"Uncle Jake and the Caped Crusaders" was a runner-up
in last year's Boston Review Short Story Contest. We admired
the story for its clean, simple prose and strong sense of story. Read
the next issue of Boston Review for results of this year's contest
and the winning story.
Uncle Jake's main outdoor activity was shooting rats at the town dump.
A couple of times a week, he'd squat on the little mountain of spoiled
food, rusty cans and damp rotted mattresses, waiting for the quivering
his arrival had caused to die away. Then, when two or three of the big
brown rats snuck out to twitch and nose through the trash, he'd put
his shotgun up to his shoulder and fire.
Otherwise Uncle Jake was an indoor man. He was our mom's brother, nineteen
years old to my six and my brother's five, and he was our favorite babysitter.
He always came to the house with a load of comic books.
All three of us were fascinated by the Caped Crusaders: Captain Marvel,
Batman and Robin, and Superman. Our perusal of the comics was an interactive
experience fifty years before that phrase came into being.
We argued ferociously over the magic properties of Superman's kryptonite
versus Captain Marvel's SHAZAM and bolt of lightning. We debated
the merits of training your body and using inventions like the Batmobile
as opposed to being born with superhuman strength and eyes that could
see through steel. The three of us grew teary the day we realized that
all our Superheroes were orphans. Was it harder, we wondered sadly,
to lose your parents in an explosion of your home planet like Superman,
or, like Batman, to see them cut down by a bad man's bullets? Whole
hours were spent discussing the Superheroes' alternate identities, assessing
the glamour of Clark Kent's reporter life versus Bruce Wayne's rich-playboy-hood.
Only Uncle Jake thought Lois Lane might someday discover Clark Kent
was really Superman and marry him. My brother and I believed that about
as likely as Gene Autry someday switching his affections from his horse
to some sappy girl.
The only public phone booth in Schyler then was on the sidewalk outside
City Hall. We examined it whenever we went downtown with Uncle Jake.
Him being a man and we figured about Superman's size, Jake stepped inside
the booth, bending and twisting between the phone stand and the glass
door as we tried to figure out how hard it might be to change clothes
there. "It's pretty tight, sure," Uncle Jake said. "But, remember, Clark
doesn't have to change underwear—that'd be the hard part. He only
has to strip off his top layers, because he's got his Superman outfit
right there beneath his shirt and pants."
Nights we stood on our porch and stared at the sky on the off-chance
we might spot the bat signal Gotham City's police commissioner flashed
up there when he needed Batman's help. "Course," Uncle Jake shrugged
as once more we saw nothing but the moon and maybe the Big Dipper, "Gotham's
a ways from Schyler. So there'd probably have to be some kind of special
atmospheric conditions for us to see that old signal here."
Walt Disney wouldn't build Disneyland for another decade, but Uncle
Jake talked of taking us on a vacation far more exciting than any trip
to the Magic Kingdom. The three of us would sit back on the couch in
our playroom, Jerry and I locking our hands behind our heads just like
our Uncle Jake did, while Uncle Jake explained.
"See, as soon as I can get a little money together and buy a secondhand
car that I'm sure will run good, and then get a little time off from
work, we—all of us—'ll take off. First we'll drive to Metropolis—the
Daily Planet Building should be easy to spot. We'll park and go in there
and introduce ourselves to Lois Lane and Clark Kent."
"And we know Clark Kent's secret identity!" Jerry shouted, gleeful
at the plan.
"Right. So we meet Superman. And he maybe flies us to the top of some
building like he does Lois all the time when he rescues her, and we
can sit around up there and have a nice talk with him."
"We'll tell him how, of all the Caped Crusaders, he's our favorite,"
"Yah," said Uncle Jake. "And then maybe he'll demonstrate some of his
super powers for us. Like he'll look back, all the way to Schyler, and
tell us what your mom and dad are doing. Or, if I take my shotgun along,
he might let me fire off a round so we can watch the bullets bounce
off his chest. And then Superman can tell us where we can find the Bat
"It's under Bruce Wayne's mansion in Gotham City," my brother cried.
"Sure, but how can we find it underground unless we get the street
address for the mansion?"
When we asked Uncle Jake how far away Metropolis was from Gotham City,
he said, "They're about like Rochester and Buffalo." He unfolded the
New York State map the local gas station gave out and, spreading his
fingers, measured the distances between Schyler and Rochester, then
between Rochester and Buffalo. Really, we all agreed, it would not be
that far a drive to see Superman and Batman and Robin.
Hitler and Tojo interrupted our plans.
