With just a week to go before Christmas, everyone in the Cowell family was thrilled to see Santa Claus drive up.
But what really grabbed 3-year-old Colten’s attention was St. Nick’s ride — a sleek black Batmobile, decked out with orange trim. It was spotless, looking as if it left the Batcave no more than a few minutes earlier.
Colten could have used a superhero about then. He had been battling leukemia for several months and also had Down syndrome. He was unable to speak. Over the past few weeks, it was clear leukemia was going to win.
But that night, when Colten saw the Batmobile, he could not take his eyes off the car.
A charity group had arranged the Santa-Batmobile visit. As the evening wound down, Charles Keller, the car’s owner, did something he had never done before. He handed the key to Colten’s father, urging him to take his son for a spin.
Erika Cowell remembers this scene even now, years later. She remembers how the light that had been missing in her son’s eyes returned.
Earl Cowell fired up the engine and the two took off. For the moment, as Earl drove around the block, he and Colten were Batman and Robin, the Dynamic Duo, afraid of nothing.
When they returned, the child in the passenger seat beamed as Keller asked him how he liked the ride. Colten, who signed because he was unable to talk, touched his fingertips together as if in quiet applause.
Keller remembers being puzzled.
“What is he saying?” he asked Earl.
“He wants to go again,” Earl replied, tears in his eyes.
The Batmobile rocketed away once more.
On New Year’s Eve 2009, Colten would pass away. Keller would not hear from the family for two years. Finally, Erika Cowell would write to him.
By then, the Batmobile’s owner had something to ask of her.
* * *
This could be a story about a man so obsessed with Batman that he purchased a replica Batmobile and spent more than a year building a Batcave meticulously modeled after the one in the 1960s TV show.
And it is.
Or this could be a story about Mariah and Ethan and Colten and the children like them who, for a brief time, were able to be superheroes.
And it is.
But really, this is a story about a moment when pain and fear disappear.
Because those moments can last forever.
* * *
All stories must start at the beginning, which is where you will find Charles Keller.
He was born in the Pacific Northwest to an affluent family that had success in the timber and paper industry.
Later, he enrolled at Arizona State University in 1982 and earning a bachelor’s degree in business.
Next, he became a successful stockbroker. He met and fell in love with a woman who left town after their second date. Not to be deterred, he wooed her long distance, marrying her in 1998.
Five years after that, Charles and Megan Keller welcomed their first son, Chas. Two years later came son Cade.
But between those births, a remarkable thing happened.
Charles Keller bought a camera and computer to document Chas’ life.
The camera was fine, but he was impressed with the computer. He went to work for the store that sold it — Apple. Then he made what he called a “sizable” investment in the company, around the time of a new device called the iPod.
We know how this investment turns out.
Eventually, Keller became a man who no longer had to depend on a 9-to-5 job.
That’s the backstory. The Bat-story began Valentine’s Day 2009 in Phoenix, when Mom and Dad gave their sons DVDs of all 120 episodes of the 1960s TV show “Batman.”
The two played Batman and Robin incessantly. They donned bath-towel capes when they watched the DVDs.
Other dads, seeing this, might have bought action figures and playsets.
In April of that year, Keller bought a street-legal replica Batmobile for $65,000.
Chas and Cade were thrilled.
But Keller did not want to be one of those indulgent fathers. He spoke to friends who worked with non-profits. He asked them how he could use the Batmobile for the power of good.
Soon, he saw what he could do.
As the Batmobile rolled up to the south Phoenix home on an unseasonably warm night, Keller remembers now, there was no mistaking the evening’s VIP.
Four-year-old Mariah stood at the curb in a pink Batgirl skirt. The sun had just set, but the little girl’s smile lit up the block.
The driver introduced himself as an ambassador of millionaire Bruce Wayne. Mr. Wayne had heard so much about Mariah that he sent his trusted employee — that’s Keller, of course — to reward her with a ride in the Batmobile.
