NEW FICTION: The Man Who Could Not Die (Chapter 5)
November 7, 2002
Continuing the transcribed journal excerpts of J.M. Lincoln...
The Red, White, and Blue Years
1964: I find there has been little of my life that is worth documenting on paper. The last 8 years of my life have been spent in battles—one after the other. It is as though I am still a man of the military—I wear a uniform, I belong to a unit, we engage in combat against specific enemies. However, these conflicts are of a much more personal, albeit destructive, nature. The enemy is on U.S. soil, their goals are typically self-serving and are often nonpolitical. Like us, our adversaries hide their faces beneath masks of their own design. I think at times our conflicts must seem ridiculous—masked man against masked man and may the best masked man win. We have been victorious throughout our “career” as the Red, White, and Blue, at least there is that.
I feel a sense of comfort and peace beneath a mask of leather, and a uniform of cotton, leather, and protective chain mail (though I know I do not require protection). The Red, White, and Blue are officially headquartered in Kansas City, Kansas, though we have satellite offices on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. We remain in Kansas so as to be in fairly equal proximity to all corners of the nation.
Of my fellow companions in freedom I’ve learned much. I’ve formed a bond with White, whose birth name is Peter McNally. He is a man of noble heart and spirit. His parents abandoned him at birth, and he was found more dead than alive in a dumpster on the lower east side of New York June 3, 1925. Much of his childhood was spent in orphanages. Peter spent this time engrossed in cartooning. He realized early in his youth that he wanted to become a satirist. At the orphanage he was constantly being scolded for drawing—he drew on the walls, on the floors, even on the bathroom tiles. He drew on the endpapers of the orphanage’s modest library. He drew on tabletops and on the porch steps. On wooden furniture and on his undershirts. There was no paper at the orphanage and he would explain this to the orphanage’s director, a tall, thin-lipped young man named Mr. Snide. On his ninth birthday he was sick with measles and was visited by a young woman from the visiting nurses association. She’d treated Peter on many occasions for various childhood illnesses. And on his ninth birthday the nurse brought him a present—a box. The box contained 20 tablets of paper—300 sheets to a tablet. She also gave Peter a second box containing dozens of pencils, charcoal sticks, and conté crayons. “It was the greatest gift I’d ever been given in my life,” he told me.
At age 18 he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served as a gunner aboard the destroyer USS Archangel in the South Pacific. You will not find mention of the Archangel in history books, nor will you hear ex-GIs waxing reflectively about their tours of duty aboard the vessel. As far as the U.S. Navy is concerned, the USS Archangel has never existed. Yet to those few who served aboard it, the Archangel was, in its destructive capabilities at least, a weapon of utmost purity. It was the first nuclear-powered destroyer-class vessel, its gun turrets fire cadium-laced 375 mm explosive shells with an range accuracy of 2.5 miles. Its cruising speed can exceed 150 knots. And on September 29, 1944, it is destroyed in the space of a single minute. Peter was among 20 crewmen who survived the initial explosion—a design flaw in the ship’s nuclear propulsion unit had led to a core meltdown and subsequent explosion—and waited in the ocean. Waited to be rescued. They floated in the water, the irradiated water, for several days before being picked up by USS New York.
One year later all of the surviving sailors were dead from radiation poisoning—all except Peter. He had survived, his body had through its own natural selection adapted and grown stronger as a result—an outcome not entirely dissimilar from my own experience decades earlier.
He commands the air, the skies, the elements. A square-jawed man whose face is full and large, he speaks never too little and never too much. He donates all but a fraction of his revenue to orphanages and other charitable organizations. Since the formation of Red, White, and Blue, Peter’s saved my life twice.
I’ve also learned much, perhaps too much, about Red. He speaks often, and most of the words he speaks contain one syllable. Were it possible to speak using words with less than one syllable I have no doubt he would choose this form of communication, though he is capable of so much more. When he does speak it is typically to complain. He complains daily though his complaints are commonplace and generally without thought.
Before being recruited as the “Red” in The Red, White, and Blue, he was Trace Shaw, a third-rate auto mechanic from a third-rate town. He owned a small auto shop, though in truth it belonged mostly to the First Bank of Plankson, Alabama. He’d been married and divorced twice in as many years and was the father of three little Traces with whom he kept no contact. He spent most of his time drinking at bars or soliciting one of the two known whores of Plankson. When he wasn’t drinking at bars he was drinking at his shop. He lived to drink and drank to live. He cheated those around him and enjoyed the suffering of others.
In 1950, at the age of 27, he underwent a series of blood transfusions following a near-death collision when the vehicle he was driving collided with a moving freight train—a collision fully attributable to Trace’s ridiculous attempt to race the speeding train to a crossing. Unbeknownst to him at the time, the life-saving blood that was administered to Trace affected his body’s chemistry in ways that contradicted science. In the weeks and months that followed his recovery, Trace found himself possessed of amazing speed and the ability to solve complex numerical equations as if he’d possessed a master’s degree in advanced mathematics from MIT. Trace’s intellect soared beyond genius level. There was no problem he could not analyze to what he deemed its “logical conclusion.”
