I Used To Explode: Pre-Teen Airline Bomber Speaks!


When I was twelve I boarded a domestic flight from Minneapolis, Minnesota to San Jose, California with five pounds of explosives strapped to my legs.  I flew unmolested and undetonated, although it was quite itchy.  It’s one of those things you can’t do any more.

I wasn’t trying to die for pre-teen jihad or anything like that.  In an innocent, gee-whiz way I just liked to blow stuff up.  I was flying back to my mom’s home in California after visiting my dad’s home in Minnesota and accompanying him on a further visitation to his childhood home: North Dakota, land of the free, a state where explosives were basically unregulated. It had been our family’s Fourth-of-July-Weekend tradition for many years to visit my uncle’s farm and set off bombs in my grandparents’ back yard.  My own sub-tradition of this tradition had always been to sneak a few packs of something dangerous into my suitcase and steal them back to Minneapolis, so my brother and I could blow the heads off of G.I. Joe dolls or strafe each other with bottle rockets in Minnehaha Creek for the rest of the summer.

But tradition had been slipping.  After the divorce and a few years of internecine warfare, Mom had remarried a college sweetheart, sold the house and car, and airlifted the family to the alien frontier of Santa Clara, California. This had been exciting and new for my brother Dave and me, but our future in the mid-western states, toward which I still felt a homing instinct, was unclear.  I used to see my Dad every other weekend, build stuff with him, go to museums, eat hamburgers, play with his cats, help him turn junk into art with a stick-welder.  Now I would see him once a year at best.  Dad understood this early, saw it coming years ahead of time, so even before we moved to California those long drives upstream to the farm, to visit the place he came from, took on a ritual urgency for him.

Truth is, plenty of things about those North Dakota farm visits chafed me — the outbursts of my mercurial, increasingly insane grandmother, the long drive locked inside a car, the eerie quiet and flat emptiness of the Great Plains, the difficulty I had communicating with my uncle when we finally reached the farm. But I’d go anyway, no choice in the matter, and then we’d get to the farm itself and that was mysterious, ancient, a wooden castle and corrugated-steel kingdom full of farm-stuff to poke around discovering.  My uncle, for all our co-awkwardness, was a kind and gentle guy, and I loved my old Grandpa Niels, who’d give me things and tell me stories.

Above all, I adored North Dakota fireworks and everything about them. As the Fourth of July approached there, explosives were more ubiquitous than the flag.  Every twenty miles of highway there was another flammable-looking fireworks stand made of dry splintery wood and packed to the roof with gunpowder.  I admired the brave men and women who perched in those outdoor huts every day, risking certain death to deal out small doses of patriotic mayhem to the public: firecrackers, M-80s, rockets, mortars, sparking fountains with bombastic names.  Whenever we passed a stand, I demanded to stop.  Dad would just look at his watch and count out the miles remaining.

Dad was good at bombs.  He knew a farmer’s pyrotechnic trick: using two tin cans and a single firecracker he could blow any small object several hundred feet into the empty sky.  On the Fourth, my brother or I would creep up on one of Dad’s ersatz ICBMs with one of the war-scented incense sticks called “punks,” touch its glowing red tip to the fuse until the first spark spat out, then turn and run and look straight up.  The can would blast off into the sky with a tin bang, we’d run to recover it as it fell, collect the pieces, repack the bomb, do it again and again until the can split — until all the cans split — all the while waving our sparklers and igniting and throwing those black dancing snake things and shooting bottle rockets everywhere and screaming.

It’s my position that children should not bring explosives on airplanes.  Adults, doubly not.  By no means do I endorse such projects.  It just seemed necessary at the time.  One of the lamest things about California, I discovered in my first year there, was a total ban on fireworks for the Fourth of July.  Californians, I came to learn, were afraid of many things: insects, earthquakes, smog, taxes, Mexicans, open flame.  Their expensive ranch homes were all built out of paper and kindling.  They had no basements to hide in when tornados came.  But to pass the Fourth of July in this new west-coast universe without explosions, without lighting fuse and getting back, without the risk of hearing and finger loss, it seemed pathetic. It made me lonely.

