Even though Rusty was twenty feet away, I could smell him. He appeared to be a typical street alcoholic. His reddish-brown hair was matted down. His brown eyes were a bit glassy and dull. His tan, weathered face had undoubtedly seen better days. It was January, 2006. I was volunteering for the Homeless Census in Oroville, California. Rusty's hands and fingers trembled while the stench of body odor permeated the air around him. In the past year, I had become quite familiar with the smell of who knows how many layers of dried sweat on both skin and clothing. I wasn't just volunteering for one day; I was working with the homeless frequently for my Master's thesis. Specifically, I was interested in rural and small-town homeless men who were Vietnam War veterans.

This wasn't an easy group to deal with. Many were paranoid, elusive, and had no interest in being studied by me, a twenty-six-year-old Latina. Also, this population was diminishing. They were all over fifty and tended to have short life spans. That's what brought me to Oroville. I was told there were a number of homeless Vietnam vets in the area.

Rusty, like most of the others, seemed willing to participate in the census because he would receive a ten-dollar voucher that could be used at local grocery stores. I asked him the basic questions:

"What is your age?"


"How long have you been homeless?"

"Over five years."

I finally got to the question I cared about most: "Are you a war veteran?"

"Yup. I was in 'Nam."

After completing the form, I gave Rusty his voucher and said, "Could I ask you a few more questions?"

"'Bout what?"

"About your life."

He looked down and smiled the weakest smile I'd ever seen. "Maybe some other time," he said as he walked away.

Later that day, I reviewed my filled-out paperwork with Ed, the local census organizer. When I got to Rusty's form, I gave Ed a physical description of Rusty and asked if he knew him.

"Rusty? Sure, I know him," Ed replied. "He's been floating around Oroville for years."

"Do you think I could talk to him again for my thesis work?"

"He won't be too hard to find," Ed said. "Rusty comes by the shelter for lunch a few days a week and I see him around the post office every now and then." Ed mentioned five other guys I should follow up with who also ate lunch at the shelter regularly. So, with the Homeless Census winding down, I visualized my next volunteer opportunity: serving lunch at the shelter.

During the winter of 2005-2006, homelessness was on the minds of many Americans. A few months earlier, Hurricane Katrina had made thousands homeless in the Gulf Coast states. Even without a hurricane, we had our fair share of homeless people here in rural, northern California.

The Gold Country Shelter provided overnight lodging for up to 110 people. The shelter was often full, especially on cold nights. Families and women with children received first preference for bed space, then single women, and lastly single men. I learned Rusty and the other veterans I was interested in never spent the night there. They only stopped by for occasional meals. These guys preferred to sleep under bridges or in makeshift camps in wooded areas within walking distance from town.

The second time I saw Rusty was on my third day serving lunch.

"Hey, remember me?" I said while dishing him some mashed potatoes and green beans.

He squinted and looked deeply into my face and said, "Yeah, the girl with all the questions."

Rusty continued down the cafeteria line and received the rest of his lunch servings. A few minutes later, we had a lull in the lunch line and I asked Annie, the supervisor, if I could take a break. She knew I was there to get data for my thesis, so she said, "One of your guys is here, huh?"

"Yes," I replied.

"You go girl," she said.

Rusty was eating alone at the end of a long table. I walked up slowly and said, "I hope you like the potatoes and beans. Those came from me."

He looked up and gave me that weak smile of his and said, "They're real good. Nice and hot too."

"My name's Elena."

"I remember. Elena Lopez," he said.

"I'm impressed! You remember my name from the other day."

"Sometimes I'm good at rememberin' and then other times I've got kind of a fried brain."

"What do you mean a fried brain?" I asked.

Rusty paused for a few seconds and said, "I used to drink a lot more than I should've and it messed me up. Screwed up my body and my brain. Some days it feels like my brain is fried."

"Are you still drinking alcohol?"