He took Mariah by the hand and led her to the passenger side, normally reserved for Robin. Her father was her Batman for the night, climbing behind the wheel.
Off they went to cheers, the Batmobile’s lighted turbine engine growing faint as the superhero’s car roared down the street.
Later, inside Mariah’s house, Keller handed her a toy Batmobile keychain. “This is the key to the Batmobile. When you turn 16, you can drive the Batmobile. This is the Spirit of Batman award, and you’ve earned it.”
Mariah clutched it to her chest, Keller remembered, that smile returning.
“I am going to sleep with this under my pillow,” she said.
“Why?” Keller asked.
“So I can dream about my ride in the Batmobile.”
She stood, took a few unsteady steps, and wrapped her tiny arms around Keller’s neck.
Six weeks later, Keller got a call. Mariah had passed away.
Keller had known when he drove up in the Batmobile that the child was in the final stages of brain cancer, but he pushed that to the back of his mind. The night belonged to Mariah and her family.
When Mariah gave Keller that hug, he made himself a promise.
If this little girl could make it from the couch to the curb to see the Batmobile, the very least he could do was make sure the Batmobile went where it was needed.
* * *
Each time the Batphone rang, Keller answered, knowing someone, somewhere required his services.
It was actually his cellphone, and caller ID let him know if one of his favorite non-profits was on the line.
The call could have been for a special event or fundraiser. But Keller’s favorites were home visits.
“I can’t cure cancer or any disease,” Keller said. “But I can give them a moment. A night where kids and parents can enjoy the same thing.”
In a typical visit, the child would be standing outside, wondering why he or she was in the heat or cold.
All would become clear when the Batmobile showed up. The child’s face would light up, any troubles fading away as he or she was buckled into the passenger seat.
At first, Keller drove the car himself. He’d been very protective of it — until he saw the looks on Earl and Colten Cowell’s faces. After that, he handed over the keys to Mom or Dad every time.
Keller always hoped the experience would be magical. Then, after two years as Bruce Wayne’s envoy, he met someone who was not impressed.
* * *
ETHAN. FEBRUARY 2011.
Four-year-old Ethan Daniel was having an overwhelming week when the Batmobile pulled up that evening.
He and his family were preparing for a Make-A-Wish trip to Walt Disney World.
And his 4-year-old body was still adjusting to the transplanted kidney he received a year earlier. He had to be careful because if he got the least bit sick, it meant a trip to the hospital.
Now the Batmobile was parked outside.
His mother, Brisa, led him outside, where the driver introduced himself as an ambassador of millionaire Bruce Wayne, who everybody knew was really Batman.
But where was Batman? What about Robin? Ethan asked Bruce Wayne’s ambassador — that’s Keller, of course, who remembers this story even now.
Keller asked Ethan if he wanted to go for a ride in the Batmobile.
No, not really. Unless they were going to the Batcave. Then yes.
No one but Batman and Robin go to the Batcave, Bruce Wayne’s ambassador explained. But Ethan knew that Alfred, the family butler, went to the Batcave, too.
So he asked again. When can he go to the Batcave? He was free tomorrow at 3 p.m., after school. Or next week.
He watched as other parents and kids took the Batmobile for a spin. None of them was going to the Batcave, either.
Ethan decided it would be OK to sit in the Batmobile for photos. He just had one question.
“When can we go to the Batcave?”
* * *
A Batcave? Keller pushed the thought to the back of his mind. Who could build a Batcave with its secret entrance and sliding poles and electronic gizmos?
It was impossible.
Over the months, the idea dug into his brain. You couldn’t buy a Batcomputer, a Batradar, a Bat-transmitter. But could you purchase old gadgets and dress them up?
It was conceivable.
Eight months after Ethan planted the Batcave seed, Keller sat in front of his computer.
It was Thanksgiving weekend 2011, and his wife and the boys were off on a ski trip. Keller had two days to himself. So he examined all 120 “Batman” episodes.
He fast-forwarded through every “Snap!” “Pow!” and “Sock!” pausing briefly for scenes featuring the Batcave or Bruce Wayne’s study.
