We called him “Sideburns.” Somehow, in some long-forgotten childhood reasoning, that seemed a good moniker for the guy who prowled alleys and back porches rummaging through trash cans and piles of cast-away items.

His old, rusted shopping cart would squeak and rattle along uneven pavement in the early mornings and late evenings. An occasional glimpse from afar would induce taunts and dares. “I dare you to throw something at Old Sideburns. I dare you to push his shopping cart over…I dare…” In Rumford, Maine in the 1980’s, he was our Boo Radley.

Parents would warn us to stay away and leave the old man with his dirty, unkempt hair alone. You know kids, though. We would taunt and terrorize him daily, becoming more bold and brazen as our teen years advanced.

“Let’s find out where Sideburns lives and…” So went the planning to rob a destitute man of his worldly treasures. It was decided that very evening that we would meet and trail the creaky cart to wherever the vagrant spent most hours shut away from we who were superior in this world.

“I usually see him on Falmouth Street by Bob’s Quick Stop, let’s meet there.” At 10pm, we gathered at the rendezvous to await Sideburns making his rounds.

“He should be somewhere around here, maybe by the dumpster out back, or by Maddy’s Pizza…hey, do you smell smoke?” We looked around, and saw an orange glow lighting the sky from a few blocks over.

“Maybe the school is on fire,” said Dave. “Let’s go see where it is!” Suddenly a fire truck and police car screamed by the store. “Let’s go see what is going on!”

We ran through the summer air and down the next street, where flames were roaring through the walls and front windows of a two-story house. The fast moving firemen were unrolling hoses and connecting to a hydrant on the corner. A cluster of people milled about, talking. Mr. and Mrs. Volkernick, the home owners, were visibly distraught and arguing with Police Chief Sanderson and another officer, who were trying to keep them from running back inside the inferno. “My Maggie is in there!” “The firemen will get her out.” “What if they can’t? I don’t want to lose my baby!”

Suddenly, the front door opened, letting out a ball of fire and a disheveled figure. Through the smoke and flames stumbled a charred ball of rags. “My baby!” The dirty, disheveled man held a crying baby in his protective arms. Mrs. Volkernick took the bundle, as the man fell onto the sidewalk.

The now sizable crowd gasped in awe and then drew back as EMTs ran to the baby and stranger who had collapsed. Ambulances transported the victims to the hospital, and as the fire was extinguished, we scattered to our homes, along with the other onlookers.

When I awoke the next morning, just past eleven o’clock, my mind slowly recounted the previous evening’s events. I thought I would wander by the Volkernicks’ house to see what the burnt structure looked like in daylight. I walked into the kitchen for a bite to eat. My parents had long since left for work. The morning newspaper was still on the breakfast table, next to my dad’s dirty coffee cup.

The headline caught my eye: “Vagrant Dies Hero! William ‘Sideburns’ Jalbert Saves Baby.”

“Jalbert, a decorated Vietnam veteran and sometimes patient at the Augusta V.A. Hospital seemingly came out of nowhere carrying the 16-month-old baby in his arms through the flames…”

We still refer to the homeless man as “Sideburns.” Somehow, on one hot summer evening, our childhood contempt turned to awe and wonderment.