There is a memory from childhood that haunts me.
I was in bed last night, staring at the ceiling, and the memory came to me, demanding attention.
It may have been in elementary school, though junior high seems more likely. I can’t place it exactly in my mind. Seventh grade, perhaps? 1984? That seems not unreasonable.
It was a science class. The memory feels like a biology class. I don’t feel it was a health class.
We were watching a movie on an old reel-to-reel film projector. The film was about fire safety. Smoke detectors, escape routes, stop-drop-and-roll, all that jazz. The things everyone should know.
That’s not the part that haunts me.
Part of the film was about how dangerous and deadly fire could be. And it showed something rather graphic.
What I remember was a little boy. He had been caught in a fire — a house fire, perhaps? — and he had been burned badly. Very badly. Extremely badly. He had survived.
I won’t to go into details. The image is seared in my mind. That’s enough.
I can’t place the memory exactly, but the image on the screen still haunts me.
It looked like a school picture. It had that kind of backdrop.
He was wearing a long sleeved shirt and pants. Corduroys, maybe?
The detail that caught my attention the most was his belt.
It was a Charlie Brown belt. It was wide. It was blue. It was made of vinyl. It had pictures of Charlie Brown like comic panels all the way around.
I knew that belt. I knew that belt because I had owned that belt, when I was a year or two younger perhaps. Even if I’d outgrown it, I may have still owned it at that time.
He and I owned the same belt. And in my mind, that was a connection. He could have been me. I could have been him. I can’t imagine that particular style of belt was on sale for more than a year — styles come and go, after all — so I’ve always suspected that he and I were roughly the same age. I suspect that’s why the image seared itself into my mind, why it has haunted me for thirty years.
I wonder who he was; if the film gave his name, I’ve long since forgotten it. The image overwhelmed everything else.
I wonder what happened to him. He was severely deformed by the fire. He likely suffered lung damage. I imagine he lived a life in excruciating pain. Perhaps he didn’t live to see ten. If he lived to see twenty, would that have been a blessing or a curse?
I think about him. When I do, I don’t pity him. Instead, I feel overwhelming sympathy and sadness. I think about a childhood shattered and a life devastated.
I weep for a stranger.