Q/A: seeing angels unaware

As promised yesterday, here’s a humorous story at my expense:

Question: Yesterday you said you’d never knowingly seen an angel. But if you had to guess about ever unknowingly seeing one, when would it have been?

Answer: There are three incidents that make me wonder, but I’ll give you one. In July 4th, 1994, I was home for the summer. We lived in Brooklyn next to a sewage treatment plant that had around it undeveloped swampy fields (gee, I wonder why no one wanted to live there?) That night, with the neighbors detonating four megatons of fireworks (give or take a few thousand pounds) the best place to view the show was out over the swampy field.

After a while, I noticed a red glow illuminating the black sky, and shortly I realized the field was on fire. While I watched it burn, others joined me. Neighbors came out with camcorders as the flames drew closer. (Remember this is Brooklyn: they’re all attached houses, so there were probably a thousand people who lived bordering this field.) At some point I wondered what would happen if the flames reached our homes, but I just stayed and watched.

(You’ve heard of mass stupidity, right? I think I induced it by watching rather than acting.)

Anyhow, while I stood there, a youngish teen came up beside me and got my attention. I turned toward him, and he said to me in a Third Grade Teacher Voice, “When there’s a fire, you call the fire department.”

With that, he reached up to the fire alarm box on a telephone pole, and he pulled the handle.

I felt like a royal idiot: I’d lived all my life in New York and knew about the fire alarm boxes, of course, but every time they were mentioned, it was with the caveat, “Don’t ever pull this.” So I’d come to treat them like cracks in the sidewalk, and I ignored them. Including now, when there was a fire.

After about five minutes, the fire department still hadn’t come, so I went back to the box and pulled again.

And this time, although I’d done nothing different from the boy, gears began whirring inside the box, and it hummed, and two minutes later we had a bunch of fire trucks who spoiled the neighbors’ video record by trooping out into the swamp and extinguishing the field.

In retrospect, I think that boy was an angel. Why? Because he looked me right in the eyes and held my gaze in a solid grip. Because he spoke in a low voice but I was able to hear him fine over the general noise, and I still can remember what he sounded like. Because no one else seemed to notice him. Because my brothers hung out with all the neighborhood kids, and I didn’t recognize him. Because he didn’t activate the alarm himself even though he pulled it. And because without that nudge, the fire might actually have come close enough to start igniting houses and cars.

I’ll never find out, of course, in this lifetime. But if I were asked to bet money on one time in my life I saw an angel, that would be my guess.