By Kimball Perry
Post staff reporter
The first recollection Ric Allen has of his life is waking up in a hospital bed at age 6 and wondering why he ached so violently.
He soon was told that he'd been burned over 20 percent of his body, leaving scars on his chest, arms and chin -- and pain that was seared into his soul.
Over the past two decades, Allen has tranformed that pain into generosity that sees him devote the thousands of dollars he might otherwise spend on Christmas gifts to help the hospital that he credits with saving him not just physically, but spiritually.
When Allen, who suffered his burns at the hands of an abusive relative, woke up in the bed at Shriners Hospital for Children, he was greeted by his grandmother and a nurse.
One would become his rock; the other would show him the way to becoming a successful adult who would develop into a popular local professional wrestler and a benefactor to Shriners.
"My grandmother and this nurse talked to me to divert my attention from the pain," Allen said.
The nurse gave him a box of toys and books which would help Allen overcome the pain of the burns and his childhood.
"She gave me a Slinky -- which I still have," said Allen, 29, who now lives in Western Hills.
She also gave him the book "Tarzan of the Apes."
"It was just amazing because it completely distracted me from everything,'' he said.
After four months in the hospital, Allen returned home wearing a compression suit, braces on his arms and a clear plastic mask on his face to protect the burns.
He was taunted at school and at home.
"I was often kept away when company came up," Allen said of his home life. "Every now and then, I would be trotted out as a showpiece is the best way to say it."
At his elementary school, teachers required him to come to school 15 minutes after classes started, leave 15 minutes before they ended and to go home each day for lunch. All of that, he was told, was done to keep from distracting the other students.
"The ostracization and alienation were obvious," he said. "They called me `freak' and I was bullied. Then I would get in trouble when I got home for getting into fights at school.
"As a kid then, I didn't have a way to deal with it."
So he dove back into fantasy, re-reading the book he got at the hospital, devouring comic books and science fiction.
"I would read, read constantly," Allen said, on a break from his job as customer service manager for a downtown Cincinnati Internet commerce company. "I loved the detachment, the escapism."
Things improved when he no longer had to wear the braces and mask. He enrolled in private schools and graduated, then started taking college courses.
He continued to read the escapist literature and that distraction ultimately became his passion.
"I'm a professional wrestler," said Allen, who uses the professional nom de guerre Ric Byrne -- an admitted play on words.
He dresses in a modified singlet -- with mesh hiding some of the most severe burn scars -- that features flames shooting up his body.
With his flaming red hair, tied in a long ponytail, his red goatee and his 245-pound frame, he frequently burns down the house at the Heartland Wrestling Association meets.
"It's very similar to a comic book when you think about it," Allen said of his wrestling persona. "You have a man in an outlandishly colored costume fighting over the strangest of concepts but with clearly delineated right and wrong. It's phenomenal."
"I do it," he said of his wrestling career, "for the catharsis, for the thrill of the crowd, for just the release to be another person for a while."
"It is (escapism) for fans, too, because they see an ordinary guy who, because he's got some limitations, and is doing things they see as being extraordinary."
Allen -- who can be seen at www.ricbyrne.com -- is a good guy in the wrestling ring.
And, it turns out, outside the ring, too.
For years, he has forsaken buying Christmas gifts for others so he can spend the money -- more than $2,000 this year -- on gifts for burn victims at Shriners.
"The agreement my wife and I have is that instead of buying for ourselves, each other or our friends, what we do is we go out with the money we would normally spend in those areas and we purchase new toys for Shriners based on what their needs are," Allen said.
That makes Ric Allen one of the good guys, said Louise Hoelker of Shriners.
"He has just been so generous for us," Hoelker said.
Allen buys electronic robots, Harry Potter regalia, Spider Man, Star Wars and other toys of escapism.
"This is really nice stuff," Hoelker said.
Allen admits he enjoys playing Santa.
"I could go through the rest of my life blaming one incident for being the cause of all my troubles and pains," Allen said. "Instead, I decided to see if I could get over it and go on."