My Life as a Henchman

A Google search can be a wonderful thing. With the snow coming down outside my window and an intense lack of desire to shovel I decided to spend a Saturday afternoon tumbling down the rabbit hole that is the World Wide Web. Was my girlfriend thrilled by my abdication of boyfriend related duties? No, of course not. Fortunately, I had a cop-out excuse ready at my disposal, “I was doing research for the next book.” A funny thing happened while I waited to get screamed at, I wound up screaming for her. Once again the Internet had decided to bestow wisdom upon the ignorant in the form of an image. On the fifth page of a Google search of my last name I had found a picture of someone who appeared to be my Pop-Pop, Frank Starita, adorn in all black and standing next to the ultimate super villain of the 1950’s – Nonde Script.

I planned on calling Dad and asking him about this remarkable coincidence before my girlfriend advised me to skip the middleman. Why waste a half hour on the phone talking to Dad when I could go straight to the source. Thus, the next day I drove to my grandparent’s house to spend a wonderful Sunday afternoon in the living room of a ninety-one year old man. He was in his glory discussing events and remembering circumstances that had been previously forgotten in the past. Yes, my Pop was a thug, a “bad guy” if you will. At the same time if you’re going to be a “bad guy” you might as well do it under the employment of the man referred to as the “Pinnacle of Evil,” “The Devil’s Shadow,” “The Collector of Chaos” and pound for pound the greatest bad guy of all time, Nonde Script.

My grandfather was a henchman, a professional goon, a first class assistant villain.

Who would have thunk it?

When I showed him the picture I found, there was no denial, no shame and definitely no remorse. Instead, like a little boy eagerly awaiting his ice cream cone he took the picture from my hands and stared long and hard. He didn’t even bother with the perfunctory, “where did you find this?” When you’re ninety-one you skip the small talk bullshit and go straight to the story.

His life, like most of his generation, has a clear demarcation point – the end of World War II. Before the war he was a high school dropout who joined the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor, seeing action all over the Pacific. He even earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star; the details behind the medals are something he always chose to keep to himself. When we dropped “The Bomb” and ended the war, Frank came home, unclear about what to do next. Some of his friends became career military, which held no appeal to him due to spending the previous four years ducking bullets. Others took advantage of the GI Bill and went to college.

Frank went back to the old neighborhood in Brooklyn.

It’s funny; the frail old man I hung out with that Sunday bore no resemblance to the man who walked around Brooklyn circa 1945. What Frank didn’t have in height he made up in girth. Broad shoulders, barrel chest and thighs you could barbeque several slabs of meat on. There was something else about Frank that stood out, his hands. To describe Frank’s physical appearance without mentioning his hands would be like discussing Mona Lisa and leaving out her lack of smile. If you shook hands with the man you were acutely aware several hours later. They would engulf a normal man and constrict like a boa.

He had strong hands.

Anyway, he spent a couple of months working some bullshit jobs in the area when he met Louise, my future Nana, right before Thanksgiving, 1945. Because this is the story of a secret bad guy and not a love story in the manner of “The Notebook” I will spare you the gory details. The only item you need to be aware of was they were engaged by Christmas, married by Valentine’s Day, 1946 and expecting their first son at the end of the year.

Frank worked fast.

The problem was Frank had no money, no education and no stable job. They moved in temporarily into the apartment above Louise’s parents where Frank quietly had to endure the slings and barbs of his impatient father-in-law. The only way to shut him up would be to get a job and take care of his family.

On an unseasonably cold afternoon in March of 1946, Frank stepped inside of O’Leary’s Pub for a quick drink to warm his insides. He was a slight drinker back in the day and wanted to warm his belly before spending the rest of the afternoon pounding the pavement looking for work. Halfway through his second whiskey, the door opened up and in walked Frank’s old Navy buddy George. They recognized each other immediately and sat together for an hour drinking and catching up. George deftly evaded questions on what he was up to post-Pacific and was more interested in the frustrating details of Frank’s life, his marriage, impending child, lack of money, burdensome living conditions. Finally, George decided he heard enough and asked Frank the question that changed his life,

“Do you want to make some money?”

Of course Frank said yes, he didn’t even ask what type of job it was. His number one priority was providing for his family with the long-term goal of living as far away from his father-in-law as possible. George wrote an address down and told him to be there at 2:30pm sharp tomorrow afternoon. He also instructed him to wear black, along with a fedora hat that could be pulled down enough to block his face while still looking nondescript. Frank didn’t bat an eye and thanked George for the opportunity.

