By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
It’s Saturday, Sept. 30, roughly 11 p.m., when Arachnight suffers one of the many small indignities of being a community superhero: his kneepad comes loose.
Arachnight and Guardian Shield are out on patrol together, something that they do when they can, because there’s strength in numbers.
Patrol might be a bit too formal a term for what they are doing. In the past hour, they’ve walked up and down River Road turning on whims without a specific destination or planned course. They’ve walked in front of buildings, around buildings, and drifted into neighborhoods. Using tactical flashlights, the duo tries to scope out the areas where someone could be hidden, hatching nefarious plans, or simply in distress. Both men are still relatively new to patrolling in the area and they hope to develop a grid that they can use when they deploy over the next couple of weeks.
Arachnight attends to his wardrobe malfunction, then he and Shield continue walking toward River Road North on Cummings Lane. As they approach the River Road intersection, a pedestrian, Adam Hayes, is waiting to cross at the light when he looks up.
“Holy s–t, it’s Guardian Shield,” says Adam, drawing out the last syllable of ‘holy’ into “holeeee.”
Shield is easily recognizable to those who know about him. He wears a red spandex bodysuit with black boots, matching gloves, and a chest harness sporting his custom yellow logo. A black eye mask covers his face above the nose. The get-up is a kit-bashed homage, of sorts, to three of Shield’s favorite superheroes: Captain America, the Golden Age Phantom, and Mr. Incredible from the Pixar The Incredibles movie of the last decade.
Shield smiles through his thick beard, then asks if Adam would like a picture. Hayes already knew Shield because of a news article a few years back about Shield patrolling in Beaverton.
“Dude, would I?” responds Adam. “Just walking down the street and I bump in Guardian Shield. And who are you?”
The last part is directed to The Night Spider, Arachnight. It’s not hard to deduce which comic book hero influenced the man behind the full-face mask the most. Arachnight’s costume is a blending of two versions of Spider-Man and one of his most notable enemies, Venom.
After a brief introduction, Adam turns his attention back to Shield, telling him that he was thinking hard about joining the ranks of community superheroes a few years ago. Adam tells Shield about the design he came up with for a costume of his own.
“What stopped you?” Shield asks the question twice because he would eagerly welcome new people to the superhero movement. Strength in numbers, so long as the players take the mission seriously.
The mission, Shield says a few minutes later, is key.
“You gotta keep the mission small. Some community superheroes want to bust drug lords or fight ISIS. Our job is interrupting a purse-snatching, a person breaking into a car, or stopping an assault,” Shield says. “It’s about being eyes and ears when the police can’t be there. You can’t be a vigilante. We work within the law.”
Hayes snaps a picture of Shield and Arachnight and then the group crosses River Road together. Before putting some distance between them, Adam asks for one last picture, a selfie with the heroes.
“The most challenging thing, when you start out, is you have to learn to get past the name-calling and naysayers. You will be made fun of, but you have to recognize that there is someone out there who will think this is awesome,” Arachnight says.
Fortunately, for every hater, there are 20 Adams out there.
Their paths to becoming community superheroes didn’t intersect until they met online, but Shield and Arachnight feel they have common enemies in apathy and indifference.
“One of my big pushes to do this was seeing YouTube videos of people getting beat up while others stood there filming it. That is unacceptable,” says Shield.
Arachnight puts it more bluntly.
“If you were getting your teeth kicked in and looked up to see someone filming so they get likes on Facebook, how would you feel?” he asks.
Shield has patrolled for three years, Arachnight for two, and neither has been involved in a major altercation.
“We are not out here to replace the police. We are here to help and assist because it’s our community, too,” says Shield. Most people, he added, are deterred by the suit alone: “I’m already crazy enough to be out here by myself in spandex, how crazy are you?”
Being eyes and ears in the dark spaces can help prevent situations from escalating or catch them before they take a turn for the worse, said Arachnight.
A few weeks ago, Shield spotted a Ringo’s patron trying to coax a friend into the trunk of his car for the ride home. The man’s girlfriend was riding shotgun in the two-seater.
“I went up to him and told him that wasn’t going to work and everyone ended up in the car itself,” Shield said.
On one of his early adventures, Shield walked up on a domestic dispute and called 9-1-1, knowing the situation was beyond his abilities to diffuse.
Tonight, the patrol ends up being essentially a long string of good deeds: flickering a flashlight to get a driver to turn on his headlights, going into Shari’s to notify a patron that they left their headlights on, picking up large pieces of litter and leaving a pair of Gatorades next to a sleeping homeless man.
“We want to be a deterrent to violent crime,” says Arachnight.“If the bad guys notice you are there, the majority of them aren’t going to do anything, whether it’s assaulting somebody or breaking into a car.”
Shield and Arachnight grew up on a steady diet of comic books and pop cultural representations of the characters found in them. Shield found something between the panels that felt like a higher calling.
“I’m not invulnerable or perfect, it’s that I’m willing to put myself between an innocent person and a bully,” says Shield.“I was on the MAX one time and a guy was talking to told me that he felt like he was talking to Captain America–like I was on that level–that was cool. People get excited to see a superhero and I’d like to think that goodness carries over into their lives.”
For Arachnight, comic books were an escape.
“I came out of a broken home and, when I needed a sense of hope, I cracked open a comic book. My mom’s death was the influence that told me I needed to become that hero I always wanted to be. I don’t think her death is the reason I do this, but I know she would support it if she were still here,” Arachnight said.
Shield is ex-military and felt his experiences while deployed in Afghanistan were something he could use once he got home. He began watching the rise of what was later known as the Real World Superhero Movement in 2006, but he waited nearly nine years to first don the spandex.
