It was when we lived in Little Falls, so I was less than 10 years old. My friend John (he was a preacher’s kid, one of four brothers, the others were Matt, Mark and Luke) and I were walking around the park near the train station.
A guy was sitting on a bench, and I don’t know who noticed first, but the one who did whispered to the other, “He has only one leg.” Sure enough, his pant leg was tucked under or pinned up so you could see his leg stopped around the knee.
“Hi boys,” he called, and beckoned us over. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” And it was — I remember this happening in the sunshine. Strangely, my memory is in sepia tones but I’m sure there was green all around. Perhaps he was wearing khaki and so that’s why that color dominates my recollection.
I don’t remember much about the conversation, except that he was a cheerful man with a ready smile. Maybe he asked us about our families, or maybe he told us about how he comes to the park all the time to watch the squirrels or the trains bringing commuters here and there.
I do remember that at one point one of us — probably John, he was the bolder one — asked, “Mister, how come you have only one leg?”
He laughed at this, too, and then he thought for a second and said breezily, “Well, boys, as you go through life and things happen, you’re bound to lose a leg somewhere along the way.” Maybe he said “somewhere along the way if you’re not careful,” but I don’t remember it like that.
After a little more chatting, he reached for a pair of crutches, eased himself up and limped away, leaving John and I to say, “Wow,” and consider what we had just seen before moving on to other kid pursuits.
I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember the man’s face, mainly because I was staring at his leg almost the whole time. We never learned if he lost the leg to disease or the violence of war or some kind of accident.
Needless to say I have been grateful since that day for good health, 10 fingers and 10 toes. The man’s cheery disposition had a deep impact on me, as you can tell by the fact that I still remember him around 60 years later. Maybe his heart ached at the question, and surely there were days he felt dark and lost, but he wasn’t going to let two innocent little boys see that side on that day.
As you go through life and things happen, you’re bound to suffer losses along the way, some of them traumatic, some of them not as visible as that cheerful man’s. I think my takeaway from that little visit was that you come out on the other side of tragedy and life goes on, even with a big smile if you try hard enough.