Michael's Dispatches

The Last Device

In fact, as we recall, when we performed a “reconnaissance” of the lake during daylight, we decided that if we couldn’t have at least triple the distance deemed safe between the explosion and the observers, we wouldn’t go on with the show. Since our planned “spectacular” was to be a surprise, we told nobody and set about our work.

Because the device would be heavy, we needed a method of floating it safely on the lake and keeping it dry, so we decided to float it on a car inner-tube, on top of which we strapped a wooden pallet. The device would sit atop the pallet. This was to be a covert operation; we would go in black, and at night. We planned to slip into the water in darkness from a secluded area near the woods and swim the device out to the prearranged location. If the wind was anything but calm, we would abort for fear that the contraption would drift ashore in the darkness.

The device itself was kept simple to avoid problems, and since our first and biggest priority was safety, we spent more time thinking about avoiding what might go wrong than anything else. There was no doubt that it would explode. Our problem was precise timing and location.

We constructed it in such a way as to minimize “primary fragmentation”—shrapnel—and the only secondary fragmentation would be from the pallet or the inner tube, neither of which were much of a threat. By the time we were sixteen, we had already heard enough metal whiz overhead, and bury itself in chunks in nearby trees. We knew those trees could have been leg bones, or skulls, and were under no illusions about the “safety” of most explosions.

A seventeen-year-old mind should never be discounted. It often makes up in quickness what it lacks in experience. All those bubbling adolescent hormones are responsible for many of the wild things it conjures up. And, I can see looking back, we were certifiably crazy for what we did.

To prevent the device from being blown to shore, we made a cinder block anchor with plenty of rope to reach bottom. Eardrums was to drop us off on land, and pick us up later. We didn’t consult him for design advice, but he was still good as a knowledgeable support person. After his accident, he didn’t even want to get close to an armed device.

Before detonation, Eardrums and John would be at the party. One of their jobs was safety; if anything went wrong and they saw our lethal device floating to shore, they were to make a swift, minimally incriminating explanation, and evacuate everybody. We figured it was better to go to jail as minors charged with building a bomb than to dismember and cook some of our friends when it detonated. We were responsible lunatics.

As if swimming in total darkness while pushing a bomb-carrying inner-tube were not sufficient cause for alarm, we also had to consider the possible hostility of our “hosts”: Alligators. They hunt primarily at night, and there were no houses around the lake, so it was infested. The weather was warm, and there would be gator nests around the lake, and baby gators near the shore. And momma gators. And bull gators.

The lake was the home of some whoppers, so there was a real chance that one or both of us might be eaten. Then there were the countless snakes that inhabited the water, and the thought of being bitten in the face by a snake can be cause for alarm. Despite the dire possibilities conjured up by our sometimes over-active imaginations, we, being teenagers, joked about being gator bait or snake snacks, and decided to do it anyway.

We decided against using an electrical system for detonation because of the water and our method of insertion. A radio system was too expensive for our slim-to-vanishing budget, not to mention being fraught with hazards (though we were certain that we could overcome those). But there was no use to go to the expense and research for radio control of what we all agreed would be our final bomb.

We could have used a timer, but back then a timer meant an electrical device, so we settled on a set of burning fuses. We calculated the length of the fuses to allow us just enough time to get back to shore and to the pickup point, where Eardrums would come for us in his truck. As another safety measure, we made the fuses redundant: self-reigniting. In other words, the three fuses snaked around and crossed over each other so that if one burned out, it would be relit by another. The fuses were cut short to reduce the danger time that the device could float to shore, or that a boat would happen upon it, but we balanced that against giving ourselves plenty of time to swim away.

We would watch from shore. In the very unlikely event of a boat starting out, we would be forced to compromise ourselves by telling the people to stay away for a few minutes—if we somehow could manage to get the boaters’ attention.

After detonation, the plan was that Eardrums would immediately whisk us away, and we would quickly dry off, put on our party clothes, and join the festivities as if we had nothing to do with the explosion.

After long and careful planning, we were confident nothing had been overlooked. We assembled the device at the last minute to reduce the danger time. Only one person worked on the hazardous parts, so that in case of accidental detonation, the uninjured people would be able to call an ambulance and douse any flames with the fire extinguisher and water hose that we kept running just in case. This was wishful thinking, really; if the device detonated prematurely, they would have been collecting us from the tops of trees with tweezers.

Soon it was ready, and I now know that the device was exceptionally safe, even by military standards. What could possibly go wrong that we had not0 already thought of (besides the gator/snake wild card)?