The next day Frank showed up five minutes early wearing black dress pants, a black button down shirt, black jacket and a black fedora he had pulled down to shield his eyes. George hadn’t told him whom he was meeting with or what he was supposed to do, just gave him the address, which happened to be The First Union Bank of Brooklyn. For a moment Frank thought maybe he should go inside and wait before his better instincts kicked in and he remained planted firmly on the pavement.

Three minutes later he felt a tap from behind on his left shoulder. Frank was more of a listener than a talker, which helped him that day because George wasn’t in the mood for conversation. Instead he placed in his right hand a 45 Revolver and told him to follow his lead. Frank did as he was told and followed George into the bank.

Up until this part of the story, we were just two guys sitting in the living room. Pop’s voice remained steady, casually speaking as if we were discussing the upcoming Super Bowl. Now, as he reached the dramatic part his eyes lit up as if he was a little boy at Christmas and his voice went up two octaves. He wasn’t just remembering the story, he was reliving it.

Pop wanted to be clear; he had no intention of firing the gun. If I was going to hear his story I had to know that. In his mind he had used up his allotted quota of right index finger movements in the war. At the same time he knew his job was to cover his George. His partner would do the talking and Frank would provide the necessary intimidation to coerce anyone dumb enough to have a hero complex to think otherwise. Sure enough, the robbery went smoothly, the customers and employees of the bank did what they were told and the two men were about to walk away with little more than eight thousand dollars. Not bad for ten minutes of work. What really made Frank happy was how they only robbed from the bank and not from the people. He knew most of them here were just like him, scrapping by and he didn’t want to inflict damage on anyone except the institution. Without saying a word George nodded towards the door and Frank knew it was time to make their escape. They walked across the room like kings and he admitted that he hadn’t felt a rush like that since the war. George reached the exit first and stopped. Frank naturally stopped too, following George’s lead and waited, trying to keep patient. George put his left hand on Frank’s shoulder and winked at him. With his right hand inches from the brass knob, seconds away from escape, a resounding thud echoed from outside. Before they could register what was going on they heard someone shriek in an excited voice,

“Gee Willikers, it’s Mr. Awesome!”

Pop admitted to me at that very moment he was nervous. Not scared and definitely not panicked, just nervous. After all, he had faced the horrors of the Japanese, or the Japs as he referred to them and nothing could ever compare to that. Fear was for anyone who didn’t land on Iwo Jima and witness the guy to his left getting shot through the stomach. You don’t know what panic is until you watch that poor bastard try to gather up all his intestines lying on the sand.

The door slammed open and in walked everyone’s favorite hero, Mr. Awesome. The cheer from the people inside the bank gave Frank goose bumps and he knew they had two options, fight their way out or surrender. He had heard stories of Mr. Awesome, how he had super strength and was impervious to pain and Frank didn’t care. He fought at Wake Island. Those Japs seemed to have super strength and be impervious to pain and good ol’ Uncle Sam cleared them out. Mr. Awesome would be no different.

George on the other hand had other ideas. He took a step forward in what Frank later realized was a sign of surrender. The only problem was he didn’t tell Frank. Again, Frank didn’t want to use his gun so he tucked it inside his jacket pocket and came out swinging. With no shame in his voice he freely admitted to getting his ass handed to him by Mr. Awesome. There were three swings, the first by Frank that Mr. Awesome ducked. The next two were a combination of BAM! and POW! that put Frank on the floor. Minutes later he was tied up back to back with George on the floor with cops standing around and congratulating Mr. Awesome on another job well done. A deep sense of shame came over Frank as he imagined what would happen next. He would be booked at the precinct, definitely some jail time and worst of all, the humiliation of facing his family, specifically his father-in-law. Life looked bleak for Frank and rightfully so.

The car ride to the station was a quiet one, except for the occasional barbs thrown their way by the cops riding in front. The rest of the time was a whirlwind. They were finger printed; had their mug shots taken and when Frank was offered his phone call he declined. There was no way he was calling his wife to bail him out. The mess was his; he alone would clean it up. George felt differently and a minute later returned to the holding cell with the look of a confident man.

Twenty minutes later they heard a commotion coming from the front desk. Frank couldn’t make out any words, just lots of angry shouting. Suddenly the bars were sliding open and the two men were walking out to the frustration of the officers escorting them. Frank was confused, even more so by the sly grin on George’s face. The whole time the men had not spoken a word to each other and Frank couldn’t get over how calmly George was taking things. Now he had an idea that George had somehow known how things would shake out from the very beginning. A man in a very expensive suit greeted Frank and George and led them outside into a waiting car. The car was idling and Frank detected a slight silhouette in the back seat. George sat in the front with the man who had bailed them out while Frank rode in the back seat next to the most infamous man in New York City, Nonde Script.

