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The Hero Experience - Chapter 5

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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Thu Mar 19, 2015 3:40 pm    Post subject: The Hero Experience - Chapter 5 Reply with quote


Chapter 5

“We need a project,” said Stan.

We were sitting in my room on a fine, sunny Wednesday morning, with school two whole weeks behind us and the whole glorious summer ahead.

“A project? You mean like last summer?”

“No.” He shook his head a few times, then he stopped and started nodding. “Well, actually . . . yes. I mean, sort of. We need something like last summer, only much better. What we did last summer seems kinda silly — now that we’re big deal seniors and all.”

I was confused by his attitude. “You liked what we did last summer.”

“Yes. But I was young. I was naïve. You took advantage of me. I should have known better.”

“It was your idea!” I said defensively.

“Exactly my point. You should have talked me out of it.”

I put my tongue between my teeth and prevented myself from going insane by trying to argue with him. Last summer Stan talked Doug, Carl, and me into assembling three hundred balsa wood airplanes and then spraying them red, white, and blue. We placed them carefully into twelve large plastic bags and toted them to the rooftop of the Atlanta Merchandise Mart, high above Peachtree Street during the five o’clock rush hour on a Friday before the July 4th weekend. The lobby was crowded with people, but we just wore big goofy smiles like harmless idiots as we strolled through the lobby with the large plastic bags over our shoulders (three each) and then boarded an elevator after a mob of homeward bound office workers stampeded out of it. When we got to the top floor we found the stairway that led up onto the roof.

After reaching the roof, we waited for the quitting-time mob of office workers to flood the sidewalks and the traffic to grind to a halt like it always did at that time of day. Then we started chucking planes off the roof just as fast as we could grab them. The planes soared over the heads of the startled crowd, bumping off the sides of the buildings on their way down, landing on the roofs of cars, and colliding with the backsides of the ladies. For ten full minutes a fleet of patriotic airplanes rained down on Peachtree Street, and the whole nutty incident was mentioned on the six o’clock news and the Saturday morning edition of the Atlanta Journal as well as the afternoon edition of the Atlanta Constitution — not surprising in view of the fact that both publications were actually the morning and afternoon editions of the same paper, known to all as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Part of the fun was keeping the whole thing a secret from our friends and families. We knew that if anybody saw our preparations for the stunt, they would know who did it later on, and we didn’t want to be slapped with a thousand dollar fine for littering if somebody squealed on us.

“That’s gonna be hard to top,” I told Stan. “And I had fun. So did the other guys.”

“Yeah, sure, it was great,” said Stan impatiently. “Fun is fine, but I’m looking for excitement and adventure. I want to shake up the city and rock the state and stun the nation. Come on, Jones, think of something! You’re the idea man of this group.”

“I am? I thought you were the idea man.”

“Wrong! I’m the can-do man, the practical planner. You’re the concept guy. I’m not saying your ideas are always good, but you have plenty of ‘em, and occasionally you get lucky.”

I wasn’t sure how to take this, but a challenge was a challenge. And I sure didn’t want anybody beating me to the punch by suggesting something we’d all be proud of later, even if it did result in a criminal record and several years in a federal penitentiary.

With that in mind, I started tossing out ideas. “We could get some explosives and blow up a condemned building. Then we call the newspapers and claim it was the work of Doctor Demolition.”

Stan kept a straight face for about four seconds as he nodded his head slowly. Then he stopped pretending and slapped me sharply on the top of the head. While I was busy looking shocked and rubbing my noggin, Stan lashed out with logic and common sense.

“This is about showmanship, not mass destruction, you bozo!” He looked at me like a research chemist who just noticed something unplanned and purple growing in his Petri dish.

Stan had me dead to rights and I accepted the noggin slapping as a well-deserved reprimand. I closed my eyes and went back to work. I pondered, I mulled, I planned. Nothing really good came to mind. Heck, nothing even bad came to mind. I opened my eyes and peeked at Stan, hoping he had something.

Stan was staring at me, expecting greatness any minute now. I began to mentally compose my resignation letter as the idea man of the group. I wondered if the job of comic relief was open. That job I could do standing on my head — which, if taken literally, was always good for a laugh.

Out of desperation, I asked a question, just to stall for time. “I assume we’re going for maximum publicity?”

Stan was clearly disappointed in me and amazed by the question. “Of course! That’s the big payoff.” He got up and started pacing around the room. “The only thing that made last year’s stunt worth the trouble was that people all over the city heard about it on the news. Whatever we do this year has got to be front-page stuff. A banner headline!” He gazed into the air and waved his hand from left to right, painting the words in the air as he proclaimed them in a dramatic voice.

“City Stunned By Something Big!“

Then he looked down at me, nodding slowly as if he’d made his point with complete clarity. “I’ll leave the details to you. Don’t let us down.”

I struggled to maintain a straight face, but it was a lost cause, and I dissolved into soft chuckles that paid tribute to his wit and charm. The guy was a master of hyperbole, even though he probably couldn’t even spell the word.

“That’s a big job,” I finally said.

“Big jobs are for big men.” He paused and cocked an ear toward the door. “Come on, Paul Bunyan. I just heard Carl honking for us out front.”

We grabbed our bathing suits and towels, then we headed down the hallway. My mother was in the kitchen, diligently cleaning things that were already spotless while she listened to a black, plastic AM radio play songs that had thrilled kids my age twenty years ago. I wondered if the songs that thrilled me now would be heard by future mothers in their kitchens twenty years from now. If so, there was a keen irony at work here, because the mothers of today seemed to think that their children were being corrupted by Satan thanks to today's Top 40 Hits. Life is mighty funny.

