A huddled figure walks toward me on a chilling October afternoon. At a distance, from under the cover of a hood, white smoke emerges in a regular pattern. As I run closer, I notice the figure's hands are jammed in the pockets of his parka. At his slower pace, and my quicker, our distance closes. From under the darkness of the hood, a generously wrinkled face, thin spectacles, and gloomy bloodshot eyes are born. As if their focusing is a great task requiring much energy, his eyes lock upon mine. A simple smile appears which warms his cold expression and brightens his eyes as well as my own. He draws his hand from his pocket. Wrapped in white gauze from knuckles to wrist, his hand raises and waves. My own returns the greeting. "How are you today?" I inquire.
Out of breath he responds, "Not as well as I should be."
"Well, you have a good day," I reply without thought.
"You too," he weakly mutters. A smile accompanies my words, and I try to focus back to my running. After what seems hours of thought, I slowly stop and turn to watch the hand return to its pocket, the head slowly fal, and the smoke resume its rhythm. I watch the figure fade from my vision and I stand contemplating what had occurred during the previous few minutes. I am awe-struck and surprised as I recall many other instances where we met. On that day I never ran again. Instead, I walked back with my hands nestled deep in my pockets, inadvertently mimicking him.
Why this one meeting is so clear in my mind, I do not know. I have seen this man many times shivering in the cold, walking in the same crippling position. I have seen him in the rain walking without an umbrella. In the heat of summer, wearing a shirt, pants, and tie, he has walked. His nose always red in the cold and his cheeks the same in the heat.
John Burroughs stated, "I see on an immense scale, and as clearly as in a demonstration in a laboratory that we are made strong by what we overcome. Devastating elemental forces have each and all played their part in developing and hardening man and giving him the heroic fiber." By his actions, words and appearance on this particular day and all other days our paths crossed, I believe that he fits Burroughs' and my concept of a heroic figure. He was making a path, avoiding the paved road. He was overcoming obstacles on his own, probably knowing he would never complete the attempted task. I failed to realize this on that day. I now see that his character and strength of mind were strong enough to face the world alone in his tormented and weakened physical state. A hero is an individual who daily makes an attempt. Since that day, I have not encountered him. That day, as well as others, have become integrated in my mind. I know not where he was going nor what he was doing, but he was out, inconspicuously overcoming obstacles, living a life of his own.
As I examine my life, despite its myriad masks, I see that I have yet to live my own life. I have not overcome quite as many obstacles. I envy the man who has. He is my personal hero. Should I ever fall upon his path again, such a statement I shall make. He has become a symbol of my goals and what I hope to become and accomplish. He is my beacon of light boldly shining in a world of darkness. -
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.