This column by Pat Haley originally appeared in the News Journal in March 2014.
Why does a man sleep under a bridge braving the bitter winds of winter and the roasting, oppressive Clinton County summer heat?
According to Allen Ward, he established his unorthodox home partly to satisfy the call of his “wild side” that he heard within himself.
“I can tell you, there is no colder wind than the one that blows under the South Street Bridge in the middle of winter,” Allen said, describing the bridge just north of the Southridge subdivision, and the wind that howls past the busy laundromat on the corner.
Dick Forbes, a Cincinnati sportswriter who covered the Bengals summer camp here for many years in the old days, often wrote about the practice field at Wilmington College “being hard by Lytle Creek.”
Lytle Creek is born near the college where folks pass by on the Tri-County Bicentennial Trail, then winds its way past Babb Sheet Metal and under the bridge that Allen called home. The stream meanders for miles flowing along Sugar Grove Cemetery, a ribbon snaking into the fertile farmland and out into the corn country of southern Clinton County, running slow and easy down into the valley in Clarksville, coming together with Todds Fork, and eventually flowing on to the Ohio River.
Allen Ward was born and raised in Wilmington, attending the old junior high school on West Locust Street.
“I ran track in junior high, and was quick and nimble,” Allen said, an engaging smile crossing his thin pleasant features.
Allen has been a friend of the Haley family for more than 35 years. In the times when fate was less than kind, my brother, Jack, brought coats, scarves and hats to help Allen make it through the winter.
Jack first met Allen years ago. Jack was a Wilmington police officer and loved to cruise the back alleys, nooks and crannies of the town. He would often stop when he saw Allen, as a boy, camping out in a small pup tent in his backyard on Kentucky Avenue, and would strike up a conversation.
“I guess this is where I cultivated my love for sleeping outdoors,” Allen recently told me. “I loved to lie back in my tent and count the stars as I gazed overhead.”
It is a stretch to say that Allen boiled with rebellious energy. He was more restless than rebellious. He liked to stay to himself.
Allen said he had called the bridge home for several years, before moving into a home on the west side of Wilmington some months ago. “I strung a big tarpaulin, like the ones they have down the street at ‘Gators’, and tied it to the top of the bridge,” Allen said.
That tarpaulin proved to be Allen’s last defense from the elements of the seasons.
“Not many people stop to talk with me,” Allen told me as he spoke about his life. We ended up spending an hour chatting during which time we reminisced some and laughed more.
Allen’s story is not always an easy one to hear. He spoke of his trials and the crosses he had to bear as adolescence morphed into adulthood. His stories about the cold, the heat, and people creeping down the hill and stealing from a man who had little, shakes one’s faith in humanity.
“I never lit a fire or had heat,” he said. “There have been many nice people over the years that were very kind and tried to help me,” he said. “I would take the clothes they gave me, and once in a while people, and Jack was one of them, would give me some money so I could buy food.”
“How did you survive the terrible cold during the winters, like the one we just experienced?” I asked Allen.
“It wasn’t always easy, it cost me my two legs, but I liked being outside and being able to live on my own,” he said as his eyes become sad as he gazed into the stream running hard just below us.
Allen did have both legs removed near the knees. We now see him riding around town in his wheelchair, moving the wheels with his strong arms, as the yellow flags flap in the breeze.
There was newness to Allen, freshness, a glow when I spoke to him last week. Allen is a kind man, one who has moved beyond the restlessness of youth, and away from some the trials of life.
It was refreshing to see a little bit of the boy in the pup tent lingering, smiling, as we looked at Lytle Creek near the car wash, and saying goodbye to the man who once lived under the bridge.