As we crossed the kitchen, Mom didn’t miss her chance to give me a last-minute briefing.

“Don’t get sunburned. Use the lotion I bought for you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And eat a good lunch. You’re so skinny now your pants fall down when you sneeze.”

“Yes, ma’am. But thinness is genetic, so that’s your fault.”

I closed the door quickly as we hurried out, hoping to thwart any chance at retaliation. But I heard her laughing, so I knew I’d left her in a better mood, always a good thing to do with your parents. The slightly faded red 1963 Jeep Wagoneer which belong to Carl’s parents waited by the curb to convey us to the Hilton Inn near the airport, where the hotel swimming pool was at the disposal of upper crust types like us who belonged to the Pool Club.

Actually the Pool Club was just a summer deal the hotel offered local residents to net themselves a few extra bucks when the public pools were so crowded there was barely enough room left for the water. Several hotels in the area offered similar deals.

When Stan and I reached the car we greeted Carl and Doug as we climbed into the backseat of the rugged old vehicle. Carl dazzled the neighbors with a flashy blastoff, spinning the tires and leaving a smear of neoprene on the pavement that my mother would dash out and clean up while no one was looking.

Carl’s driving resembled mine in no way whatsoever. He had so much natural ability for controlling a car that I suspected he had some sort of cosmic kinship with the automobile, feeling its power, its pain, and its mechanical virility as it mated with the road. He always drove with such one-handed ease that if he suddenly started using both hands on the wheel, I got worried about what was up ahead.

“Gentlemen,” Stan announced as we gathered speed and left all parental authority behind. “We have a challenge to present.”

Doug liked the sound of the remark because it smacked of melodrama, so he took the bait. “What challenge?”

“We need a project. We need a mission. And it has to be better than last year’s lame toy airplane stunt.”

That got everyone’s attention. I wasn’t the only one proud of last year’s toy airplane stunt, and his insulting reference was fightin’ words where we came from. Doug refrained from retaliating with an emotional outburst, choosing instead to hurl the gauntlet. “So, I assume you’ve got a better idea?”

Stan was ready with a quick reply. “No. But Brad does.”

I gave Stan my best bewildered look, but I didn’t say anything. Everybody was looking at me and waiting for a brilliant idea. I started biting my tongue again, just to keep from saying something stupid. If I kept this up, I would spoil my appetite for dinner.

However, Carl saved the day by making a suggestion. “We could roll somebody’s yard.”

Okay, it wasn’t a very good suggestion, but it still saved the day.

“We’re hoping for something worthy of serious news coverage,” I said, attempting to be diplomatic.

“No, you missed the point,” said Carl. “I was thinking we could roll the front lawn of the governor’s mansion. Something like that.”

Yes indeed, I had missed the point. Rolling the governor’s mansion made a nice mental image. We cruised along for a while, everybody lost in thought. Finally, Doug threw out his own suggestion.

“We could paint your high school’s artillery piece a shocking pink.”

I liked that idea, too. It was classy, it was bold, and it made a political statement impossible to misinterpret. War is for sissies. Make love instead. But before I could utter a word, Stan said, “The paint would cost too much.”

“And we’d get caught,” said Carl. “It would take too long to paint it.”

Doug thought it over and just nodded in defeat. We went back to considering the possibilities. Finally, Stan said, “We’ve gotta go for maximum effect with minimum cost.”

“And it should be something involving a lot of spectators if we’re going to make the news,” Doug added.

“Good point.” I pondered the problem, then I said, “Hey, what if we pulled off some sort of clever hoax?”

“Like what?” said Carl, looking at me in the rearview mirror.

“You got me there. Like, ummm . . . we could make it look like monsters were living in the city’s sewers.” There was a concerted groan from the rest of group, and I slumped down in the backseat to show that I felt properly rebuked. Then I had a weird thought that made me sit up and dive back into the debate. “Okay, what about a team of masked vigilantes patrolling the city and fighting crime?”

There’s was a long and embarrassing moment of silence. Then Carl said, “Are you serious?”


“No, Jones, you’re not serious. There’s no way we could pull that off.”

“Hold on, give the idea a chance. I’m not talking about fighting dangerous criminals. I just mean something like . . . stopping vandals from breaking windows or spray painting alley walls. We could stop a couple of morons like that and then take credit for it as the Masked Avengers.”

There was another deafening outbreak of silence as everybody showed their complete and unanimous lack of enthusiasm for the idea. After several seconds Carl said, “I can think of several serious snags in that plan. For instance, just exactly how do we take credit for these noble deeds and still remain anonymous?”

“That’s easy,” said Stan, coming to my defense. “We phone it in to the newspapers. Anonymously.”

“Right!” I said, rapidly selling myself the idea, against all odds. “We phone the newspapers and TV stations.”

“Now wait a minute,” said Doug, who had been looking at me with polite disbelief ever since I’d first proposed the plan. “How do we find these crimes we’re supposed to thwart?”

Doug had me cold on this one. “How do we . . . find the crime?”

“Right. Think about it. Have you ever actually driven past a crime in progress? No? Hmmm. Me neither.”

I struggled to defend the idea. “Yeah, but . . . couldn’t we just . . . I mean . . . hey, come on! The police don’t have any trouble finding crimes!”

