i’ve started to notice a curious pattern of behavior in the
people men i admire…
“The Stuff in the Old Garage
“We moved from Monterey to Pacific Grove, a quiet town nearby. I spent my recreational hours building puppets and model planes and making homemade explosives from whatever ingredients I could find. One day, a friend said, ‘See that garage across the street? It’s been locked for years. I wonder what’s inside of there.’
“We burrowed under the side wall. There was a pile of crates, full of fifty-caliber machine-gun bullets. We stole a bunch, removed the bullet heads with pliers, and extracted the ‘gunpowder’ — only it didn’t look like ‘gunpowder,’ it looked like little greenish-black sequins (I think it was called ballistite). It was a member of the smokeless powder family (nitrocellulose) — I’d never seen any of that before. We put it in a toilet-paper tube and stuffed it into a mound of dirt in the middle of a vacant lot and lit it, using gimp for a fuse (that shiny, flat plastic stuff you make key chain holders out of in summer camp). When loosely packed, ballistite produces a shower of little yellowish-orange fireballs.
“The other thing that turned out to be rewardingly explosive was powdered Ping-Pong balls. We used to spend hours filing Ping-Pong balls into dust with a rat-tail file. I got the idea when I read about a guy who escaped from jail by making a bomb out of playing cards. The article said that the playing cards were coated with some kind of cellulose material, and the convict had scraped it all off and accumulated a plasticized dust.
“The casing for the bomb was a toilet-paper roll wrapped with tar tape. He blew his way out of a jail with it, so I thought: ‘There’s a clue here somewhere.’
“How I Almost Blew My Nuts Off
“You used to be able to buy single-shot caps at the hobby store. These were better than the ones on the little rolls because they had more powder in them and made a bigger bang. I spent hours with my X-Acto knife, cutting away the extra paper, saving the trimmed charges in a jar. Along with this, I had another jar full of the semilethal Ping-Pong dust.
“One afternoon I was sitting in our garage — an old rickety one with a dirt floor, like the place with the machine-gun bullets. It was after the Fourth of July and the gutters in our neighborhood were littered with used fireworks tubes. I had collected a few, and was in the process of reloading one of them with my own secret formula.
“I had it propped between my legs, filling it with a layer of this and a layer of that, packing each layer down with the butt end of a drumstick.
“When I got to the layer of single-shot caps, I must have pressed too hard and the charge ignited. It blew a large crater in the dirt floor, blew the doors open, and blew me back a few feet, balls first. Why, I could have almost escaped from jail with that one.”
“Something about the tube in the man’s chest depicted [in an illustration about mosquitoes and malaria] brought back to me certain tubes and a pain in my own chest from 30 years in my past. It reminded me of how in Denmark Hill Hospital once two intern medics armed with a bike-pump-sized syringe, looking somewhat like the proboscis of Olsen’s mosquito, had tried to draw off stale blood pooled in my right lower chest. It was blood flooded there from a wound after the explosion of a homemade bomb. The picture set me squinting in memory again down the pale dunes of my chest, still tented here and there at the time with plasters and bandages, towards a real surreal dreamscape that I shall never forget. Who let those two serious young whisperers loose on my anatomy it is now difficult to imagine; even to me then, a trusting 12 year old, they appeared to not quite know what they were doing and, in so far a I could make it out, it seemed the impossible. With unencouraging vagueness, measuring their distances with handspans and knucklenths out from certain landmarks such as the edge of my ribs, they found their spot. Then — well, imagine using a bike-pump-sized syringe to suck red-tinted junket throught the wall of a rubber hotwater bottle in which, for some reason, the junket has first been allowed to set (that is, to clot in the case of my blood): you will then have an idea of their difficulties. As might be predicted, there would come into the barrel of the syringe a half inch of well-stirred red junket and a quarter inch more of a pink whey, and then nothing — even I could tell that the blood clot and perhaps also some of the lung substance of patient Hamilton had blocked their tube. Twice, I think, and again very like a mosquito looking around on a shirt sleeve for a gap between the threads, the two whisperers pulled up their rig and tried again in another spot, prefacing the new dig with another small but ineffective sting from a smaller syringe, which obviously applied a local anaesthetic to my skin and muscle. This local, however, hardly affected the major pain of the big needle piercing my pleuron. It seems to me now that I must have both witnessing and feeling what it was like to be killed by a rapier thrust several times repeated during that morning. And yet I watched and assessed it all in a rather detached, accepting way, merely longing to see them succeed — if rapier is the word, I had more the spirit that Hamlet had in Shakespeare’s duel, I guess, than that of Laertes….
“Had I stood a few inches more to the right as I tightened the vice holding the bomb I was making in my father’s workshop in 1949, so that shrapnel from its premature explosion entered my left ventricle instead of my right lung, Ilan [Eshel] with little doubt would have found and published most of the ideas for which I am well known, and would have done so to a schedule running no more than a few years later.”
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