They drove two blocks in total silence before George spoke up and asked Frank if he knew the man to his right. Frank was almost certain of his identity yet didn’t want to risk offending anyone so he hedged his bet and with a smile said the man looked familiar. At that, Nonde let loose a laugh and shook his hand. As Pop related the details of that car ride to me a wry grin came over his lips and he remembered the first thing Nonde Script ever said to him,

“Your friend George vouched for you and I’d say he was on the mark.”

The bank job was a test on nine different levels. His gun was full of blanks. They had no escape car or route. They hadn’t disarmed any guards. Yet they had almost eight thousand dollars in their hands by the time they reached the bank door. Frank didn’t flinch in facing Mr. Awesome or getting his ass kicked. Most importantly, after everything went down, Frank didn’t squeal to the police. His silence was the final initials on their verbal contract.

He was in.

By this point I was completely enraptured with the story. I asked him if he could describe what Nonde Script was like. Sure we have pictures and quotes related to the man but I wanted something more intimate. According to Pop, his name said it all. The most plain, regular, mundane man you could meet. Nothing about him stood out, he was of average height – five foot eight and weighed one hundred sixty-five pounds. His clothes were mostly grays and blacks. No scars, no tattoos or earrings. He was meticulously clean-shaven with a clear part in his hair. His hands were almost lady-like in their delicacy. His speech was quiet and the perceived firmness behind his words only existed due to his reputation. There was nothing about the man that would suggest he was Public Enemy #1.

Nonde Script was as an appropriate name as any.

I imagined an evil villain of Nonde’s magnitude must have been a real prick to work with. Again, Pop laughed and said I couldn’t be farther from the truth. There was an unwritten rule, Nonde Script gets the glory and as long as you could deal with being an anonymous background guy you got along splendidly. Seeing how Pop had no interest in advertising to his neighbors that he was a real life bad guy he was more than pleased with the arrangement. At the same time Nonde gave everyone on his crew a chance to shine a little bit. If they wanted to be the first one in a fight or the one barking orders during a robbery he was fine with it.

Questions began flooding my mind. I asked about the crew itself. Size, make up, personality conflicts, betrayals and things like that. Pop suggested that we take a break and eat a sandwich first. I wanted to say we could talk and eat but knew better. Still, there was still so much more to learn.

We made our way into the kitchen where Nana sat reading the Daily News. Upon seeing our arrival she jumped up, (jumped being a loose word when the woman is eighty-eight) and grabbed a couple of glasses, pouring Hawaiian Punch in each. She could tell from the shocked expression on my face that we were having a productive afternoon. We ate our roast beef sandwiches with a side of potato salad while Nana asked me about my girlfriend and if I had another book brewing inside of me. As we talked I would occasionally sneak a glance at Pop, who was slowly chewing. In my mind’s eye I could see his battery getting recharged. Twenty minutes later Pop announced he was finished and just like that picked up our conversation from where we had left off.

Ordinarily the size of the group ranged from three to eight, depending on the size of the job. Most of the time the group was under five members, but it was always made up of all men. Nonde didn’t like having women around to distract his employees. The biggest crew they ever assembled was the time they kidnapped the Mayor. That was a full-scale operation and eighteen ringers were brought in. For the most part the guys got along, if they didn’t they weren’t around long enough to cause a ripple. In fact some of those guys, like George became like brothers to Frank, simply because no one else knew or could comprehend their lives. Again it’s not like they could talk about their activities at Church on Sunday with the congregation. Plus Frank didn’t want to tell his wife too many details, so she wouldn’t get worried. At that I turned to Nana and decided to get her opinion on things. The one thing about Nana, she was never shy about expressing her opinions. I asked one question, when did Pop tell her the truth about things and she ran with it.

She knew right away something was up because she had a friend she grew up with working at the station where Frank was processed. Of course she couldn’t believe it, refused to believe it until she heard the words directly from her husband. That night, when he came home she sat at the table and waited for him to come in and greet her. She knew all his faces and as soon as he walked in the truth was confirmed. She had married a felon. That said she held off her vengeance until she heard his side of the story. He explained what had happened and stressed several times the end result, he wasn’t charged with any crime and was released under his own volition. When she asked why he said his new boss had a lot of influence in the department. Louise was five seconds away from screaming out of frustration when Frank pulled out five one hundred dollar bills and laid them on the table.