“True enough,” Doug said, looking very patient and mature. “That’s because they have a slight advantage. People call the police and report crimes. So, what are we suppose to do? Advertise on the radio?” Doug deepened his voice and spoke like an announcer. “Folks, the next time you’re being robbed, call the Crimson Vigilantes! No crime is too big! No crime is too small!”

The other guys started giggling, which wouldn’t seem like a bad thing except that my clever idea was being laughed off the stage. Lucky for me, Stan always felt obliged to argue with Doug, and so —

“I think I see where Jones is going with this. If we could just make one appearance as the Phantom Crime Stoppers, the newspapers would print a story about it.”

Doug was losing his patience, not to mention his maturity. “Good Lord Almighty, Jenner, be realistic! The idea is obviously ridiculous.”

That was just what Stan needed to get really riled up. “It’s not ridiculous if you think of it as a hoax!”

The passion of Stan’s response startled Doug for a moment, then he said, “What do you mean?”

Stan looked at Doug as if he was being really dumb about something really simple. “I’m talking about faking it.” He paused for effect as he looked around at the three of us. “We just show up where something mildly illegal is going on, then we take off. Afterward, we call the newspapers and make ourselves sound like a group of vigilantes who are kickin’ butt here in Gotham City.”

The interior of the Wagoneer got quiet while Carl and I waited for Doug’s reply, and while Doug wondered if we should drop Stan off at the nearest mental hospital for suggesting real scary ideas that would land us all in jail until we outgrew acne.

Finally, Carl filled the void by saying, “Wait a minute, Doug. I think this might work.”

“Right,” said Stan. “All we have to do is save some beautiful girl from a Peeping Tom and then phone the newspapers with a lot of bold claims about how we’ll be patrolling Atlanta and aiding the overworked police.” Stan was obviously sold on the whole idea and ready to start buying leotards for our costumes.

Doug, on the other hand, was obviously getting nervous about being surrounded by deluded folks who hadn't taken their medication this morning. “Okay, wait a second,” he said, struggling to regain his patience. “You’re seriously suggesting that we somehow figure out where a crime is being committed, and then get there before the police do — and then do something that’s worth writing about in the newspaper? I mean, other than getting ourselves killed.”

Stan’s face was turning red, and he had entirely too many veins showing in his temple. He glared at Doug and gave every indication that murder was about to take place in the backseat of Carl’s Wagoneer. He opened his mouth a few times to speak, but he closed it quickly, resisting the urge to say things he’d later regret.

Before Stan could lose his inner struggle, I spoke quietly to both of them. “Whoa . . . calm down, guys. Look, this is getting outta hand. I’m sorry I ever mentioned it. Let’s just forget the whole thing.”

“Right,” said Doug, looking at me like the whole mess was my fault. “That’s a good idea.” He gave me a fatherly look of tolerance that didn’t make me like him any better. Stan said a dirty word and turned to glare out the window, hating everybody here and all our ancestors. The four of us rode along in silence, and I sat there wondering how the suggestion of a wacky summertime prank could start a civil war among four good friends.

We arrived at the Hilton Hotel and headed for the pool. The pool was located in the middle of a large open landscaped area surrounded by the four connecting wings of the hotel. Other wings branched off from the outside boundaries of the enclosed square, but this big green inner court was a serene enclosure, an acre wide, cut off from the tacky world of fast food franchises and run-down gas stations that had flanked this once proud hotel. As usual, only a few hotel guests were using the pool. The rest of the dozen or so swimmers were club members like us. We joined the ones we knew and spied on the ones we didn’t. Several attractive girls were among the unknowns.

Stan talked me into swimming laps with him, which quickly had my arms feeling like soggy French fries. Stan went on to swim a few more laps after I quit, just to complete my humiliation.

I crawled from the pool like a dying salmon that had just finished spawning, and I collapsed onto a deck chair next to Carl. He lay there sunning himself with his eyes closed, looking totally relaxed or soundly asleep or absolutely dead, you could take your pick. As soon as I lay back and closed my own eyes, the corpse spoke.

“A police band radio.”

I was caught by surprise. “What?”

“That’s how we find out where a crime it being committed. Just a plain old police band radio. Easy.”

It took me a second to realize what he was talking about. “Oh. Yeah. Good idea. But we don’t have one,” I raised up on one elbow and looked at Carl as he continued to lie there, still dead.

“Mickey McClusky does. And he’s away for the summer. His parents would let me borrow it if I told him Mickey said I could.”

“Did he?”

“No. But he would have. He owes me a favor.”

“Aha.” I mulled over the suggestion for a moment and I liked the larceny of it. Then I said, “But what about getting to the crime before the police do?”

The cadaver smiled faintly with its eyes still closed. “I’m working on that.” He didn’t elaborate, and I wasn’t sure if he was seriously considering the plan. Frankly, I wasn’t seriously considering it myself now that my first bubble of enthusiasm had been so thoroughly burst by Doug.

Speaking of which, I saw Doug paddling around the deep end of the pool with a rather gorgeous gal I didn’t know. Rather than leave him alone to develop his new romance, I rose from my chair, eased myself into the pool, and swam toward him. When I was still several yards away I submerged and swam up to the couple in secret. My head surfaced very slowly right next to Doug as he and his intended victim clung to the edge of the pool. I spoke in a quiet, conspiratorial tone.

“A police band radio.”

Doug turned to give me the same look he would have given the Loch Ness Monster if said scaly beast had suddenly interrupted his aquatic schemes. “What?”