With copious notes and photos, Keller headed to the only place he might find the 90 or so devices on his list.
“You can find anything online,” Keller said. “And I did.”
Focusing on industrial metal boxes with knobs, lights and dials, Keller slowly gathered what he needed.
Some gadgets required ingenuity. A refrigerator-size gray metal box was turned over to the Brophy Prep robotics club, which added switches and flashing lights to create the Bat Computer.
Others were a more natural fit. A reel-to-reel tape recorder and an electric typewriter were perfect for the 1960s-era cave.
And some devices were the perfect blend of art and ingenuity. Consider the bookcase that slides open, revealing the cave’s secret entrance. Book spines were severed and glued to wood in rows. A garage-door opener powers the bookshelf as it slides to the left with a slight hum.
Everything was built into the warehouse Keller had originally rented to house his car collection. It would take more than a year of hunting, gathering and building.
But when he was just a month into the project, he received a Christmas card from someone he’d not heard from in two years. It brought back warm memories of a night when 3-year-old Colten wanted to go again.
Keller called Colten’s parents and asked if they could meet. He wanted their permission to do something for Colten.
* * *
All was ready when the limousine pulled up on a March evening outside the south Phoenix warehouse. The only clue this was not just any warehouse was the spotlight placed near the opaque-glass front door.
The light was emblazoned with a black bat, its wings spread.
As the special guest approached, Keller opened the door and ushered Ethan Daniel inside.
Many of his friends and family were waiting within the room, which had a TV to the left and a large wooden hutch. A desk was on the opposite side, and behind it a case jammed with books.
There were other things you would not expect to see in a warehouse office. A large globe, a small reading table, fancy wallpaper. A boar’s head stared down from one of the walls.
Keller stood next to the TV and welcomed everyone to Wayne Industries, owned by none other than millionaire Bruce Wayne.
Ethan knew who Bruce Wayne was. Everyone did.
He was Batman.
Keller said they were in Bruce Wayne’s study, where the tycoon liked to spend time when visiting this particular Wayne Industries warehouse.
The mood was quickly shattered when Keller received some bad news. The TV flickered to life, and a young newscaster reported that the Joker had burned down Wayne Manor and destroyed the Batcave.
Fear not, Keller said. He let them in on a little secret.
The rather plain building tucked into an industrial area in Phoenix happened to house one of the many emergency Batcaves built around the world.
It was a script Keller had worked out that would begin many such nights from then on. But he can still retell that first visit to the Batcave, step by step.
Keller flipped the hinged head of the Beethoven bust on the desk, revealing a large green button. He beckoned to Ethan, inviting him to give the button a press.
Ethan’s eyes lit up as the bookcase shuddered and slid open. He knew what lay beyond, even if he did not remember asking to see this just two years earlier.
And so it continued, the grand opening of the Batcave. As he ascended the stairs to the Batpole, Ethan did not know, or care, that this 5,000-square-foot room filled with dials and blinking lights took a year to develop and build at a cost of about $100,000.
As soon as his feet hit the rubber mat at the bottom of the pole, he was off to explore.
Everywhere, there were dials and switches, strange machines with labels bolted to them. “Batradarscope.” “Batlink communications station.” “Bat-Terror Control.”
Brisa Daniel watched as the Batcave worked its magic on her 6-year-old son.
“He was so excited,” Daniel said. “It was any little boy’s dream come true.”
But Ethan was not the night’s only notable guest.
Erika Cowell had visited before when the Batcave hosted a handful of visitors prior to its official grand opening.
On opening night, the Batmobile revolved slowly, as shiny as the day it pulled up outside her home more than three years ago. The night her son let everyone know he wanted to go again.
And that favor Keller asked her? She is reminded of it every time she volunteers here.
Most kids miss it, as they slide down the pole and head into the Batcave. But if they turned around, just for a moment, they would see one more sign, bolted to the wall. It reads:
“Colten Cowell Memorial Bat Cave.”