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SPOTLIGHT
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The (mis)adventures of a mad banger

Published on -6/11/2012, 9:30 AM

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Though they're now illegal as well as dangerous, it was a preacher who taught me how to make bombs.

Dad used explosives back on the farm. Dynamite obliterated stumps and the occasional large animal carcass. An innocuous white agricultural powder did the rest -- stunned carp deep in their holes in Red Willow Creek, or split logs for firewood.

This powder -- not ammonium nitrate, by the way -- is no longer available for public destruction, thank goodness (and -- rats!). In the cellar of Baxter's Hardware in Stockton, circa 1962, Dad located an ancient 50-pound bag, contents solidified into white marble by the damp. We chipped off pieces with a chisel, then pounded them into powder at home.

One can hammer on it safely -- the stuff is quite stable. Mix it with an equal volume of table sugar (or instant coffee), light it and it roars with an intense pink flame. Confine the mixture, add a spark, and the detonation is astonishing.

The manufacturing process is simple enough. It didn't take me long to assemble an Improvised Explosive Device the day before our senior prom.

In the wee hours after the prom dissolved, my friend Miller drove his Dodge and our dates out to Ballard's bridge, a minimalist country span barely clearing a creek between Stockton and Woodston. We paused in the dark while I lit the fuse and tossed our firecracker into the stream, where it landed with a reassuring splash. (We generally limited our bombing to bodies of water, which direct the blast straight up in a geyser, minimizing our exposure to, um, shrapnel.)

Then we drove 40 yards on up the road, and waited for the usual ground-jarring thump and the cackling complaints of sleepy pheasants.

But Ka-Blam! A tremendous explosion shattered the night. My toss had landed on a shallow sandbar, virtually out in the open. Lights came on in a farm house a quarter mile back, and we sped off, skidding around a corner in our haste.

Never heard anything about it, though, and we kept mum.

In the summer of '69, I worked at a feedlot north of Great Bend, where among other things, I did some welding and metal cutting. Segments of thick-walled oilfield drill stem made great IEDs.

Well down the hill from the operation, barely visible among high weeds near a dry crick, we spotted a decrepit old pickup, long since abandoned.

I asked the foreman if I could demolish it. He had no objections.

So I prepared a casing and loaded it. On our lunch break, we set the device in front of the seat over the drive shaft, lit the fuse and fled.

Propelled the high into the air by the blast, the roof separated into two wafers that spiraled down like autumn leaves. When we quit jumping around and hollering, we saw the sides of the cab curled outward and down, while the hole in the floor revealed a clean bite missing from the drive shaft.

And that was that, it seemed, except for -- the rest of the story.

Next payday, the boss told me he was withholding two weeks' pay until I settled with the owner of the pickup. Several years earlier, he'd traded the vehicle to a rancher in exchange for some hay, but the guy never picked it up. The foreman hadn't known this.

So, after work, I headed to meet the rancher who had just returned from selling and trading horses all day. He was very drunk.

I told him most of what had happened, and explained that I thought I'd secured permission, noting that only the cab was messed up, while the bed was fine.

"Welll," he slurred, "what I really wanted was the cab." As I was well aware, he'd acquired it to convert the bed into a trailer.

I apologized with immense sincerity, and told him I felt so bad that I just had to make it right -- whatever he thought was fair, I'd pay.

Then his boozy thoughts wobbled from exploitation to conscience, and he admitted that he himself had traded the pickup to a junk dealer in a nearby village. He even took me to see the guy; or rather, being sober, I drove my own old pickup, the battered condition of which probably added to my credibility. He cast surreptitious glances toward the bed, almost a trailer already.

The junk dealer was home that evening. His wife had died a few days earlier, and he was in no mood to take advantage of me, suggesting we could just forget about the whole thing; he himself had forgotten it until I showed up. But I needed to prove to my boss that I'd compensated the owner, so I most sincerely and remorsefully insisted I should pay something for his trouble. I forgot again to mention wages held hostage.

I overplayed my hand. He abruptly agreed to accept $25, which was a lot to me back then. By that time, I could hardly try to dicker. Rats. I forked it over, got a receipt for the boss and recovered my pay.

There were other such ventures, and fortunately, amazingly, participants didn't lose a single body part or sensory modality. That was luck, not skill.

But such diversions cannot be indulged these days -- another victim of Tim McVeigh, and of good sense. It probably wasn't legal back then, either.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays. hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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