“We just listen to a police band radio until we hear about a crime. Think it over.”

And down I went, like the mysterious Lady of the Lake after she gave King Arthur his enchanted sword. I swam away underwater, leaving Doug to explain his nutty friend to the young lady. Soon I was back on my deck chair next to Carl, puzzling over ways to make the city think that it had come under the protection of four masked superheroes.

I was mentally wandering through improbable plans when a lovely female voice said, “Hi ya, handsome!”

I opened my eyes as Cindy Johnson, Carl’s girlfriend, snuggled up against Carl on his deck chair. Suddenly my own chair felt six feet wide and terribly lonely.

“I thought you were at your grandmother’s until Thursday,” said Carl, hugging and cuddling with Cindy, who seemed to wiggle endlessly in her efforts to get comfortable in the chair with Carl.

“We came back early because I missed you,” she said with much smiling affection. The two young lovers did a little kissing, just to torture old Brad and drive him away, which it did. I excused myself and shuffled over to the pool, where I fell in without pretense of grace.

Cindy was a cute, bubbly girl with a healthy figure and a natural way of treating a guy as if he were all she could ever want. She and Carl were well matched, both being jovial and fun loving. Their relationship was very relaxed, and it seemed to be based on much laughter and plenty of affectionate body contact.

I floundered over to Stan, who was floating on his back and letting the sun give him new freckles to keep the old ones company.

“What’s up?” he said when he saw me approaching.

“Love is bloomin’ everywhere,” I said in a Grumpy the Dwarf voice. Stan rose up just enough to glance over at Carl, then at Doug.

“Yeah. Oh, well. Our time will come.” He leaned back and closed his eyes. Water filled his ears.

“Hey.” I splashed him to get his attention.

“What?” He turned his head so that one ear was above the waterline.

“We need a gimmick weapon to give us some flare. Something useful but not deadly.”

He floated like a mass of seaweed for a moment while he figured out what the remark meant, then he said, “Such as?”

“Uh . . . a whip?”

“Hmmm. Maybe. I’ll work on it.” He lay back again and kicked his feet slowly, drifting away, deliberately putting some distance between us. So be it. I swam toward Doug, who now had two girls with him, though I got the impression that neither of them was exactly begging for a date. As I neared them I submerged again and came up slowly just a few inches from Doug. I spoke to him in a barely audible voice.

“What do you think?”

He kept his eyes on the girls, but he said, “About what?”

“About the police band radio.”

His answer surprised me. “Not bad. But how do we beat the police to the scene of the crime?” His constructive criticism was unexpected. Was he starting to like the idea?

“Carl is working on that. Think up a gimmick weapon that’s flamboyant but not lethal. We don’t want to kill anybody and spend all our sexually active years in jail.” I submerged again and headed back for the sanctity of my poolside chair. However, Cindy had taken my chair, so I took the one next to it. Carl had died again, so Cindy decided to talk to me.

“How have you been, Brad?” Her voice was all silk and honey, and I had trouble concentrating on the meaning of the message.

“Okay, I guess. You?”

“Oh, just fine,” she cooed, wiggling around and making me very uncomfortable in my bathing suit, which suddenly seemed the wrong size for me. “When are you going to double date with me and Carl?”

“Ummm, soon I guess.”

Admittedly, double dating with Carl and Cindy would make it easier for me to handle the extreme panic I always felt on a date. I could never seem to relax and be myself, the way Carl did. Or Doug. Stan always acted glib and aloof around women, while I always went on lunatic talking jags that embarrassed me. But a guy can’t avoid women all his life if he expects to keep his sanity beyond the age of twenty-two.

“Do you know any girls you could fix me up with?” I said, surprising myself.

“Maybe,” said Cindy. “I’ll let you know.”


Cindy rose to cool off in the pool. I could already feel myself dreading the date she may or may not arrange for me. Just to get my mind off it, I pondered the problem of the great superhero hoax.

A weapon, a weapon, my kingdom for a weapon — something we could make easily or buy cheaply. Ponder, ponder, ponder. I mentally flipped through stacks of comic books to see what sort of gimmick weapons had already been immortalized. I found Green Lantern using a super hi-tech ring he had received from an alien race. The ring was capable of creating solid objects out of thin air. Well, we’d have trouble duplicating that little gizmo, so I kept flipping through the comic books. Obviously, I needed to concentrate on superheroes who didn’t have superhuman powers or alien assistance. Heroes like Captain America and Batman. Captain America carried a shield that he could throw around with such skill and finesse that it made the reader wonder why policemen carried those silly old guns. More impressive still was the utility belt that Batman carried. It contained everything — repeat: everything — a crime fighter could ever need. Even if we had one of those, I didn’t think we could actually carry it, since it would weigh five hundred pounds if it really contained that much stuff.

Just when I began to think that all was lost and the situation was hopeless, I heard a voice from nearby.


I looked around, but I didn’t see anybody, which was weird and creepy. If the voice had sounded like Charlton Heston I would have suspected divine intervention. But since it sounded like Stan, I looked over at the edge of the pool and said, “What?”

“Bows and arrows.”

Stan was clinging to the concrete lip of the pool. Only the upper part of this face and the ends of his fingers showed, like Kilroy making a quick visit to announce that He'd Been Here.

“You know, bows — like the one used by Green Arrow. We could make trick arrows that do different things. A bow looks cool, but it also looks threatening — which is good, since we don’t really intend to shoot anybody.”

