HUNTSVILLE, Alabama - Few people can say becoming a clown changed their life, putting them on a spiritual path after years of struggling with deafness. But Buddy Lemaster, who has entertained thousands of children as "Freedom Rose: The Patriotic Clown," can.

Since the early days of his 14-year clown career, he has sewn "I am a Christian clown, I don't just speak it, I live it," conspicuously on the back of every costume.

Struck deaf at 21 after inhaling fruit tree poison on his parents' property in northwest Huntsville, Lemaster battled alcohol and depression for nearly 30 years before finding his niche in life.

"It destroyed my life," said Lemaster, who had hoped to be an accountant before the accident.

He spent four grueling months recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center near Washington from an unnamed poisoning.

By the time his father, a master sergeant in the Marines, convinced the hospital to take him, Lemaster was in renal failure and his liver was shutting down. Already mostly paralyzed, his heart stopped twice en route to the hospital. But he didn't lose his hearing until a few days after being admitted.

"I remember this terrible roaring in my ears," said Lemaster, whose mother, Pat, still lives in Huntsville. His father is deceased.

When he woke up the next morning, the world was silent.

"The only thing that got me through that time was the other soldiers at the hospital," said Lemaster, 56, who made a full recovery except for his hearing.

Mostly, men from the legendary 101st Airborne who had been injured in Vietnam, wouldn't let him give up.

"If I fell down they made me pick myself up, and they would never let me write anything down, which forced me to learn to read lips real quick," he said. "The doctors told me it would take a year for me to recover."

But it only took him four months. He returned to Huntsville in the summer of 1970 where a whole new set of challenges awaited him.

"I tried to get involved in the deaf culture, but I never fit in because I wasn't born that way," he said. "I didn't fit in the hearing world either."

Despite the depression and drinking, Lemaster managed to advance quickly at Redstone Arsenal where he was employed, moving through the ranks to the position he holds today as an intrusion analyst.

It was at the arsenal that he got the chance to create a series of short stories for the Redstone Rocket in which Freedom Rose, a soft-spoken patriot, was the main character.

"I would pray with a beer in one hand and a pen in the other..." >>

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  • "When I would write, I would pray with a beer in one hand and a pen in the other asking God to change me," said Lemaster, now an expert lip reader. He also learned sign language so he could help with a local deaf awareness program.

    Eventually he became so enamored with the moral character and courage of his literary creation, Lemaster decided to bring him to life. Little did he know through that process he would find what he had been seeking since he lost his hearing--a sense of belonging and a genuine faith.

    From the first red, white, and blue sequin-covered denim jacket, Lemaster has sewn his own clown costumes. Whether he uses scraps of material off a bargain bolt of fabric or a pair of jeans from the thrift store, all of Lemaster's costumes resemble a Fourth of July parade.

    The patriotic colors and symbols pay tribute to the soldiers who encouraged him at Walter Reed, the hearts tell of his love for Jesus, the roses of purity and hope, and then there are the sequins. The first shirt contained more than 30,000 of them -- all red, white and blue, all hand-placed by Lemaster with a pair of tweezers.

    "Putting together the costumes gives you a lot of time to talk to God, and at some point I realized I needed a closer walk with him," he said.

    In 1991, at the invitation of a member of a local Baptist church, Lemaster began attending and still does today. He said it was there he was able to grow and heal.

    While making the costumes gives him time to discover his faith, being a clown gives him a chance to express that faith.

    With every smile his whimsical balloon creations bring to a child, Lemaster believes he is making a difference. At some events he'll use nearly 6,000 balloons and exhaust as many as four electric pumps.

    "So many people grow up believing that no one cares about them, but I hope that I can plant a seed that helps them heal," Lemaster said.

    "The children love him to death," said Betty Haney, a volunteer coordinator at the Huntsville Chapter of the Red Cross who has enlisted Lemaster's help numerous times. "He is a big asset to us and always attracts a crowd at our fundraisers."

    As much as Lemaster enjoys the local junket of festivals and fundraisers, he hopes to take Freedom Rose on the road once he retires.

    "I want people to see they have to choose their path: Trust the Lord, do drugs, or do something else," Lemaster said. "I've done both, but I didn't really have a life until I started trusting him."

    Lemaster hopes to start sharing his story during future appearances.

    "My testimony shows others that you can rise above your circumstances," he said. "You can tell people that, but to make a difference you have to live it."

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