We rehearsed our plan, except for the actual swimming part, many times. It should’ve been simple. I was very concerned about the gator hazard, though Richard played it down as no big deal, despite his living next to a large lake, and the fact that gators often came up into his yard or on his dock. Or, perhaps, because he saw gators practically every day for years on end, he simply felt comfortable in their presence. I saw gators practically everyday, too, but was not at all comfortable swimming with them.

Execution:

Eardrums was to drop us off with his truck, but he began fidgeting and complaining as if he wanted to back out. We somehow convinced him that if the bomb were going to detonate prematurely, it would have done so already. The silliness of that argument didn’t have to be explained to Eardrums, of all people, but he finally agreed, so Richard and I loaded the device into the truck.

It was dark. We lay low beside the device in the bed of the pickup. We made our way down the road, passing cars along the way, and finally reached the dirt road by the lake. A quarter-mile down the bumpy road, Eardrums turned off his lights, drove a little further and stopped. All clear. Richard and I were out and away in less than fifteen seconds. Eardrums drove away.

Darkness.

The party was raging maybe five hundred yards to our left, and fifty yards from the water, which provided still more safety buffers. The music was blaring and we saw lots of schoolmates in silhouette, with their bushels of oysters and kegs of beer. The party was reaching its climax as we moved to the edge of the water. We watched the lake for a short time and there were no boats—at least none with lights on—the wind was calm, the “mission” was still a GO. We carried the improvised raft between us, our masterpiece firmly secured and waterproofed on top.

The warm water was shin-deep where we sat down in the weeds, the tube between us. The edge of the lake was the most likely place to get killed by a giant gator, and that scenario was playing in my mind as we slipped black scuba fins on over wetsuit booties, which were our shoes if we had to run.

Richard whispered, “I’m ready.”

“Ready here,” I whispered back.

Richard laughed quietly and said, “It’s show time,” and tried to put his hand on my shoulder, but, in the dark, hit me in the nose instead.

“Ouch!” I whispered.

“Sorry ’bout that,” he said.

“Didn’t hurt,” I said, faking a laugh, feeling the bomb with my left hand and my nose with the right.

We stood in the darkness and, with fins on, walked backwards, in approved Frogman fashion, into deeper water, crouching down, until we were about waist deep. From there we started our stopwatches and began to swim into the blackness.

We swam out into a silent lake that was so dark I could barely see Richard, who was a couple of feet away, against the dim light of the party. Behind the clouds, the moon barely lit the black water as our fins rippled the surface.

Occasionally, headlights from a new carload of students flashed across the lake and temporarily illuminated us, so we decided to swim with the inner tube in tow so that its blackness would camouflage us. What if someone catches a glimpse and figures we are a giant alligator? He might grab a high-powered rifle from his truck and start taking shots. What if a bullet hits the device! What if. . . Stop thinking!

We swam further and further into the black water. If a boat were to magically appear, we would quickly detach the device and drop it into the water as planned. The fishermen might think that we were crazy for swimming with an inner tube in a gator-infested lake at night, but at least they would not see the device.

We had arranged the system to operate without a light, so we were completely blacked out, though our faces were not camouflaged because we planned to go to the party later. We would listen to our drunken schoolmates at the illegal beer bash talk about the illegal bomb. We were quite the optimists.

Gators are basically living dinosaurs that scientists say have been around in almost the same form for well over two hundred million years. They have seen more full moons and comets reflect off their waters than mankind likely ever will, on this planet.

It follows that gators are great survivors and hunters, living in balance with their world. They have highly developed, exceptionally acute senses for detecting prey in the darkness, including the ability to sense even slight disturbances in the water, and they have excellent night vision. When you shine a light, their eyes glow in the night like little beacons; creatures with eyes designed to see in the dark have that eye-shine characteristic. It was a glimmering we were not eager to see that night.

Gators often swallow their prey whole, but if it’s too big, they will violently rip it to pieces by shaking their heads or spinning in the water. Sometimes they hide their catch on the bottom under a log until it rots, or keep it between their jaws while it softens. Gators are not normally aggressive toward people, but this was nighttime and we were literally swimming with them. The threat they represented was very real. I was becoming seriously afraid, more so than I had imagined, and wanted to turn around. This was truly stupid, I thought, but we kept going.

The further we got from shore, the more intense became my feeling that at any moment my head would be crushed like a grape in the jaws of a massive black gator. Or maybe it would simply slip in from below and grab my legs or waist, or crush my rib cage as it pulled me below the inky surface before I could even scream for help. Screaming would do no good, and holding my breath would only make me drown slower.

My mind was racing: What will I do if a gator gets Richard? Fight it? Swim like hell? Would I have the guts to go underwater and fight it to save Richard? This is such a stupid, stupid, stupid idea!

