A story of an unlikely bond formed between two strangers.
To say that Oscar Ruggins was a big man was an understatement. He was huge. Standing at 6'7'' and weighing over 300 pounds, Oscar made a path wherever he went.
It wasn't just his sheer size that was intimidating though. He had long, natty dreadlocks and a beard that grew around a deep scar that ran along the side of his face. He had a clouded glass eye that peered without blinking and he walked with a lumbering shuffle.
Oscar had played football as a linebacker when he was a younger man. It was nationally speculated that he would turn pro when he finished college, but the conflict in Vietnam changed all of that.
Oscar received his draft card and went without hesitation to serve his country.
Because of his physical size, he was naturally selected to carry the big M60 machine gun. He gladly accepted this position and he took pride in the knowledge that if the shit ever hit the fan, he would be able to protect his brothers, spitting fire into the face of his enemy.
After Oscar had served his first tour he could have come home, but he signed up for another one.
The time in the jungle made him feel alive despite all the death that he witnessed around him. Sgt. Ruggins had become addicted to the adrenaline rush that surged through his body every time his squad went out on patrol.
With two months left on his second tour, tragedy struck Oscar and the other members of his team. A newbie had accidentally tripped a land mine and shrapnel tore through the men. Oscar took most of it. Hot steel ripped through his body and if it wasn't for the Doc, would have killed him.
After almost six months, Oscar regained consciousness in a military hospital in Saigon and was transferred home. He spent almost a year in the VA hospital learning to walk again, his dreams of playing pro ball were shattered along with his body.
The metal fragments that the surgeons removed from his head left an ugly reminder of just how close to death he had been.
He suffered from terrible headaches and sometimes he couldn't remember events that had transpired earlier in the week. But Oscar would never be able to forget the sights and sounds made by the dying men back in the killing fields.
The Army doctors finally released Oscar from the walls of the hospital he called home for over a year and sent him out to the streets. He didn't have anywhere to go.
His mom had passed while he was in Nam. She had a brother who was a dentist and lived in the suburbs, but Oscar really hadn't stayed in touch with him. He was desperate though, so he placed a call from a frozen payphone and asked if he could stay with him for a while.
The uncle and his family welcomed Oscar to their home, but it wasn't long before they began to have second thoughts about their new guest.
Oscar was very quiet and the peacefulness of the predominately white neighborhood made him uncomfortable when he went outside. He was well aware of how other people reacted when they saw him and he preferred to stay in his room.
He would often have nightmares. One time, his uncle had tried to wake him from one and Oscar seized him by the throat. He almost crushed his windpipe before he realized what was happening and he felt terrible about the incident.
After a month or so of living like this, Oscar decided it would be better for everyone if he returned to the city.
His uncle drove him to the bus stop and made him take five hundred dollars. Oscar reluctantly accepted it, shook his uncle's hand and boarded the bus. He never saw his uncle again.
Oscar had never lived on the streets before and he was uncertain of how he would manage all by himself.
When it was exceptionally cold at night he would sleep at one of the shelters, but he didn't like being around all the other homeless men who reeked of piss and alcohol.
One day, another man who was also homeless, told Oscar about an old abandoned building that several other guys were squatting in. It wasn't much, but at least he would have a place to keep out of the elements. Oscar found a spot that suited him and set up camp.
His days were spent rummaging around looking for cans and items that might be of some value and he would push an old cart quietly humming to himself as he went.
Some of the local kids had learned that his name was Oscar and would tease him calling out, "Look, here comes Oscar the Grouch! Did you find anything good in the garbage can today?"
They laughed, but he didn't pay them any mind. This was the life that Oscar had become accustomed to.
Michele Lewis was eight years old. With big brown eyes, a coffee colored complexion and neatly braided hair, she was definitely a cutie pie. She was the youngest of four children.
Her oldest brother had gotten killed in a shooting when she was still a toddler and her three sisters would take care of her most of the time.
Her mother worked two jobs and wasn't home often. They were poor, but the girls kept the house tidy and good manners were instilled upon all of them.
"Shelly," as she was affectionately called by all who knew her, was a pretty little girl with a bubbly personality and a bright smile for whoever she met. Everyone loved her.
One day, Shelly and her sister were waiting for a bus on a windy afternoon, when Shelly noticed a huge, dark man approaching, pushing a cart.
Her sister noticed Oscar as well and instinctively clutched Shelly's hand tightly. "Ouch!" Shelly said, "let go, you're hurting me!"
Oscar slowly shuffled his way towards the girls and people made room as he got closer.
