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So for those of you who’ve read some of my stories – especially those who have read the stories in the category of “Stupid things that Papa did when he was Little.” – understand that as my son was growing up I would tell him these kinds of stories – honestly, as bedtime stories – because they made him laugh, and I did it in large part because I didn’t want him thinking that I was perfect in any way – I wanted him to understand that I was human, and could (and did) screw up.
He liked (and still likes) these stories because generally something (bad/amusing/result of a stupid decision/peer pressure) happens in them that allows him to see the benefit of others mistakes, without having to make them on his own…
In fact, when he was little, he asked me in all honesty, after I’d told him quite a few of these stories, “Papa? When I grow up, will I make mistakes too? Or have you made them all?”
How on earth do you answer a question like that? “Well, Michael, you live in a different time, I’m sure you will make creative, new, and exciting mistakes that I would never have dreamed of…”
That satisfied him.
Now that he’s older, and capable of making some of those bigger mistakes all by himself, he’s thinking of these stories in a different light… After I told him one story, he looked at me, mouth agape, having heard as complete and utter stupidity what I was simply relaying as history, (think about that) – and said, “How did you get old enough to breed?”
Hearing that from your kid is a little mind bending…
And I thought I had a dull childhood…
He’s also told me that if he does something stupid, I can’t complain, because it’s clear that I’ve done stupider things. In fact, he says that the following story shows just how high I set the stupidity bar – and he would have an awful lot of trouble coming close to that.
So from time to time when he was little, he would ask me to tell him some of his favorite stories, and, given that yesterday (as I write this) was the 33rd anniversary of this story, I thought I’d share.
So one day he asked, “Papa, can you tell me the story about you and your friend Paul?”
Well, there’s only ONE story about my friend Paul and me.
It involved a 1973 Pinto station wagon, a hot summer afternoon, some ducks, a cannon shell, and Elvis Presley.
Actually, in that order.
First some background…
I grew up in Roy, Washington, a small speed trap – er, town – south of Tacoma that’s surrounded on three sides by Fort Lewis, the local Army Base. One of the benefits for a boy growing up there was that you got to see lots of military hardware all the time, because it drove, flew, or traveled in a parabolic arc right past the house. (you’ll get it, just keep reading)
This, to put it succinctly, was cool.
I’ve learned I’m the only person I know who thought a .30 caliber machine gun being fired or cannons going off are peaceful sounds. But, that’s what I grew up with, and hearing them meant that all was right in the world.
The cannons and machine guns got to the point of being background noise, which meant unless we were listening for it, we didn’t really notice it. You’d hear this “Thump” in the distance, (the cannon, or mortar, had been fired, north of town) and about 22 seconds later, from the firing range, west of town, you’d hear a muffled, “BOOM!” as the shell hit and exploded. On especially quiet days you could actually hear the shell as it flew, making kind of a whistling “shewwewewewewew” sound as it flew by in that parabolic arc that cannon shells fly in…
It was pretty predictable, and the one thing we could count on was that the Army didn’t shoot on Sundays, so we had one day where things were relatively quiet, and though I didn’t mind the sounds of the Army, the silence was nice.
As one of my instructors in college said, “You will see this material again.”
They also shot at night, and to light things up, they shot up flares, which came down on parachutes.
One of the things we did for fun was to go out on the firing range (where the targets are – think about that one for a moment) and gather up the parachutes and other things we found as souvenirs. We’d tie the parachutes to the backs of our bicycles to use as drag chutes to slow us down after careening down “school hill”…
This was far more than “slightly” illegal, as we had to pass at least two signs saying:
“KEEP OUT! Artillery Impact Area”.
There was some, shall we say, ‘evidence’ of cannon shells hitting, like holes the size of houses, so they really didn’t want you gathering ‘souvenirs’. You did have to be smart as to what you took. Getting parachutes was safe, getting cannon shell duds wasn’t. There was a fellow who found a dud out there that had been sitting there for a number of years, the explosive getting unstable for the whole time… He took it home where it apparently dried out, and took out half of his house.
His parents weren’t pleased.
But this isn’t his story…
Paul and I went out there, he doing the driving because I didn’t have a driver’s license and me wanting to show off a little by showing this friend something he hadn’t seen before.