The adrenaline machine was working perfectly as designed, but if Richard could do it, so could I. Besides, this was fun in its own strange, teenage-boy sort of way, and it was “training.” We finned across what seemed an eternity of darkness, punctuated only by the occasional sweeping of headlights across water. The sound of loud music, probably the then-inescapable Michael Jackson, floated to us across the water.

Finally, we made it to our chosen spot. Our watches read that we had been swimming for fifteen minutes. We stopped, virtually in the middle of gator-land. We went through the much rehearsed ritual of preparing the device for detonation, which took maybe thirty seconds. It seemed like forever.

Final procedures: Anchor’s away.

Richard asked in a whisper, “Is the anchor on the bottom?”

“Yes,” I whispered.

Richard asked, “Is all okay?”

“Yes.”

He proceeded as per plan and asked, “Do you see any reason not to light the fuses?”

“No. Proceed,” I whispered.

“I will now light the fuses,” he answered.

Richard pulled a lighter out of one of the three separate waterproof bags that were taped to the pallet. Each bag had a lighter, waterproof matches, and a small towel with which we could dry our hands. He dried his hands as practiced, and initiated the device on the first try. The lighter illuminated Richard’s face and the device, as all three fuses sputtered to life.

I didn’t know what Richard was thinking, but I was now afraid of two sources of imminent death: The gators, which I knew were all around, (they had to be, and I knew that they knew we were swimming in their home/supper bowl), and the very large device with several fuses hissing, spitting, and sparking in the night. The long fuses snaked around the tube in a special way so that we had enough time to return to shore, but also in such a way that a spark would not jump from a fuse and light itself closer to the device— which would cause premature detonation. And our premature extinction, though I preferred not to dwell on that. It causes one to wonder who is smarter: human beings, or alligators?

What if one of us gets a cramp and can’t swim fast enough? I thought. We had considered that. Tough luck. The other would drag the disabled one as fast as he could and hope to get away.

As we swam to shore I whispered into the blackness to Richard, “Are you worried about gators?”

Through the darkness Richard made his trademark snicker-smirk, which was always accompanied by a cough-like noise. He whispered back, sounding like he was on his back with his face pointing up, “It’s a little late to worry about that now.”

“Hey, Richard.”

“What?”

“Let’s speed up the pace a little. Forget about the ripples, nobody will see us.”

“Stick to the plan. Let’s just keep this pace,” he scolded.

“Why?” I prodded. “Are you tired and can’t keep up with me?”

Again, I heard his trademark snicker-smirk. Richard was not afraid of gators, or at least he wasn’t admitting to it, nor would he pick up the pace. Maybe he was sticking to the plan that we’d made before my adrenaline was pumping because he was genuinely savoring the experience. Plans always look different through the lens of fear, and it can take lots of guts to stick to plans that were made when everything was calm and quiet.

For me, the worst came when we were finally close to shore and had only about a minute to go, just one more minute of swimming. I was ready to ditch the fins and run a solid mile from the lake as fast as I could. But I kept my composure, and, since it was dark, Richard couldn’t see my apprehension.

Several times I closed my eyes, turned over so that my belly was facing the bottom of the lake, and descended a few feet so as not to ripple the surface, then burst forward with hard fin kicks. Underwater it was completely black and silent, as if we were swimming in the digestive juices of a giant stomach. We could dissolve in the darkness and never be seen again, and after all the gator meat that I had eaten, maybe this was a time for cosmic justice.

Richard kept plodding along. Sticking to the plan. The cfcA%$#@/ plan. I can’t believe I helped make it! “Make sure you stick to the plan,” I would say and Richard would look nervous as if he weren’t sure he could do it. Oh, he could do it alright. Too well, if you asked me. Before I make another plan, I better make sure that I can stick to it, I thought.

We reached shore, and sat in the waist-deep water. We hunkered in darkness and weeds, and began taking off our fins. My hands were shaking and fumbling. Finally, fins in hand, we rose, staying crouched, and made our way the last few steps to shore. When we were about twenty feet from the lake, I could finally believe the gator threat was over.

Staying low, we made it to the prearranged spot where we were to be picked up immediately following detonation. We each checked our Casio digital watches to see where the countdown timers were in the sequence. Our timing was good.

The countdown timers were preset with the calculated eighteen minute burn time, and we had started them when Richard lit the fuses. There still was a minute or so remaining; I think the gator-threat hastened our retreat and we were ahead of schedule. Again, it seemed like forever.