I was impressed. I was getting some very impressive mental images of us dashing around town with bows and arrows, sticking fear into the hearts if evil criminals and lowlife law breakers and careless deer who wandered inside the city limits. But then a few practical thoughts came to mind.

“Okay, but won’t these bows be kinda expensive?

“Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll check and see.”

“Hmmm. Good thought.” I lay back down with a smile on my face as I visualized the four of us in Zorro masks, armed with massive hunting bows, scaring the crap out of sexual perverts. “Freeze or you’re dead, Sicko!” I could just see the news reports.

Crimson Twangers catch sex fiend with pants down! Film at eleven.

“Hey, Carl,” I said without rising up.

“I heard him,” he replied, equally unmoving. Cindy returned, wetter but cooler, and lay down on her chair between us.

“So, what do you think, Carl?” I said.

“Maybe. I don’t know. The whole idea scares me a little. It might go wrong in so many ways.”

“Naw. We’ll be real careful.”

“Hey, what are you guys talking about?” said Cindy.

I was ready with the answer. “We’re gonna decorate the governor’s front lawn with patriotic crate paper on the July 4th. You want to come along?”

Cindy heaved a breathy sigh as she lay back with her eyes closed and pretended she didn't know how great she looked soaking wet in a bikini. “No thanks. Wow, you guys work hard at being crazy, don’t you?”

I was smiling with my eyes closed too, prone and happy with life in general as I said, “It’s a thankless job, baby, but somebody’s got to do it.”

The next day was rainy and cool. It was perfect weather for a council of war. Carl joined Stan and me at my house just after one o’clock. Doug wasn’t home, but we weren’t even sure he was willing to participate, so we went ahead without him. The three of us made notes on our proposed hoax, and we tried to estimate the cost of the operation, which was alarmingly high. We had phoned several sporting goods stores and priced the cheaper archery equipment.

When I came back into the room after making the last phone call I made the sad announcement. “There must be someplace that sells cheaper bows. At thirty dollars apiece, we’d all have to share one!”

“We’ll keep checking . . . but it looks bad.“ Stan was sprawled across my bed, hands behind his head, his eyes peering up at my ceiling, his expression looking pretty bleak. “But even if we find bows for ten or fifteen dollars, we'll still need arrows and quivers, plus those leather finger guards and forearm guards.”

“We won’t need anything but a few arrows,” said Carl. “We can make some kind of quiver, I guess. We don’t even plan to shoot the arrows, do we?”

I was reconciled to mourn the death of a great concept. “True, but we’re supposed look like we'd shoot 'em. Even if we just get the basics, we’re still be way over budget on this thing. Damn, I had real hopes for this crazy scheme. To be the world’s first, real-life masked crime fighters — even for one night — would really be something.”

“A memory to treasure, yes indeed,” said Carl, gazing off into space at the colorful image of his possible destiny. Then his brain came plummeting back to terra firma and left him flat-footed among his earthbound friends. “But if we can’t find bows for you guys, we’re back to rolling the governor’s lawn.”

Carl’s father, the former hunting enthusiast, had a beautiful wood and fiberglass bow that he hadn’t used in several years, along with arrows and all the rest of the gear that went with it. Carl had asked his dad if he could use it because several friends wanted to take up archery this summer. His dad said that was fine as long as Carl understood that if the bow received a single scratch he would tack Carl’s hide to a tree in the backyard and use it for target practice with the aforementioned bow. Carl agreed. After all, what could possibly happen?

Thus, Carl was already equipped for our project, while the rest of us couldn’t cough up enough money to even come close.

“This is starting to look like more trouble than it’s worth,” said Carl. “To spend so much on an idea that might not work — or might even get us in trouble — just doesn’t make good sense.” Carl heaved a noisy sigh and said, “I think we should drop it.” He gazed down at the floor with the same expression a man wears when he looks at the elderly family dog and realizes the next trip to the vet is the one the dog won't come back from.

“I agree,” said Stan with visible disappointment. He was gazing at my ceiling, but in this mind's eye the doomed dog was up there too.

I hated to admit it, but they were right. We would be better off starting from scratch with a more practical project.

“Okay. Cancel Operation Superhero Hoax and start working on alternatives.” There was a respectful moment of silence while we all mourned the unborn greatness that had passed us by. Then I said, “Listen, my father told me to get a haircut before he gets home or he’ll cut it himself. Are you guys busy tonight?”

“Are you kidding?” said Stan.

“It’s polite to ask.”

“Okay. No, I’m not busy.””

“Ditto,” said Carl.

“Right. Then we’ll get together and bounce ideas around till we come up with something useful.”

The guys departed. I found my mother in the basement laundry room wrestling clothes out the washer and preparing to hang them on the rotating clothesline in our backyard. I told her where I was going so that she wouldn’t worry about me, even though I knew she’d worry anyway. It was her job, and she took it very seriously. I appreciated the concern, but it tended to put a strain on our relationship. It occurred to me that if she ever found out I had been planning to become a crime-fighting superhero she’d have gone catatonic and required shock therapy. Another good reason to drop the whole crazy scheme.

I headed for the small barbershop in the middle of Union Point. This place was a true piece of Americana. When you walked in the door, it was like entering a Norman Rockwell painting. The barber’s chairs were older than the artillery piece in the school courtyard. The three barbers were even older than that.

