Red Rocket & Tom Atomic: 1956: Right and Magic, Chapter 8: Captain Democracy Is Born

by Dan Swanson

Return to chapter list

Ernest E. Earnest first met Grant Gardner when he was hired to help merchants set up for the 1951 South Side Art Festival and Street Fair. He and other workers spent a day helping build booths, and the next day, he helped merchants move some of their wares into their booths. He was unpacking a crate from the All-American Art store, unwrapping the paintings it contained and hanging them on the walls of the booth. He just barely glanced at most of them. He was almost finished with this booth, and he was going to break for lunch as soon as he finished, so he was working quickly.

He had just hung a fantasy landscape, and when he picked up the next painting, he felt a jolt throughout his entire body, almost like an electric shock. He was almost afraid to pull the wrapping off of this one; he had an extremely weird feeling, as if, once he saw this painting, his life would change forever. Ernie had always scoffed when someone he knew told him about a premonition, so he ignored the feeling and continued unwrapping this painting.

There was nothing special about this painting that he could see. It showed two more costumed patriotic heroes fighting against a giant figure in a khaki outfit covered with swastikas. Somehow, he found his eyes drawn to the smaller figure, and then, without knowing how he knew, he realized that this guy was actually himself. He read the name of the painting: “General Glory and Ernie battle Captain Swastika.” He knew this scene had really happened, and he realized he also knew General Glory — it was Joe Jones.

Grant had noticed Ernie’s preoccupation with this painting, and then he experienced a similar kind of shock. He also realized that this was the kid in the painting — not just somebody who looked like one of his paintings, as Bonnie Marlowe had looked like Miss Victory, but an exact doppelgänger, a man who, on another Earth under slightly different circumstances, had become the sidekick to a famous super-hero on that other Earth.

Ernie saw Grant watching him, and was about to ask him a question, but Grant spoke first. “It’s a long story. Why don’t we finish up and talk about it over lunch?”

Over lunch, Grant told Ernie his story. “I always knew these pictures were real, that what I was seeing had really happened on another Earth, somewhere, which was very similar to our own. Of course, no one ever believed me. Sometimes I doubted it, but now that I’ve met you, my doubts are gone!”

General Glory’s origin sent chills down Ernie’s spine. His near-death experience, the visitation by a mystical being, entrusting him with a patriotic mission — they seemed so much like his own family’s experiences, it was simply amazing. Grant, however, had his doubts. He saw several inconsistencies in the Earnest family legends. But his new friend was so excited, he decided not to point them out.

Ernie found Grant’s stories of the heroes of other Earths fascinating. He wanted to hear more, but it was time to get back to work. He arranged with Grant to help him tear down after the show was over. And Grant told him to drop by that day before he headed home to pick up the painting. Ernie wanted to protest, but he knew he had to own that painting, and he knew he couldn’t afford it.

Sometimes people would form almost instant friendships; so it was with Grant and Ernie. Despite all the differences between them — age, background, physical appearance, lifestyle — or because of them, these two became fast friends. When Grant realized that Ernie was struggling to juggle going to college and working part-time just to pay his rent, it seemed natural to invite him to share the house Grant’s parents had left him.

Living rent-free for the time, Ernie was able to work a few hours less and study a few hours more, and he began doing very well in college. In fact, by taking summer classes and a heavy course load, he was able to graduate in only three years, and he found a job as an entry-level metallurgist with the giant of the chemical industry, I.E. DuPaul.

Ever since he had first seen the picture of himself and Captain Glory, Ernie had wanted to become a super-hero. He finally told Grant about his plans. Grant wasn’t surprised, and, in fact, he had been making preparations for this occasion since he had first met Ernie. He had never been much interested in most physical activities before, but he had secretly been working out the past six months.

He was trying to follow an extremely strenuous regimen copied from an other-Earthly hero. Doc Savage wasn’t quite a costumed hero, but his exercises, diet, and lifestyle had produced the most perfect human physical specimen that Grant had seen in any of the worlds he had watched. Grant was still unable to complete the regimen, but even so, his condition had improved markedly. And he had learned these exercises well enough that he would be able to teach them to Ernie. He was as ready for this discussion as he could be.

“Ernie, very few heroes who don’t have super-powers succeed. There is always someone who is a better fighter, and no matter how well-trained he is, a normal human cannot dodge a bullet.”

Ernie was angry. “‘Other Ernie’ made it through World War II. Jeff Mace, Tex Thomson, Patty Patrios, Bill Nasland — none of them had super-powers!”

“Well, they did have a lot of training…”Grant began.

“I’ve been fighting since I was ten, and the guys on the army base, especially Joe, taught me a lot.”

“They taught you to brawl, Ernie, not to fight. There’s a difference. You wouldn’t last two minutes against a trained fighter.”

Ernie was starting to become belligerent. “What the hell do you know about fighting? You’ve never been in a fight in your life! And lucky for you, ’cause just the breeze from a real punch would knock you down!”

