Things That Go Boom in the Night

10 Feb

Jack Armstrong (not the all-American boy)
and Things that go Boom in the Night.

Aside from fear, mutilations and madness – things that go boom must intoxicate and gratify. What else can explain our fascination with explosions and eruptions: destruction of office buildings to bomb busting in a Philippines jungle. Who doesn’t shiver at the boomers on the fourth of July. Television needs SUVs flying skyward on a tail of flame.

When an IED shatters an American patrol or wipes out an Iraqi vegetable market, crowds cluck at the butchery. Fire hoses flush away the squashed melons and blood stains as all sides scream “See what they did.” Hot tea vendors wave, giggle and thrive. Teenagers abound and no women are to be seen except in the black bags of remains. A tribal chief spots a TV camera; a crowd swarms.

Veteran firefighters describe arsonists who remain transfixed and quivering at the fire scene; many clearly shuddering and showing their manic obsession with fire and fulminates. Bonfires still light up the heavens on Election nights and Watts continues its burning. Forest fires bring volunteers, not always to put the fires out. A Fire Chief friend told me that younger fire fighters buy unusual quantities of high explosive fireworks though they may know nothing of our Independence Day. “They get a real kick with those things, more so than regular people.”

We’ll deny it, but more than a few of us feel an orgasmic flickering in our kidneys as the shock waves shudder and our blood pressure jolts. Can we explain our fascination with Mt. St. Helens, the horrors of the World Trade Center … and the big bang of the ammunition ship in Naples harbor? Our genes must hark back to the first seconds of the Big Blast where (some believe) we started on our evolutionary road to being. For all this eruptive activity we can thank the Chinese of two thousand or so years ago (Marco said so)and the Italians for shooting sacred pyrotechnics into the night sky to mark the birth of Jesus, and the Germans for turning it all into weapons of limited destruction. Alfred Nobel, an innocent chemist whose dynamite would help farmers clear tree stumps also owned one of the biggest armament plants in Europe and his scientists labored with love over more deadly explosives. We Americans perfected air delivery by B-24s and B-29s, one of which carried the biggest boom of our time. We were all in the game of Humpty Dumpty.

Jack Armstrong introduced me to railroad bombs -lead foil encased, cigar sized explosives that you attached to a train track. The detonation warned the driver of a locomotive that there were working men ahead. The blasts were more certain than radios, flags and lantern signals. Armstrong stole them from the track workers’ shanties. He was a notorious giant at fourteen, black, agitated and my unlikely friend who taught me much about football and girls.

In my first explosive experience Armstrong and I were in an ancient oak tree. Twenty feet below on a flat rock lay a railroad bomb, over which there was another flat rock. The object was to hit the top rock with another from the safety of the tree. After a few tries, it blew; pieces whizzed up and out, sending shards a hundred yards in every direction, rattling windows and very nearly lacing us with our first dose of shrapnel. He had put two bombs under the rock. Though World War II was years away, we had learned most of what was to be known about explosives and warm blooded women. Don’t mess with that stuff. Aftermath? Jack and I went underground for a while. Glowing and knowing, religious to the core.

Black kids didn’t go on to High School so I don’t know what happened to Armstrong, but he would have been proud. Things that blew up at my bidding became a large part of my Army career. Each detonation and concussion and flying garbage left marks but few scars. One deafened me permanently. Another adjusted my face sideways with the grin of a born skeptic. A few were near fatal, but most were good fun, every blast, a blast ….

Remember basic demolitions training? “This is a grenade; this is a mortar round; this is a land mine. They don’t like to be disturbed. Respect them or they might blow your thick head off.” So much for caution and procedure. I don’t know if those things I defused in training were live or not. Just putting that second pin in its place gave me immortality. Had I missed, tripped or dropped the thing, nothing else would matter. The hometown newspaper would headline My heroism. Cleanup was messy as it is in all such scenarios. The two Japanese naval shells I found trip wired on the trail to Malepunyo would have flattened the mountaintop.

