by Philip-Todd Franklin and Doc Quantum
Los Angeles, California, October 8, 1972:
As the last day of filming had just wrapped up for a movie about a motorcycle gang, Buddy Baker rushed to his trailer, changed his clothing, and stopped by the cash office to retrieve his final paycheck. The movie had been little more than a low-grade knockoff of Easy Rider, but work was work, and Buddy still got paid either way. Exchanging pleasantries with the young blond girl who worked there, he waited for her to retrieve the check from a large stack of them in a floor-to-ceiling safe.
Moments later, paycheck in hand, Buddy briskly headed for his 1971 red Ford Pinto, which he and Ellen had bought as a Christmas gift to each other last year, and which even now didn’t have too many extra miles on the dashboard. Ordinarily he would have driven his old Pontiac Bonneville, which he’d owned since he first started working for as a freelance stuntman, but earlier that morning the battery had decided to play dead, and Ellen had taken the day off in order to get the battery replaced.
As he drove out of the MGM Studio lot, he fiddled with the radio dial until he was able to locate one of the local radio stations that played classical music. While switching stations, he stopped on one and heard the announcer speaking. “This is Sammy Jackson at KLAC, and I’ve got this late-breaking traffic update…” The announcer went on to report on a number of car wrecks, suggesting alternate routes for commuters. Continuing to listen to the station, Buddy headed toward the suburbs where he and Ellen lived in their small but affordable house.
A drive that should have taken him merely an hour to make ended up taking nearly three because of the traffic jams. He really couldn’t complain, though, since he’d had a great day in a wonderful life that he had made for himself.
Thinking about his last days as Animal-Man, he realized that the whole embarrassing episode with the Mod Gorilla Boss had been a blessing in disguise, for it had prompted Buddy to realize everything that he’d lost when he had broken things off with his fiancée, Ellen Frazier. She didn’t make it easy for him at first, but after a great deal of persistence he finally managed to win her back. And she also got him to finally nail down their wedding date after his initial proposal two years earlier.
And so, in October, 1967, nearly five years ago to the day, Buddy Baker and Ellen Frazier said their vows and walked down the aisle as husband and wife. And they had never looked back since.
As he predicted, Animal-Man was quickly forgotten by a fickle public. In any case, a rash of new super-heroes had begun appearing on the scene recently whose appearance had virtually driven away all memory of Animal-Man and the few other heroes whose careers had begun in the 1950s and 1960s. Superboy was an exception, of course, since he had grown into the role of Superman so well that many began to forget that he had ever called himself anything but Superman. And despite having no powers, Batman and Robin of Gotham City had become just as famous as the hero of Metropolis in the span of a year. Indeed, for nearly a year before the Gotham City Police Department finally deputized him, the Batman had operated as a solo vigilante and had been thought to be an urban legend by most Americans.
There had been similar rumors for years about an Aquaboy who fought evildoers on the high seas, and more recently a grown-up Aquaman in full costume had been spotted fighting modern-day pirates and the like with the power to command sea creatures. But many still considered this Aquaman with his strange powers and stranger company to be one of the greatest mysteries of the high seas, alongside the Flying Dutchman, the Bermuda Triangle, and the Mary Celeste.
Even Green Arrow in Star City had quickly gained fame since his debut earlier this year despite essentially being a knockoff of Batman, having an Arrowcar and an Arrowplane inspired by the Batmobile and the Batplane. In fact, Buddy wouldn’t be surprised if Green Arrow eventually took on a boy sidekick of his own. And just last month, a new super-heroine had taken America and the world by storm by donning a patriotic costume and calling herself Wonder Woman, displaying strength and speed rivaling that of Superman himself. It looked like there was just no room in this brave new world for an Animal-Man.
So, having left his short-lived heroic career behind, Buddy had focused on becoming one of the most sought-after stuntmen in Hollywood. In fact, he had managed to develop such a good reputation for his death-defying stunts that he was occasionally asked to travel for work. Just last year he spent several weeks doing stunt-work in New York City during the filming of The Godfather, which had been released in March earlier this year.
But as amazing as that experience had been, it had not been nearly as wonderful a moment in his life as the birth of his son Clifford two years ago. Buddy and Ellen had enjoyed their first three years of marriage alone, and had grown quite close, but it wasn’t until they’d had a child together in 1970 that they truly became a family. As much as they loved little Cliff, their son had been a very strong-willed child, and now that he was in the age known as the terrible twos, he was more of a handful than ever. It was all Ellen could do to keep up with him whenever Buddy was off working.
They had always wanted to have two children, a boy and a girl, but for now they were hesitant to try for a second, since Cliff had been so difficult. They thought about waiting for another two or three years before trying for a girl, since Ellen had just gone back to work as a substitute teacher. While she was able to leave Cliff with her parents or her best friend Tricia Denning whenever she needed to work, the couple knew they’d have to find more reliable child care soon. Both Buddy and Ellen had noticed how Roger and Tricia were fighting with each other a lot more lately, and they weren’t really sure if their friends’ marriage would last.
Even Buddy and Ellen’s marriage had its ups and downs over the years, and they both found themselves exhausted as of late, both from work and from raising their two-year-old boy. The young couple was long overdue for a little time away for themselves.
Pulling into the driveway with that thought on his mind, Buddy scanned the area around the house before parking the car. Reaching over, he opened the glove box and pulled out a little envelope that held two airplane tickets, a trip with a surprise destination that they’d talked about visiting someday.
