The first sign of trouble was sleeping poorly, then I began to lash out at everyone to the point that the guys at work kept their distance from me. I knew I had to confront the disappointment with my cowardice and after much agonizing, realized there was one person I could confide in.
Roscoe Lionel had been my partner during probation and was the biggest, blackest man I have ever met. Coming from a small town, I had known exactly three black people in my life-- Galesburg was very white back then. Roscoe was a towering mass. I'm fairly lean and five ten on a good day; he was six two and 230 pounds of pure muscle. He had a wide flat nose, jet black complexion and long arms. He often joked that he looked like a gorilla followed with a mad cackle when white folks present looked shocked. He never cared for political correctness and I never took the bait.
Roscoe was patient with me and a good judge of people--he didn't tolerate fools easily. Nothing scared him. A mad woman with a meat cleaver charged him once, screaming like a banshee. He stopped her cold with his own ferocious roar. She fainted and five minutes later he was laughing his ass off in the truck. He was untouchable.
I never developed his thick skin and Roscoe became concerned with my ability to deal with the horror and stress of the workload. It didn't help that firefighters looked down on paramedics because they didn’t considered it real work.
The job had its moments of hilarity though, like the calls where someone gets a hand stuck in a toilet bowl or a toe in a tub faucet. And Roscoe found my discomfort at delivering babies highly amusing. I was rather shy around women so it was awkward to say the least, but once past the gory part, the sight of a newborn always heartened me. After I transferred we still saw each other at Kelly's Bar or went fishing on our days off.
On particular weekend trip to the Alleghany Reservoir, we tooled along in his boat on a cool day with bright clouds littering the sky. I struggled inwardly with how to confide in him and the monumental pressure gave me a headache. I tuned out everything but the buzzing of the engine and the shush of water pushed aside by the bow, in an effort to calm my mind.
“What's eating you alive, man?” asked Roscoe, concerned with my unusual silence. He turned off the motor and we drifted for awhile, my reverie broken by a crack as he opened a beer and passed it to me.
“Roscoe, you ever dream of flying?” I asked without warning.
“Sure, lots of people do. Most recount a flying dream in ecstatic terms.” He began with interest.
“George thinks flying dreams represent a desire to break free of ones inhibitions-- whatever they are. Curious that it's a universal symbol,” he finished. George was his academic stepfather.
Roscoe was capable of speaking in an eloquent manner among his family and friends but tended to use street dialect in public because it was what people expected. I drained my beer and gestured for another.
“What if someone really could fly?” I wondered hypothetically. Roscoe handed me another beer with a dismissive gesture.
“Shit, I don't know. Most people don't handle the paranormal very well. I guess most folks would freak out. It's a pretty fantastic idea,” he concluded. I looked down at the calm water--that's what I’d suspected. Roscoe belched and decided it was time to move on.
We rode the boat to a favorite camping spot just north of Kinzua Dam and unloaded the gear. It was good to get away from the city and I enjoyed setting up camp while Roscoe fried up the fish we caught for dinner.
As night fell, we laid on the ground gazing up at the night sky, fireflies added to the starlight, accompanied by a concert of crickets, frogs and owls. Roscoe's easygoing company and the soothing surroundings didn't drive away my anxiety, however; it worsened. The isolation of our spot tempted me to leap into the air for some much needed flying to relax me. And what if I did? Would he care? I wanted to shout out my secret, but my tongue refused to move. I turned in the dim light to see him sound asleep.
The next morning I peeked out of my sleeping bag to see a heavy fog hanging over the water obscuring most of the view but I could see the boat unmoored and adrift fifty feet away.
The damn thing was always getting away, Roscoe would complain in a conspiratorial tone but in the reality he often secured it poorly. I watched the boat as if half expecting it to drift back like a petulant child done with a tantrum. I pulled on my sweat pants and shoes to investigate, moving quietly so as not to awaken Roscoe.
I checked to see if he was truly asleep and then I took a chance. I can’t swim so I pushed off and rose just above the water and flew to the boat, snagging the bowline as I made a turn back to shore. I had my eye on the boat as I pulled it onto the small beach when I turned to see Roscoe in shorts and a tee shirt stockstill, his jaw dropped in disbelief.
“Uh, I can explain . . .” I stammered, but I couldn't, fearing this was the end of our friendship. Slowly his expression melted from astonishment to an enlightened smile. The logic of yesterday's conversation now made sense.
“That. Was. Unbelievable,” he said, mouthing each syllable slowly. I shook as the flood of pent up emotions threatened to drown me. I sobbed, still holding the towline loosely in my hand then dropped it as if it were white hot.
Roscoe recognized my anxious state, having seen me scared before. He approached me, gently putting a hand on my shoulder.
"Put it down little bro, put it down." The words he had used so often with me had the desired effect and I managed to stifle my crying.
“You're not mad at me are you?” I pleaded. He had plenty of reason to be.
"Nah," he shrugged. He dug around in the pocket of his coat hanging on a lawn chair and lit up a rare cigarette to calm his nerves.
