When I was a kid, and maybe when you were too, my brother Joe and I pretended to be all sorts of heroic-sized things we weren’t – or might be somewhere down inside. For my bother’s fifth birthday, my dad cut out two Gibson electric guitar shapes out of plywood with a neighbor’s jigsaw. No strings or anything, but it was just what an imagination needed for two brothers to become a rock-and-roll band for a season. It was a season of playing air guitar in the living room to our favorite records – which back then were LPs of Sterling Holloway telling the stories of Peter and the Wolf and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. We had a thing or two to learn about rock and roll. But our imaginations, like yours, could neither be stopped nor matched. Later on, post rock band, we found a bunch of abandoned doors out next to the shed in the backyard, and we dragged them into the field next to our house and built a hideout entirely out of doors leaned up against each other to make walls and a roof. We formed a club out there called the Red Devils, and we drew a big, grinning red devil on the front of our clubhouse in crayon. Mom and dad – God-fearing, both of them – got concerned, and read to us from the Bible about what a rascal the Devil is. So we went out to the clubhouse with more crayons and drew a ruffled shirt and a big hat on the devil, and drew a hook on one of his hands, and called ourselves the Pirates. We cut little skulls and crossbones out of pale yellow felt, and made my mom sew the skull and crossbones onto the insides of our jacket collars, so when a guy came up to you on the playground who might be a member of the Pirate club, you could flash him your skull and crossbones from the inside of your jacket collar, and he could flash you his. That way, you could see if the other guy really was a member of the club, or maybe only a guy who looked just like my brother.
The field where be built our pirate clubhouse was all covered in waist-high grass. In the Spring, the grass was green and supple, and we would crawl around on our bellies, smashing the grass down into long and twisting paths. Sometimes, if we had time, we’d make a path, and then bend the tall grass from either side of a path over the top of us and use one long blade as a piece of twine to tie the grass into a sort of tunnel that we could crawl through. Once or twice, crawling through the grass, I had to stop for a long snake in my path. Snakes had the right-of-way. Our network of paths could get us anywhere in the field, without anyone ever having to be seen. A secret Pirate transportation network.
In our imaginary world, the pirates were heroes; swashbucklers for justice. Saving guys from their sinking ships, or finding the lost loot and turning it in to the cops for a reward. Come to think of it, the rock band guys were heroes too. Musicians for world happiness and brotherhood and general awesomeness.
We were not, in real life, very heroic. And didn’t demand heroism of each other. Heroism, as far as we knew, was a word that only existed in the imaginary world. None of the kids we knew were heroic like the things we pretended to be. Not even any of the grown-ups. Real-life grown-ups were mostly like my mom and dad. Pretty regular.
But then, one day, the pirate field caught fire. It was late in the summer, when the waist-high grass was yellow and stiff. I came home from school to see the smoke behind my house, and ran back there to see flames whipping through the field – whipping over our pirate fort. My folks weren’t home. I didn’t know what to do, but the terror was choking me. I had seen old western films where the hero slaps at the flames of the fire in barn with an old blanket. I ran into the house and pulled the blanket from my bed, and out I ran, a tiny little kid slapping away at the flames at the edges of a fire that seemed as big as the whole world.
It wasn’t long before the fire trucks came. Guys in their heavy yellow fire suits and helmets and their big boots poured out of the big red truck. They turned on their big hoses, and shouted things to each other. And while it was a battle for a few minutes, it wasn’t long before the fire stopped being terrifying, and then stopped being anything at all but a charred, black, swampy mess. Our fort hadn’t stood up to the hoses very well, and the old doors that made up its walls and roof were strewn about the field, singed.
It was the end of the pirates. The end of our jacket-collar pirate tokens. The end of our clubhouse made of doors.
But it was also the end of our notions that heroes existed only in the imaginary world. The real-life firefighters, all smelling of smoke and sweating under their gear in the July heat, packed up their truck and waved as they pulled away from the field. Real heroes, those guys, off to clean up and do more real heroing. And me, standing at the edge of the field, sweating. Covered in soot. Holding a blanket. My arms tired from beating away at a flame bigger than me – bigger than my dad. I wasn’t a hero. Not yet. Maybe not ever. But in a real world, full of real dangers, and real people ready to meet them, who knew?