THE LEAP OF FAITH
Vero Leland had been trying to fly ever since he was old enough to stand. His earliest memory was standing on the rail of his crib, perfectly balanced like an Olympic gymnast on a balance beam. He fully expected his mother to clap when she turned around and saw him. Vero remembers stretching out his arms, intending to fly into his mother's outstretched hands. But instead of clapping, she turned and let out a heartrending shriek. Startled, Vero hit the floor with a thud and cried hard as his mother cradled him.
But what Vero's mother, Nora, didn't realize was that Vero wasn't crying in pain. He was crying tears of frustration from failing to get airborne.
After the crib incident, Vero didn't stop trying to fly. Instead, he became quite the climber. He'd climb and throw himself off the kitchen table, his parents' bed, the piano, and pretty much anything with a few feet of air below it. . . until the winter of his fourth year. That's when his flying attempts reached a new and dangerous high.
It happened late one afternoon when Dennis Leland, Vero's father, was standing on a ladder and stringing hundreds of Christmas lights across the front of their two-story suburban house. Dennis was very particular about his holiday light display. Each bulb needed to hang exactly two inches away from the next, and they all had to extend fully, to just beneath the gutter. Christmas displays were taken very seriously in their suburban neighborhood of Attleboro, Maryland.
The men who lived on Vero's block had an ongoing competition, and each December the holiday displays grew more and more elaborate. Front yards were cluttered with inflat- able Santas, seven-foot tall snowmen, and animatronic reindeer. One dad even convinced his wife and young children to perform a live nativity each night, complete with a live donkey and goat. However, the goat was quickly sent back to the petting zoo after it ate the plastic sprinkler heads, causing impressive geysers that drenched his family and ruined the nativity.
It was a clear but chilly December day when Vero's father climbed down the ladder to test the magnificent light show. Wearing his one-piece brown coveralls and his checkered hat with earflaps, he rubbed his hands together and said, "This is it, Vero."
With great pomp and ceremony, Dennis dramatically picked up the plug of the extension cord. . .all of his hard work was about to come to fruition. But when he finally took a deep breath and plugged the extension cord into the outlet, nothing happened. The lights failed to illu- minate. Vero heard him use a word he'd never heard before, followed by, "I'm gonna have to check every stinkin' light bulb one at a time."
A few minutes later, Dennis grumbled miserably as he started to climb the ladder with some extra bulbs in hand.
Vero called down to his father and said, "It's okay, Daddy. I can help." While his dad had been inside the house getting some fresh bulbs, Vero had climbed the ladder and now stood proudly on the roof. Being small and nimble, Vero thought he could walk along the steep roof and check each one of the bulbs for his dad, saving him numerous trips up and down the ladder.
Vero could tell his dad was thrilled with the idea because Dennis was standing completely still on the ladder and looking at Vero with huge eyes. But when Vero caught sight of the surrounding neighborhood below, his penchant for flying took hold of him again.
"Daddy! I could fly from up here!" Vero shouted, grinning wildly.
"No, Vero! No!" his father shouted. "Don't move! I'm coming to get you!" He took two more steps up the ladder before his boot slipped, and he fell smack on his back. Luck- ily, a small bush broke his fall.
"Daddy, are you okay?"
Then piercing shrieks were heard as Vero's mother ran out of the house wearing an apron splattered with powdered sugar. Her cries alerted the curious neighbors.
Mr. Atwood from next door was the first one on the scene, since he was already outside admiring his "It's a Small World" display. He didn't notice Vero up on the roof at first.
"For Pete's sake," he said. "Calm down the both of you.
It's probably just a bum light bulb." Then he glanced up and saw Vero peering down at them. "Holy cow!" he yelled.
"That kid's crazy!"
When Mrs. Atwood arrived moments later, Mr. Atwood wagged his stubby finger in his wife's stunned face and said, "I told you that kid was off, but you never believed me! Remember that time I found him in our tree trying to jump off a branch that was as high as the house? I almost broke my neck climbing up after him!"
"Quiet, Albert! I'm calling 9 - 1 - 1!" Mrs. Atwood yelled, cell phone in hand.
"Maybe it's all a big stunt to draw attention to his Christmas display?" Mr. Atwood muttered to himself as he watched more and more neighbors gather. "I wouldn't put it past Leland."
Vero's father, meanwhile, had regained his footing and was attempting to climb the ladder once again.
"Yes, hurry!" Mrs. Atwood shouted into the phone. "The wind is gusting. It could knock the boy clear off the roof!"
Mrs. Atwood ended the call and then turned to help Vero's mother, who looked to be in a state of shock. She took off her coat and wrapped it around Nora's shoulders. "The dispatcher promised the fire truck would be here any minute."
"Vero, please don't move. . . . . . . " his mother said weakly. Vero saw she had flour on her cheek, streaked with a teardrop.
"Don't cry, Mommy," Vero told her. "I know I can do it this time."