Yet his body and soul still belonged to alcohol, his heart, to cruelty. I ask myself why such a man would be chosen to represent America and can only assume it is because he would be too dangerous as an enemy. By this I’m not referring to his physical strength—which is considerable—or to his amazing speed—which is astronomical. No, I fear his mind would make a valuable asset to foreign powers. And while he attests he has “no love for commies,” Trace is, like the most stereotypical of comic book super-villains, motivated solely by wealth and power. Though I trust my life to Trace I do so knowing that it, as well as the life of Peter, mean little to this man.
And what of the man who initially brought us together? Of him I know little more now than I did on the day we first met, shortly after Joshua’s death in 1955. He continues to advise us from afar, though our contact with him is, at most, cursory.
I have a suspicion—a wild guess, actually—that he is, in fact, the World War II-era crime fighter the American Dream. I have no hard evidence to support this supposition, but there is something in the man’s voice and determination—a resolve I’d heard once before when the American Dream was defending his actions to the U.S. Congressional Subcommittee to Protect America From Potential Super-Human Hostiles. There is something in the man’s movements, in his body language, that seems to give the appearance that he is larger than life. Is there something? Or do I merely want to believe it’s so. Do I merely want to believe that following his seemingly overnight disappearance in 1955 the American Dream realized an alternate calling in forming the Red, White, and Blue, to champion publicly those causes the American Dream could no longer champion?
There have been confrontations—many, many confrontations—since our formation. One by one they’ve fallen before us—the Stalinist, the Red Death, and the CCCP Ionizer, all of whom sought to further the cause of communism by undermining the safety of U.S. citizens; the Grange, who in 1958 proclaimed herself “mistress of the living green,” and endeavored to annihilate the forests of the Pacific Rim; the so-called “Lines of Demarcation,” whose attempt to destroy the infrastructure of Washington, DC, in 1959 nearly succeeded; the Artificial Sweetener, who in 1961 used his powers of mind control in an attempt to cause the entire populace of California to abandon their homes and offices and walk into the Pacific Ocean; and dozens of others.
There is a three-step repetitiveness to our lives that is not unlike the repetitiveness of a badly scratched 45 rpm record:
Step 1: We wait for something bad to happen—for an individual or individuals to threaten or cause harm to others.
Step 2: It happens.
Step 3: We intervene.
It is a necessary repetitiveness. Life itself is a series of repetitive steps, and in my life I’ve climbed the same steps so many times. I do, however, feel that I am making a difference, that I’ve attained a greater purpose for this long existence. The number of adversaries we face, as well as the intensity of these conflicts, continues to escalate—perhaps not on a daily basis—but certainly the super-human menace has ballooned since our first altercation with the Red Death—a curious, misguided little man suffering from dementia and Prince Prospero-influenced delusions—in 1956.
My colleagues, Peter and Trace, live dual identities, a concept I find quite curious. Trace continues to repair damaged automobiles in a small shop near our headquarters. The shop’s expenses are government funded, and any profits earned at the shop are his to keep. Likewise, Peter works as a freelance cartoonist, illustrating gag strips and works of satire for newspapers and magazines including The New Yorker and the Chicago Sun Times. He does a considerable amount of volunteerism at orphanages and shelters.
Unlike Peter and Trace, I have not lived outside the mask. I feel as if J. M. Lincoln no longer exists. As if there is only Blue. Oddly, I feel as though I need nothing else in my life at this time. As silly as it must seem, my only want is to make a difference, and I feel I can best achieve this goal as Blue. But while The Red, White, and Blue have become an accomplished, undefeated combat unit, I fear the odds of an altercation ending tragically are steadily increasing.
1968: My long-standing suspicions have been proven true. My theory is correct, but how I wish it wasn’t. Nothing is as it was. The Red is dead. White and I will never be the same. And the Dream…the Dream has returned.
Events have a way of collapsing in upon one another. As if they are dominoes aligned one in front of the next, the cat’s paw of fate can suddenly swipe at one and cause a chain reaction of events.
A similar chain reaction occurs on August 5, 1968.
The man of shadow, who I’ve known since the formation of The Red, White, and Blue, but whom I’ve not known at all, appears at our headquarters at 11:30 a.m. He tells us of an upcoming publicity tour, of which neither Trace, Peter, or I wish to partake. He emphasizes the importance of the public’s support of the RWB. We agree, reluctantly, to a seven-city tour, beginning in Dallas and ending in Manhattan. Trace and Peter leave the room, and I am alone with him.
“You look concerned,” he tells me.
“I think a ‘good will’ tour is a waste of the RWB’s time. But Trace and Peter are agreeable to it so I’ll go along.”
