verb – hal.low – \ ˈha-(ˌ)lō \
1. to make holy.
2. to respect greatly.
It’s another All Hallows Eve. The city of Angels is buzzing, laughing, honking their horns. They’ve put the finishing touches on their ghosts and ghouls and goblins. No pagans here, folks. Just role-players and revelers, congratulating one another on their creativity and imagination. The echo of children’s laughter, pillowcases filled with sugar as they run up and down dimly lit streets. This really is their holiday, isn’t it?
Year after year, the veil descends on our country and the question is asked, “What are you going as this year?” and after, “There were a lot of Jokers out there tonight, weren’t there?”
Recently, we’ve experienced the joy and wonder of the cosplay explosion. At conventions all over the world, it’s an endless Halloween celebration. A holiday caught in amber. Thousands of fans, every age, race, gender. Displaying the costume they spent a whole year creating. Robots transforming into cars and gender-bending versions of every hero and villain lifted from comic books four-color pages. It really is remarkable.
Little Jud on his Huffy would never have imagined it, riding in the Robin suit his mom sewed together for him, racing to the comic book store where the costume contest was underway. Sure he would win the $25 prize. Sure he would be the best one there and crying silently when he was beat by the boy in the Spider-Man suit. It was terrible and falling off of his body, but he was a gymnast at the local Junior High School. Backflips and doing the splits just wasn’t a part of this Robin’s arsenal.
When we were young, it was easy to pretend we were pirates and princesses. Cowboys and Queens. Boys could wear dresses and lipstick and no one would say “boo”. Girls could bravely display their blasters and holler, “Hold on, Chewie!” and revel in the safety of the night. No judgment on this special day. The only rule is that you transform into someone else. Someone other than who you wake up to in the mirror every day.
Little legs skipping on sidewalks, safe with their parents beside them. “Race you to the next house!” they shout. “Don’t run!” cry their parents, knowing they won’t listen. Running, cheering, playing the universal game. The one we all know the rules to. Which is to say, the one that has no rules. The game of pretend.
I think about all of these things. I hear the running and the echoes outside. And my mind drifts to quiet, fluorescent hallways. Rooms with seas of beds and rolling chairs. Rooms packed with small legs that can’t run. Mouths unable to shout.
Little bodies that can’t pretend with the other boys and girls outside. Little minds that can’t imagine their way out of illness. That can’t look in the mirror and make themselves into someone, anyone else.
I think back to the most important Halloween I’ve ever had. The day I stepped into a costume bigger than myself. So much bigger.
The day I became Captain America.
For many years now, our store has used Halloween as an excuse to do some good. We have a vast network of cosplayers. A kind, selfless, generous army. Folks who sometimes understand the nature of doing good even more than the heroes in the comic books on our racks.
We order thousands of comic books and we send out our troops into the hallways of our local Children’s Hospitals, bringing comic books, tricks and treats to the legs that can’t run and jump in the night air with the rest of the city. Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and Supergirl invoking surprise and wonder. Stormtroopers gently holding tiny hands while their owners shriek with delight.
The sounds echo in the hallways the way they do in the streets below and the doctors and nurses let the children own the moment, a brief respite in what is, for some, a long and weary battle.
Usually, we let the kids in on a secret. We tell them a special guest will be coming to the hospital for the festivities. Maybe it’s Iron Man, maybe Wonder Woman. Last year, it was Captain America. The nurses whispered about it for weeks and the children’s excitement grew and grew right up until the big day. Captain America was coming to visit them! “The real one?” they asked. “Yes, the real one!” was the reply.
Months earlier, I’d reached out to one of our faithful customers. He’s a hulk of a man who trains many of those actors who spend time on your local movie screens. The ones who shout, “Avengers Assemble!” in their perfect costumes with their perfect muscles and their perfect hair.
He’d spent some of his disposable income on having a Captain America suit built to his specifications by one of the costumers on the Disney Studios payroll. Even the shield was made of steel and hand-painted. It was heavy as an anvil, with leather straps and gear to carry it on his back.
Needless to say, I was as excited as the children. This guy was going to knock their socks off!
And then the phone rang.
“I’m so sorry, man. You know I want to be there for the kids. But there’s an A-list actor who needs me for forty-eight hours and he’s flying in from Australia tomorrow. I can’t say no.”
“But,” I stammered. “But they’re expecting Captain America!”
“You’ve got time.” He replied. “I’ll give you the costume and you can find another guy to step in. Easy.”
Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find Steve Rogers in Los Angeles? In twenty-four hours? It’s nearly impossible. Sure, there are stereotypes on every corner. Guys with all of the muscles and wicked good looks. Guys with the height and the gait. Sure, they could fill the costume. But be worthy of the man inside? A tall, tall order.
The clock ticked and time began slipping through my fingers. The next morning was creeping up, unsympathetic to the coming disaster. I sat on the floor, dejected. I was going to end up the villain in this story. The breaker of children’s hearts. I glared at myself in the mirror, growling at my reflection, deep baritone curses echoing off the walls.
I tilted my head up, down, side to side. I stood up and faced myself in the mirror. I puffed out my chest and stood on my tiptoes. And I caught a glimmer of something in that mirror. A glimmer of hope.
Could I actually pull this off? I hadn’t been clean-shaven in over a decade. The white creeping into parts of my beard were unstoppable. What did I look like under those weeds? I’m certainly no Steve Rogers. I long ago realized that I’d never have blonde hair and blue eyes. I’m also miles removed from a looking like a soldier from any season, spring or winter. But damn it, someone needed to fight the good fight. There were kids to save!
I broke out my razor, shoved my face in the sink and staged a midnight facial assault. In no time at all, the deed was done. Again, I looked at myself in the mirror. Again, I tilted my head side to side. Again, a glimmer.
I stuck my feet into the army pants and tugged and rolled and tied. I punched three new holes in the belt and cinched it so tight, it held my small belly at bay. I broke out my biggest hiking boots and stuffed as many inserts inside as I could. And then, I put on the battle coat and was amazed to find that I looked like…Beetlejuice. A tiny shrunken head swimming in a sea of leather.
So the stuffing began. I zipped the coat closed and shoved shirts and socks and sweaters in the arms. I wrapped a towel around my waist and pushed and shoved until some semblance of musculature appeared.
Slowly I turned, inch by inch, the light gleaming off the small bald spot at the back of my head. I tied a bandana around my skull and squeezed the helmed on. Close. So close.
And then I looked down. The thing on the floor called up to me, intimate and low. “You dare to put on the suit, you’d better be brave enough to wield the shield.”
I picked it up, strapped my arm into the holster and stared in disbelief. I was Captain America. Not the Captain America. More like a sort of Captain America. But it would have to do.
I stuck my head out the window and cried into the warm night air, “Avenger Assembled!”
I drove my car into the hospital parking structure, making sure to find the most inconspicuous spot I could. There was no way I could suit up in the hospital bathroom. This procedure was way too complicated and I couldn’t have anyone asking questions.
I popped the trunk and began the process. Tug, roll, tie, stack, slip, zip, bind, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff.
I slid the helmet onto my head, pulled the shield out of the trunk and strapped it to my forearm. Then I turned and strode to the staircase, taking the asphalt in long strides. A red, white and blue Frankenstein monster.
It’s hard to describe what it feels like to walk out into the light of day and have every human you walk by rush to your side. To shout with glee and beg for photos (or take them without any permission at all). You cosplayers out there know this feeling well. For me, it was foreign and shocking on all fronts.
It took me half an hour to just get across the street to the hospital entrance. By the time I arrived at the check-in area, I was in a state of shock and sweating so fiercely, I felt like I was strapped into a wet mattress.
After a series of photo-ops with my fellow heroes (Black Widow, Batman, Starlord), we piled into the elevator and headed up to the children’s treatment wing. I’m not ashamed to say that I was terrified. I felt like I was going to faint. Like my body was disconnected from my brain and it was just going through the motions. Legs walk. Arms swing. Head move. Smile, smile, smile.
A nurse stopped and asked if she could get me anything. I wanted to tell her I needed just a few inches, thick, long blonde hair, blue eyes, toned and rippled muscles and please oh please, a shot of that special blue serum. I settled on a feeble, “water.”
I was barely able to reach my arm to my mouth, but I drained the bottle in seconds. How is it that our heroes on the page and screen barely ever drink water? You’d think they’d need to stuff cases of it into the Quinjet. Have a tank strapped to the Batplane. Web containers of it in alleys all over the city.
There was a rumbling sound in the distance down the hall. They were coming our way. A herd of children, desperate to meet their comic book heroes.
We all girded ourselves, striking our perfect poses. And there they were. Some tiny, holding a nurse’s hand. Some dressed in costumes. Some connected to IV poles they dragged at their sides. Some with bald heads and face masks. Some in wheelchairs.
We looked at one another, a group of part-time heroes. All of us just making do with what we had to work with so we could bring at least a small shred of belief to these children’s lives. We turned to them and in unison, we shouted our battle cry.
