Every guy growing up in America dreams of becoming a hero. Whether you emulate Superman or Bruce Willis, Batman or Sylvester Stallone, somewhere within lies the urge to fight crime, save damsels in distress, and make splashy national headlines for your courage and derring-do. Most of us never actually follow through on those ideals. Four months ago, I received my chance.That's when I encountered the Guardian Angels, an oft-misunderstood band of volunteer crimefighters in red jackets, berets and military boots who have pounded the streets and ridden the rails of Chicago's el system for 15 years. The Angels inspire a broad variety of reactions: sometimes mocking sneers, other times fearful glances, usually appreciative smiles or the oblivious stares of the weary for whom they have become just another part of their daily commutes. My own reaction was a mixture of respect and surprised laughter. It was the first time I had ever seen one of the Angels in the flesh, and I had even forgotten they existed. But I knew that before me stood my one chance to play superhero, even for a night. After slapping on a beret and convincing them to pose for pictures with me, I talked them into allowing me to join them for a night on the rails. What followed were some of the most bizarre experiences of my life. "If you want glamour, head to another spot," said Thomas Hunt, the head of Chicago's Guardian Angels chapter and one of the earliest members from New York City. "Everyone's a volunteer, you're running around for hours in all kinds of weather, and sleep on hard floors while people are calling in at 3 a.m. to either cuss us out, be supportive or tell their own war stories." With his hair dyed a bright yellow, Hunt resembles a shorter, articulate Dennis Rodman. He invited me to join the Angels on a Wednesday night patrol, in which I would be issued a uniform jacket, T-shirt and beret. All I had to do was show up in black pants. I arrived fresh out of work, wearing green dress slacks, a tie, sweater vest, and a Mickey Mouse jacket. I quickly switched into gray slacks and a ratty black pair of Air Jordans, but the damage had been done. They knew I'd need even more protection than the average citizen. The Guardian Angels have been in Chicago since 1981, when Jane Byrne was mayor and the police were resentful of any outside group feeling it had to supplement the city's security. The first years here were prone to disorganization as well, leaving Hunt to step in and save the day when the local chapter was about to crumble in 1988. In nearly 20 years as an Angel, Hunt has seen and done it all. "The response of train drivers now in 1997 is so much better after so many years of rockin' it - even from law enforcement officers," Hunt said. "The pressure on the Angels isn't like it used to be. They realize we're not going anywhere, and that we're part of the landscape now."That night, Thomas was marshaling his troops in the Angels headquarters, which consist of two large, sparsely furnished rooms on the third floor of an office building along State Street. It is here that the group's 75 active local members rotate out to "rock and shock" the streets and train lines, and here that several full-time members (called "24-7's" due to their total commitment) live for up to a couple of years at a time. It wasn't until later that night I would learn why the rooms have so much open floor space. The Angels gather at 7pm each night to learn which train lines they'll cover in that day's four-hour shift. The conversation was fast-flying and light-hearted as they stretched out or nonchalantly practiced their high-kicks. I was wired and ready to open a can of Whoop-Ass on the city's perps. Yet just as I was ready to receive my orders, Thomas whipped out the week's shopping list. Instead of weapons, handcuffs and jackboots, the list included hot dogs, shaving cream and Noxzema. Most Angels are between 18 and 25, leaving them to battle acne in addition to hardened criminals.By 7:30, I was officially "rocking the streets" with guys who called themselves Third Rail, Deja Vu, Nightstick and Flash. I psyched myself by secretly assigning myself a nickname: Doughboy, due to my comparative total lack of physical conditioning. Partnered with a guy named X, I was put through the drill that all members face: a pat-down for drugs and weapons at the start and end of the night. I was also taught the extensive system of hand signals and beret tilts utilized in Angels communication, learned that the Angels can't pick up girls while in uniform, and (perhaps hardest of all for me) was told not to respond to verbal abuse. As far as I could tell, the Angels share no secret rings, handshakes or songs. As I boarded each train with X and made an initial march through several cars, I attempted to match the stern gaze of my fellow Angels. X drew respectful