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," I said.
"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 Cave."
"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 Womaninstead. 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 and reading.
"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 howSuperman 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 sky, screaming.
"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 cover.
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 x-ray beams."
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.