Vero's five-year-old sister, Clover, joined them outside.
She'd been baking cookies with her mother, and she had flour in her blonde hair and down the front of her shirt. She opened her arms wide and called up to her little brother,
"Jump, Vero! I'll catch you!"
Nora quickly clasped a hand over her daughter's mouth. By now Vero's father had reached the top of the ladder.
He tried to grab his son, but Vero was beyond arm's reach; so he only managed to graze Vero's foot with his fingertips.
As Vero inched away from his dad, he became unsteady on his feet, and a collective gasp rippled over the gather- ing below. Yet somehow Vero regained his balance, and the watching crowd breathed a sigh of relief.
It was all too much for Vero's mother who fainted. Luck- ily she landed in the lap of the inflatable Mrs. Claus.
Mrs. Claus is cradling Mommy like a baby, Vero thought. And that's when a shiny red hook-and-ladder fire truck pulled around the corner with its siren blaring.
Vero felt absolutely wonderful. He smiled broadly and stretched his arms out wide, feeling the cold rush of the oncoming wind. It was exhilarating!
The fire truck's ladder swiftly extended, and a fireman stood in the enclosed basket, ready to carry Vero back to the safety of the ground below.
Vero watched as Mr. Atwood cautiously approached the fire captain now standing beside the hook-and-ladder. When the fire captain finished barking orders into his walkie-talkie, Mr. Atwood said, "Captain, when this is all over, would you mind helping me out next door? I really need a lift in your basket. You see, I've got this Santa that I'd like to stick upside down in my chimney so it looks like he's diving in headfirst."
Fire Captain Conrad looked at Mr. Atwood incredulously. "Absolutely not," he said. Then he turned to the crowd and shouted, "Clear the area! We're trying to save a life here!"
Vero saw Mrs. Atwood slap the back of Mr. Atwood's head as they moved away from the truck.
"Hi, Vero," the fireman in the basket said, as the basket stopped level with the roof's peak. "Climbing onto a roof is a first for you, isn't it? We've done this in trees before, but never on a roof — at least not with me."
Vero looked at the fireman and smiled in recognition. "Hi, Fireman Bob," Vero said.
"It's okay, Vero. Don't be afraid. I'm gonna help you just
like I did before," Fireman Bob said slowly, as he reached his arms toward Vero.
But Vero wasn't scared. He looked down and saw that his mother was slowly waking up in Mrs. Claus's inflatable arms. And just as Fireman Bob almost grabbed him, Vero took a deep breath, jumped backwards off the roof peak, and disappeared behind the house!
The neighbors gasped. Vero's mother immediately passed out again.
After Vero leapt off the house, the wind whipped against his face, and he felt like a bird soaring through the sky! Free- falling felt as natural to him as breathing.
But Vero's flying ecstasy was short-lived. Some powerful force — something other than the hard ground — abruptly ended his peaceful flight. He felt a sudden tightening around his chest like a yo-yo being yanked backwards on a string.
Vero suddenly found himself in the arms of a man who'd somehow caught him in midair.
"Vero," the man said, "that's enough with the flying."
Vero didn't recognize him as one of the neighbors. He was an older man with longish silver-white hair, a closely trimmed beard, and violet eyes. He wore jeans and a red puffy winter coat.
"I can't always be here to catch you," the man said. "I need you to promise me you'll stop."
"But I have to fly," Vero told him.
"In time," the stranger replied, and he gently lowered
Vero to the ground. "Everything in its own time. But for now, I need you to promise me you won't try to fly again until you know it's the right time."
Vero looked hard at the man. There was something familiar and likeable about him, and Vero thought he could trust him. Yet at the same time, Vero knew the man meant what he said.
Four-year-old Vero nodded. "Okay, Santa," he said, and he grabbed the man's beard with both hands.
"I'm not Santa Claus."
"But you're wearing a red coat. . ."
The stranger chuckled and said, "I'm too thin to be Santa Claus." As they heard the frenzied crowd rushing toward the backyard from the front of the house, the man locked eyes with Vero and said, "I expect you to keep your word."
Vero nodded again.
"All right. Now, I'm sorry about this next part, but it has to look believable," the man told him. And with that, the man twisted Vero's left ankle.
Vero screamed in pain, "That hurt!"
"I'm letting you off easy. It's only a sprain. Protocol says
I should break both of them."
The panicked crowd descended upon Vero who was now sitting on the ground holding his ankle.
"He's alive!" shouted the fire captain.
Vero's father picked him up and hugged him tightly, and
his mother was right beside him. Vero saw tears streaming down his father's face, and his mom had flour-streaked tear marks across both cheeks now. Vero felt bad for upsetting them.
Clover walked up and said, "He's okay. The man just twisted his ankle."
"What man?" her father asked.
"The one sitting in that tree," she pointed.
Everyone looked at the tree. There was no man in it.
Mr. Atwood shook his head and muttered, "She's just as crazy as her brother."