But one of them was actually under sixty, and he was able to give a haircut that didn’t skin the whole backside of my head. Besides, I liked the guy. His name was Mr. Russell Algood, and he made jokes about cutting my hair just right so that all my girlfriends would like it. He always seemed to be listening intently when I rambled on and on about the movies I liked, the books I’d read, and the crazy things I’d been doing with my friends. He could put an amazing amount of convincing sincerity into a simple “Uh-hmmm.”

Another reason I liked the dear old Union Point Barber Shop was because it always had a pile of comic books mixed in with the manly magazines like Mechanics Illustrated and Field & Stream, all for the reading pleasure of the waiting customers who sat in the battered wooden chairs along the wall facing the barbers.

I only had to wait about three minutes for Mr. Algood to get to me, during which time I pawed through the magazines in search of reading material. I found Betty and Veronica, Donald Duck, and Archie in abundance before I finally hit pay dirt. A Fantastic Four was stuck inside a Field & Stream, and I wondered if one of the older customers was secretly a comic book reader, disguising his activities the same way I had done in Mrs. Hensley's geography class.

Only the Shadow knows.

I seated myself in the antique barber chair and made brief conversation with Mr. Algood, just for the sake of politeness. Then I lost myself in the improbable but exciting adventures of the Fantastic Four. Ah yes, there but for the lack of superpowers, go I.

Halfway through the comic book I looked up briefly and noticed two bows hanging above the wide mirror that covered the wall before me. Slowly my head lifted while my eyes remained fixed on the two bows, giving Mr. Algood a bad time as he tried to trim around my ears. A feeling of cosmic significance came over me as I stared at the two trim and visibly worn hunting bows. They were hanging across the mounted forepaws of a deer whose stuffed head loomed over the bows like a grim reminder of their deadly function

I knew from the catalog shopping I had done that the bows were of the novice variety. The grips on the more costly bows were complex and thick, with a rounded shape that filled the hands of the men who held them. The grips of these two bows, however, were little more than slight bulges at their midpoints. They were designed for the young hands of adolescents. There were a few small scratches on the dark brown wood, but the finish of both bows was glossy and well waxed. They had been used quite a bit, but their care had not been neglected.

It occurred to me that I had seen those bows hanging there on dozens of previous occasions, but I’d never given them a thought until now.

“Mr. Algood?”

“Hmmm?” His eyes were focused on the back of my head. His hands were busy. Clip, clip, clip.

“Sir, who do those bows belong to?”

“Those what?” He glanced up and followed my gaze. “Oh, the bows.”

Clip, clip, clip . . . clip.

He stopped cutting, and I watched his face in the big mirror on the wall. He studied the bows as if they were something he had just found in the back corner of his attic. He looked somber for a moment before he spoke in a voice so quiet I could barely hear him.

“Those belonged to Sid McAllister’s boys.” He paused, still staring at the bows. “Sid was a barber here until about a year ago. Both his sons were killed over in Vietnam. A lot of our soldiers have been sent there in the last few years.” There was a strange moment while I gazed at Mr. Algood in the mirror on the far wall. He shifted his gaze from the bows to me, and I saw him give me a sad look. It bothered me, but I didn’t know why.

Mr. Algood blinked a few times and then went back to cutting my hair.

“Oh. I see,” I said softly, affected by the reverence of the moment. “I was hoping they were for sale.”

Mr. Algood’s nimble scissor stopped again, and he looked at me with a whole new expression. The sad look on his face was giving way to something else. “As a matter of fact, they are. Old Sid put those bows up there after his boys enlisted in the Marines in 1963. He was going to sell them, but he could never get the price he wanted. After his sons died, they just hung there for several months while Sid wrestled with the fact that he’d outlived his own children.”

There was a moment of strange silence while Mr. Algood and the other two barbers paused and looked at each other. The two men in the other chairs seemed to understand what was going on, but it was all a mystery to me, and I felt small and humble without knowing why.

Mr. Algood turned around and washed his hands at the sink for no apparent reason, and when he faced me again, he seemed to be making a deliberate effort to smile. I didn’t really know what was going on, but I appreciated the smile, so I returned it.

“About a year ago,” said Mr. Algood, “Sid had a stroke and passed away. We just left the bows up there to keep the rest of us antiques company.” He chuckled as he started snipping at my hair again. His tale of lost sons and abandoned toys made me feel very naïve and inexperienced. When I spoke, I tried to make my voice sound casual.

“My buddies and I spent a few hours this morning looking for some place that would sell us two good bows for less than an arm and a leg.”

“Oh, yeah? Hmmm.” Mr. Algood’s skilled hands stopped, and he looked over at the other barber. “Hey, Phillip? Do you think we should sell the McAllister bows?”

Mr. Phillip Rollins turned from the customer in his chair and fixed a cold eye on me, then he looked up at the bows. His chilly look turned back to me.

“Would you take care of them, son? Or would they be ruined in a month?”

“I . . . I mean, we. . . would be real careful. Yes sir.”

“Hmmm.” He glanced back up at the bows for a moment. “Well, I reckon they’ve aged up there long enough. Any day now I expect to see termites on 'em.”

“I’m tired of dustin’ the fool things,” said Mr. Algood. He looked down at me, his eyes unblinking and uncompromising. “What are you offering, Brad?”

Somehow those two bows looked better to me than any of the new ones in the catalogs. Maybe it was the bit of history behind them, or maybe it was because they had hung there so long just waiting for little ol’ me.

“My buddy and I only have about fifteen bucks each to spend.”