"No. I quit almost a year ago. Tryin' to change my ways. Tryin' to get these hands to stop shakin'. Tryin' to un-fry my brain."

"Well, your brain can't be too fried, because you remembered me and my whole name."

"I think it helps that you remind me of someone," he said.

"Who do I remind you of?"

Rusty paused again and said, "Someone from a few years back."


Rusty looked down and said, "I don't mean to be un-polite, but I think I better eat this food while it's warm."

"Okay," I said, "we'll talk another time."

Over the next several weeks, I had a few more lunch dates with Rusty. They were typically brief, but often informative. I learned all four of his grandparents had moved to California from Oklahoma and he was born and raised in Clovis, California. His mom and dad owned and operated a small truck farm where they grew a wide variety of vegetables. Rusty and his brother, Bob, worked on the farm after school. After Bob and Rusty graduated from high school, the family farming operation went belly up because it could not compete with big corporate vegetable growers. Rusty's mom and dad moved to nearby Fresno. His dad was able to find work as a mechanic and his mom worked part-time at a dry cleaner.

Bob was a year older than Rusty. They played baseball together on the Clovis High School team. Rusty was the second baseman and Bob played shortstop.

"We were a pretty good double play combination," Rusty said. Having extra-curricular activity during the busy spring farming season was not what their father would have preferred. Bob and Rusty had to put in extra farming hours on the weekends in order to play baseball.

"My parents wanted us to get a good education and do fun things like baseball," Rusty said. "They always wanted the best for us, but they had a tough business to run and they needed me and Bob to do our part."

Annie, the lunch counter supervisor, was very impressed with everything I was gleaning from my conversations with Rusty.

"That guy's been coming in here for years and he's hardly said a word to anybody," she said. "I think I need to get more outgoing folks like you to volunteer!"

One day, I was having a very good discussion with Rusty. He was forthcoming and articulate. It definitely wasn't one of his fried brain days. I thought this might be a good time to ask some tough questions.

"Are your parents still alive?"

"No. They both died in the 1980s."

"When you talk about your brother, Bob, it's always when you were kids. What's Bob doing now? Do you know where he lives?"

Rusty swallowed hard, and said, "Bob died in Vietnam in 1972."

"I'm very sorry to hear that," I said.

Rusty looked off in the distance. I wasn't sure if this was the time to ask, but I did anyway.

"When I was doing the census with you, you said you were a Vietnam vet. What years were you over there?"

"'69 to '72."

"Did you see much combat?"

"I don't want to talk about that," he said in a deadpan voice.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry. I'm just interested in learning about that time."

Rusty stared off in the distance and said, "You know somethin', Bob and I thought we was doin' the right thing." Tears began to form in the corners of his eyes. "But what was it all for? What good did it do? There was nothin' good about that war."

I reached across the table and touched his hand lightly. He kept looking off into space and continued, "I really feel for the kids comin' back from Iraq right now. You'll never understand what they're goin' through and what they're gonna keep goin' through. At least America learned one lesson from Vietnam and that's to 'Support Our Troops.' Too bad it came about thirty years too late. At least those kids from Iraq have some support from the American people, 'cause back in the '60s and '70s we didn't. I had a woman spit in my face right after I came back from 'Nam." He paused for a few seconds. I held his hand a little tighter.

"I just hope Iraq will teach us the other lesson we shoulda learned from Vietnam. You know what that lesson is?"

Before I could answer, his eyes narrowed and he said loudly and firmly, "The other lesson is to not wage those kinds of foreign wars in the first place. Because if you think about it, if you really think it through, wars like that are downright un-American!"

This was the most assertive I'd seen Rusty.

The next two discussions with Rusty were less serious. We both seemed to need more lighthearted conversation. He even joked that he didn't want to make my boyfriend jealous. I told him I didn't have a boyfriend right now, to which he replied, "Maybe I'll have to buy you lunch sometime then."