He read the first warning sign and stopped the car cold.
“What do you mean “Artillery Impact Area? I’m not going in there!”
Understand – I’d lived out there – driven past signs liked that that said “Small Arms Impact Area: Keep Out” (when you read that sign, do you think of bullets? Or little arms with little fingers falling out of the sky?) We’d drive past the hand grenade range, and see all sorts of things so often we just didn’t think about them.
But Paul had never seen that sign, and wasn’t moving the car an inch.
“But Paul, they don’t shoot on Sundays, don’t worry about it, we’ll be fine!”
After awhile, he took his foot off the brake, and we drove past it.
Sometime later there was the second one, and Paul skidded to a stop again, his eyes darting back and forth between the sign and me, trying to decide which was crazier. Images of hundreds of pounds of high explosives hurtling toward him at 500 miles an hour were going through his head and I was telling him to keep driving…
“Really, they DON’T shoot on Sundays.”
We went further, and found five of these things the Army calls “Ducks” – which are huge crosses between trucks and boats. I’ve never seen this kind before or since. They’re not the kind you see used for tourism, and the closest I’ve come is this. But they were basically huge bare aluminum boats about 40 feet long, with what seemed like 4 – 6 foot tires on them, so they could be driven on land or in the water. And they’d been driven there quite recently, since the grass was still flat from their tire tracks. Somehow they’d been knocked over onto their sides, the hulls near the back had been cut through with a blowtorch, the pans and crankshafts had been taken out of the engines so no one could drive them away…
We went to the other side, and found a very large black number 3 painted on it. From where we were, we could see the other four, each with a number painted on it.
We were on the edge of a rather large plain, with a tree line visible about a mile away or so, so we felt pretty safe, feeling we’d see someone before they saw us.
We climbed up into the cab of the thing and saw all these cool instruments on the dashboard. We were members of an otherwise reputable search and rescue organization and decided we could get instruments for a communications truck our unit was making, so we set on removing them with the large variety of specialized disassembly instruments we had available to us.
We learned that it’s quite difficult to do precision disassembly on an armored instrument panel when your precision disassembly tools are of the igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary varieties.
We moved on.
One of the engine parts they’d left was the cover of the air filter, which was a large, round, bright red fiberglass thing that looked like an oversized Frisbee (I suppose I should put an ® here for their lawyers)
Since we’d had less than sterling success with the instruments, we spent some time tossing the air filter cover around. I mean, it was a nice, warm August afternoon, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, the bees were buzzing, and –
– and there was a thump in the distance.
No problem, I heard this sound every day.
But somewhere, deep in the recesses of my mind, I recognized that sound was what is technically known as “a bad thing”.
I mean, let’s see if we can figure this out:
We’re out there on the artillery impact range.
On this duck that’s got a HUGE number painted on it.
This would indicate that we are standing on a target.
Not near a target.
On a target.
That has just been fired on.
By a cannon.
It took just about 20 seconds to come to this conclusion.
The Screaming/Howling/OncomingFreightTrain sound of a real cannon shell as it comes in on the position you’re standing on is simply not describable. I’ve seen “Private Ryan”, and “Band of Brothers” and a few other films – and the sounds you hear in war movies, while they try, don’t come close to reproducing the sound accurately. The sounds you hear in movie theatres also aren’t accompanied by a tree getting vaporized about 75 feet away.
I turned to tell Paul to look at that tree, but he was gone.
In fact, he was halfway to the car by then.
Joining him seemed like an exceptionally good idea at the time.
We’d parked at this little ‘y’ intersection on a dirt road, about 100 yards south of the Ducks, and I got there just after he’d done one of those U-turns you only see on “Dukes of Hazzard” – which is hard to do in a Pinto, but Paul seemed to have enough adrenaline going through his system to overcome this limitation in the car.
This adrenaline seemed to have Paul functioning at hyperspeed, and the car, Pinto or not was rapidly approaching its version of the same thing.
To do this in a Pinto station wagon on a weaving, hilly dirt road isn’t necessarily the smartest thing to do, but since our actions were initially unencumbered by the thought process, now didn’t seem to be a particularly important time to change that.