Shelly was intrigued by this giant of a man with the funny looking eye, but she wasn't scared. She smiled at him, and though it was hard to tell because of his beard, she thought he had smiled back.
He was wearing a big black trench coat that he had found. Something he was especially thankful for since it was hard to find clothing that fit. It had a liner with pockets and a row of brass colored buttons running down the front of it.
As he passed by the sisters, Shelly suddenly reached out and touched one of the buttons. "I like your buttons" she shyly said. Her sister quickly twitched her back, but not before Oscar smiled and said in his deep voice, "Thank you, I like buttons too."
That was all it took.
On that blustery day at the bus stop, a bond had been established between an old veteran who had seen too much, and a young girl who still viewed the world through innocent eyes.
As time passed, Oscar and Shelly would occasionally see each other as he made his rounds through the neighborhood. Shelly had gotten into the habit of presenting Oscar with a button she had found whenever she saw him.
Sometimes weeks would pass without Oscar showing up, so Shelly would place the buttons in a small bag where she knew he would find them. She liked to picture his lopsided smile as he made his discovery and it made her happy.
Years passed, Shelly was now 16 years old and was becoming a beautiful woman. The boys would try to get her attention, but Shelly had no time for such games. She was focused on her school work.
She wanted to get good grades and go to college to become a doctor. Shelly dreamed that one day she would be able to move her mom and sisters away from the hood and provide a better life for them.
Shelly always remembered the buttons for Oscar though and would give him some every time they met. She realized now how insignificant they must have been to him, but it had become a ritual of sorts and he always graciously accepted them.
One day he told her, "You know Shelly, it always makes me feel a little sad when you do this. I never have anything to give to you." She laughed and said, "Don't be silly Oscar, you give me a smile every time we see each other, and that's enough."
The Hero Returns
Shelly was a senior in high school now and had been accepted into college. Time wasn't moving fast enough for the young woman however and she couldn't wait to get out and start her new life.
She was walking down the sidewalk one evening with her head in the clouds when some local punks approached her.
"Hey what's up pretty girl, you wanna hang out with us for a little while?" Shelly declined politely and tried to make her way past them, but they blocked her path. "Yo Shelly, how come you always think you're better than us?" one of them said viciously.
Suddenly they grabbed her arms and dragged her into an alley between two buildings. Shelly struggled to get free, but she was no match for the three of them.
They were laughing as they ripped her shirt off. She tried to scream for help but was certain that no one would hear her, or if they did, wouldn't bother to help. Shelly was wrong.
Oscar had been making his way back from the recycling center when he heard the disturbance. At first, he ignored it, then he heard the familiar voice of Shelly and he sensed she was in trouble.
All of his training and experiences of war came back and he was once again the killing machine they had turned him into.
The punks didn't see him coming. He hit the first one in the back of the neck with one of his ham-sized fists, breaking it instantly. Then he grabbed another by the throat, spinning him face first into a wall.
Shelly had managed to get away, but Oscar wasn't done yet. He grabbed the last guy and the two clenched up for a moment. Suddenly a shot rang out and Oscar slumped as the gunman ran away.
Michele screamed for someone to call an ambulance as she cradled Oscar's head in her arms.
The bullet had struck him in the chest and he was fading away. She was crying as the EMTs struggled to lift the big man into the ambulance. Oscar died on the way to the hospital.
Shelly felt numb after the incident. Sometimes she would look up the street half expecting to see the familiar sight of her hero approaching. Of course, he never came.
One day the phone rang and the man on the other end asked if Shelly could come by his office. It seems he was a lawyer and he needed to discuss some matters with her.
Shelly was confused, but she agreed to the meeting, telling him she would be there the first thing on Monday. All weekend long she tried to imagine what it was that he had to tell her.
When she sat down at the lawyer's desk, she was still trying to figure out what was going on. Nothing could have prepared her for what came next.
The lawyer represented the Ruggins family. Oscar's uncle had died and left nearly one million dollars to him several years ago. Instead of taking the money at the time, however, Oscar had instructed the lawyer that if anything should happen to him, that Michele was to receive it. She didn't have to worry about paying for college anymore.
Michele was in shock. She would have never dreamed that her large friend had the means to live a better lifestyle and instead continued to live his humble existence.
Shelly was crying as the lawyer passed her the six-figure check, but as she was preparing to leave, the lawyer stopped her saying, "Hold on, there is one more thing that Oscar wanted you to have."
Michele couldn't believe her eyes as he slid a wooden chest across his desk. In it were all of the buttons that she had given Oscar over the years.
In the bottom of the chest was a handwritten note. "From Oscar...With Love" was all it said.