At this point, I let him know I was doing academic research. I didn't want him to expect something more from the relationship and I had an ethical responsibility to let him know. He took it well. In fact, he seemed a bit relieved. He must have been wondering why I was spending time with him. Now it made sense to him. To my delight, in our subsequent conversations, he became more open about his life and provided more detail.

"I'm mostly White, but I'm part Cherokee-Choctaw," Rusty said. "That side of my family has had some problems with alcohol. We don't process alcohol like Anglos, Hispanics, Blacks and Asians do. It's just different for us."

"Do you think your genetic make-up contributed to your alcoholism?"

"Big time. I'm not sayin' my drinkin' is all due to my blood chemistry or my genes or whatever, but I know it's part of why I have a problem. I think you'd have to experience it yourself to understand what I'm talkin' about."

Now that I was building rapport with Rusty, and he was speaking so frankly, it gave me an opportunity to loop back and ask some unresolved questions.

"A while ago, you said I reminded you of someone from a few years ago. Who is that?"

"My wife," Rusty said.

"Your wife? Wow. Are you still married?"

"No, she died in a car wreck."

His eyes got the same sad, teary look I had seen when he mentioned his parents and brother had died.

During my research with homeless people, I had seen a pattern, albeit not a surprising one: time after time there was a lack of family support. In many cases, the family was still around, but they were estranged from the homeless individual. Most of the guys I interviewed had burned a lot of bridges with friends and family. Rusty seemed different from most of the others. He was such a gentle soul. Rusty's case seemed to have little or no estrangement, just a lot of close relatives who had died.

"Were you married long?" I asked.

"Five years. The best five years of my life."

"So, I really remind you of her?"

"Yes. Her voice was a lot like yours. She looked a bit like you and she was short like you. She was Hispanic."

"What was her name?"

"El nombre de mis esposa era Juanita," he replied without hint of an accent.

"Juanita. That's a beautiful name," I said.

"She was a beautiful person, both inside and out."

"What was she like?"

His eyes welled up a little more. "She was an angel and was always givin' to others. That's another thing I see that you share with her."

"Thank you, Rusty, that's very nice of you to say that."

"We had so many good times together. Every day was full of jokes and laughter. We loved each other so much."

"Did Juanita have a job?"

"Yes. She worked as a nurse."

"I still don't know what you did for work. What kind of jobs did you do after you got back from Vietnam?"

"When I first got back, I worked as a welder. It went okay for a while, then I started drinkin' too much and spent a few years driftin' around. I was a real old-fashioned hobo in the late '70s and early '80s. I traveled on trains, worked odd jobs here and there to get by, and drank as much as I could get away with. After the war, I never felt like I fit in, and I guess bein' a bum was my way of dealin' with it. I kept movin' around and sometimes I had a roof over my head and sometimes I didn't. After a few years of that, I guess I got tired. I came back to Fresno and saw my folks for the first time in years. They was really worried about me. They said I looked like I was turnin' into an old man way before my time and they was right. The life was killin' me. My parents got me in a rehab program and I got off booze. After rehab, I picked up some weldin' jobs and started takin' classes on how to be an auto mechanic, just like my old man. I did pretty good and got a job at a Volkswagen dealer. Eventually, I got certified as a V-Dub specialist and started makin' really good money. I paid my folks back for the rehab program before they died. My mom and dad died within six months of each other and they died thinkin' I was clean and sober and a good person."

Rusty was on a roll, so I didn't interrupt.

"I had a lot of good years workin' as a V-Dub mechanic. I had friends from AA that I hung out with and we kept each other on the right path. I played softball in the Fresno Parks Department adult league, even played a little golf. I had a pretty normal life, had a few girlfriends and finally seemed to be puttin' 'Nam behind me. Then in 1994 it got even better. I met Juanita. She was the sister of a guy that worked at the dealership. When we met, I was forty-three and she was twenty-nine, but that gap in age didn't matter a bit—we just clicked. We got married less than a year after we met."