Opening the door to his small suburban house, Buddy was greeted at the door by his wife Ellen, a slender woman with red hair and deep blue eyes, who wore a long bright yellow dress and flat-heel shoes to match. Lightly kissing Buddy on the cheek, she asked, “Did you have a lot of trouble getting home today?”
Taking Ellen’s hand in his, he followed her into the living room and began to tell her about the traffic, along with his day at the movie set. From the kitchen his two-year-old son Cliff came waddling into the living room, then quickly ran to Buddy and hugged his free leg.
“Da-Da! Da-Da! Da-Da!” Cliff said again and again as he continued to hug his father’s leg.
Bending down, Buddy picked up his young son and ruffled his hair, while Ellen sat in a blue and green lounge chair, smiling at him. After a few moments of playing with Cliff, Buddy turned to Ellen and said, “Hon, I’ve got a surprise for you.”
Without saying another word, Buddy picked up Cliff into his left arm, then reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out the envelope with the two airline tickets. “I got ’em, hon,” he said with a smile, “two tickets for our special time alone.”
Ellen’s eyes opened wide, and she let out a little squeal that for a moment shocked little Cliff, who then joined in with squeals of his own. “That’s great, Buddy! You know how much Mom and Dad have been at us to let them keep Cliff for longer than a day.” Buddy nodded, still smiling. “So, where are we going, honey?” she asked, excited as a schoolgirl.
“Now, angel, you know it’s a surprise, so I can’t tell you,” Buddy replied, slipping the envelope back into his pocket.
October 11, 1972:
On the day of the big trip, the young couple loaded up the Ford Pinto and placed Cliff in his car seat. The drive to Ellen’s parents’ house in Deep Hollow wasn’t very long, but it felt like forever with the bad traffic. Still, Buddy and Ellen were able to arrive in just under an hour, pulling up in front of a small ranch-style house with light blue shutters and a gray trim. The yard was immaculately kept, and the few trees were spaced out evenly.
As Ellen got out of the passenger side of the Pinto, the front door of the house opened, and out stepped a gentleman in a pair of blue overalls. Standing beside him was a woman with light blond hair and a large smile. “Buddy, Ellen, you’ve made it!” said Ellen’s mother, Mary.
Ellen quickly took a couple of bags from the backseat of the Pinto, while Buddy took Cliff out of his car seat and put him down on the ground. As the couple started for the front door, Cliff ran toward his grandparents, squealing as he ran.
“The traffic was really bad today,” Ellen said. “They keep letting crazy people have licenses these days!”
William Frazier, Ellen’s father, slowly reached down to pick up Cliff as Buddy and Ellen made their way to the front porch. “Slow down, partner!” he said, a smile breaking across his face.
“You two come on inside and sit for a while,” said Mary, turning and walking back into the house. “I’ve got some snacks made.”
Buddy smiled as he entered the house and placed Cliff’s bags in the living room. “We’d like to, Mary, but Ellen and I have a plane to catch really soon.”
“Son, how many times do I have to tell you?” Mary said in a mock strict voice. “Call me mom.”
“Mom,” Ellen said, setting both bags down beside a brown and green plaid couch, “Buddy’s right. We are kind of pressed for time.”
Mary began to complain when William spoke up. “Now, honey, you know they would if they could, wouldn’t you, kids?” he added in a playful tone to lighten the mood.
Ellen smiled. “We sure would, Dad. I just know how much you and Buddy love to talk about movies.” She gave her father a big hug.
Mary frowned for a moment, then broke out in a large smile and hurried over to hug her daughter and husband. “Oh, dear, I know you would. You two go and have a great time.” Kissing Ellen’s cheek, she let go of the embrace.
Buddy glanced at his watch. “Baby, we need to hurry. The plane leaves in a hour, and you know what the traffic’s been like. Thanks for understanding, Mar — I mean Mom.” Shaking William’s hand, he added, “We’ll be sure to send some postcards.”
“Have fun, you two,” William Frazier said, slipping an arm around Mary.
At that, Ellen and Buddy got back into the Ford Pinto and slowly backed out of the driveway. They were back on the Interstate in moments and on their way to Los Angeles International Airport.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee:
“Come on, Jake! This’ll be quick and easy,” said a boy with sandy blond hair, wearing a plaid shirt and bellbottom pants. He and his friend were sitting next to a building near the sign pointing to Gatlinburg just south of town.
“I don’t know, Steve. What if we get caught?” Jake asked his friend.
Steve looked at Jake incredulously, as if he’d grown a horn right out of his forehead. “Oh, come on. Ain’t no one gonna get caught. My brother’s already cased the place and said it’ll be a cinch.” The two teenagers had been friends since they were five, and he couldn’t understand why Jake was being such a scaredy-cat.
Jake looked at the busy road for a moment, his hand upon his chin as if lost in thought. “Oh, OK,” he finally said, a lopsided grin on his face. “If your bro’s already in on it, I guess I can’t turn you down, now can I?”
Steve was glad his friend was in; he hadn’t been that hard to convince, after all. “Then let’s get going. I’m sure Peter has some ideas on how to pull this off.” A sly grin crossed his face as he thought, Yeah, we pull this off, and then there’s nothing to stop us from making it to the big time.