“You won’t tell Della.” He bargained. His wife wouldn't allow him to smoke around their daughter. That reminded me of another complication.
“You can't tell anyone about this,” I said quickly and too loudly.
“I get it. Two can keep a secret if one of them is dead,” he said giving a nervous snort.
“I would never hurt you, I trust you more than anyone--please,” I said terrified, misunderstanding his attempt at humor. I wiped at the sweat on my forehead.
“You are some piece of work,” he said, pulling me into a bear hug, his laughter a hearty rasp.
His embrace absorbed all my stress like a sponge. Soon my breathing calmed and I could think straight. Feeling emboldened I wrapped my arms around him and easily lifted his large girth off the ground. This provoked more laughter from both of us. We broke our embrace and sat down to talk.
"God, you have no idea how wonderful it feels to let this out," I said at last, it was like being with Pete again. The relief was indescribable.
I told him everything: my discovery of flying, lifting cars, how fast I was at track races. Roscoe was further stunned and lit another cigarette. Suddenly at a loss for words, we finished dressing and I scrambled up some eggs while he prepared the morning coffee.
“How do you do it?” he asked, throwing a hand into the air.
“I don’t know.” I answered honestly.
“You ever going public with this?”
“I always intended to use my skills at work, so yeah, eventually it's going to come out.” I said with resignation.
We discussed various ways to tell the guys at work but the idea filled me with dread. I wasn't sure about the crew--or the rest of the world.. We agreed two out of three of my skills were practical but the flying should stay hidden for now. Roscoe sipped his coffee in contemplation.
“If I could do all that stuff I'd have fun messing with people,” he said laughing.
“Well, there was the prank on Abe Lincoln,” I recalled.
When I was a teenager I had worked at an historical museum with a life size statue of Abe Lincoln out front on a pedestal, wearing a stovepipe hat. People loved to place things on top of the hat: a bowl of goldfish, a flower arrangement, a birthday cake. One night, I took the 250 pound anvil from the "pioneer" exhibit and placed it on top of the nearly ten -foot figure. That had people scratching their heads trying to figure out how it got there. Roscoe almost fell off his chair laughing.
I felt positively weightless the rest of the day and was sorry when it was time to pack up and return to the world of hiding. As we finished loading the boat I gave the campsite one last look then turned to Roscoe.
“I can't thank you enough for accepting me, for understanding--this,” I said, gesturing to myself. He smiled, his teeth bright in contrast to his dark skin.
“Hey, you're still you.”
When I returned to work, I formally requested a transfer to Search and Rescue. I told Roscoe later and he agreed it was a good step in the right direction. I could use my strength openly which eased my festering conscience and made up for earlier missed opportunities.
While I was taking the S and R training, I continued to work with Rueben until Darryl got his EMT certification. We got a call of a shooting with multiple victims. Shots were fired at an upscale apartment building where a very nervous super opened the front door for us and the police before fleeing. We stayed back as the cop went in with drawn gun to make sure it was safe. He signaled us forward where we found two people lying on the floor in the front hall. A man was dead with two wounds to the chest. A woman sat against the wall clutching her stomach, bleeding heavily. Rueben quickly applied pressure to the wound as the cop finished his search. I trotted out to the unit for an additional kit when I heard another shot and raced back.
The front door was opened slightly, affording me a view of a very agitated young man pointing a gun at Rueben who had his hands in the air.
“Back away asshole or I'll kill you too.” he said in a wild tone. The cop lay on the floor holding his upper arm where he had been shot; his service revolver had been kicked aside.
Shit, the man was truly unhinged as he waved the gun erractically, while Rueben did his best to calm him. I caught the cop's eye as he more or less faced me and I pantomimed what I was going to do.
I'm fast; I can move faster than anyone. I can cover ten feet and catch a glass falling off a counter. This was much closer--three big steps. I jumped him and grabbed his wrist, knocking the gun down and punched him hard in the jaw. He was out cold before he landed in a heap on the floor. The cop wanted to cuff him, but why bother? Our immediate concern was the woman who I assisted while Rueben tended to the cop. By the time more help arrived, we got her bleeding under control and the cop had a bandage around his arm. The gunman woke up with a dislocated jaw and several loose teeth. He screamed in pain which I ignored as I set his jaw and braced his wrist. Serves him right, shooting people and waving a gun around. I checked on Rueben, who was unusually quiet.
"You alright?" I could feel him shaking when I touched his shoulder and he nodded quickly. I got behind the wheel and he took the passenger seat without protest.
" Having a gun aimed at you can be traumatizing," I said, but he shook his head that wasn't it.
"I didn't see you coming, you appeared out of nowhere."
"Kind of like Madonna," It was the first thing that popped into my head to ease the tension. He looked bewildered, then we both burst out laughing.
“That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.” he managed between fits of laughter. Mentioning Madonna became our inside joke.
Life at the firehouse went on as usual. During one shift I occupied myself with drawing a design for the Halloween pumpkin and chatted with Fisher as he dusted the plaques on the wall of the day room.
