My friends and I consumed a steady diet of comic books and mysteries.
Superman, The Shadow, Batman and Robin, The Hardy Boys, Doc Savage — they were unwavering in their fight against evil. No matter whether it was a plan to crash the earth into the sun or a plot to dress up as a ghost to scare prospectors out of a uranium mine — these guys were on the case.
And even though I knew I’d never grow up to be Superman (but I secretly prayed that I’d turn out to be adopted like Clark Kent — it would explain so much) or hang around swank nightclubs like The Shadow’s alter-ego Lamont Cranston, I was pretty certain that with a little practice I could fill the shoes of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olson.
Like Jimmy, I was naturally curious and an unrepentent eavesdropper. And since crooks were always blabbing their plans while eating at the local diner or leaving their rocket-powered boots at the scene of the crime, Jimmy managed to track them back to their lairs.
That’s usually when he’d get conked on the head and tied to a rocket bound for Pluto or lashed to the controls of a submarine plunging into a deepsea canyon.
But being Superman’s Pal has its privileges, and by the end of the story, after The Man of Steel had rescued Jimmy and the crooks are dropped off in the prison courtyard (“I think their time would be better spent breaking up big rocks !” Big Blue says to the delighted Warden), Superman would throw his arm around Jimmy’s shoulder and say something like, “Thanks, Jimmy — You know, a Superman needs a Super Friend!”
I wanted that kind of power and I wanted a friend like Superman.
That’s why my buddies and I created the Secret Crime Crackers Club. Unlike Jimmy, none of us knew the chief of police or a sharp reporter who trafficked in vital clues. That meant that we’d have to draw on our innate skills of observation and deduction, just like the Hardy Boys.
My friend Brian Zimmerman had a set of walkie talkies. We painted John Smitherman’s kite red and emblazoned it with SEND HELP in bold black letters. (If we encountered a Super Villain, all we’d have to do is run real fast and our emergency signal would take to the air behind us — I assume police officers are trained to watch for signal kites.)
Armed with the requisite crimefighting tools, we took to the neighborhood. Since we had a pair of walkie talkies, it made sense to divide into two groups — The Bloody Tornadoes and The Doomsmen of Doom.
Charlie Heiskell and I were the Doomsmen of Doom. We began knocking on doors, asking our neighbors if they’d noticed any trouble or guys in strange costumes skulking in the shadows.
Nope — it turned out the people in the neighborhood were almost willfully ignorant of the menace that shadowed their lives.
Mrs. Mulqueen said someone had knocked over her garbage cans the night before, but she didn’t see anyone. Charlie and I leaped into action — we knew from our extensive reading that the most diabolical of schemes could begin to unravel with the most seemingly insignificant incidents.
Since the perpetrator was unseen by Mrs. Mulqueen, it meant that we were most likely dealing with a supernatural force — Charlie guessed it was probably the ghost of a garbage man killed in the line of duty, still trying to complete his rounds.
Close inspection of the crime scene revealed the presence of footprints that looked as though they’d been left by a large dog — This was no phantom we were dealing with, it was obviously the work of a werewolf !
The culprit was most likely Mr. Guarelli, who had the hairiest back we’d ever seen and had a deep, abiding hatred of kids and dogs (the werewolf’s target demographic).
Before we could proceed further in our investigation, Charlie noticed the bright red emergency beacon floating high above the empty field we used for baseball.
We found The Bloody Tornadoes gathered around a patch of weeds in the outfield. It turned out that they hadn’t discovered a crime scene, but something equally fascinating — a mummified rodent about the size of a tennis shoe.
We took turns poking it with a stick and then someone suggested we play a little ball and pretty soon we’d forgotten about crime and werewolves and Super Criminals scheming in a neighborhood basement.
The Case of the Phantom Garbage Vandal would turn out the be the last one investigated by The Secret Crime Crackers Club, but we still met regularly for comic books and Kool Aid.
If you’re a young crimefighter and you’d like to sharpen your skills, well, Fontana Regional Library System has everything you’ll need — The Hardy Boys are still on the case; you’ll find Batman lurking in the dark corners of the library; and Nancy Drew remains River Heights’ pluckiest girl detective (probably because she apparently doesn’t go to school or hold a job). If you’d like to follow in the footsteps of Jimmy Olson, read All-Star Superman, which recounts the first days of that remarkable friendship.
If you’re interested in DVDs, check out The Incredibles (this one is helpful if you’d like to enlist your entire family in your crime fighting crusade); Nancy Drew; or Superman Returns, in which the Man of Steel teams up with a preternaturally cool kid.
Of course, if you’re anything like these young detectives, you’ll take it upon yourself to snoop through the shelves.
A note to Fontana Regional Library System patrons: Feel free to browse in peace — as the last surviving member of the Secret Crime Crackers Club, I remain ever-vigilant at the Albert Carlton Cashiers Community Library (except when I’m on my lunch break).