Still, there were stumbling first steps. He did practice runs in Colorado while stationed there, but he was as scared of any encounters with real people as they might have been suspicious of him.
“I basically had the red suit and belt and a mask. I was hiding behind cars and moving around them as other cars passed. I was totally creeping,” Shield says.
At one point, an enthusiastic preteen ran up to him and he froze. Shield stood up straight and just stared before the kid took off running.
“I realized after that I needed to be able to engage with people,” Shield said.
By the time he assembled his full costume in Beaverton, almost everyone got a wave and a reminder to stay safe at the very least.
Arachnight’s first contact didn’t go much better. He went out on patrol for the first time the day his mother died and, like Shield, he wasn’t quite prepared for new role he’d taken on. He wore a balaclava mask, a Spider-Man T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. For security, he slung a large metal baton across his back. The first two evenings were uneventful, which is one of the reasons the third is so memorable.
“I was walking down a suburban neighborhood and I heard this rumbling coming from the distance. It got closer and closer and then a pick-up truck full of teenagers switched on the headlights and drove past me honking. Then I heard this screech and I looked back and saw the truck reversing, spin around and head for me,” Arachnight says.
He did what any wise, nascent hero does. He ran. He ran for three-and-a-half blocks before turning a corner and diving into a bush where he stripped off his mask and webslinger T-shirt and left his baton behind. He re-emerged after the truck passed.
The truck came back and asked Arachnight, the civilian, if he’d seen anyone matching the description of the guy in a mask with a six-foot katana. Arachnight played dumb, but the high schoolers didn’t call off the search for another six weeks.
“I know because I was working at the local gas station and I would be filling up their tank while they told me about the masked man they were looking for. I had to play it off like ‘that guy sounds like a real freaking nutcase,’ then I would go out on patrol again that night.”
Both men found that donning a mask and superhero outfit gave them a sense of mission that stretched beyond what they encountered on the streets.
“When I look in the mirror now, I ask myself what would GS do? I can’t have a double standard or be a hypocrite, and I’ve definitely cleaned up my language,” Shield says.
“I suffer a lot of anxiety and low self-esteem issues. Putting on the mask awakened something inside of me. You act more professional and have a more heroic demeanor toward yourself,” Arachnight added.
Both said their heroic personas felt more like their destinies than their civilian lives.
“Patrol night comes along and it’s like this chance to be who you really want to be. A lot of times my everyday normal life feels less natural to me,” Shield said.
It might have been that comfort in his superhero skin that led Shield to try something new when deciding to patrol in Keizer. For the first time, he announced his presence and intent to patrol online.
The blowback that resulted from the posting was unexpected to say the least. Messages piled up questioning his motives, his mental state, and just about everything in between. It took minutes for someone to post a photo of him out of costume with a loved one. Shield isn’t trying to cover up anything in his past, but he is concerned about the possibility of upsetting someone who would target his friends and family.
“Keizer has been the hardest town to crack. I don’t want to get killed if I end up in a confrontation with someone,” Shield said. “No other town has come after me to unmask me. That makes me nervous.”
There are a number of people in Shield’s personal life who know of his activities. Arachnight has only a few.
“If I take the mask off then you know I’m just the guy who you see walking down the street and you don’t know I’m here to help,” Arachnight said.
The initial wave of online skepticism blew over in a few days and a few apologies even cropped up in the mix once some doubters had time to reflect.
Truthfully, community superheroes inhabit a grey area. Other community superheroes in other places have run afoul of the law and even the inhabitants of the communities they set out to protect.
Shield carries a ballistic shield, a tactical flashlight, pepper spray, bad dog spray, utility knife, seatbelt cutter, glass breaker, Taser, a polypropylene sword that could defend against a crowbar or bat, and a personal medical kit.
Arachnight carries mace, a telescoping baton, tactical flashlight and stun gun along with his medical kit. He wears alloy-knuckled gloves, but he’s also CPR- and first aid-certified. He counts local police among his personal heroes.
The sheer amount of gear is costly, but also legal, and the totality of it in list form appears threatening. On the other hand, Shield finds it helps him make his case when law enforcement officers roll up.
“We’re already a joke and we look legit. Half of the battle is won when the police look at me and see that I’m well-prepared. If you dress like a clown, people will treat you like a clown,” Shield said.
When Shield went into Shari’s earlier in the night, the manager went pale and immediately said no face masks were allowed in the restaurant. They make it a habit not to go too far into any establishment to avoid those specific types of reactions.
There also aren’t too many spaces they see as out-of-bounds. Private residential property would be taboo, but they’ll check out dark spaces around businesses and apartments.
“I’ve walked around places on patrol I would never walk around in broad daylight,” Shield said.
They try to balance their appearance with friendly demeanor and a healthy dose of humor.
“You never hear of Batman obeying the ‘No Trespassing’ signs. You have to go where the bad guys are. It’s not like I’m going to yell over the fence, ‘You’re lucky you’re not over here obeying the law,’” Arachnight says.
“If you were, I’d shake your hand and congratulate you on being a good citizen,” quips Shield.
Shield and Arachnight don’t have a record of instigation and don’t intend to start in Keizer. More than anything, the pair just hopes to inspire people.
“I love seeing kids’ reactions and the awe on their faces. I have a lot of siblings and kids are a big deal for me. Knowing I can make someone feel good puts an insanely large smile on my face,” Arachnight said.
“My only agenda is to make superheroes real,” Shield said. “Why aren’t they real? It takes a little guts, a little courage, but there’s strength in numbers.”
Time will tell. But if the mere presence of a few community superheroes prevents some crime along the way, it’s hard to argue with those motives.