stares as he walked by. I drew an assortment of snickers, chuckles and guffaws. Even I had to fight laughter when I saw my reflection in the windows. It takes a special kind of man to look tough in a red beret. I just looked French. "I love doing this. This is what I do 24-7," said X, a 20-year-old whose real name is Clarence Lawson. "A lot of people don't understand, but I've got a lot of spare time and it's more positive than sitting around the house. My mom knows I'm living at the office."After an hour of standing stock-still, my feet were numb and my reflection no longer humored me. The only crime I saw involved a couple of guys selling boxes of counterfeit music tapes as they passed through the cars, and I started to wonder if I'd ever hear the sounds of justice applied through an Angel's handcuffs clicking onto a criminal.I finally experienced the thrill of an altercation second-hand when we hopped off the train after 90 minutes. Deja Vu arrived with his patrol group, sporting blood on his pants. He delivered a blow-by-blow description of a fight that ensued when a male passenger continually harassed a woman and the Angels tried to force him off the train at a stop. The man wound in a headlock with a bloody nose, and Deja Vu wound up learning if Tide really works on blood stains. "Sorry we couldn't provide you with that entertainment ourselves," said my patrol leader, Nightstick. It appears that the Angels' primary effect on crime is in its prevention rather than its cure, as many nights don't result in a wild array of arrests and broken bones. The Angels in fact espouse a non-violent approach, as members don't carry weapons and are allowed to use only enough force to defend themselves and defuse a situation. It is back in their headquarters that the most frantic action of some nights occurs.Returning to HQ later that night, the Angels instantly ran for the television. As Thomas flipped the channels, the others called for him to flip faster. I thought perhaps they'd mad the news that night. Instead, they were looking for reruns of "Cops," an entertainment staple that the men in red cheer often. A copy of "Soldier of Fortune" was passed around as anticipation built for the night's true fun: indoor sparring.It was 12:30 in the morning as four of the Angels took turns holding pads or kicking as the others hit or kicked the pads. All were swirling in circles as they moved, as Thomas chimed in with Yoda-like psychological ideas on fighting. I asked if the guys ever slept. One said they live on naps."We sleep through so much shit it's ridiculous," said Deja Vu. Finally, Stick put on a padded helmet akin to those used in special-ed programs as Deja Vu bounced, leaping and kicking at him. Thomas acted as the referee as he chanted "Go, baby! Go! I've got some of the toughest guys in Chicago to fight you!", sounding like the Dick Vitale of martial arts. Another Angel lined up along the windows, scrambling back and forth to ensure neither fighter flew out the window in the tradition of Sonny Chiba. I tried not to laugh at the surreal display, since I knew the guys could kick my ass at any moment.Yet at 1:10 a.m., I was finally convinced to become an American Gladiator myself. I strapped on gloves, took off my glasses and faced off with Shadow on defense, and was told to come out swinging but not kicking since I had no training with it. I had never fought before in my life, but I started swinging blindly and was stunned to find myself land some punches. The guys began cheering for me as I backed Shadow into a corner, stopping only when my wrist ached from landing punches at odd angles.The Angels told me I had a knack for it, with a lot of reach and wild power. I felt something primordial, despite the gloves and other protective gear. As I staggered off to the back room to sleep, my head was spinning. I knew it would be pointless to ask these guys what they did for fun. This was their fun. And as a lifelong pacifist, I was surprised that I now felt the wild appeal of the fight. Outside the fighting continued, long into the night. Two months later, I received another call from Thomas Hunt, inviting me to go another round with the Chicago chapter on a much bigger scale. The Chicago chapter makes several road trips a year to the national headquarters in New York City as a break and a reward for the guys who devote themselves 24-7 to the cause. The impending trip was each year's best: patrolling and marching in New York's Puerto Rican Day Parade, an event surpassed only by the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for sheer crowd madness. Three million people would be there watching. This year, both I and my visiting brother, Lud, would too. After all, surrounded by these guys, I figured it'd be the safest trip ever.Departure Day, June 6, arrived with a problem. Since the Angels were