“Please don’t be a dud,” I whispered to myself. I didn’t want to swim back out there, but if it were a dud, we would. It would be hard to find in the darkness, so we would swim separately, dragging a string between us to snag the anchor line. And then there was the terrifying idea that it would blow the moment we touched it.

Don’t be a dud . . .

The countdown:

14
13
12
11
10
9
8
please
please
please
don’t
be
a

dud
ZERO . . .
nothing
+ 1
+2
+3
+4
+5

A blinding white flash shattered the darkness, and was immediately followed by a very large, orange mushroom fireball that had not yet gathered itself to rise into the night. For a moment dozens of gator-eyes flashed in the light, the water glistened with the rising fireball, and trees around the lake were illuminated. As this happened, the SHOCK-WAVE smacked us . . .

Kaaa-Booooom !

and rumbled away into the night. It would be heard for miles.

I sure hope Granny and Granddad didn’t ‘t hear that. They lived about five miles away, but it was a possibility because they had heard them before, but of course I had to deny everything. Truth-telling is a virtue, but always telling the truth is just plain stupid.

The music stopped at the party. Flames spread in the area around the detonation, as we had planned, for further visual effect. Everybody at the party was focused on the burning lake, where flames assaulted the darkness and lit the rippling water. The pallet was completely destroyed, as if by a nuclear detonation on a small south-Pacific atoll, and only tiny, scorched pieces were found floating in the weeds the next day.

As the lake burned, we expected the imminent arrival of our hearing-impaired friend in his pickup truck. The people at the party were stunned by the explosion, which still illuminated the lake, as well as the shock wave that went beyond tickling their ears; it thudded through their bodies, as some later testified.

Eardrums was late, and we were getting nervous. Some partygoers thought that an airplane had crashed or a fishing boat had exploded, and jumped into their trucks, racing across a big field to check around the lake. Our linkup point was exposed simply because there was no good concealment near the road, and we depended on a speedy pickup for escape.

Eardrums was now very, very late. Headlights flashed and bounced across the field and we hugged the ground as several pickup trucks came straight at us, though they had not yet spotted us. Where the hell is Eardrums! Something is wrong!

Thirty seconds later the trucks were on us, blinding us with their high beams and searchlights. We strained to see, but it was like staring into the sun. There seemed no use in running. They stopped and piled out of the trucks, and when they walked in front of the headlights, the shadows allowed us glimpses. Moments later, we were surrounded by eight or ten guys— busted. Their excitement level was very high—as high as their blood alcohol level—and one of them started talking violence, which quickly caught on.

We were outnumbered, wrong, and on private property. Some of them, who had probably never been in a real fight, now saw that they had an advantage and wanted to do some ass-whipping from the safety of the herd. Few men have the guts to stand alone, but any punk, any Lizard, can cast stones from a mob. There was little doubt we would lose if they attacked. I kept quiet, my hands to my sides.

Richard did the talking.

The situation was volatile. Very tense. This was Polk County, and violence was no stranger to these parts.

So there we were. Negotiating for our hides. Richard kept talking. The Big Mouth of the group was angry at Richard, and threatening from the safety of the little mob. Richard had never been in a fight. I told Big Mouth to shut up. Richard quieted me the way one quiets a friend, and kept talking.

Richard, the seventeen-year-old man who at the age of fifteen had brought Bill Gurley to office, brought the mood of the mob down to a manageable level, then someone from the mob told Big Mouth to shut up. They were siding with Richard. He culled the herd. Amazing.

Cooler heads prevailed, and fortunately Richard and I were widely liked. It was the alcohol, the excitement, and then Big Mouth’s saber-rattling that started things down the wrong path. We went back to the party with them, and the event went down in history as the unchallenged highlight of a party that otherwise would have been deservedly forgotten.

It turned out that Eardrums claimed something akin to flashbacks or posttraumatic stress disorder when he saw and felt the explosion. He was too afraid to pick us up. Richard forgave him, but I felt betrayed at an important moment. With the additional perspective gained from a few years of experience, I do not judge him quite so harshly now, but I would never again willingly depend on him to overcome his physical fears.

Bomb-making was very dangerous and the joys it provided did not justify its risks. Most young bomb-makers have little understanding of the hidden dangers awaiting them, the mishaps that will splatter their hands all over their faces, blinding them with fragments of their own finger bones.

It wasn’t worth it and I wouldn’t do it again if I had a choice. Even worse, it didn’t favorably impress any girls.

Perhaps the only picture left of that night is the drawing in my yearbook:

 

 

This chapter is from my first book, Danger Close, a new edition of which is now in stock, shipping within 48 hours.  Please click here for order information.

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