I have a clear memory of the moment a man suddenly started crying and left the room. It was on a Sunday afternoon some 30 years ago, maybe more.
I was interviewing the fellow about a reunion he was organizing for men he had known as boys in a Maryland orphanage. But when we got to the heart of the discussion — the loss of parents, the years in the orphanage, the childhood chums he longed to see again — the memories were too much, and he left the room.
I sat silently and waited for the man to return. It was just a few minutes before I heard his footsteps on the creaky wooden floor. He came back, sat across from me again and apologized — “Please, don’t,” I said — then finished talking about the orphanage and the reunion.
Though it obviously stirred up challenging emotions, he was determined to bring his old friends together. He asked me to get the word out about the reunion, and I obliged.
I’ve been there a few times over the years: Asked to help someone connect with the past, to solve a mystery, to write an epilogue, to answer a question that has been hanging in a closet for decades.
Now comes Jocelyn Saiki, once of Baltimore and now of Mountain View, California.
Someone saved her life 50 years ago and, though her rescuer has frequently been in her thoughts, she’s never had a chance to thank him.
We go back to a January day in 1972 for this story. Saiki was then only 17 months old. Her mother had been recently divorced. They lived on the fourth floor of an apartment complex in Anne Arundel County, just outside the city.
There was a fire.
“My older sister showed her friend that she, a 4-year-old, could light a match,” Saiki explained in an email. “She did, but couldn’t blow it out. It dropped on a pillow, which then ignited the carpets.”
Her sister and friend ran out of the apartment, but Saiki and her mother were quickly trapped by flames.
“She grabbed me from a crib and ran toward the balcony as the flames blew up the ceiling,” Saiki went on, telling the story as it was related to her. “She protected us as best she could, but my right arm was badly burned and so was she.”
According to a story about the fire that appeared under a banner headline on the front page of what was then The Evening Capital in Annapolis, Saiki’s mother managed to get on the balcony with her toddler.
Four stories below was a man in a uniform of some kind. The man beckoned Saiki’s mother to toss the child to him. He coached her. He convinced her.
She let her baby go.
The man caught little Jocelyn.
“My mother wasn’t able to jump off the balcony after tossing me over, so she laid down as flat as she could to avoid the flames,” Saiki said.
The Capital reported that both Saiki and her mother suffered multiple burns. They were treated at what was then South Baltimore General Hospital (now MedStar Harbor) and released after a few days of treatment.
The man who caught Saiki was identified as Michael A. Cager, 20 years old at the time, a maintenance man at the apartment complex and resident of Severna Park.
He’s the man Saiki wants to thank.
“It would be an honor,” she says.
Fifty years have gone by. Saiki grew up in Baltimore, attended Baltimore City College and the University of Maryland. She worked as a newspaper reporter on the Eastern Shore before moving in 1997 to California for a job in public relations. She’s moved from that field into Pilates instruction and alternative medicine. She’s had an interesting life, a life she might not have had at all if not for Michael A. Cager.
So back to that question hanging in the closet: Where is he now?
Saiki is adamant that she saw a photograph of him when she was 16. The photo appeared with a story about his heroism that she viewed one time. Cager, Saiki recalled, was a young Black man in a worker’s jumpsuit.
“Not a day has gone by since running across that clipping as a teenager without thinking of him as an angel,” she said.
Unfortunately, our multiple searches of newspaper archives have not yet turned up such a story and photo.
After checking records and making numerous phone calls, we have not been able to locate Michael A. Cager.
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell found a brief death notice for a Severna Park man by that name; he died in 1990 at age 39. So far, we have not been able to identify any surviving kin who might be able to definitively answer the question: Is the late Michael A. Cager, of Severna Park, the man who saved Jocelyn Saiki’s life 50 years ago?
If so, then Saiki’s wish to personally thank him will be impossible.
And yet, her desire to reach out and know her rescuer — and in the process let the world know of his heroic action — strikes me as a fitting and grateful tribute. For now, barring the emergence of another Michael A. Cager, we’ll go with that, and that’s pretty good.