Our Major chose me to give lectures and demos on using materials at hand, like grenades, igniters, blasting caps, wire, dynamite and primer cord. The learning by doing idea was precarious but far more valuable than lectures in the noonday sun. What I taught was learned the night before from Sgt. Rua, our good supply sergeant. He warned “Don’t ever …..” I didn’t but I was tempted to walk the razor’s edge and it was an orgasmic thrill I cannot articulate.

The farmer who plants a roadside explosive for the Taliban looks at the thing, than at the hole in the ground and in his vision he sees the plume of dirt and steel bits. Nonsense! He sees the ten dollars with which he will feed his ten kids for a week. Unless, of course …. it happens.

Simulating mortar barrages was a game of checkers and careful wiring having a thumb sized blasting cap explode in your face or behind your back was not. Blowing up the rotting mansion on our artillery range was contemptible. That should have been left to the big boys, the 155mms. Getting blown ten or twenty feet by a blast of nitrostarch on a night maneuver was instructive. “Trust nobody, presume nothing, everything in sight is primed to blow.” On that magic night, we did fly, wingless, blast propelled and prevailed, though wobbly for days. Looking to blame somebody? Nobody did it. Nobody died. We would never do that again except for tomorrow.

One of our Generals in Iraq said that there are more explosives there, than in all the rest of the world. Even if that terrible war goes on for another ten years, the major parties will not use up a fraction of what they have. More is pouring in. Those who know say that there are 600,000 tons of explosives in storage, in 105 major dumps accounted for and another six thousand moveable caches that we can’t keep track of. We don’t know how many homes and outhouses conceal rockets, mines, shells and every other kind of explosive ordnance. They come from a dozen unstable countries including ours. Some, from 1944 are extremely sensitive to 120F. heat and they never forget their purpose. Leftovers from the ten-year Iraq-Iran war are waiting for another try. Our people destroy 100 tons a day(?) at the depots. Do the arithmetic and cringe.

Bunkers are often emptied by frugal people to use or sell what they find. There’s a market for the metal, fuses and all. No haste, no waste. In time, many will blow with no help and take twenty or a hundred innocents. In our own country we’ve stored explosives for a hundred years. They are sensitive and ready. The generals who recognized such volatile conditions in Iraq are comfortably ‘retired’ for ‘shooting their mouths off to the media.’

Just before the granddaddy of all blowups in mid ’45, I boarded an escaping truck to get far away — a Japanese bomber was heading slow and low for the biggest ammo dump in the Philippines. Despite guns and spot lights, one limping bomber with one fearless pilot, blew up our ammo dump. We raced for the ‘zig-zag’ highway with our cargo of 105’s. Behind us, the whole planet jumped up and down. I missed the show. It was July 4th • Thanks to an  early radio warning, no one was hurt.

We were protecting an artillery battery that was to clean the ground for our advance. We caught mortar fire and lost people so it was good to see those guns from front row seats. Now, a backfire from my neighbor’s motorbike, turns my gut cold. They fired three salvos into the hills. One lonely shell came fluttering back and blew up our ammunition train. Next day we found their big rail gun, caves full of munitions and no enemy. In Iraq, hundreds of IEDs hide in roadside trash or wait beneath the rocking chair of a mad jihadi in his flowing shroud, talking on his cell-phone, ready to fly for his Prophet. The man has never met a virgin but he hopes to deflower seventeen of them.

My neighbor’s son in Iraq knows about bombs hidden in garbage and in back rooms … and about the nice people who hide the family terrorists. “Within their private wars and carnage, they are having a blast lighting up those things.”

Should you care to demolish the Regimental field privies – Firing two sticks of dynamite is not the way. The explosion’s tonality is hollow, not full blown; the vibes gentle; the ascending cloud hides the sun. You hear a swoosh as the band plays on.


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