So anyway: spring, 1980. Dad had been calling up Mom at random hours of the day and night to hassle her about his visitation rights, and I was getting on my stepdad’s nerves.  Never did those three adults and I agree on anything more unanimously than that I should visit Minnesota in early July.  On the last day of June I landed at MSP with my oversized suitcase, was welcomed by Dad and his cats, and after one day of prep and packing on July 2nd we began the holiday expedition proper with the day-long drive across the Great Plains.  This included stopping in Jamestown to see the giant buffalo and in Moorhead to replace a starter in the Dart, reading comic books in the back seat bought at Rexall Drug, occasionally picking up an FM station, eating Dairy Queen hamburgers with holes in the middle, turning on to narrower and narrower highways until at dusk we arrived at my Grandparents’ quiet home in Garrison, ND. greeted with hugs and kisses and odd smells and strange-tasting old people food and Grandma pinching my cheeks and Grandpa calling me “partner,” sneaking money into my shirt pocket and winking.

On July 3rd we sat around and did this thing called visiting that felt utterly dry and dull.  Grandma fed me juice and cereal, and in her thick Lutheran accent she picked on me in little passive-aggressive ways.  The whole family talked about farmer-type topics: weather had happened, things had grown, previous years had been better.  I explored the house for signs of change, but nothing every changed in that house.  Decorative soaps stacked by the sink in the guest bathroom would never be moistened.  Tchotchkes collected dust, photographs turned blue.  This was a place where retired farmers awaited death under a warm, suffocating blanket of nostalgia.  I felt like a wild animal in a person museum.

But eventually I sneaked out into the rest of Garrison, a peaceful tiny town set beside a train track and some silos.  I wandered five blocks to the nearest state highway, and there on the plywood counter of the fireworks stand I poured out all my assets: all the cash my “partner” Grandpa had invested in my shirt pocket, plus all I had earned from the new paper route in Cali and everything else negotiable in my pockets. I converted every cent of it into bulk packs of bottle rockets and firecrackers, chosen for their high ratio of bang-to-buck.  I must have spent over twenty 1980 dollars — close to a million of today’s dollars, if I recall correctly — on bricks of bang and bushels of whoosh-pop and a complimentary handful of sparklers that seemed truly decadent.  I sneaked it all back to the house in an unmarked paper bag and stashed the bag in the hiding place for explosives prepared in my unnecessarily large suitcase, behind the lining, beneath the socks. An off-limits area, not for local use.  These were my California fireworks.

The next day was the Fourth, and we did it up right.  During that cross-country drive Dad, too, had also splurged at multiple roadside fireworks stands, not quite filling the trunk but making a good start at it. He asked my advice with every purchase, smiling to see me smile. In my grandparents’ backyard we waged a miniature war: bottle rockets, black cats, whistle jets, M-80s, dancing snakes, jumping jacks, victory rockets, Big Berthas, and every other thing that goes whoosh and/or boom when you light it up, beginning around noon and continuing into the dark of evening, interrupted only by lemonade and ham sandwiches, slow conversations with Grandpa and Uncle Edwin, and admonitions not to stand so close to various deadly things.  I smelled of gunpowder, my ears rang from the noise, my neck hurt from searching the sky, my pupils tight from staring at sparks.

All that afternoon and into the sparkling night, my Grandpa sat in his aluminum lawn chair and watched the show, smiled, sipped on a small glass of something, admiring what he’d wrought.  Independence Day might have meant many things to my partner Niels Hansen, a Danish immigrant who’d been a sniper for the U.S. Army in WWII and then quietly, diligently worked a family farm until he retired at seventy.  But I never received from him any of those Independence Day lectures about patriotism or strength or God or Country.  Most of Grandpa’s war stories were about interesting moments between battles, the people he’d met, shrapnel and bullets that had nearly hit him but hadn’t, and how he and his battalion had finally killed off War itself and how goddamn glad he was of that.  Mostly he drank of Dad’s happiness and mine, watching us twitch and giggle as things blew up.

The next morning we did breakfast and snapshots, hugs and farewells, Grandpa sneaking me more money, Grandma angry that I wouldn’t bathe but grudgingly sad to see us go.  They stood side by side in front of the garage, their arms around each others’ waists for mutual stability, waving goodbye while we pulled out of the driveway.  The trip back to Minneapolis was just as blank and long as the trip out, but I was blissful.  Every mile we drove, carrying my suitcase full of undetected firecrackers in the trunk, was another iota of success in my trans-national bomb plot.

If today I were to receive a phone call from the TSA informing me that my twelve-year-old daughter had been caught trying to smuggle explosives on an airplane, I’d worry.  Likewise if I found out she’d been shooting a .22 rifle at cans of paint in our garage, or constructing a flamethrower from WD-40 and a caulk gun in order to “frighten little kids” on Halloween, or launching Estes model rocket engines horizontally across our neighborhood from the roof with a homemade gyrojet pistol.  I might suspect pyromania, or sociopathy, or meth.  But I did every one of those things.  I have absolutely no explanation for how I never got caught.  But why I did them in the first place?  Officer, let me explain.