When she told me this part of the story I could see her mouth hanging open as if she was still looking at the sight. The difference between being broke and having a life sat tangibly on their kitchen table. Of course Louise wasn’t thrilled about the idea of their family being supported on a foundation of lies and dirty money, at the same time she was pregnant and they needed to do something. What made the decision harder was the relative ease regarding the job. All he had to do was open his mailbox every morning. If there was a piece of paper with an address inside he was to memorize and destroy the evidence. From there he would read the situation and act accordingly. For his time and efforts he would take home more or less five hundred dollars every week.

Their problems were solved.

To be able to get their own house when no one they knew could afford one was one perk. To be able to get out from under her father’s thumb was another. In her mind the biggest benefit of all was she could stay up and raise her son and future kids. There would be no stress in trying to find someone to watch her son while she went to work. The more she thought about the perks the easier it became to put her head on the pillow.

I looked over at Pop, who enjoyed listening to his wife talk and asked if there were truly no problems from that point on? He laughed and said, “Okay yeah, there might have been a slight tiny one…Mr. Awesome.”

The way Pop explained it there was almost a sort of understanding between Nonde Script and Mr. Awesome. Twice a year, or sometimes three times in an eighteen month period, Nonde Script would plan a huge attention grabbing crime. In doing so several things were accomplished, one it kept Nonde as the number one bad guy in New York. Two, they were guaranteed a ridiculous amount of press. Three, it took care of Mr. Awesome, who always foiled the plan and ended up looking good as the hero.

Upon hearing those words come out of Pop’s mouth I furrowed my brow. It didn’t add up, none of this was adding up. And what did he mean when he said, “it took care of Mr. Awesome?” Pop gave a quick wink at Nana, took a deep breath and said,

“Oh God Tommy you don’t think there were really superheroes back then did you? It was all bullshit. We were like wrestling, putting on a show for everyone.”

I was shocked. It was the equivalent of finding out there was no Santa Clause, except instead of learning this at nine I had learned it at thirty-three. Pop patted me on the shoulder and laughed again.

“Geez don’t you think we would have gone to prison for all the bullshit stunts we pulled?”

I remained shocked and just let him talk while I listened and tried to take notes. Basically the superhero business wasn’t one you could just break into; you had to be personally recruited like he was that day by George. They wouldn’t tell you anything, just watched you react to the situation. Most importantly, they wanted to see if you would keep your mouth shut afterwards. Frank passed his test that day by keeping quiet and not doing anything foolish. In fact, if he had tried to do something foolish, like say firing the gun George handed him at Mr. Awesome it would have accomplished two things. The first was to further the legend of Mr. Awesome’s super strength because the gun was full of blanks. The second was to show he was too much of a wild card to be trusted with the operation and he would have done six months in prison to show everyone crime doesn’t pay.

At that point Pop’s back was acting up and he asked if I minded hearing the rest of the story back in the living room. I could tell this was taking a lot out of him and at the same time I was thirsty to learn everything. This was a huge story! We sat down and for the second time in his life he broke his silence. The details he told me that afternoon he didn’t tell Nana until after he was out. Almost as if he was in the CIA. Of course, since the budget for all these activities came from the CIA and his checks were government issued, I suppose he was. To be fair, Nana had figured out from the get-go that things weren’t as they appeared; she was just smart enough to wait for Pop to fess up.

The way he explained it was after World War II the United States needed to give the next generation of kids’ heroes to look up to. Those who had fought in war were jaded. The gung-ho patriotism had disappeared in a hail of bullets and a torrent of blood. Therefore, these new heroes could be the role models for the kids and impart in them the values and patriotism this country needed them to learn. While he wouldn’t go as far as to use the term “brain-washing” it was a mighty fine line. Together with the movie studios the Government came up with a system to divide the country up into territories. Each territory had a superhero and a super villain. Then, when someone on either side grew stale they could either ship them off to another part of the country or import someone new. Some heroes didn’t want to leave their homes so they would bring in a new partner to freshen things up. A guy like Mr. Awesome was an east coast talent who traveled only occasionally. And when he did travel, like to say Texas, it was a huge deal. As time passed other countries took notice of the super hero phenomenon, put two and two together and developed their own nationalistic super heroes. Of course Hollywood was filming everything and showing the footage on Saturday afternoons to the kids at the movies. If you ever wondered how it was possible that not only was the superhero always able to thwart the evil villain but also do so on camera, now you know.

