The Keystone Crusaders aim to save Harrisburg from blight and despair

Originally posted:
Published: Monday, July 25, 2011, 8:49 AM     Updated: Monday, July 25, 2011, 10:07 AM
By JEFF FRANTZ, The Patriot-News
The Keystone Crusaders clean vandalized buildings in a single bound![/caption]
The walls shake underneath the wail of a skidding train.
A sudden splatter of white paint scatters spiders and “Young Prophecy was here 5/21/06” is blotted out, gone from the history of this place.
The Keystone Crusaders have won!
But there are many foes to vanquish in the Market Street tunnel and across the city, broke and nearly broken.
Harrisburg was great once. With their help, the Crusaders believe it can be great again.
Their next nemesis, a looping whirl of black spray paint, taunts them. An emblem of disregard for decency, it steals the eyes of passing pedestrians. It must be defeated.
The Crusaders go to work beneath a urine yellow floodlight, standing between puddles of uncertain origin. With their own supply of cover paint exhausted, they choose new weapons: industrial cleaner and steel wool.
Commonwealth is the inspired leader. He wears a motorcycle helmet, hand-painted blue and gold, gold lacrosse pads, a blue jump suit and work boots. The letter “C,” framed in a keystone, adorns his chest and blue cape. His utility belts sag, loaded with tools to fight his three mortal enemies: Blight, Hunger and Dr. Despair, the monster behind it all.
Armistice, his youthful and ever-loyal companion, hides his wiry frame in a blue track suit, and a wispy beard shows beneath the purple half-mask, tied from behind like the valorous turtle-ninjas of old.
They fall silent, scrubbing so close their elbows nearly touch. Over 15 minutes, the pitch-black paint fades to speckled gray, but the graffiti will not concede. After one last burst of spray, Armistice steps back.
Next time, he says, we’ll be better armed.
He picks his next target and takes aim. Commonwealth takes his trash bag to collect all the discarded bits littering the pathway of honest citizens: the flavored cigar wrappers, the soda bottles, cigarette butts. It’s only then that Commonwealth notices disaster.
“Armistice,” he calls out. “I forgot my dustpan!”
Chapter 2: Months earlier….
He sits alone sketching what he is to become.
Motocross gear for armor. Kevlar-lined gloves to catch a knife, in case some creep refuses to back away from the good people he will protect. A collapsible steel baton in the utility belt, just in case.
In the margins of the page, he crosses out one name after another.
Pitboard? He won’t have time to explain his name while fighting crime.
Dragonheart? Superhero names are not born from a logo on your wife’s hoodie.
Keystone Crusader? Too long. Maybe if it were a group …
A group!
I want to find a crime-fighting partner, he soon tells his wife.
You should, she replies. Did you think I was going to let you go out there alone?
He starts sketching again, a costume of blue and gold. A crusader cross overlaid with the state seal.
He needs a partner.
He knows the man he must call.

Keystone Crusaders Comic

JOHN C. WHITEHEAD, The Patriot-News

Chapter 3: Birth of a partnership…
He started as a mentor.
Living in a rough Pittsburgh neighborhood — a place where you wouldn’t get shot, but you might get punched — he was doing well. The lessons he learned at the Milton Hershey School had paid off. It is time to pass them on.
He meets a teenager trying to avoid trouble. They share the same nerdy hobbies. He wants to help the boy, several years younger, and soon calls him a friend.
Then the bottom falls out. He looses his retail job the week before Lehman Brothers collapsed. He, his wife and their two children are evicted.
When he had nowhere to turn, the boy — the one originally in need of mentoring — offers help. Come live with me and my mother. Stay as long as you need.
And still he is despondent. No job, no money, no prospects to move forward. His car forever running on fumes. Over and over, the words ring through his head: “Nobody cares!”
After a year, he gets an interview for a job near Harrisburg.
A cop follows him into the store’s parking lot, lights flashing. He cries, explaining to the officer why he can’t afford his registration. His potential boss walks past, taking in the scene. After the cop lets him off, he locks his keys in the car. More tears.
Still, the boss says, “You’re hired.” A landlord doesn’t require a security deposit for his new home. He regains his confidence. He gets promoted. Looking back, with the help of his recent success, he sees all the people that kept saying, “We care!” Those people, he realizes, the ones he ignored, they kept him going. They saved his life.
I have to give back, he says, but so much more than before. He finds the Real Life Superhero website, a community of regular people in capes and masks, just trying to help.
That leads him to the pad of paper and the search for a name.
That, finally, leads him to picking up the phone and calling his younger friend back in Pittsburgh. You’re looking to move anyway, he tells him. You want to save for college. I’ll help you find a job. When the time comes, there are plenty of colleges close by.
Come and help me save the city!
The boy, now 19, agrees. I shall be called Armistice.
Only then, does his new secret identity reveal itself. I am Commonwealth! Together, we are the Keystone Crusaders!
Keystone Crusaders on Patrol

