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In the spring and summer, when I was nine or ten years old, my yard was plagued by gypsy moth caterpillars. Their gauzy tents pocked my beloved maples trees, where I loved to climb, swing, and have lunch in their shade. I saw leaves like thinly sliced Swiss cheese, some sporting half a dozen of the prickly vermin. Worse, they dangled from silky strands, blown by the breeze to attach themselves to my face and hair.

The pests were a sharp contrast to the woolly bear caterpillars I loved, with their soft fuzz and comical reaction to my touch, curling up in a ball. It only made them more cute, and I would watch them slowly uncurl in my palm and start their slow migration from my hand onto a nearby dandelion or shrub. Their apparent helplessness set them at odds, in my young mind, with their voracious counterparts in the maples. The gypsy moth caterpillars, naturally then, must have been invading enemies of the woolly bears. My experiences watching the Super Friends had taught me something: great evil needed to be confronted by brave heroes, men and women (sometimes noble aliens and robots, too) who used their powers to help those unable to help themselves. The woolly bears needed a hero, and I was just the guy for the job! I didn’t have superpowers, but I did have a sword (a reasonably straight stick), a rocket-cycle (my BMX bike), and a cape (an old bath towel).

Before going any further, I have to know that I can trust you not to reveal my secret identity. It’s been a long time, but there are bound to be a few great-great-great…great grand-kids of those original beasts I slew, and I bet they’re thirsty for vengeance. OK then, here it is… I am THE WOOLLY BEAR FORCE COMMANDER! Hey, I was nine years old. It didn’t matter to me that I was a force of one, on a bike, with a stick and a towel. I was going to be a hero to the woolly bears because they needed one (so I thought).

I galloped (pedaled) up and down my driveway and around my yard, slashing at the dangling menace with my stick. They popped under the tires of my bike and squished under my sneakers. I gently relocated the woolly bears to flowerbeds. It was hard work, being a force of one and fighting the good fight, but I didn’t lie back to bask in woolly bear adulation. I was on a mission powered by my desire to be a hero and also on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

It felt great to be a superhero, even if I made the whole thing up and never got to hang out in the Hall of Justice with Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the Wonder Twins (surely at least those two had heard of the Woolly Bear Force Commander’s exploits). The noble objective, the sense of accomplishment, and the knowledge that I had changed lives, however short woolly bear lives might be, gave me great satisfaction. Today it makes me wonder why people don’t do stuff like that more often. Why don’t I ever see somebody in the news in a bath towel cape, telling America that he or she was on the job, making our lives better in some way? Maybe it’s time for me to start!

If you see a middle-aged man wearing a sheet for a cape, some yellow rubber gloves, and maybe some swim goggles, returning shopping carts to their corrals in the parking lot, just give me, er, him a wave. It’s Cart Man, and he’s out there keeping your car safe from dings by runaway carts. Because carts don’t put themselves away, and a lot of shoppers don’t either. Once again, a hero will rise to meet the challenge, and he probably wouldn’t exist without the inspiration of childhood imagination and the Woolly Bear Force Commander.

What everyday act of heroism might you perform around your neighborhood? Leave a comment and let me know. Don’t worry, your secret identity is safe with me.

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