Pearl Harbor was bombed, the U.S. declared war, and Uncle Jake, now
twenty, healthy, strong, and already a crack shot thanks to the dump
and the rats, joined the Marines. His parting gift to us was a year's
supply of superhero comics. He paid Mr. Kelso at the drugstore in advance.
"You can collect three comics every week, kids. Keep them for me 'till
I get back."
Saturday mornings Jerry and I would walk to the drugstore and pick
up Superman and Batman and usually Captain Marvel,
but sometimes we'd choose Captain America or Wonder Woman
instead. Then we'd go back, stretch out on the couch, look at the pictures,
and miss Uncle Jake. When he left, I could only read about half the
words and Jerry couldn't read much more than the sound effects—"Bam!
Zap!" We'd have to wait until Mom or Dad had time to read them to us
and even so it wasn't nearly as much fun as reading comics with Uncle
Jake because they just read through the words. With Uncle Jake, the
three of us had talked over almost every picture.
Mom and Grandma read us the letters he sent home, too, telling about
how rough basic training was, how he liked all the guys in his unit
although some of them had accents so weird "you wouldn't hardly think
they were talking English," and how they got lots of food but no good
cabbage rolls like Grandma's. Somewhere in every letter, he put in a
message to me and Jerry.
After a couple of months, he sent Grandma a photograph of himself in
his dress uniform. Grandma worried how thin his face had gotten, but
Jerry and I were thrilled. With his white hat and blue jacket with the
red trim—"Uncle Jake's wearing the same colors as Superman's outfit!"
Grandma came and took us out of school one day, right between catechism
"Is the war over?" I asked.
Grandma shook her head, looking happy and sad at the same time. "They
let the boys come home for a few days—before they send them overseas."
Uncle Jake did come over and read us some of the comics we'd been storing
up under the couch, but we didn't see him near as much as we wanted.
"He has to spend time with Grandma," Mom explained, "and he wants to
say goodbye to his friends from high school and the glass factory."
Once we saw him walking down Main Street with this blond girl in a
blue dress. He waved to us, but he didn't stop.
For awhile after Uncle Jake went away again, we didn't hear from him.
Grandma put a little red, white, and blue banner with a star on it in
her front window. Houses all over town had banners in their windows.
It meant some boy from their family had gone to war. "Fighting the Axis
Powers," Jerry and I said, because that's how Superman and Batman
described the war.
All of the Superheroes had given up fighting crime. Instead they were
battling spies and saboteurs. On the last page of each of his comics,
Superman had a message for us kids. "Children: Help your parents plant
a vegetable garden to save food. Collect tin cans and newspapers for
scrap drives. Don't repeat what you read in a letter from a relative
in the Army or what your dad might say about his factory." He asked
us to take a pledge to fight for the American Way. Jerry and I raised
our hands and swore the oath every week.
When letters started coming again from Uncle Jake, they weren't on
regular paper anymore. The envelopes were soft and crumbly, the paper
thin as nose tissue. "Because Jake's somewhere overseas now," Mom sighed.
"The letters have to be light to go on the airplane."
What fascinated Jerry and me were the holes. On a tissue-paper page,
sometimes right in the middle of one of Uncle Jake's sentences, there'd
be a neat rectangle cut out of the paper. Uncle Jake had written something
that might be sensitive, Mom explained—a clue, maybe, to which
country he was in, or what unit—an offhand remark about his duties—
that, if the letter got into the wrong hands, or just got read by careless
talkers, might give away something the enemy could use. So the military
censor who read all the letters cut it out.
The way the ink blurred on that thin paper, and then the holes, worried
Mom and Grandma a lot. They would put a letter up against a window or
a lamp and try to figure out some of the blotty words or guess what
the part of Uncle Jake's sentence that was scissored out might be saying.
The two of them discussed every line in Uncle Jake's letters the way
Jake and us used to discuss every page in our comic books.
Mom and Grandma didn't learn much about where Uncle Jake was or what
was happening to him, but one day Jerry and I realized we could follow
Uncle Jake through our comic books. Batman and Robin, Captain Marvel
and Mary Marvel, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Superman—they
were all helping the U.S. fight the Germans and the Japs.
"Uncle Jake's fighting the enemy, too. So where Batman and Superman
are, what they're doing, must be the same as what's happening to Uncle
Jake," I told Jerry. With me sounding out the words and both of us scrutinizing
the pictures, week after week we followed the Superheroes, and through
them our Uncle Jake.
Superman flew over the Atlantic piercing the ocean with his x-ray vision.
Spotting a Nazi submarine, he dove deep under the water, and, with his
super-strength, blasted a crater right through its hull. "Nazi sub could
have blown up the troopship carrying Uncle Jake," we cheered.