Keystone Crusaders on Patrol

Chapter 4: A plan of attack…
We will fight crime!
We will patrol the city’s neighborhoods, deterring punks and acting as a second set of eyes for the police. If needed, we’ll take down a bad guy ourselves, cuff him with the plastic zip ties in our utility belts.
Except, they thought, maybe we shouldn’t.
The city has police. They’re trained. They’re strong. They have back-up at the ready.
We, the Crusaders decided, are relatively in-shape retail workers. Maybe there’s a better way.
Reading what Real Life Superheroes face in other cities, they saw the grind of squaring off endlessly with ne’er-do-wells and negativity.
That wasn’t the idea at all. Commonwealth wanted people to see that someone wanted their lives to be better. In every way, the Crusaders would shout, “We care!”
So, he decided, we will care.
Pick up the trash. Feed quarters into expiring meters. Scrub the graffiti. Collect the dog crap. Give a homeless man a bottle of water.
We will be the good Samaritan personified! If people see we care, maybe they will care. And if we feed a person in need, and that person doesn’t need to mug someone to afford a meal, haven’t we prevented crime? Yes!
Block-by-block, kind act by kind act, we will retake the city!
Chapter 5: Into the streets…
First they must escape.
A superhero never knows when spying eyes are watching for masked men, ready to reveal a secret identity. They emerge from Commonwealth’s lair just outside the city, unmasked, their costumes hidden under rain coats. Only when they reach an undisclosed parking lot do their faces disappear.
They begin — as they have at least twice a week since March — in the Market Street tunnel.
“Good Morning!” they bellow, warming up their superhero voices to the office workers walking west, and the residents heading east.
How can anyone, Commonwealth asks, feel good about their city if their first sight of it is this cavern of filth?
The battle is joined, and Commonwealth’s three utility belts/fanny packs, come open.
A hand-held vacuum for cigarette butts. “L.A.’s Totally Awesome,” the Dollar Store industrial cleaner they don’t bother diluting. Spray paint bought on clearance. Their real superpower is bargain hunting.
When danger arises, they reach for the original crime fighting tools. Broken glass is no match for Kevlar-lined gloves! No clogged gutter can withstand a steel baton!
After toiling in the tunnel, the Crusaders emerge into daylight.
“Can I get a picture?”
The calls start almost immediately, and the Crusaders do not disappoint their adoring masses.
“Would you mind striking a superhero pose?” Armistice asks the beaming admirer. “Everyone can be a superhero!”
And of course, “Check us out on Facebook!”
The Crusaders strut, trashbags over their shoulder, dragging a cooler of bottled water behind them.
“It’s too late to save this one!” Commonwealth moans, after seeing a car with a parking ticket. But his despair does not last long. With expiring meters lining the streets, there are so many innocent windshields to protect.
At Third and Market, they see a man hunched over at a bus stop, his blackened toenails sticking from swollen bare feet. They swoop in.
“Hey, how you doing,” Commonwealth beckons.
Armistice whips the cooler in front of the man and grabs two bottles of water. “Good to see you again.”
The man nods and picks through the Crusaders’ bag of snacks, passing over the granola bars for a few bags of chips.
Around the corner, they see another homeless man, Francis. He pulls out a small flashlight the Crusaders gave him after severe storms tore through the city in May. After a few jokes and some water, he’s on his way.
We know, Commonwealth says, that some of the homeless people we meet have deeper problems. We know they need more than water and a little food. That’s why we want to start carrying contact information for shelters and mental health organizations. But we also know we might be the only ones to show them any kindness during the day.
Chapter 6: A citizen in distress!
The plastic cuffs pull shut, and a dangling “Push here for walk signal” sign at Second and Forster is secure. The wind will not claim this victim!
“Are you guys superheroes?”
Hearing the voice, the Crusaders halt their march toward Midtown and spin around.
“My car won’t start,” Shamicca Gentry says. “Do you think you can help me?”
They freeze.
“Well, we don’t know much about cars,” Commonwealth says, “but we’ll take a look.”
I ran out of gas on the way to physical therapy, Gentry says, waving at her Grand Prix sitting next to a fire hydrant. I put gas in, but it still won’t start.
She pops her hood. Commonwealth leans in.
“Here,” he says, “try it.”
The ignition cranks but dies soon after.
“It’s hard to hear with this helmet,” he says, asking her to try again. He leans closer to the coiled metal.
“I actually know what this is!” Commonwealth exclaims. “This used to happen to me when I was homeless and ran out of gas. You flooded your engine.”
You’re going to have to let it sit for a few hours to let the gas settle, he explains. She can’t leave it in front of the hydrant, Armistice says.
Blast! A nearly perfect rescue cannot be foiled so easily.
They spy an open parking spot across Forster, across a mere six lanes of traffic. The light turns green, and they push.
Secure, Gentry gushes thanks as they feed her meter.
The Crusaders set off again. Before they’re gone, Commonwealth turns back:
“You stay safe,” he calls. “We love you dear!”
Chapter 7: The coming battle
Harrisburg needs saviors.
Financial distress looms over every block. Streetlights are out. Sewer drains are blocked. Street cleaning becomes more sporadic with each passing week.
The Crusaders’ nemesis, the plotting Dr. Despair cackles. Once honest citizens are worn down, he will descend into the streets.
But the Crusaders will be ready! As long as people care, the battle still can be won!
They will not be alone.
Already, Vigil has joined them on patrol. She hunted down Commonwealth and Armistice on Facebook, and then appeared, shrouded in purple.
Soon, Gia will join the fight.
Streak will come forward.
And in some secret place, a Norseman is now finishing his costume.
There is much work to be done, and they cannot conquer every foe.
But the righteous people of the city will not be abandoned in this dark hour. So if you look down the street and see these costumed warriors, do not be afraid.
The Keystone Crusaders have come to fight for our victory!