Children want to experiment with power, or at least boys do, or at least I did.  Some kids become bullies or manipulators, others learn to shoot guns or fantasize about monster trucks.  Since power was woefully absent from my body — I was a scrawny and misshapen kid, a pre-natal smoker, awkward, picked on and lacking an ounce of aggression — I turned to the pyrotechnic sciences for solace.  There’s power in a firecracker, a bomb, a bullet.  You can focus that power, and multiply it by however many firecrackers you can manage to light at once.   Then, within the radius of the explosion you create, everything is gone, everything is changed forever.  Objects that seemed solid admit their liquid nature.  Wood is splintered, metal bent, asphalt charred.  The explosion’s signature tells you that a great force came here and overpowered everything around it.  Every smoking trash can or perforated, puffed-out mailbox, impressive as it is, still invites you to imagine an explosion twice as big as that one, and the hole it would make in the world.  The revenge fantasies of the impotent are made delicious by bombs.

There’s a secret underground Manhattan Project comprised of little kids figuring this out together, each motivated to study kindergarten chemistry and raid the dustier corners of the school library in pursuit of the ultimate bang.  I’ve never constructed a pipe bomb from match heads and plumbing fixtures, for instance, but I’ve known how to do it ever since the fifth grade when another kid drew me a detailed set of instructions on the back of a test he’d failed.  I think I traded him a recipe for ammonium tri-iodide. In retrospect, mixing my own gunpowder was probably the dumbest and most potentially interesting experiment I ever tried.  I had been given a legitimate recipe.  I had the ingredients in abundance, and I intended to mix them in the blender.  Fortunately an early test with a mortar & pestle taught me that even small amounts of gunpowder long to explode, especially near my fingers.  I don’t know why I was so blind to the danger of the stuff, but I deduced that if it could chip my mom’s stone mortar it could probably damage her glass appliances.

Not all my experiments were power trips; just as often they were motivated by pure curiosity.  Once, for example, my brother and I did accidentally fumigate the bathroom with chlorine gas. We weren’t even trying to blow up the toilet, we just wanted to know what would happen if we combined Drano, Comet and Clorox in one place.  Watching the commercials for those products and learning of their unique and awesome powers, you can’t help but imagine something epic happening should they all band together Superfriends-style.  When the toxic plume of stinging green gas rose from the toilet, we didn’t panic.  We calmly turned on the ceiling fan, shut the bathroom door and went to the 7-11 to play video games.  When we returned an hour later, all the metal plumbing fixtures had turned green.  But the toilet bowl was quite clean, so we called it a partial success.

I sincerely thank and commend Drano, Black Cat, the WD-40 Company, and all the other manufacturers of fireworks and hardcore consumer chemistry for whatever safety engineering they did that prevented me from exploding myself to death at an early age.  Fortunately, blowing stuff up was just one of my many interests by age twelve.  I also read comic books, crashed BMX bicycles, collected pornography, shoplifted and hung around video arcades frequented by creepy older men.  In California, these activities kept me out of trouble.

But back in Minneapolis, on the the morning Dad was to take me to the airport I’m pretty sure he noticed something odd.  Maybe it was the funny way I was walking: stiff-legged because I couldn’t bend my knees too well, and gingerly because the bottle rocket shafts were so splintery.  The conclusion of another court-mandated father-son visitation was sure to churn Dad’s emotions, and his outbursts frightened me.  He’d always had a creepy temper, but his swings had gotten more unpredictable after the divorce.  He might yell, throw things, smash them, make veiled threats toward my mother or stepdad, the whole time smiling like a psycho.  He was a gentle man at heart, but very bitter then.  If I’d been my Dad I would have been watching me very closely that morning, pondering how fast I was growing up far away from him, wondering when he’d see me again.  Wondering, perhaps, why I was walking so funny.

He asked if I was feeling okay, I told him I was fine.  Minnesotans don’t have names for most of their emotions.  Probably Dad chalked up my slow, ponderous waddling to kid-level awkwardness and difficult feelings.  We drove to the airport, talked about when we’d see each other again, hugged very carefully at the security station.   I stepped through the metal detector with my non-metallic bombs, waved back from the other side, then turned and waddled nonchalantly toward my gate in slow, itching steps.