“When you going to get rid of that tank of a car?” he asked.
“Hey, I love it.” It was a graduation present from dad.
“Running old Betty probably cost less,” he chuckled. Admittedly, the Olds Delta 88 was not known for good gas mileage.
“But the green beast can handle an icy road better,” I said, reminding him of the time the truck couldn't get up a steep hill last winter. Fisher shrugged in agreement. He was removing some old photos when Phil wandered in.
“Hey, be careful there,” Phil snapped, scolding Fisher as if he were a clumsy child. Fisher glared back at him with long simmering resentment.
“Who is that guy?” I asked Phil, intercepting the potential squabble. It was a black and white photo of a firefighter in full gear holding the nozzle of a hose.
“That's my old man, Lieutenant William Avery Armstrong and don't you forget it,” he said with pride as he held the frame reverently.
Historically, fire departments are filled with descendants of firefighters eager to follow their fathers and grandfathers trade. Phil considered being in the same company as his father a point of honor and felt he deserved more respect even though Fisher had been there longer.
" I'd like to do a drawing of him if you don't mind,” I offered. Phil seemed genuinely surprised by my request. Ordinarily he found my drawings frivolous and sissy. He sat next to me with his ever present mug of coffee as I did a quick study from the photo.
Having mollified him, I returned to my other project when the captain called me into his office and insisted I close the door.
“It has come to my attention your behavior on the job has been a bit reckless lately,” he began to admonish.
“Your displays of speed and strength have been . . . remarkable. What's going on here?” his bluntness caught me off guard. Such stunts were bound to attract attention and I expected the sharp-eyed Rueben to call me out. Maybe he was the one who pointed it out to Fabiano. Maybe I wanted to be caught and would be forced to reveal myself. I should have listened to Roscoe's advise and just done it.
“ I haven't put anyone in danger sir,” I said, trying to shrug it off.
“You put yourself in danger,” he retorted.
I remember Dad lecturing me with the exact same tone of voice when Pete and I went out to watch an approaching tornado. We thought it was cool until we nearly got hit with flying debris.
“Sir, I think you're overreacting,” I dismissed but I saw the stern look on his face and knew he wasn't buying it.
He pulled at the corner of his mustache in a habitual gesture as he swiveled back and forth in his office chair like a windshield blade. He gave me the same kind of penetrating stare he gave his kids when he caught them in a lie.
“Son, let fate take you by the hand or it will drag you by your feet," he quoted an old Italian saying. I knew it was time to come out of hiding. With a catch of breath, I bowed my head and stepped into the void.
“There is more to it sir, but I think a demonstration is in order,” I said in a slow, precise voice, to his puzzlement. I got up and he followed me out to the garage where the guys were horsing around while washing the muddy vehicles. The captain got their attention and they stopped.
“Guys, I have an important announcement to make,” I said then hesitated, suddenly questioning my brashness.
“What is it Boy Scout, you finally get laid?” Kaz chortled. He loved to rib me about my monastic lifestyle. The others laughed until the captain cleared his throat and gave me an encouraging nod.
I looked around and spotted a heavy steel bar with a hook on the end used to pull down ceilings at a fireground. I held the long bar in my hands and placed it across one of the garages support columns. I easily bent it in half then let it drop to the floor with a loud clatter.
“Damn, I knew you were freakishly strong for a white guy,” Darryl said, breaking the silence with hands nonchalantly shoved in his pockets.
“There's more.” I glanced at Captain Fabiano then motioned for the guys to follow me to the basketball court behind the station. They stood in a line, relaxed and joking as they wondered what I was going to do next.
“I trust you guys more than anyone else so I'm going to share a secret I've kept for a long time."
“Oh God, don't tell us you're queer.” Dima, our resident scholar groaned. The others snorted in amusement.
I ignored the juvenile interruption as I took a deep breath and gazed upward. I jumped to the top of the hoop then up to the roof of the firehouse. I leapt down to the ground falling gently back to my original spot. Before me were eight men with expressions like dead fish. There was a long silence.
“Okay, you're fucking Superman. So what?” Phil said, breaking the ice. Everyone nodded except Rueben who hurried inside, a disturbed shadow across his face. That shook me--he was like the older brother I never had and I feared losing his trust more than any other.
“Don't worry, he'll come around,” Fabiano said, assuring me.
“Are you alright with this sir?” I asked, wondering if I was demanding too much from these roughhewn men.
“This is going to take some time getting used to . . .” he said, breaking off as the scope of my revelation sank in. “But if it helps you do your job better, I'm good with it,” he said, slapping me on the shoulder. Apparently, the others were fine with it too, as we walked back into the firehouse. I damn near cried-- I was still one of them. Fabiano pulled me aside while the crew returned to business as usual.
“Listen, this will eventually have to go up the chain of command, but for now let's keep this among ourselves,” he advised, I nodded vigorously. He glanced down at the bent bar on the floor.
“Are you going to pay for that?”