almost exclusively under 25, they were short on people who could legally rent cars - so Thomas recruited me to help out. "I'm going to send Shadow to you with a bag of money," Thomas said. "It'll have the $250 you'll need for the deposit and some extra for any other problems that might come up. Can he meet you at your office?"I almost dropped the phone. If my supervisors saw me accept wads of money from a guy in a red jacket and beret, it wouldn't exactly help me get a promotion. I arranged to meet another Angel named Professor at the car rental agency. With an Angel flanking me on either side, I dispensed with the cash and drove out with the desired wheels. For all their many upstanding qualities, the Angels aren't the most time-conscious group in existence. Five more hours passed before we finally hit the road - or actually, Jewel. Even the Angels need to snag snacks for their road trips.There is perhaps no better way to witness the effect that wearing an unusual uniform has on people than to go shopping in that uniform. Everyone in sight suffered from whiplash as all 11 of us marched in and swept the aisles in search of snack chips, cookies and soda pop. However, one woman did notice my brother and I didn't quite fit the picture."I know who all of you are, but what's up with those guys?" she asked Thomas, as he enraptured us with the story of how he and Professor once fought their way out of an attack while eating dinner at Harold's Chicken Shack.The road awaited, however, and soon we were in the midst of a 16-hour, six-state trek to the Big Apple. There were many bonding moments along the way: belting out "I Believe I Can Fly" at 2 a.m. as Ohio whizzed by in the darkness, leaving our mark in each state with massive bathroom breaks, dodging 18-wheelers as we chowed food along the New Jersey turnpike, and finally spotting New York's Welcome Wagon - the transvestites outside the New York Port Authority. But nothing prepared us for the Angels headquarters there, a massive loft-style storefront above a porno store at 47th Street and 8th Avenue just off Times Square. With worn wooden floors surrounded by walls covered in the group's history, and enormous windows that swing out into the bustling streets below, "Fort Apache" vibrated with the city's reckless energy. It also bears the strongest signs of just how important the Angels have become, and how ominously danger lurks around the corner: countless celebrity autographs and city commendations line the walls, along with a stark memorial wall to the five Angels who have been killed in the line of duty over the years. The place was overflowing with both male and female Angels who had come in for the parade from Boston, Rochester, N.Y., Washington, D.C., and even Tokyo, and within an hour of arrival, we had our first brush with excitement. Thomas came running out of the headquarters at full-speed behind 20 other Angels, ordering us to join in as they pursued a tip. Someone had called in, saying a man was physically threatening people with the infamous auto safety device The Club - the perfect wacky Big Apple crime.Despite dashing through traffic, leaping over small dogs and dodging fireplugs, the search proved futile.The massive adrenaline rush that accompanies such attempted heroics carried over into the night, as the rest of the Chicago Angels took advantage of the New York chapter's bike and rollerblading equipment to rock the streets in ways they had not previously experienced. Lud and I joined the Boston and Rochester Angels in search of crime amid New York's home of polymorphous perversity, Greenwich Village. "Remember to keep your balance `cause I've seen Angels go flying," warned Rage, a burly, gregarious man with long hair, a goatee and a set of Ozzy knuckle tattoos who also happens to be the Rochester chapter's leader. "Always watch your back, and if you get pushed on the platform, throw your weight directly down. Don't roll because someone could push you into the rails."These are the rules that cities somehow never seem to spell out for their citizens. Yet with these handy safety tips in mind, our patrol unit met with the Christopher Street Patrol, a Village neighborhood group which has teamed with the New York City Angels for the past seven years in an attempt to drive down incidents of both gay-bashing and assorted street crimes. As we engaged in a fruitless stakeout of an alleged prostitution hotspot, chased after-hours loiterers away from an area pier, ordered illegally parked cars to move and engaged in a staring match with a group of drunken voguers outside a gay bar, the patrol's local leader expressed his thanks for the Angels' assistance. "You wouldn't recognize this street from seven years ago," said Dave Poster, the Christopher Street Patrol's president. "Crime dropped 25 percent in our first year of doing this, and it