Rusty paused and said, "I've been doin' all the talkin'. I know you, Elena, you probably got questions for me."

I swallowed before I asked this question, because I was afraid it might invoke tremendous pain for Rusty. When Rusty mentioned Juanita had died in a car wreck, he didn't say if she was alone. I said a silent little prayer to myself, because losing a child is perhaps the most painful thing a person can experience and Rusty already had a life full of loss. I swallowed again, took a deep breath and asked, "Do you have any children?"

Rusty broke into a wide smile, "Yes. I have two kids. A boy and a girl."

I sighed loudly and said, "Oh, Rusty, that's wonderful! What are their names?"

"Mauricio and Carolina. Good Spanish names, no?"

"Si," I replied. "How old are they?"

"Mauricio just turned ten and Carolina is eight."

I smiled and asked, "Where are they?"

Rusty looked off to the side and shyly said, "They live out of the area."

By now, I had spent enough time with Rusty to know when he didn't want to talk further about something. So, we ended this session. For the time being, I assumed that Juanita's parents or other relatives were raising his kids while he was dealing with his issues.

I always try not to judge others, but I found it hard to understand how someone could not be with their children, especially for lengthy periods. Although I'm not a parent, I often imagine having kids and the thought of being away from my own young children seems, well, unimaginable. I think of my own parents who had incredibly hard lives as farmworkers, yet they were there for me and my three brothers, every day of our lives. It still seems like a miracle, but my parents—and my older brother who was also a farmworker—helped me financially during my first year of college.

A few days later, I met Rusty at the shelter.

"Rusty," I said, "for my research project it's important for me to understand how you became homeless again. You were homeless off and on after the war, got clean and sober, got a good job and had some great years with Juanita. What happened after Juanita died?"

Rusty looked off in the distance; I thought we might need to delve into this another time. Then, he started talking.

"You know when you go through rehab and then you go to AA and they keep tellin' you once an addict, always an addict? Well, they was right. I hadn't had a drop of alcohol in years, but after Juanita died, my world came crashin' down. I got so depressed. It was different than after the war, but I turned to the same crutch I used before. I started hittin' the booze again. At first, I thought I could just do it a little—you know, like medicine to ease the pain. I tricked myself into thinkin' I could drink a little here and there and not have it take over my life like it did when I was younger. Boy, was I wrong! Before I knew it, I went down deeper than ever before. When I was younger, for a lot of those years I was what they call a functional alcoholic. Back then, I could work and get by even though I had a drinkin' problem. This second time around, I was pretty much a dysfunctional alcoholic. I was a mess. The only thing I did steady was I always took care of my kids, but I lost everything else."

"First, my job went out the door. The V-Dub dealership fired me. Can't blame 'em. I was missin' work all the time and was too screwed up to do a good job on the days I showed up. Then I lost my house. Got foreclosed on. I rented an apartment for a few months and got evicted when I couldn't pay the rent. I lived in my car for over a year. I couldn't stand for people I knew in the Fresno area to see me all screwed up and livin' out of a car, so I worked my way up to Oroville and I've been here ever since. A few months after comin' to Oroville, my car got towed 'cause the license tabs was out of date. By then, I didn't have money to pay for the vehicle licensin' or the towin' charge, let alone both."

"So, I became full-fledged homeless. The last few years, I've been livin' in the woods just outside of town. I know a couple other vets who camp in the same area. We have our own little shelters just far enough from each other to have a little privacy and not listen to each other snore, but close enough that we can look out for each other. We call ourselves the Three Musketeers. One of 'em calls me Sir Rusty. He even gave me this knight ceremony a few weeks back where he touched my shoulder with a piece of wood that looked like a sword and pronounced me Sir Rusty. We're all a little crazy, but we get along for the most part.

"Like I told you before, I haven't had a drink for almost a year. Problem is I'm kinda old and broken. No one wants to hire me, so even now that I'm sober, I'm still in a rut."