I held my breath. Algood looked at Rollins, who looked back at Algood, then they both looked at the dead deer on the wall to see how he voted. The deer didn’t say no, so Mr. Algood looked at me and said, “Sold for thirty dollars. We’ll send it to Sid’s two daughters-in-law.”

“You got the arrows and everything for just thirty bucks?” said Carl, marveling at my new acquisitions.

“Yep. Mr. Algood said these leather finger guards and forearm guards need mink oil because they’re so dry, but they’re okay. We got the bows, the arrows, and the other stuff for a total of thirty skimpy, measly bucks.”

“Not bad,” said Carl, looking over the gear.

"Where did you get the money?" said Stan.

"He said to bring it the next time I came in for a haircut. It took Mr. Algood ten minutes to find the arrows and the other stuff in the back room. There were weeds growing in the dust back there.”

“Not really,” said Stan, wearing a reserved smile.

“Okay, not really. But I did feel like a cat burglar in a museum. These things have a history, guys!”

“Wow,” whispered Carl, holding one of the bows up and hauling the string back to his cheek. He held the pose for a moment, aiming an imaginary arrow while Stan and I stared at the aging bow and wondered if it would explode into sawdust.

“They’re as good as new,” announced Carl, who had some experience with his father’s bow. “Even the wax is recent. Somebody at the barber shop has been taking care of these.”

“I promised that I would, too.”

“You’re gonna take up archery?” said Stan.

“Sure. It’s a good way to build up muscles.”

“Well, don’t show these to anybody until after we’ve tried our stunt. Just in case it works.”

“Does that mean we’re back in action?” I asked, uncertain of the answer.

“I guess,” said Carl, handing me the bow. I could tell he still felt that the project was too involved, as well as being potentially dangerous. But the concept had a strong appeal that made us all want to ignore the dangers. So, we spent the rest of the evening making plans for our debut as superheroes.

Carl had brought the police band radio, and we listened to it at low volume so that my parents wouldn’t storm into the room with embarrassing questions. As soon as he turned it on we all discovered a distressing thing. The police talked in a language comprised mostly of numbers. There was the ten-series, like 10-4 for “acknowledge” and 10-9 for “repeat last transmission,” along with about a hundred more that we couldn’t figure out. There were also numbers for the various laws and ordinances the police referred to on the radio.

We also realized that if we were going to try to beat the police to some location and make our brief appearance as superheroes, we’d better have some way of figuring out where the reported disturbance was located when we heard about it on the radio.

We added two more items to our list of needed gear: (1) a list of the code numbers the police used, and (2) a set of maps showing every street in the Atlanta metropolitan area.

We also discovered that sometimes a very minor situation would be given a low priority by the police, and these situations would not be investigated until more pressing matters were attended to. A delay in the response time would occasionally result — sometimes twenty minutes or more. It was just this sort of situation we wanted. It actually happened fairly often, but we knew we’d have to wait for one to occur near us while we cruised around town or parked someplace convenient. And yet, we were sure that sooner or later our chance would come.

By the time Stan and Carl went home, we had a pretty good idea of what we needed to do in preparation for our history-making hoax. We agreed to keep the bows hidden until after the big night when we took on crime. We also agreed to con our parents into buying us “uniforms” — which would consist of dark blue t-shirts and blue jeans. After all, anything we all wore would be a uniform, as long as well all looked alike. Right?

So in the next few days we each acquired two dark blue t-shirts and brand new pairs of jeans. The second t-shirt would be used to provide masks that matched the shirts.

I had a wacky idea about how to get the masks we needed. On Monday I took the extra blue t-shirts to the tailor shop in Union Point, just three doors down from the Union Point Barber Shop. Faded lettering on the front window proudly stating that professional clothing repair and alterations were done there. Way down low on the window in small, humble letters it said “Sy Moscowitz: Proprietor.” A sign hanging inside the glass portion of the weathered front door that said Open, so I twisted the rusty doorknob and stepped inside. A little brass bell tinkled over my head and proclaimed that nobody would ever sneak into this place without a gentle musical alarm alerting a pack of trained German shepherds to attack without mercy.

Twelve feet in front of me was a worn wooden counter, and the walls on both sides held fading posters that told me I could get alterations done in three days for $10, two days for $15, and one day for $20.

I wondered what would happen if I offered Mr. Moscowitz a hundred bucks to make complex alterations on a three-piece suit. Would he suddenly become The Flash, a blur of motion, his nimble thimble and speedy scissors zipping through the job in thirty seconds flat?

The bell over the door brought out the proprietor himself, emerging from the dark recesses of his domain behind a threadbare curtain that hung over a doorway behind a wooden counter old enough to be petrified. He wore a friendly greet-the-customer smile as he stepped through the doorway, but the moment he saw me his bushy gray eyebrows lifted, adding an element of surprise to his expression. I wondered if perhaps I was the youngest person to walk into his shop since Roosevelt was president.

“Well, well, well, young man,” he said with genuine delight in a voice made soft and fuzzy with advancing years. “What can I do for you, sir?”

Mr. Moscowitz was barely five feet tall, with a bushy head of salt-and-pepper hair and a face that would give great artists serious hand cramps while trying to paint all the wonderful wrinkles it contained. He wore an aging gray vest, unbuttoned, and a coarse cotton shirt that would have destroyed any iron that tried to flatten its proudly defiant topography. He had a cloth measuring tape draped around his neck which hung to his knees. His shirtsleeves were rolled up to his elbows, proclaiming that he was a hard-working man and nobody should ever forget it.

