A chill wind blew off the surrounding plains of Montana, sending eddies of paper and debris along the dimly lit streets of Billings, its principal city.
For almost two hours, I had scoured the town by telephone and on foot, looking for a hotel or motel, but everywhere was full with attendees for two conferences and the Montana State Rodeo.
I shivered. It was almost midnight; time to admit defeat. I had left Jean looking after our bags at the Greyhound bus depot; she would be wondering what had happened to me.
I turned into a side street to make my way back and spotted a dimly lit sign swinging in the wind. It read ‘Lincoln Hotel’.
As I approached, I saw a young boy standing in a pool of yellow light, banging on the entrance door. A tall, gangly, grey-haired black American fumbled with the lock and bolts to let us in.
I made my way across to the reception desk, only to be glared at by a short, round, scowling woman who snapped: ‘What do yuh want?’
Despite being cold, hungry, and tired from two hours of fruitlessly searching the city for lodgings, I replied optimistically, ‘I would like a room.’
‘Why? Are yuh homeless?’ she snapped in a throaty mid-western twang.
Cussedness from an unfriendly receptionist was the last thing I needed at that time of night.
‘Well, yuh can't stop here,’ she growled at me.
‘Why not?’ I enquired.
The aroma of fresh coffee from a large, modern coffee urn sitting on the counter smelled inviting. It contrasted sharply with the shabby furnishings of the reception.
‘Cos this is for homeless women and families,’ she snapped.
Desperate for somewhere to stay, I grasped at the only straw that came to mind: ‘Well, my wife is homeless too,’ I quickly rejoined.
‘Well, we do have passports to show that we are married,’ I replied.
‘Huh! Ah don't know about that. Ah’m gettin the supervisor.’
With that, she disappeared into a back office.
I was unsure whether she had said a room would cost us $6 or $60. She could have said $600 and I would have gladly paid it.
A few moments later, she returned with a kindly faced, giant of a lady who said firmly: ‘Ma name's Betty. Na, what's all this ah hear about yuh bein homeless?’
‘Well, yes. You see, we have just arrived on the Greyhound bus and...’
‘Goddam it! You’re a Limey!’ she interjected.
‘Yes, I am, as a matter of fact...’
‘Ah got a sekin cusin that lives over there, she comes from some place called Birdchester or somethin.’
Warming to the woman, I ingratiated myself by saying: ‘Yes, I know it; it’s a very nice place.’
‘Yuh know it? It’s near ta London ah guess.’
‘That's right,’ I fibbed.
‘Well, ah be danged! A Limey here in Billings,’ she mused. ‘Ah hear yuh lady’s with yuh, too. Well! Don't yuh worry none. Yuh go fetch her and ah’ll see about fixin yuh up with a cot.’
She turned to the black doorman, and yelled, 'Chuckles! Open up and let the gent out.’
I had no idea what sort of place I had walked into, but now was not the time to question it. A warm bed and a roof over our heads were in the offing and that had to be better than a cold hard bench at the Greyhound bus depot.
As I crossed the street, I looked back – on the side of the building, a large sign read: The Montana Rescue Mission for Homeless Women and Families. My traventurer’s luck had struck again!
Jean sat in the harsh light of the Greyhound bus depot waiting my return. She looked tired and resigned. ‘Did you find anything?’ she asked anxiously.
‘I’m not sure, we may be in luck, but don’t expect the Ritz,’ I said.
We gathered up our small backpacks and plastic shopping bags, one of which contained several weeks’ collection of brochures and maps from across America, the other with a new coat Jean had bought. We hurried over to the Mission, exhausted and disheveled; no one could have looked more homeless than us.
Before being allocated a bed, we had to fill in a probing registration form as to how long we had been homeless: where had we spent the last few nights? Did we have any food stamps or social security money? Were we claiming medi-care, and would we like to speak to a clergyman, a rabbi, etc?
Firmly believing that we are all but actors on the stage of life, we entered into the spirit of our new situation and answered everything with as much candour as possible, without jeopardising our potential bed for the night.
We were issued with freshly laundered sheets, and pillow shams, and then taken upstairs to a rather sad looking room with a huge, chrome, double bunk bed – big enough for the parents to sleep on the bottom, with two or three kids on the top.
‘Would yuh like a comforter for the night?’ Betty asked, with a friendly smile.
‘That would be real nice,’ I replied. I had no idea what a comforter was, but knew that to allow any opportunity to pass was a fool’s way of learning.
It was because of the rodeo that we had come to Billings, but due to an engineering seminar and a state conference for 600 teachers, we had found ourselves with no room at any inn, motel, or hotel around the city.
‘We’d love to go to the rodeo,’ I replied.
‘Ah’m working tomorrow night, so yuh can have my ticket, and ah guess Chuckles is workin too, so I’ll see about gettin his ticket for yuh.’
With that, Betty disappeared, leaving Jean and I standing in our new abode, clutching our sheets like a couple of ‘Orphan Annies’, not believing our good fortune. We looked at each other, and, like two children up to mischief, got a fit of the giggles. Here we were, eight years into our life of travels and once again, ‘Lady Luck’ had stepped in to save the day.
Betty returned with a comforter, which turned out to be a cosy duvet, she also had two complimentary tickets to the rodeo. Jean was so overwhelmed by her kindness that she gave a recently purchased sweater to one of Betty’s children.
It was time for bed; time to snuggle down under our comforter, to fall asleep to a ‘zzzz’ sound buzzing from the red neon light outside the window – or perhaps it was from Jean, who was already asleep.