I flew alone.  I’m not certain if the TSA or the airlines even allow twelve year olds to fly alone anymore, with or without small arms.  But it was already normal for me.  My brother’s lifelong devotion to aviation was well underway as our family started to break apart, and when I grew up I intended to float in space, NASA-style.  So Dave and I both loved leaving the earth and were proud of our many solo flying hours, shuttling between parents or to remote aunts and uncles during assorted periods of home meltdown. With practiced poise I found my gate, stood and waited very still for the announcement of boarding, then shuffled down the airway, met my stewardess and de-facto temporary parent, assumed my alphanumeric seat, and perched there, uncomfortable and still, through the safety announcement, the taxi, the takeoff, and the entire five-year flight. I wanted to move, but I did not.  I had to go, but I stayed.  I knew I was safe as long as I remained motionless from the waist down.  Sneaking the bombs past Dad felt like the caper; all other grownups were easily deceived.  The adults seated in my aisle never suspected my evil genius.

We landed in San Jose and I got picked up by my step-dad, who suspected nothing but looked at me cockeyed anyway, as always, no matter what I did.   Why did I need such a fucking large suitcase, he wondered aloud. We drove home, I dodged a hug from Mom and in the bathroom I removed my pants and posed superhero-like before the full-length mirror, smuggled bombs erupting from my underpants and socks.  I felt a great sense of accomplishment and relief.  My body rippled with unexploded energy.

Later I showed my brother Dave the haul, and he was impressed.  We gave a lot of serious thought to how these bombs should be exploded.  We developed safety procedures and obtained safety garments: our bulky Minnesota winter-wear had no other destiny here.  The California summer inched along as we plotted.  At some point in August we finally decided to belatedly celebrate American independence by inserting the firecrackers into pieces of rotten fruit, then lighting the fuses in-hand and hurling rotten fruit grenades from the second-floor patio of our condo into the parking lot of the condo next door.

This went off smashingly well with myself as grenadier and my brother striking matches until, predictably, a fruit grenade detonated in my hand as I swung it past my brother’s ear.  A dud fuse.  I recall a ringing tone, as if my own skull was the bell, and at first my hand just seemed to buzz electrically while my brother knelt on the porch clutching his head through the hood of his safety parka.  This buzzing soon evolved into severe fucking owwwishness, as if I’d hit every one of my fingers with a hammer and my palm as well.  The skin there bruised in fascinating colors that evolved over days.  This too was a delicious secret, successfully hidden from Mom until this day.  (Sorry, Mom.)  I’m not sure if Dave had permanent hearing loss or not.  We both definitely suffered short-term PTSD, rotten fruit scalp and a new-found caution around fireworks, well-earned and well-deserved.

But I still had bottle rockets.  I had risked a lot to get them and they cost a lot of money. My brother sadly but sensibly swore off fireworks, but I still had no other real friends in California.  By the time my hand healed up I was running out of summertime, and I knew from experience that the gunpowder in the things would decay; bottle rockets had a half-life of about a year.  So in September, on one of those exquisitely deserted Sundays when all of Santa Clara hid indoors while low-flying helicopters sprayed the county’s fruit flies with Malathion and corn syrup, I snuck out to one of the local concrete-lined drainage creeks with my rockets, the Zippo lighter Grandpa gave me and a can of hairspray, to throw a little party for myself.  Or maybe it was some kind of funeral.  When I put on my fruit-splattered safety parka I didn’t feel Fourth of July excitement.  It was more like grim determination, a certain responsibility to see things through.  I didn’t know when I’d chance another North Dakota smuggling run; as it turned out, I never did.  The visits to Minneapolis got rarer and rarer, and they never lined up with July any more.  Then my Dad got sick, and Grandpa died, and Grandma went completely insane and died slowly in a home somewhere, and I grew up Californian.

I wandered that drainage ditch for a mile or so, threading between puddles and through scraggly weeds, until I found a hobo-free area where the accumulated silt, sand and garbage on the ground was thick enough that I could stick the wooden stalks of the rockets in it and they’d stand straight up without bottles. I planted eight dozen rockets that way in tight, neat rows.  Together they resembled a field of wheat, ripened red and black.  I imagined I was a stoic fireworks farmer overlooking the season’s results.  Weather had happened, things had grown.  It had been a hard year, but we made it through.

I waited until I heard a helicopter approaching, just to cover up the sound.  Then I lit the Zippo, shook up the hairspray.  When I sprayed across the flame it shot a three-foot plume of crackling fire — a home napalm trick I learned from a James Bond film.  I zipped up my parka, held my breath, crouched low to the ground, cautiously shot a ball of greasy flame across that whole field of bottle rockets, and as eight dozen fuses sizzled in unison I lay on my back to watch the sky explode.

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