Rusty paused and thumped his right fist down on the table. "You know," he said, "we're always talkin' about me and my troubles. How 'bout you? You said you don't have no boyfriend. I find that hard to believe."

"I'm between boyfriends right now."

"Well, I guess that's lucky for me," he said. "Where you goin' to school, Butte College?"

"No. I'm attending Chico State University, about half an hour from here."

"Good school I hear," he said.

"Yes, it is."

"So how come you're studyin' homeless vets from 'Nam?"

"It seems like a subject that's important to learn more about. I was trying to figure out what I should research and I ran into something on the Department of Veterans Affairs website that really struck me. It said the number of homeless Vietnam veterans is greater than the number of U.S. servicepeople who died during the war. That's over fifty thousand people! Even though there are a lot of homeless vets, the ones who live in smaller towns and rural areas usually aren't easy to talk to. I guess part of me likes the challenge."

"I saw you talkin' to another one of the Three Musketeers. Are you gettin' what you need from us for your project?"

"Pretty much. It's coming along. That reminds me, I'm asking everyone I interview what they do to support themselves. How do you get by?"

"Lately, I've been goin' around and pickin' up trash along the sides of roads. You know, cans and bottles that I can turn in for cash. Yup, trash for cash. Then, I get a little government check every month at the post office, but it's not enough to do anything with. Don't get me wrong, I need every penny, but that check's never gonna pay the rent or anythin' like that. I used to do some dumpster divin' for leftover food, but since I sobered up, I just can't do that anymore. I used to panhandle some, but I don't do that anymore either. I mean, who the hell wants to be a beggar? I'd rather collect recyclables. Plus, it makes me proud to know I'm beautifyin' northern California," he said with a smile.

The next time I met with Rusty, I wanted to see if I could find out more about his children.

Rusty smiled as he said, "Mauricio, he loves to play football. He had a birthday last month. He's ten now. Carolina is a little younger, but even though she's only eight she's quite an artist. She sends me watercolors of birds and animals that she paints. They're pretty good considerin' how young she is."

"Do they like school?"

"Yes. They're both doin' real good in school. I'm real proud of 'em."

"Do you get to see them very often?"

"No. They live away from here."

"Is Juanita's family taking care of them?"

He looked down and replied, "No, some other folks are."

I assumed the children were in foster care and said, "Well, it sounds like they're doing good."

"They're doin' great. I wish I could see 'em. I love them kids with all my heart."

"They sound like wonderful kids. Do you have any pictures of them you could show me?"

"Sure, I could show you sometime. I don't have any pictures on me, but I have a bunch of photos back at my camp. Listen, we're still talkin' too much about me. We got to get you a boyfriend, Elena. I'd set you up with my son, Mauricio, but I think he's a little too young for you."

I laughed and said, "I'm pretty busy with work and my studies. I'm not sure I have time for a boyfriend right now."

"There's always time for love," Rusty replied with what sounded like a bad French accent. "Where do you work, besides here at the shelter?"

"I work about twenty hours a week at a clothing store in Chico. It helps me stay afloat and not go too deep in debt with my graduate studies."

"Well, take it from me. Love is important. You're a pretty young lady. You shouldn't be just workin' and goin' to school all the time. Life's short!"

"You know Rusty, deep down I know you're right, but sometimes there are periods in a person's life where they need to buckle down to get ahead and I'm having one of those times right now."

"Well, maybe so," said Rusty, "but I think there's always time for love."

At our next meeting, Rusty showed me photos of Mauricio and Carolina. The kids were very cute. Both had dark complexions and beautiful brown eyes.

"If you want to see more pictures, I could take you out to my camp today," he said.

As part of my thesis work, I had been to a few camps of other homeless Vietnam veterans. These camps were not easy to visit. Generally, the guys were very protective of their camps. On previous trips, I had always made a point of bringing a male escort who basically served as my bodyguard. One of my professors went once and a big, brawny weightlifter I know had provided this service on other outings. However, I knew Rusty's offer might be a fleeting opportunity. Even though I had built a lot of trust with him, I realized I might not get another invitation to go to his camp. Besides, I had not only built trust with him, I had trust in him. I knew what a gentle soul he was and I did not expect problems from him or the other two members of the Three Musketeers.

