Circumstances and people conspired to hide this boy under an “invisibility cloak.” Lucky for the rest of us, one person could see what we were missing.
To my grandson, Ryan.
When he was born, no one noticed.
Well, almost no one. A few family clustered around hoping for the best.
Wrapped in a blanket from the hospital, deep in its folds, he was almost invisible.
Good nature became his attribute. If someone was hungry, he shared his last bite. If someone was cold, he offered his coat. Or if someone needed shoes, he’d say “here, take mine.” That’s why when he walked down the street shivering, pale and barefoot, people assumed he was just another dead-end kid.
That’s when he became invisible.
Most of his teachers couldn’t see him. They were focused on the little blond girl whose daddy was a doctor, how smart she was. Or the boy next to her who always won games at recess, such a fine athlete. Even when the invisible boy answered a question ahead of the girl or bested the athlete in a foot race, no one noticed. It wasn’t often, so no one cheered.
They couldn’t see him.
There was a principal once. Pretty and young, she loved her job and all her boys and girls. But most of all she loved him. She saw shine beneath the tarnish, a glow within. Her arm draped across his narrow shoulders, she smiled at him. “He’s my buddy,” she said. The principal had a talk with one of cafeteria cooks, so in the food line, invisible boy always got a little more of his favorite.
As the plate was filled, invisible boy could see angel’s wings.
He wandered through school from one year to the next. Bullies took their shot at him. Sometimes tears came, but with them came strength, the need for respect and resolve to be seen.
It wasn’t that he wanted glory or fame. He just wanted people to know he was there to help.
He loved to play games. A natural for sports. But coaches, if they saw him at all, lumped him in with the rest of the bench. Toward the end of every game, if the home team was ahead, the other players usually went in. Sometimes the invisible boy materialized in front of a coach, confronted by the truth that he was down to that one. Even if the invisible boy stole the ball and made a score, it didn’t matter.
The game was over as the boy disappeared off the field.
Nature, like the cop on a beat who buys a hungry kid a hot dog, knows no favorites. But occasionally fate smiles down. So as invisible boy became a man, he grew taller and stronger. In his masculine way he was as beautiful as the doctor’s daughter, taller than the athlete, more muscular than the bully. When his first 13 years of schooling drew to a close, he became visible. Teachers recognized his good nature. Coaches saw a strong supporting player. Bullies learned not to test his resolve. By the end of high school years, when the game was lost, he kept trying. When the burden was too heavy, he picked it up. And when someone needed a friend, he was there for them.
A few people noticed. “Where did he come from?” they asked.
Life goes on. School days fade, and something called adult life begins. Invisible boy needed his life’s work. A living. And a way to help people.
That’s when he decided to be a firefighter.
He could carry the heaviest burden, climb a ladder faster and, though fear crept into his chest when the flames grew hot, he kept on going because fire is a bully to be defeated.
And so here’s what I imagine: The day will come, and the call will go out. A home on the bad side of town is engulfed in flames. A mother and her children are all out except for that one. He’s another invisible boy who wanders streets looking for a friend, for food, for what is missing.
And he is trapped inside.
When Engine No. 1 rolls up, the mother sees one fireman who stands a little taller than the rest, a little stronger, and for a moment in the flashing lights and smoke she catches a glimpse of something behind him – wings?
“My little boy’s inside. Please help him.”
He meets the mother’s words head on where the heat seems to melt them into his chest. It is as if they pull him to her, and then he pushes past into the burning house. He does not hesitate. He does not think. He runs through the fire, disappearing into the smoke.
Once inside, the invisible boy who became a fireman sees the other invisible boy huddled in a corner, taunted by flames.
He’d fought bullies before. There is nothing new there for him. So he drapes one arm over the boy and says: “Come on buddy. It’s time to go,” and the strong arm on his shoulder suddenly becames a sling with the boy inside, locked in an iron grip.
Water from hoses hits flames that sizzle and hiss into steam. The house begins to collapse. Out of the billowing smoke, two invisible boys, a big one dressed in fireman’s gear and the little one he saved, suddenly appear.
And all the people cheer.
Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.