Mr. Moscowitz could have been the eighth dwarf in Snow White — the one called Stitchy, who made all the clothes for the other guys.

"Good afternoon, sir," I said, bowing unconsciously as if he was Merlin and I was a very young King Arthur in need of wise counsel. “I’m Brad Jones, and I was wondering if you could make something special for me and a few of my friends. It’s part of a costume.”

Mr. Moscowitz glanced at the four t-shirts draped over my arm, and his expression turned from friendly to curious. “A costume?” he said.

“Well, actually three costumes.” I was about to launch into my carefully prepared lie. But as I looked down into the kind old man’s eyes, it occurred to me that hell might have a special place for people who lied to gentle souls like Mr. Moscowitz. And yet I knew I’d be a fool to tell him about our planned hoax. So I quickly convinced myself I was protecting him from involvement in a semi-illegal act.

“What kind of costumes?” said Mr. Moscowitz.

I took a deep breath and damned my soul forever by saying, “Legendary characters from literature and movies, sir. The drama club at Union Point High School is organizing a summer costume party, and my friends and I need your help creating our costumes.“ I managed to blurt out the lie without bursting into flames, but my armpits felt suspiciously warm, and I didn’t think it was a coincidence.

“Drama club, eh?” said Mr. Moscowitz. He was warming up to the idea. “So, what characters are you and your friends going to dress up as?”

This was the hard part. My carefully constructed whopper suddenly seemed too dumb to be uttered by someone who had supposedly tied his own shoes this morning.

“Well sir,” I said hesitantly, “I'm going as Zorro . . . and my buddy and his girlfriend are going as Mr. and Mrs. The Lone Ranger.”

Mr. Moscowitz looked up at me from way down there in Dwarf Land for a full two seconds, and then he turned to the side and doubled over in laughter, making him just two-and-a-half feet tall until he finally regained his control.

He backed up a few feet with his arms wrapped around his chuckling torso while he gazed at me with wise old eyes which he thought had seen everything until now. He drew a deep breath, blew it out noisily, and then said, “So, what do you need from me, young fella?” He was still chuckling, and his wonderful old face was using all the laugh lines it had acquired over the last sixty-five years.

“We need three masks, sir.” This was going better than I thought it would.

Mr. Moscowitz got control of himself and straightened up to his full five-foot height. Suddenly he looked disappointed.

“Just the masks?” he said. “Who’s making the rest of your costumes?”

The question was not one I’d expected to hear, so I didn’t have an answer. Out of pure desperation, I threw out the first answer that popped into my head. “My buddy's girlfriend is handling that, with the help of her mom.”

“Hmmm . . . I would have thought the masks would be the easiest part,” he said. I swallowed hard, propped the corners of my mouth up into a sickly smile, and lied some more.

“Most of the parts of the costumes will be stuff from stores. But my buddy and I were afraid his girlfriend would make silly-looking masks that we’d be embarrassed to wear.”

Mr. Moscowitz was chuckling again. “Ah-ha. Now I understand. You fellows want manly macho masks, eh?”

I grinned with him. “Exactly, sir.”

“Well, I’m sure you young folks will work all that out.”

I smiled nervously and said, “I’m sure we will, sir.”

“Besides, I won't have time to make much more than the masks, anyway. My wife and I are leaving for a three-month vacation to Europe in a week, and we’ll be gone for the summer. We’ve been saving up for almost twenty years. Three months in England, France, Germany, Italy, and other countries too small to show up on most maps. It's our dream vacation.”

“That sounds wonderful, Mr. Moscowitz. Take lots of pictures. I’d love to see ‘em when you get back.”

“And so you shall, young man. But I’ll make the masks for your drama club party before I go. You can pick them up this coming Friday.”

“Thank you, sir. Uh . . . how much will this cost us?”

He looked up at me and studied my face for a moment, then he said, “Would five dollars each be too much? Fifteen bucks for all three masks.”

“That sounds fine, Mr. Moscowitz. Thanks.”

I told him we wanted the masks to cover our faces from an inch below our hairline to a point halfway to the end of our nose. The lower edge would curve down over our cheeks, then up over our ears and form a band about an inch wide around the side and across the back.

Mr. Moscowitz pulled the tape measure from around his neck and started making measurements: the distance from an inch below my hairline down to my cheeks, the distance from below my hairline down to the middle of my nose, the distance between the pupils of my eyes, and the circumference of my noggin. He wrote the dimensions on a pad that lay on his counter.

He asked me if the other folks would be coming in for measurements. I told him no. I asked him to make all the masks the same so that none of us could start arguing over which mask was the best.

“But won’t the mask worn by the young lady need to be slightly smaller?” he said.

I lied again and condemned myself to a lower level of hell. “It will be okay, sir. She's . . . kinda big . . . you know, for a girl.”

He suggested that the masks have a Velcro fastener in back so each mask could be adjusted to the size of the wearer. This man was clearly a genius.

He seemed to be very familiar with the masks of both The Lone Ranger and Zorro, perhaps because he was almost old enough to have known them personally, and he agreed that the design of our masks would be a reasonable compromise between the two. He kept only one of the blue t-shirts, saying he would use a thicker cloth for the masks, but he needed the shirt to match the color we wanted.

I shook his hand and thanked him profusely as I was about to leave. His reply was downright prophetic.

“Think nothing of it, young fellow. It’s the least I can do for such legendary heroes.”


Is there no man on Earth who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?
~ The Space Children (1958)
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