"I'd love to see more pictures," I said.

"You mind if we stop at the post office first?" he asked.

"No. No problem."

I was surprised to learn Rusty maintained a post office box. When I asked about this he said, "You don't want to know how much of my money goes to payin' for this thing." He took a key out of his pocket and unlocked the box. He pulled out a couple of pieces of mail and said, "I was hopin' for a check today and all I got was junk mail. You believe these idiots who are tryin' to sell stuff to homeless guy? What a waste of paper."

We walked on a road that left town and worked our way toward the Feather River. I had heard there were homeless camps near there. It was early spring and unseasonably hot. Both Rusty and I started to sweat as we walked down the road.

"We want to turn here," Rusty said as he pointed at a narrow trail that left the road and headed into a forest of live oak and manzanita shrubs. We followed the trail into the woods for several hundred feet. When we hit a big patch of poison oak, Rusty said, "This keeps the tourists out. Be careful through here."

After we passed the poison oak, we had to crawl off the trail through a very dense thicket where there was not enough room to stand or even crouch. I followed Rusty on my hands and knees through the thick underbrush. After crawling for about two minutes, and getting very dirty in the process, we entered into somewhat of a clearing. I could see three ramshackle shelters. All of them were made from a combination of lumber, plastic tarps and scrap metal. Each shelter was about the size of a large closet or a small bathroom, maybe seven feet by eight feet. The shelters were spaced about thirty yards apart from one another. The other two Musketeers did not appear to be in camp.

"My place is the first one on the right," Rusty said.

He pulled open a blue tarp that served as a front door while saying, "Home sweet home," somewhat sarcastically.

Inside, the floor was dirt. There was an elevated sleeping platform built with plywood and scrap lumber that had a dirty foam pad and an even dirtier sleeping bag on it. Next to the platform was an overturned plastic crate that seemed to serve as a table, with a couple of stubby candles on top. There was also a small wooden cabinet that had three drawers.

Rusty invited me in. It was a little creepy, but I ducked my head under the opening of the shelter and stepped inside. We sat on the sleeping platform.

"I'd offer you somethin' to eat or drink, but I don't have anythin' out here right now."

"No worries," I replied.

"Want to see other pictures of my kids?"


Rusty opened the top drawer of the little cabinet. It was full of letters, cards and photos. He pawed through the drawer and pulled out a few photos. One showed Mauricio playing soccer. Another was Carolina standing outside a church. A third photo depicted a younger version of Mauricio standing in front of lush vegetation. A fourth picture showed Carolina as a toddler.

"They're so beautiful," I said.

"Yes. I wish Juanita was still with us, so she could see them grow up."

"Perhaps she can," I said.

"I hope so," Rusty said.

"It must be tough for those children to have lost their mother at such a young age."

"Oh, they still have their mothers," replied Rusty in a matter-of-fact tone.

My head began to spin a little. Was Rusty having one of his fried brain days or was there something else going on here? I began to wonder if I made a mistake by being alone with Rusty in his creepy backwoods camp.

"What do you mean they still have their mothers?" I asked.

"Mauricio has his mother and Carolina has her mother."

"Rusty, I'm confused. I thought you and Juanita had these children. I did the math. If Mauricio is ten and Carolina is eight, they were born during the time you said you and Juanita were married. Did you have these kids with two other women?"

Rusty laughed. "No," he said. Then he let out a high-pitched giggle. I'd never heard him laugh that way before.

"But you've always called them your kids. What's going on here?"

"They are my kids," he replied.

"But they're not Juanita's?" I asked.

"They're Juanita's just like they're mine."

"You're losing me Rusty. I thought you said Mauricio and Carolina still have their mothers."