Every good storyteller knows if you have a hero you need an equally as impressive bad guy. Hitler was dead, Stalin was too far away, America needed someone they could see be defeated, either on the big screen or even in person. A great villain was someone you feared and loathed; someone the general public wouldn’t dare go after. By providing the country with a great villain, the hero became that much more important. Pop couldn’t stress enough how important the bad guy was to the whole story. If you gave the public a shitty villain that was weak or unimposing, the superhero didn’t look that impressive thwarting his evil plans. If the regular Joe Q. Taxpayer thought he could defeat the bad guy then the aura around the superhero was damaged, or lost. It happened out in St. Louis where no one thought “The Mysterious Fog” was a threat and as a result, no one took “The Blue Falcon” seriously. They had to eventually repackage “The Blue Falcon” as “Sonic Boom” and “The Mysterious Fog” had to leave the business entirely.

The evil villain also played a major role in the underground crime scene of their respective city. Because both the superhero and the evil villain were paid employees of the United States, the evil villain became an informer on all nefarious doings. Pop wouldn’t go into details but he was involved in the infiltration and subsequent breakdown of the Italian Mafia. The best part was the villains had license to do whatever it took to convince other bad guys of their (in)sincerity. The police obviously couldn’t be trusted with this vital information, so every now and then Frank would get rounded up with other bad guys. All it took was one phone call to their government contact and they were sprung, usually within the hour.

For seventeen years, from 1946 to 1963 Frank worked his way up the chain of command, first as a simple henchman for Nonde Script before eventually reaching the pinnacle, his #2. Several times he was offered the role as the lead bad guy and each time Frank turned it down. It was one thing to play the unknown henchman taking a punch, it was another to uproot your family, sometimes to another country and be the big heel. To be a bad guy wasn’t safe for your family. You couldn’t just move into a suburban neighborhood and be friendly with the neighbors. Pop did say there was one offer that really made him think. Back in 1959 the government offered him the California territory. The money was ridiculous, Hollywood and all it’s magic was right there and he always wanted to live in California but then his middle son (and my future father) Bill, who was seven at the time, caught pneumonia and spent several weeks in the hospital. There was no way he could leave his son when he needed him the most so he declined the offer.

Late 1962 the guys and small amount of girls involved in the industry talked about unionizing. There was even the largest gathering of superheroes ever in Tampa, Florida to vote on the proceedings. Unfortunately Captain Electric who was becoming a huge star in Florida was friendly with J. Edgar Hoover, who was not pleased. He sent an emissary down to inform everyone there they had two choices. The first was to unionize, upon which they would be immediately fired or “killed” in the public eye and replaced with a new generation of heroes. The second was to acquiesce and the studios could spin the meeting as the heroes forming a new uber-team to take on a new dastardly alliance. The union initiative was permanently DOA. As soon as Frank heard about this he knew they were done. The government and Hollywood wouldn’t risk the boys going rogue ever again. New heroes for a new time would be made and the old guard would be weeded out. The day Kennedy died was the day Frank decided it was time to hang it up. He put in his papers and returned to a civilian life, working at a local department store, which he did for twenty-two years before finally retiring.

To this day Pop still receives a modest pension from the government for his service to his country. I asked him if he had any guilt in talking to me and pulling back the curtain of the super hero industry. He replied that if things were still going like they were back then he would have kept this to his grave, just because he wouldn’t want to cost anyone their livelihood. The era of the Superhero is long gone. First off, the true hero/villain dynamic ended at the end of the eighties with the death of the Cold War. The nineties were a prosperous time for everyone and they didn’t need to believe in anything other than the tech bubble. Second, civilians were getting a little too ballsy, like the time The Black Dragon got shot down in Washington D.C. Sure they were able to cover it up by saying it was a combination of the guy’s bullet and Superiorion’s electric shock wave that finally killed The Black Dragon but the cat was basically out of the bag. The biggest factor of course was the computer. With the Internet around and cameras everywhere he felt it would be impossible to convince the public their shit was real. Too much risk of identities being compromised, or super powers getting exposed as nothing more than Hollywood smoke and mirrors.

I stole a glance at the grandfather clock in the corner of the room and saw we had been talking for several hours. I could tell Pop was tired and decided now would be a good time to call it a day. Pop thanked me for coming by and said he better get half of anything I make off this book. I laughed and kissed him before going into the kitchen to say goodbye to Nana. She was clipping coupons and thanked me for keeping them company. After we kissed I made my way down the steps and towards the front door when I stopped. There was one thing still itching the back of my brain. Turning around I asked Nana even though she had her suspicions was she ever worried? Without missing a beat she yelled back,

“Are you kidding me? Your grandfather killed hundreds of Japanese all over the Pacific. Do you really think he’d really have a problem with a jerk named Mr. Awesome?”

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