It was 2014, and something had happened here in Southern California, again, something that had grabbed extensive media attention. This time it was a fireman.
A fireman from the City of Arcadia, camping along with his friend in the Los Padres National Forest had disappeared. He was reported lost and couldn’t be traced for days. His name was Michael Phillip Hardman. He was thirty-seven-years old.
You do the math; the Michael that saved the cat was no more than twenty years in 1997.
Could he be that Michael, my hero, who inculcated in me the love of animals, I asked myself. This Michael, the fireman, had been searching for his dog (the dog had disappeared from his side and wasn’t seen for hours), moving frantically everywhere in the thick forest.
I felt a deja vou in this story.
I thought about the Cat in the Freeway incident in 1997. And that clean cut Michael I saw could be the same clean cut Michael today who was lost in the thick forest. I didn’t know his last name, nor did I know where he lived when I briefly talked to him that day.
I am normally very parsimonious in asking God for help, but in this case I bugged him. Lunch, dinner, and breakfast, I asked God to protect the fireman from danger, regardless of who he was. I didn’t care whether God was busy or not, but I called. Almost a week later, my hope was dwindling and I was getting desperate. I don’t know why, but I believed this lost Michael was truly my freeway hero of the 1997 Michael.
“God, should I go to the mountains and look for him?” I beseeched God.
God sends signs if you can read them, but no voice answer. Still, I persisted. He probably had concluded I nagged too much.
Two weeks later, however, the body of Michael was found in the Ventura Wilderness and I was really heartbroken. I felt I knew Michael although this dead Michael could be a completely different person than the person I was imagining.
On July 9, 2014, a day when the memorial service for Michael was held at the Arcadia Performing Arts Center, I was again in the back pew (having driven for almost two hours), tears in my eyes cascading again. This time, I was seventy years old, a little older, and the tears came niggardly, but enough to draw curiosity.
There were nearly 600 people in attendance and I counted about twelve black people. I was also, without doubt, the oldest person in the crowd and everyone looked at me as if I had come from a different planet. But they all seemed to appreciate my presence.
White people like older black people; I don’t know why.
Now looking at Michael’s seven year old daughter became excruciating painful to me. After the service, I went ahead and hugged Michael’s wife and whispered in her ears that I am an African storyteller, grieving for her husband. She probably had thought that I was a crazy old black man from the hood.
On my way back, Michael’s amazing courage to save that cat in 1997 from her demise reverberated in my mind once again. He was a hero. I don’t need to go to the battlefront seeking for heroes. America creates them in abundance in her backyard.
And that’s America for you.
And the Americans!