"They do."

"Are those mothers their biological mothers?"

"Yes. Juanita and I adopted Mauricio and Carolina."

"Okay. This is starting to make more sense. You and Juanita adopted them and then after Juanita died, the kids went back to live with their biological mothers. Do Mauricio and Carolina live close to one another? Are they able to stay connected as brother and sister?"

"They live pretty far apart."

"Where do they live?"

"Mauricio lives in the Philippines and Carolina lives in Guatemala."

My head did a little spin again.

"So, you and Juanita did a couple of foreign adoptions and after she died the kids went back to their home countries? I've never heard of such a thing."

"My kids have never been to the U.S." Rusty said.

Another head spin. Bigger this time.

Out of frustration, I sighed loudly and said, "Can you back up and explain from the start what happened? I'm really confused."

"Juanita and I found out we couldn't have kids of our own. We went to doctors and it just wasn't gonna happen. So, we adopted Mauricio and Carolina."

"But Mauricio and Carolina never came to the U.S., right?"

"Right," Rusty said. "Let me show you some stuff that will explain it." Rusty opened the middle drawer of his little cabinet. Like the top drawer, it was crammed full of letters, post cards and photographs. As he pulled out an envelope, a few letters fell onto the dirt floor. He took a piece of paper out of the envelope and handed it to me.

Now I understood. I said, "Rusty when you say you adopted those two kids, you really mean you sponsored them, right?"

"Yeah. Juanita and I couldn't have our own kids so we sponsored Carolina and Mauricio because they were poor kids who really needed our help. I guess I say we adopted them because Juanita and I really did think of them as our kids too. We wrote them all the time and we sent photos back and forth. We got their report cards from school and both Mauricio and Carolina called us their 'American mama and papa.' I know some folks just send in their money and maybe do a Christmas card once a year, but it wasn't like that with me and Juanita. We were part of these kids' lives. We wanted so bad to go visit them and we were even makin' plans to do that when Juanita died."

I looked down at a recent letter from the child sponsorship organization that was lying face up on the dirt floor. The letter was from the Executive Director of the organization. The director had written Rusty to thank him for his "continuous support of Mauricio Aquino and Carolina Torres over the years." The letter also thanked Rusty "for taking such a strong personal interest in the children" and for "going the extra mile in corresponding with Mauricio and Carolina."

"Rusty, Juanita's been gone for the last few years," I said. "You've been having a rough stretch during that time, yet you managed to continue to send in the payments and keep in touch with these kids. I'm so impressed with you. How do you do that when you're homeless?"

"By makin' priorities, I guess. Like I told you before, I always took care of my kids. I still write 'em at least every week or two and I never miss a payment. I know it sounds funny 'cause I've never met them in person, but I love those kids with all my heart."

I thought again about my parents and all the sacrifices they made for me and my brothers. I thought about how Rusty wasn't technically a parent, but he assumed a parenting role despite the many difficulties he faced, including the fact that "his kids" lived thousands of miles away. Thinking about Rusty and my parents made me realize that love, especially the unconditional love of a parent, is perhaps the greatest way we can express our essential human goodness.

My eyes began to get watery. Here's a guy who hardly has any material possessions. Through the haze of homeless alcoholism, he managed to scrape up money every month to maintain his overseas child sponsorships and kept in touch with these kids like they were his own flesh and blood.

A tear fell out of the corner of my eye and onto my cheek as Rusty said, "I know what it's like when people die and leave you alone to fend for yourself. I wasn't gonna do that to Carolina and Mauricio. If there's anything that has kept me goin' it's been those kids."

I turned toward Rusty and looked deeply into his eyes. This guy might be dirty. He might smell. He might not be someone you would want to be seen with in public. Despite all that, I felt like I was in the presence of a saint.

"Rusty," I said, "let's go into town. Researchers aren't supposed to do this, but I'm going to do it anyway. I'm taking you out for a real nice dinner."