“Something else, then?”
“Just a question, really. A question for you.”
I try to make eye contact, to look him directly in the eyes and ask the question so as to see a dilation of the pupil, an unconscious blink of the eyelids. But there is shadow; it as if he himself commands the shadows that fall upon his face, and I cannot see his eyes. I ask the question that has occupied my mind for the last several years, knowing that if there is a flinching of his eyelids, a swelling of the pupils, or an unconscious facial twitch, I will not see it.
The words flow off my tongue slowly, as if each word is consciously fighting being spoken. The words are slow and clumsy, but I require an answer. The words are said. The question is asked.
“Are you the American Dream?”
There is silence, what my father used to call “bank vault” silence. It is a silence so pronounced I can hear not only my heartbeat but his as well. His heart rate is strong and steady.
He does not answer the question. He walks toward the door to leave and does not answer the question.
“I think you owe me an answer. I think I—we—ought to at least know who you are.”
“Who am I?”
“That’s what I’m asking.”
“It sounds like you already know the answer.”
“It’s a suspicion.”
“A very good one. You have to realize something about me—I love this country more than life itself. When its leaders chose to brandish me a communist it nearly destroyed me. For a brief period of time I actually considered ending my own life. Eventually I began to realize a much stronger potential in recruiting others for a higher cause. Selecting you, Trace, and Peter was no small task. There were others of course. But I realized the three of you showed tremendous promise. After which it was merely a matter of careful promotion to procure government sponsorship.”
I felt like a child. Like a kid in a Western who’d just discovered the Lone Ranger’s secret identity. It was a sense of overwhelming hero worship and it completely dictated my next question:
“Why don’t you just, you know, join us—fight with us rather than function as this…this mystery-enshrouded overseer?”
“I find it best to avoid the public spotlight. Besides which, I’m older now, not like you three. The American Dream has officially retired.”
The shadow around him seems to vanish and I realize this man is considerably older, smaller, than the man who championed freedom throughout World War II.
“But you should know—when The Red, White, and Blue are called upon, I’m there as well. You may not see me, but I’m there. I hope the information I’ve told you today will stay in this room—for The Red, White, and Blue’s own benefit.”
“That’s good. Now you’d better get into full regalia.”
“Why’s that?” I ask.
He points to the white phone on the wall and it begins to ring.
We are headed toward Rapid Canyon, North Dakota. I fear there may be little we can do to help, but we are who we are and so we will try. I review the details of the brief, albeit disturbing, phone call I received from our army liaison, General “Thunderstorm” Jones: At precisely 11:21 a.m. a blue acetate bubble surrounded the small town of Rapid Canyon, North Dakota. It appeared and enveloped most of the town’s homes, streets, and residents. It was as if a large, semi-translucent bowl had simply been dropped from the sky. Dozens of houses and vehicles whose proximity intersected with the edge of the dome were crushed. At least four persons were confirmed dead. Entrance into and exit from the dome was not possible. And although it was possible to slightly see into the dome, the dome itself was soundproof. Electricity and phone service in Rapid Canyon was disabled. The surviving residents of Rapid Canyon had, in essence, become prisoners in their own town. All efforts to disrupt the barrier have proven ineffective. So we are en route via 727 to Rapid Canyon to make a difference, if such a thing is possible. I look out the 9” x 13” window of the plane and see the giant dome some 12 miles ahead. There can be no going back.
We arrive outside dome at 3:55 p.m. The military presence, at what has become an impromptu command headquarters outside the dome, is staggering. Dozens of tanks, rocket launchers, and other vehicles are strategically positioned as if they were toys in a child’s playset. At the base of the dome several dozen soldiers busily dig into the earth, trying to tunnel under the dome. Others press their hands and fists curiously against the unyielding dome. Two miles distant, on the opposite side of the great circle a second regiment of soldiers fires relentlessly, trying to puncture the blue hemisphere. The sounds echo across an olive sky. There is much hushed discussion among the military personnel who are present, and a growing concern for those within the dome whose oxygen supply is limited. In addition, the texture of the dome is beginning to change. No longer semi-translucent, it is a dark gray wall of separation. We stand ready, waiting for the word to be given. After several long minutes, it is.
We approach the dome, it will be the last time the Red, White, and Blue function as a unit.
“How do you want to do this?” White asks.
“I don’t think we have any choice in the matter, Peter,” I tell him.
Red and I begin to hammer at the dome wall successively with gloved fists. After several long minutes it begins to weaken—not visibly—but there is a new degree of flexibility to the dome that continues to increase with each succeeding blow.
A moment later—as if in response to our violence—a circular opening forms in the dome at the point of our hostility. A vacuum pulls the three of us inside the dome and we are swallowed alive.
NEXT: The Man Who Could Not Die continues with part 2 of 'The Red, White, and Blue Years.'
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