keeps going down. The hard work's done, and now we're keeping the pressure on." Arriving at headquarters that night had shown just how democratic the group really is, as even Angels founder Curtis Sliwa chose to sleep on a couch, leaving room for others to crash around him. But the pressure was on back at Fort Apache the next morning, as a female Angel leader yelled repeatedly until Lud and I awoke from the couches for breakfast.Now it was 7 a.m., and we had been out with Rage and the rest of his gang until 3 a.m., but a free Puerto Rican Day breakfast awaited at a hotel ballroom. I staggered outside to find the Angels as they lined up, answering light-hearted questions from their leaders. "How do we feel?" the leaders barked.We were supposed to yell, "Brick!" This is Angel slang denoting that we were hardcore and tough as a brick, but most people were silent or saying "Hungry!" I felt like delivering Daniel Stern's eloquent speech from the immortal film "City Slickers": "I'm tired, I'm cold and I'm hungry. I haven't slept in three days, and I've got a rash from making in the bushes!" Incredibly, all but the rash part was true.Breakfast's biggest treat lay not in the croissants or fruit plates laid out before us, but rather in the joint appearance of Al Sharpton and Don King as Don showed up to feign interest in the island's heritage while promoting a new Puerto Rican fighter. The breakfast's bizarre assortment of local celebrities underscored the political sheen that covers all such events. Everyone has a parade in New York now, and the city's power players take advantage while currying each community's favor.Nowhere was this better seen than at the parade itself. Walking towards the parade's main stretch along 5th Avenue, we were overwhelmed by the sound of three million people who were each yelling, singing or blasting their own individual messages as more than 10,000 parade participants went by. Covering 52 blocks of one of the most famous streets on earth, the parade featured everything from a flatbed trailer-ful of Puerto Rican air conditioning repairmen to a fleet of Carmen Miranda impersonators on foot. Nothing drove the crowd crazier than passing radio-station floats, which all featured full conga bands and really bad lipsynching. The Angels themselves were trapped on one side street in front of New York's Puerto Rican Schwinn Club, a contingent of 50 men in leather jackets riding souped-up bicycles. And at 4:45 p.m., after nearly six hours of waiting, it was our group's turn to start marching - a moment that laid to waste every feeling of numbness and boredom that had set in.There are certain moments in your life that you know can never be duplicated. Walking down Fifth Avenue amid stopped traffic and three million people shrieking at everything they see is one of those experiences. I finally understood just how special the group is to its members. Blowing whistles, waving at the crowds that ebbed and flowed as far as the eye could see in every direction, walking tall and proud, the march overcame any moments of danger or doubt for the men and women in the Angels contingents and crystallized the whole experience."Seeing the NBC clock in Times Square saying 5:03 p.m. on that Saturday made me feel like `Yeah! I'm part of history! 1997 - this is my generation," said Dteiou, a thoughtful Hispanic member of the Chicago chapter who expresses himself often in poetry. "I liked the atmosphere of unity in people even though I felt I was in an alien world."Like any other experience I had with the Angels, the parade dragged on a little too long and surprised me with its physical demands. Two hours and fifty-two blocks later, we were finally finished with our mission - to help patrol and parade in one of America's biggest annual events. The Angels' main transport vehicle, a heavily muraled paddywagon, awaited to take us to dinner, to sleep and ultimately to the vehicles that would take each group back to its respective cities. "We are the complete alternative to the gang culture," said Curtis Sliwa, who founded the Angels in 1979. "If they don't find it here, people will seek the camaraderie and excitement in the negative form of gangs. That is the consistent trait both here and around the world."Just knowing that some sort of alternative exists these days is a comforting thing. The Angels typically join after high school and move on after a year or two, just like a stint in the military or a tentative stab at college. It is an organization composed of people who are trying to do the right thing in a world that too often tells them to do wrong.Regardless of whether you think they're right-wing vigilantes or just a bunch of idealistic kids, the fact is that anyone would rather have them riding their train car in the middle of the night than not. They are always making people feel a little safer.