“Ernie, I’ve watched hundreds of the best fighters in history. I’ve watched them train, seen their moves, watched them in action. You have no idea what you’re talking about.” Grant wasn’t really mad; this conversation was going exactly as he had hoped it might. But he acted mad. “If you want to be a super-hero, go ahead. There’s nothing I can do to stop you. But I’m telling you, you aren’t ready. And I can prove it.”

“How’s that?” Ernie answered, ready for anything, or so he thought.

“Suppose I could beat you in a fight?” Grant asked.

You? Be serious! I’d break you in half with the first punch. Yeah, old man, if you could beat me in a fight, I’d agree that I’m not ready.”

Grant smiled. “Well, since you don’t think I’m much of a threat, I don’t suppose you’d mind if I use my staff.” Grant had recently taken up hiking, and he always carried a six-foot oak staff.

Ernie thought about it for a while. “Can’t see that it would do you much good. You’re on!”

A staff in trained hands was more incredibly dangerous than most people would believe. Against a single unarmed attacker, unless the attacker was very well-trained and aware of the danger, or else very lucky — all other things being equal, the man with the staff would almost always win. But Ernie didn’t know that, and even if he had, he couldn’t imagine Grant beating him with any weapon or combination of weapons short of a gun.

On the other hand, Grant knew all this, and even with a staff he was still not confident. Ernie was stronger and faster, and Grant had really never been in a fight before. Still, he had watched many heroes practice with and use staffs, and he had been practicing on his own, away on his hikes where no one else could see him.

“OK, then, here’s the rules. You break the staff or get it away from me, you win. You knock me down, you win. I knock you down, I win. Simple enough?”

“Enough. This shouldn’t take long,” growled Ernie.

“Exactly what I was going to say!” said Grant with a smile. He held his staff in front of him, whirling it, moving it from hand to hand. Ernie didn’t know how to react, and was unable to block a quick strike to his right leg. Grant had been hoping to end the fight with one blow, but Ernie, though stung, stayed on his feet.

Ernie put his hands up into a boxing position. Grant whacked him on his left side at tummy level, and by the time Ernie was defending against that blow, the other end of the stick whacked his rib cage on his right side. Grant sure covered a lot of ground with that thing.

Deciding that his best move would be to grab the staff, Ernie opened both his hands, and the next time the stick came near his hand, he lunged for it. Grant pulled it back, spun it around his waist behind his back, and was able to whack Ernie strongly on the back of his right knee. Before Ernie realized what was happening, he collapsed to the floor.

“Good thing, too!” Grant panted as he leaned on his staff. “That’s about it for me!”

Ernie wasn’t happy; he felt like he’d been set up (and he had). He tried to kick the staff away so Grant would collapse, too. But Grant wasn’t nearly as winded as he had pretended to be, and when Ernie’s kick left him wide open, Grant lifted his staff off the ground and then stabbed downward with it, as hard as he could, at a very vulnerable spot. Ernie watched in horror and then almost fainted in relief when the butt-end of Grant’s staff thudded on the ground between his legs. He realized he’d been set up, yet again, and he started to realize that maybe Grant knew what he was talking about.

“Where’d you learn to do that, man? That was pretty incredible. Maybe I oughtta think about being your sidekick for a while?”

Grant smiled, pleased that he had made his point. He was determined that Ernie wouldn’t ever know just how close he was to collapsing. The physical exertion wasn’t that extreme, but he hadn’t realized just how much of an emotional toll it would take on him to attack his roommate and best friend as he had just done, no matter how good the reason.

The two soon began a daily regimen of workouts and martial arts training. Initially, Grant wasn’t in good enough shape to be an adequate sparring partner for Ernie, as he tired after only a few minutes. So Ernie joined a local fighters’ gym and learned to box, and he realized that Grant had been right again — he had been taught to brawl. Not that there was anything wrong with that, for he discovered that he could work his brawling techniques into the unique fighting style he was forging for himself.

Ernie spent a lot of his free time at the gym, sparring with anyone he could talk into the ring. For a while, even the mediocre fighters regularly beat him.

But that changed pretty quickly. The exercise regimen was improving his strength, speed, agility, and coordination, and he really wanted to learn. After a year, he could whip almost anybody who hung out at the gym. The coach wanted him to turn pro, but that wasn’t what he had in mind.

During this time, Grant wasn’t just resting on his laurels. Oriental fighting styles were not popular at that time, but neither were they totally unknown. Grant looked for, and found, a martial arts master who was willing to learn from an untrained man, and he helped Grant create a new style of martial arts. None of the moves or techniques was original, although the master had never seen many of them before. Grant had the unique advantage of being able to pick the best of the best in techniques, moves, and styles, with a highly skilled instructor to tutor him.

So, at about the time Ernie ran out of opponents at the gym, Grant reached the point in which he was physically competent to demonstrate the art, and proficient enough to demonstrate and critique each and every move and technique of this new style.

In May of 1956, Ernie experienced one of those incredibly improbably events that defined the careers of most super-heroes.

