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The Dynamite Caper

When I was fourteen, my friend Bob Reed and I became interested in the chemistry of explosives. We were not the only ones that year. Robin Lefevre had similar interests, but interests that were more profound: he was rumored to know how to make an explosive out of cellophane.

As luck would have it -- bad luck it turned out -- Georgie O'Hare, the son of the mayor of Hyattsville, got hold of a case of dynamite sticks. (Hyattsville, Maryland, was the hub of our community. My family lived in the adjacent community of University Park.) He had found them on a construction site and obliged their owners by removing them from the site. I am sure it was out of Georgie's concern for the safety of the site. I wonder, though, if this explanation holds up, since he stored them in the basement of his parents' house. I mean, if he were really concerned about the safety of the construction site, would he not have simply dumped the sticks into the nearest deep body of water? But, no, he stored them in his parent's basement, over top of which lived, in addition to his fervently Catholic parents, a large swarm of brothers and sisters.

But soon Georgie found a way to attenuate the danger to his parents and siblings. He began selling sticks of the dynamite to other kids in the neighborhood. Bob and I were among his customers. I think we bought five sticks of the stuff.

We experimented. Dynamite by itself is safe, unless you leave it sitting for a long time, at which point the nitroglycerin begins to pool in the carrier and becomes dangerous. Otherwise it takes a very hard shock to set it off. This shock comes in the form of an explosive which is stable. One such stable explosive is gunpowder, which is what Bob and I used.

Our first experiment was on the wall of an abandoned pump house by the side of a little body of water called the Nine Pond. The wall of the circular house was a six-inch thickness of steel-reinforced concrete, which seemed to us a wonderful aid for developing our skills as explosive experts. I knew the Nine Pond area because I had often fished in the pond. Ordinarily the area was deserted and a considerable distance from the beaten track.

We unwrapped a stick of dynamite and packed half of the contents into the bottom of a coffee can, planted a cherry bomb in it, and connected a roll of wire fuse to the cherry bomb. We then pulled about five feet of the wire fuse from the roll, cut it free from the roll, and secured the bomb against the pump house wall with a twenty-pound bag of sand. Finally we lit the end of the wire fuse and ran to a large tree to take shelter behind it. Sure enough, within a few seconds the bomb went off. We ran up to the wall to inspect our handiwork. We found that the bomb had blown a hole in it about a foot in diameter. We were very impressed and very happy with our new-found skill.

Our next step was to move closer to civilization. There was a park which divided Bob's neighborhood from mine. It was a nice little park. We had grown up playing in it: on its basketball court, on its softball diamond, and near and in the creek which ran through it. At one end of the park was the public elementary school which I had attended until moving on to Saint Jerome's parish school. In one of the trees of the park someone had built a very nice tree hut. We decided, barbarians that we were, to blow a hole in the side of it. I have changed since then, muttering curses when I see bits of food left by others in the kitchen sink and almost always being careful not to do the same.

It was towards dusk when we arrived to commit our crime. We put a bomb in the hut, packed it with a sand bag against one wall of the structure, and strung the fuse as we climbed down the side of the tree. Once on the ground, we lit the fuse and, like the fools that we were, stood at the foot of the tree waiting for the explosion, heedless of the fact that the blast might blow splinters into our faces and eyes. We watched the fuse splutter up the tree. As we saw the spluttering enter the hut, we put our fingers in our ears, still looking up at the wall we had mined.

Nothing happened.

I broke into a sweat. The thing had dudded, leaving us with a nasty choice: wait by the tree until it went off or go back into the structure and safe the thing. Clearly, we could not simply walk off, since another person might enter the hut and become the bomb's victim.

My anxiety became intense as we waited. Finally, after about five minutes, the thing went off and, I was told later, rattled the windows of the nearby houses. Our relief was so intense that, as we ran down the park towards the school, we were screaming with euphoric laughter.

Once at the school, we walked sedately towards the town of Hyattsville. Once there, we began to walk and laugh about our feat. After a walk of about half a mile, we came upon Bill Bowen. Bill Bowen did not like me, because I had once bloodied the nose of his closest friend. We were both at that age when boys have come through pubescence with new muscles and, for some of us, the desire to try them out on others. Bill was apparently in such a mood that night, since he immediately began to insult me as he came up to me. Ordinarily, I would have given him the opportunity to move on me, at which point I would have done my regular of bloodying his face. The thing about Bill was that, like most boys of his age, he didn't take fist fighting as seriously as I did. After an extremely humiliating experience at the age of six, I had decided that a fist fight was a very straightforward business in which one either walked away from the fight the victor or had to be carried away from it. But to get involved in a fight on that particular night was not an option, so I humiliated myself by making nice to him, all the while considering how I might arrange a meeting with him at some future date in order to correct any false impressions he might have of me.

Bob and I then parted company in the town and went back home separately. When I got home, only my father was in the house. After greeting him in a manner as nonchalant as I could manage, I got a book from a shelf, sat down in my favorite chair, and started reading. After about a half hour, there was a knock at the door. Thinkng that it might be the police, I went to the door myself, thinking that somehow I could get them to leave without coming into the house and getting my father involved. I opened the door to find two gentlemen in suits standing on the front porch. They asked if they could enter. By that time my father was behind me. One of the men took his wallet out and flipped it open to display a badge. My father bade them enter. Once they were in the house, he invited them to sit down. The man who had shown his badge said they would rather remain standing. I then sat down. My father remained standing and moved towards the policemen.

With the three of them standing together and looking at me, one of the policemen asked me with a very stern look on his face, "Do you know anything about a bomb gong off in Wells Run Park?"

I knew there was no use denying what I had done, but I figured I could bend the facts a little. "Yes. It was I who planted it," I answered.

The policemen and my father looked startled.

"And what did you use for the explosive?" continued my questioner.

"Gunpowder," I lied. I knew that if they discovered that I had used dynamite, I would have real troubles on my hands, not just with the law, but with a lot of other kids.

The officers stared at me for a few seconds, then said. "OK, but we're going back to that tree hut to examine it more closely. There was a lot of damage in it for just gunpowder."

I knew I was in for it, knew I should not have lied. It was simple: gunpowder in that quantity would leave burn marks on wood, whereas dynamite would not.

They left and my father began with, "Why did you do that?"

I've forgotten how the rest of the conversation went. I do know though how it ended, that is, with a knock on the door.

I went to the door and without entering the first policeman said, "So what did you use to bomb that tree hut?"

"Dynamite," I said and retreated into the living room. The policemen, from a signal from my father I'm sure, entered and began a discussion with my father, the gist of which was that I had a character flaw, namely, that I was a liar. The policemen went on to say that, in their estimation, I was probably going to land in prison some day. I doubt they believed that, but I'm sure they had my interests at heart when they said it.  The part about prison, I mean; the liar part I suspect was a matter of conviction for them.

I ended up in juvenile court, along with my mother and father. Somehow my brother, Curtis, was kept out of what, for him at least, would have been great fun. The judge gave me a lecture and sentenced me to probation. Then he addressed my father with a few stern words. What they were I'm not sure, due no doubt to the feeling that I was no longer on Planet Earth.