearing sunglasses, I was able to sneak a peak. Camperman on the other hand wasn't as inconspicuous, he was always watching.

As the years went by I started feeling more guilty for not waving as I passed by his home. Especially as my sons got older and became more curious about "Camperman." I wasn't sure how to respond. He was an odd fellow with a long white beard and long hair that stuck out from under his knit hat. He wore dark glasses, an overcoat, rolled his own and as far as I could tell, his only crime was he lived in a tent on property he owned...

One afternoon, I decided I couldn't hide from him any longer. He was a part of our community and belonged in our neighborhood. So, I purposely pulled up in front of his house (tent), introduced myself and immediately realized I had made the right choice.

His name was Joe and it turns out he knew more about me than I about him. He knew my wife and I walked our boys to school almost every day. He knew I worked at a radio station. He knew where I lived and he seemed to know that in ignoring his earlier attempts to be cordial, I meant him no disrespect.

From that day forward I would look for Joe as I drove past his home. I would slow to a crawl in order to give him a friendly wave, sometimes rolling my window down to say hello and he would always ask "How are those boys doing?" Eventually I started seeing him in other parts of the city and he would greet me with his hearty hello. Sometimes I would offer him a ride and on all but one occasion he said "No thank you".

The man I met that day was nothing like the man I had envisioned him to be. He was talkative, warm, funny, bright and had a smile a mile wide. His hands were rough but gentle to the shake and I was honored to have made a new friend. Although I was sorry it took so long.

While writing this "Ode to Joe", my wife reminded me that we put together a care package for Joe one Christmas. I had completely forgotten. It contained a flashlight with extra batteries, hand warmers, some candy, peaches, apples and pickles that my wife had canned, as well as an assortment of other little goodies that any man living in a tent would appreciate. Each item individually wrapped in colorful Christmas wrapping and placed in a basket near his tent. We never heard whether or not he liked his Christmas Gifts and it didn't matter, we liked giving them to him.

One day I heard Joe was ill and that he may not be coming home. That night I prayed and I didn't pray all that often. When he eventually passed I was sad. I would no longer have the opportunity to wave at our "Camperman". I would no longer see him walking about town. He would no longer ask "how are those boys?"

A memorial was held for Joe at the Kaffeeklatsch on Lake City Way, a place he would visit every day. I took my wife and sons. We heard stories about Joe and met his nephew, the only family member in attendance. 

Owner Annette told me Joe would come there for coffee and chess. She said he was a hoarder, but said so with a smile. She had just opened her little coffee shop and occasionally asked Joe if he had this or that, to which he would reply "Yes, I have 3 of them". The next day he would have only 2.

There now sits a beautiful two story home where Joe's "dilapidated old shack" once stood. But before Joe's things were cleared out and the property was sold, I went and had a look around. I wanted something of Joe's to remember him by and I found it.

Hanging from a tree was a wind chime of pink flamingo's. It was perfect! I carefully took it down and today it hangs from the arbor that decorates our front walk.

I will never forget you, Joe Patrykus. Nor will I ever forget the lesson you not only taught my sons, but their father as well.

Everyone deserves respect, everyone deserves love and you certainly can't judge a "Camperman" by the tent in which he chooses to live.


Unknown September 29, 2018 at 9:51 PM  

What a sweet tribute to a unique man. Thank you for publishing it.

Unknown September 30, 2018 at 8:18 AM  

A lovely story with big lessons for us all. People are social. Be kind.

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