I.E. DuPaul had a government contract to create new allows for use in jet airplanes and potentially in space vehicles. The metallurgy group, of which Ernie was the youngest member, had been experimenting with alloys of aluminum, titanium, silver, and bronze (composed of copper and tin). In theory, alloys made with the right combination of these metals would be extremely hard, durable, corrosion and heat resistant, and much lighter than steel. The problem was that getting anything to alloy with titanium was extremely difficult.

As the low man on the totem pole, Ernie got all the worst jobs. Tomorrow, the group was making their first pour, and Ernie had been assigned to make the molds. Since molds made of normal sand would melt when liquid titanium was poured into them, the molds Ernie were making used a specially developed mixture of sand and chemicals that would absorb some of the heat and keep the sand from melting until the titanium cooled down below the critical point.

He picked up the mold models from the machine shop, applied a special chemical on the treated sand, and packed the sand into the frames. He used extra care — if something went wrong with this part of the pour, he would probably lose his job. So he made sure the sand stayed wet, tamped it down carefully, and was meticulous of the positioning of the models and channels. Then he repeated the job, for there were to be two prototypes poured tomorrow.

This first pour was only experimental, but this material was being eyed for use as a heat-shield. One of the conditions on the pour was that it must duplicate, as accurately as possible, the expected conditions on the future assembly line, so the models were shaped like heat-shields — slightly concave disks, perhaps three feet in diameter.

He finished both molds and set them in the dryer, then went home. When he got back the next day, he double-checked, and everything was perfect. He had rarely done such good work in his short career.

Both molds were being filled at once. The pours began, and almost immediately something went wrong. Perhaps a gallon of molten liquid had been poured into the throat of each mold, when suddenly the molds started spitting back. Molten alloy bubbled up from the throats like lava from volcanoes, and globs of molten alloy were being shot into the air. Both pours were immediately terminated.

Several hours later, the molds were broken open. Inside each was a curved disk of alloy, similar to what they had hoped for, but useless. The inside and outside surfaces of both disks, instead of being smooth, were pebbly, as if made of hardened foam. And indeed, analysis proved that, in fact, that was what they were.

The chemicals in the sand had reacted with the molten alloy, causing it to boil and turn into foam. This reaction had cause the eruptive behavior. The metallurgist who had done the pour had tried to blame Ernie, but the senior scientist in the plant analyzed the wetting agent and discovered that it was not made to spec. The belligerent metallurgist had, in fact, mixed the agent, and he was fired on the spot. Ernie was ordered by his boss to throw away everything left over from this disaster, and to build some new molds today for a second pour tomorrow. In his own words, the boss wanted to “get rid of the evidence of this foul-up so we don’t lose the government contract!”

As Ernie was carrying the failed heat-shields to the trash, he realized just how much they reminded him of the shields of two of his favorite other-Earth heroes — Captain America and Captain Democracy. He thought it might be fun to take them home and paint them to match the shields those guys used. So he carried them out into the parking lot and put them into the trunk of his car.

A little experimentation at home, and Ernie realized that these two shields were everything the titanium alloy was supposed to be, strong and durable — and only weighing a few pounds each. He tried to tell his boss — if DuPaul could refine the technique of making foamed alloy that was almost as durable as the solid alloy, and only a fraction of the weight, just think how much money that would make for the company. But the boss didn’t want to be reminded of his failure, so Ernie gave up.

Grant and Ernie were very intrigued with their new toys, and they added shield techniques to their regular drills. Because of the pebbly surface, however, the shields would never fly straight when thrown. And neither shield was perfectly balanced, as the foaming action had been uncontrolled, and the shields were thicker in some places than others. Ernie worked diligently and carefully to correct these flaws, using some carefully crafted thin strips of lead, glued to the inside surface of the shields to provide perfect balance, then applying several coats of epoxy paint to fill in the cracks and provide a smooth surface.

Ernie figured that his coming into possession of these shields was just another manifestation of his family’s destiny. Grant had tried to convince Ernie to examine the family mythology again with a more critical eye, but Ernie’s father had convinced him that every word was the gospel truth. And Ernie did believe every single word, even the chapter about his father’s last visit from the Spirit of the Bill of Rights — even though he himself had written that chapter. He was convinced that the vision of that event had been placed in his mind by the Spirit of the Bill of Rights. Now, having his super-hero weapon fall into his lap as it had just confirmed his belief in his divine destiny.

Ernie had long since created a costume. He’d thought about calling himself General Glory, but decided he could never fill those boots. Captain Democracy wore a costume that was similar to that of General Glory, so he decided to model his own costume, and his name, on Captain Democracy. He was able to use scrap metal from the discard yard at work, and the machine shop, to create a chain-mail pullover that he painted with durable epoxy paint to match the rest of the costume.

No more training was needed for this young man; it was time to spread his wings. Grant was worried, because Ernie had so far not shed the various hatreds he had learned from his father, and because Ernie had still never managed to put everything together — he still did everything by rote. But he had been right, several years ago — if Ernie wanted to be a super-hero, there was no way for Grant to stop him. One day, Ernie just decided to go — and away he went.

As he responded to his first case, a bank robbery in progress, Ernie said aloud to the world at large in dramatic fashion, “Captain Democracy is born!”

Return to chapter list