Entry from January 14, 2009

I came upon the following two news items on the same day. Obituaries in The Times and The Daily Telegraph of London noted the passing, at the age of 108, of one of the last three surviving British veterans of World War I. Chief Petty Officer Bill Stone was also the last sailor of the Royal Navy to have served in both world wars. He had tried to join up at age 15 for the first, but his father, who already had two sons in the Navy, would not sign the papers. He had to wait until he was 18 and so was still undergoing training when the war ended. Serving as a stoker on the battle cruiser Tiger, he was present at the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow after the war. When World War II rolled around, he was still in the Navy. Aboard the minesweeper Salamander which made five trips to assist in the evacuation of Dunkirk. At this time, the Salamander’s sister ship, Skipjack, was dive-bombed and sunk with 200 men aboard. Salamander herself would have been sunk by a German submarine, but that the U-boat commander misjudged her shallow draft and the torpedo passed harmlessly beneath her.

After leaving the Navy, he worked as a barber and tobacconist and was a member of several veterans’ organizations. The Telegraph obit tells us that, “when attending reunions he liked to sing All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor and then Abide with Me.” It also tells us that he “attributed his long life to his faith and a prayer taught him by his wife (who died in 1995): ‘Lord, keep us safe this night, secure from all our fears, and may angels guard us while we sleep till morning light appears.’”

Meanwhile, back in the 21st century, Rolling Stone and its reporter, Joshua Bearman, had its eye on a different kind of hero, known only as Master Legend, who lives near Orlando, Florida, and has taken it upon himself, like his comic book role-models, in helping the police fight crime. “Like other real life super-heroes,” Mr Bearman tells us, “Master Legend is not an orphan from a distant dying sun or the mutated product of a gamma-ray experiment gone awry. He is not an eccentric billionaire moonlighting as a crime fighter. He is, as he puts it, ‘just a man hellbent on battling evil.’” It’s not quite clear how much evil he has actually battled, but somebody did knock out the back window of his pickup with a hammer.

Although Master Legend was one of the first to call himself a Real Life Superhero, in recent years a growing network of similarly homespun caped crusaders has emerged across the country. Some were inspired by 9/11. If malevolent individuals can threaten the world, the argument goes, why can”t other individuals step up to save it? “What is Osama bin Laden if not a supervillain, off in his cave, scheming to destroy us?” asks Green Scorpion, a masked avenger in Arizona. True to comic- book tradition, each superhero has his own aesthetic. Green Scorpion”s name is derived from his desert home, from which he recently issued a proclamation to “the criminals of Arizona and beyond,” warning that to continue illegal activities is to risk the “Sting of the Green Scorpion!” The Eye takes his cue from the primordial era of Detective Comics, prowling Mountain View, California, in a trench coat, goggles and a black fedora featuring a self-designed logo: the “all-seeing” Eye of Horus. Superhero — his full name — is a former wrestler from Clearwater, Florida, who wears red and blue spandex and a burgundy helicopter helmet, and drives a 1975 Corvette Stingray customized with license plates that read SUPRHRO.

There is plenty more where this comes from, including an extended account of the reporter’s beery acquaintance with Master Legend and his sidekick, Ace, both of whom allow only their “superhero” names to be used. I think the story of these pathetic fantasists is supposed to be funny, but it alternates between laughing with and laughing at its subjects.

Master Legend inhabits a never-ending comic book in his mind, assigning everyone a character in the grand narrative. His roommate turns into the Ace, his mechanic into Genius Jim, and a friend with some recording equipment into the Pain. And so the reality of Master Legend, a guy who has no job and lives in a run-down house in a crummy neighborhood in Orlando, is transmuted via secret decoder ring into an everlasting tale of heroic outsiders, overcoming the odds and vanquishing enemies. To the outside world, this makes Master Legend seem like a lunatic. But to the people around him, he is the charismatic center of an inviting universe. “It sounds a little silly,” Superhero says, “but we all want to be part of a better tomorrow.” Or, for that matter, a better today. Being a Real Life Superhero means that Master Legend can get in his Nissan pickup and call it the Battle Truck. He can tape together a potato gun and call it the Master Blaster. He can stand in the porch light of a disintegrating clapboard house, a beer in his hand, and behold a glorious clandestine citadel. And who are we to tell him otherwise?

That’s really the nub of the matter, isn’t it? Who are we to call him a lunatic? Everyone is entitled to his own fantasy, and about that there is nothing more to be said — unless it just a quiet reminder of the recently concluded existence on the same earth of the non-superheroic hero Bill Stone.

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