"Pow! Bam! Crack!" Batman's iron fists in his purple gloves knocked
the sissy monocle flying off the face of a Nazi general. "Ach, Himmel!
"Begging for mercy won't do you any good when Uncle Jake gets you,
either," we'd yell. "Ach, Himmel, yourself."
I don't think it ever occurred to Jerry or me that Uncle Jake could
be wounded or killed. We mentally assigned him the invincibility of
the Superheroes he admired so much. He and they were united on a mission
to save America.
We paid special attention to the adventures of Superman because of
course he'd always been Jake's and our favorite and because, with his
red, white, and blue Superman outfit the same colors as Uncle Jake's
dress uniform, we figured those two had a special tie. After D-Day the
radio and the newspapers told us the Allies had landed in Normandy and
were fighting in Europe. From the comics, we learned that Superman had
raced over there with them. He flew between our soldiers and the enemy
and let Nazi tank shells explode harmlessly against his chest. Knotting
his mighty muscles, he tossed whole machine gun nests right into the
air, the soldiers with their swastikas falling upside down out of the
"Nothing can stop the Man of Steel—or Uncle Jake!" we yelled,
throwing the comic into the air. "Take that, you Nazi rats."
Superman overturned tanks and blasted through anti-aircraft batteries.
He spent so much time flying from one battlefield to the other saving
our soldiers and destroying the enemy that we thought Uncle Jake might
run into him somewhere. We worried a little bit that actually meeting
him might make Uncle Jake less interested in taking us on the magic
vacation to Metropolis and Gotham City after the war.
When we told our parents and Grandma how Superman was probably taking
care of Uncle Jake, Mom and Dad sort of laughed. Grandma said, all the
same, she'd pray her rosary.
The war went on and on, and my brother and I grew up. By 1945 we were
ten and eleven. We still believed in God and His Blessed Mother, but
we knew that there was no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. As long as we
could, we clung to the reality of the Superheroes. Finally, one day,
Jerry and I confessed to one other what we had each sadly come to face:
the Caped Crusaders were just cartoons, figures drawn on a page and
colored, with balloons over their heads full of printed words.
"Do you think Uncle Jake knows they're not real?" my brother worried.
We couldn't decide if he had just been pretending when he babysat us,
or if he really didn't know they were inventions.
"Uncle Jake sure made it seem like he believed they were real," I said.
"He convinced me," Jerry nodded.
Then the war ended, and there was no more flesh-and-blood Uncle Jake
than there was a living, breathing Batman. A big, swarthy man who looked
a little like Uncle Jake, especially around the eyes, came back to Schyler.
But he wasn't really the Uncle Jake we remembered.
"He's like Uncle Jake's alternate identity," my brother whispered,
after the big dinner Grandma made to welcome him home. "Like how Clark
Kent looks sort of like Superman, but at the same time he doesn't quite
look like him, and he doesn't act like him."
When we showed Uncle Jake the four years of superhero comics we had
carefully saved for him, he wasn't very interested. And he looked puzzled,
as if he couldn't fathom why we thought he'd want them. "You should
have turned them in to the scrap drive," he said, idly creasing a bright
The next day when he came to our house, he asked Mom if there'd been
any news about Bobby Stone, one of his high school buddies. Mom went
all quiet and then squeezed his arm. "The government said not to write
any bad news—that it might hurt our boys' morale. But, Jake, I'm
so sorry, Bobby was killed on Okinawa."
Uncle Jake stared for a minute, holding his eyes wide. But big tears
still came and ran down his cheeks, and then he was sobbing and half-screaming.
My brother said, "Superman never cries," and pseudo-Uncle Jake looked
at him like he was some kind of monster.
He never shot rats at the dump again, either. Grandma said when he
happened on his old shotgun in the bedroom closet, he banged it across
the dresser so hard the shaving mirror cracked. Then he threw the gun
in the rubbish pile.
A few months later he married Bobby's widow and adopted their two-year-old
daughter. We'd see him sometimes, downtown, carrying this fat squally
baby around on his shoulder, looking happy actually. He bought new bikes
for me and my brother.
Even though we knew Superman and the other Superheroes weren't real,
we often talked over the experiments we'd seen Nazi scientists perform
in the comics.
"When he got to Germany, they might have changed him somehow," my brother
whispered. "Maybe with chemicals from a laboratory, or some kind of
Uncle Jake had left, we agreed. But someone different had come back.
And while we didn't believe in the Superheroes anymore, we did believe
in science. •
Mary Hanna is a former journalist, community activist, and longtime
American politics professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.