“Trick or Treat!”
We were surrounded instantly and a gaggle of little hands rapped on my shield and pulled at my boots.
“Captain America!” they yelled.
And suddenly, I was completely present and accounted for.
This body was mine. This suit was mine. This shield was mine. I choose to be him.
Not Steve Rogers. Not Winter Soldier. Not John Walker or Sam Wilson or Isaiah Bradley. Not Daniella Cage or Shannon Carter or America Chavez.
A little girl stared up at me, big round eyes beaming. “Can I take a picture with you, Captain America?”
“You bet!” I bellowed.
And then it began to dawn on me. I realized that if I bent down? Oh, faithful reader. If I bent down, the zipper would break, the clothing would flow, the belt would loosen, the pants would fall to my knees, I’d trip over my big oversized boots and probably crush a dozen sick children on my way to the floor.
So I used my not-at-all heightened intellect and bent the math in my favor. I grabbed the little girl and lifted her into the crook of my arm. She draped over the unbearably heavy shield and smiled as wide as the moon and the nurses captured their photos.
“Me next!” “Now me!” One after another, they came. One after another, I lifted. And lifted. And lifted.
I don’t exactly know how I held out as long as I did. All I can think is that I knew there was a mission to be accomplished and there was absolutely no way that I was going to fail.
This was why I was here. Not just in this costume or in this hospital. On this earth.
You can deny who you are. You can deny what you need. But you can’t deny your calling. A call to service. Like the heroes we love so very much. We are here to be of service to one another. And draped in three simple colors, charged with the honor of holding an ideal in my hands for a single afternoon, I was called to that service.
The children started to drift off back to their rooms. Quickly exhausted by the effort and excitement. And then, from around the corner, a hospital bed appeared. The nurses at either end slowly pushed the little girl wrapped up in the blankets toward us.
“This is Phoebe.” The Nurse whispered to me. “She just got out of surgery, so she’s very weak. She’s got a lot of drugs in her, so I’m not sure how long she can stay awake. When we told her you were here, she insisted that we bring her out into the hallway. She wanted to meet you so badly.”
“We’re all here for her.” I said.
The nurse gently touched my arm. “Not them.” She said. “Just you.”
She led me to Phoebe’s bedside, her tiny, pale body sunken into the mattress. Her head was bald, her eyebrows non-existent. The whole of her upper body was slathered in a kind of Vaseline and her pillows were matted and damp. There were shades of red stains on different areas of her gown and sheets. An IV ran fluids into two different areas of her wrist and arm.
Phoebe whispered something so quiet that I couldn’t hear it beneath my helmet. I looked at the nurse and she nodded her head in approval.
I lifted my shield up above the metal framework of her bed, put my hand softly on her shoulder and leaned in close.
Phoebe stared deep into my eyes and a smile snuck out from behind the wreckage. She reached up, her hand shaking, and touched my chin. She extended her fingers as long as she could and put them on my shield. They ran down the entire face of its curved steel, the star in the center almost as big as her body.
“America.” She whispered.
Her hand slid down to her side and she started to drift away. I grabbed a fistful of comic books and spread them gently all around her. A cocoon of heroes, fighting alongside her.
I looked down at this beautiful little girl. This girl braver than I will ever be in this short life. This girl, more powerful than any serum. This girl, whose will and strength of spirit made sure she refused to give up. To give in. This girl, with more fight in her bones and in her heart than any hero in any comic book ever brought to the page.
“America.” I whispered to her. And they took her away.
Later, I would stand in a parking lot, crying as I carefully laid the shield into my trunk. I would slowly take off my coat of arms and fold it respectfully into its case.
I would stand in my t-shirt and stare at my thin arms that somehow held a score of children for hours.
Later, I would find myself driving on quiet roads, windows open, repeating the word Phoebe whispered. The one with the power to shake worlds or heal wounds. The one not open to interpretation when approached with the open hand and heart with which it was formed. As innocent as a tiny girl in a hospital bed.
Not a costume at all, it turns out. Just a word. A symbol. A message carried in a uniform, handed from one human to another, decade to decade. On the page and off. On the screen and in real life.
Every now and I again, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I tilt my head from side to side and stand up straight. I look past the grey in my beard and thinning hair on my head. A picture forms around me and my thoughts drift to Phoebe. The look in her eyes and the power of her spirit. On that day, in that brief moment, she believed I was her Captain America.
And on that day, in that brief moment, I believed it too.