He was an unwelcome visitor to the park, just another filthy bum in ragged clothes.
The few meager possessions he owned lay at his feet; stuffed in a ragged, canvas bag.
His worn out boots had no laces, he wore no socks and walked with a pronounced limp.
He searched through the trash and garbage for food or other junk he could use.
His scraggly, matted hair was to the middle of his back. He was unshaven and slovenly.
He never spoke, and on the rare occasions when you could see his eyes
They would burn a hole in your soul, as if a ghost of the past was peering out.
Eyes that held confusing messages of defeat and victory, despair and hope.
He was about my age, I thought, but we had obviously taken different paths.
I observed him often, wondering what events in his life had brought him to this point.
Was he really a no-account, a bum, or just another broken man down on his luck?
What fueled that fire behind his eyes? What mysteries were hidden beneath the filth?
I sometimes thought of approaching him and trying to help him in some way.
But, in spite of his appearance, there was an aura of strong pride that surrounded him.
He was impervious to those passing by, and deaf to their giggles and ridicule.
He heard their cutting comments but showed no glimmer of anger or resentment.
Each day he would search through his bag, filled with plastic and pieces of twine,
to retrieve a handful of breadcrumbs that he would gently toss to the hungry birds.
As winter’s cold invaded the park, I noticed his gait slowing a bit, his limp increasing.
The fire in his eyes had diminished, as if he had resolved himself to his fate.
For some strange reason, I felt a closeness to this shaggy denizen of the streets.
The way he held himself as he limped about the park, his calculated movements,
the determined look in those piercing eyes, a total awareness of his surroundings.
Qualities that I had seen many times before, in another place and another time.
On a cold winter morning, I peered from my warm office to his home in the park.
As usual, he was lying on his bench on a bed made of cardboard boxes and plastic bags.
He was covered with a light frosting of snow, peaceful and unmoving.
Sound asleep, I thought, too strong or stubborn to be bothered by a little rough weather.
The next time I looked out of the window, three policemen surrounded him.
An ambulance, interrupting the trickle of traffic on the street, was parked by the curb,
Leaving the warmness of my office, I walked down to where a small crowd had gathered.
He was dead. The fire in his eyes was gone. No one knew his name. No one cared.
I watched as one of the cops searched through his tattered bag for identification.
The coveted plastic bags, balls of twine and rolled up foil fluttered to the ground.
No wallet, no identification – just junk. Useless and worthless junk.
Underneath the junk was a worn and faded blue box, wrapped with a rubber band.
I recognized the box as soon as the policeman pulled it from the bag.
He held it to his ear, shook it, broke the rubber band and flipped the box open.
It held four small items, meaningless to most of the crowd, but priceless to the bum:
An Octofoil, a Silver Star, a Purple Heart and a Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
My heart sank. I died a little. Here was a hero, an icon of freedom, and a brother-in-arms.
A brother that because of my own selfish reasons remains anonymous and forgotten.
Dying alone in the cold of the night. Buried in a paupers grave. Known but to God.
I say a prayer for him every now and then. Too little. Too Late.