We came to this hill, went up, and, had we been traveling at a sane speed, would have gone down and around the curve to the left on the other side.
However, sanity absolutely not being part of the picture, the car didn’t quite get airborne, but it came awfully close, to the point where the wheels were about as useful to the car as opposable thumbs are to fish…
As the road (and world) turned, and while Paul hit the brakes and turned the steering wheel hard left, the car, pondering the ramifications of fish and opposable thumbs, went straight ahead into a dirt embankment, which stopped it in ways that the brakes couldn’t have.
Now some things to note about driving a station wagon at high speed on a dirt road.
- It pulls a large cloud of dust behind it, so the cloud is, for the first little bit, traveling at roughly the same speed as the car. Since it was a hot August afternoon, we had the windows wide open, the front ones rolled down, the back ones, hinged at the front, were flipped open at the back.
- Now this cloud that was following the car didn’t have the benefit of dirt embankments to stop it, so when we stopped, the windows acted like large scoops as the cloud continued rapidly ahead and enveloped the car, coming in through the windows and covering us from head to toe.
We were fine, the car however, needed some help, We had to wait until we could see, at which point I jumped out and pulled the fender to unhook it from where it was jammed up against the right front tire. I hopped in, Paul started the dust cloud and the Pinto up again, and only stopped after we were past the second sign, what had been the first one on the way in.
We got out of the car, hearts still thumping at what I remember as being one of the machine gun ranges (which wasn’t being used… Really!) , and as we got out and tried to calm down a little bit on that warm, sunny, Sunday afternoon, we heard nothing but Elvis Presley’s music on the radio. Turned out, the previous Wednesday, on August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley had gone to the great Tabloid in the sky…
After awhile, we slowly drove back home, and Paul, to my knowledge, never mentioned it to anyone.
There are two corollaries to this story:
20 years later, a group of us (which included Paul and me) from this “otherwise reputable Search and rescue organization” managed to get together from the four corners of the globe and met together at a restaurant to catch up on things.
I got there late, and as I stood there in the doorway trying to find the group, Paul saw me, the first words out of his mouth after 20 years, which I heard all the way at the door, were, “Well Hello there MISTER ‘They don’t shoot on Sundays’!”
Seems he hadn’t forgotten, and I – well, I think this one will take some time to live down.
Number two: I told this story to a friend who’d retired as a colonel in the army, and he started laughing so hard I thought he was going to have a stroke. I was actually quite worried about him.
It turns out that he (having had experience as a soldier) was thinking of the other end of this little exchange.
See, just because they didn’t shoot on Sundays doesn’t mean they weren’t out there.
Just because I couldn’t see them didn’t mean they couldn’t see me (this is why the Army has whole schools developed to teach the art of camouflage).
So imagine a couple of bored soldiers, could have been ROTC cadets, could have been National Guard on their one weekend a month, I don’t know – but imagine those few bored soldiers on a warm summer Sunday afternoon whose job it was to watch these five fresh targets they’d seen delivered and had to wait until Monday before they could blow them to smithereens.
And while they were looking through their rangefinders, they saw a small car dragging a cloud of dust along where it shouldn’t be – not quite into their sights, but awfully close…
I can just see it as one of them nudges the other one, “Hey, Jim! Look at this!”
I mean, two obvious civilians (us) throwing this bright red thing (the air filter cover) back and forth and up into the air wasn’t really the best way to keep people from seeing us…
And by then, not only were we in their sites, we were practically dancing on their targets… Well, climbing all over them and beating on things with rocks – heh – we were rocking out… (sorry)
I have to wonder how many trigger fingers got real itchy all of a sudden…
They needed to let us know we’d been seen, and it had to be done very soon so it was absolutely, positively, unmistakably clear who, actually was boss out there.
I would love to have heard the conversation that went back and forth between them and their commanding officer, and finally, someone decided to get our attention by “firing a shot across the bow”.
We didn’t actually hear it (we were thrashing the Pinto on that dirt road) but I can imagine them laughing their heads off as we saw the shell hit and the panic that followed.
It would be fun to find these soldiers sometime to hear their side of the story.
Michael really likes it when I tell this story, and when I get done telling it, he (after he’s done laughing) looks at me, shakes his head, and says, “Papa, you made a bad decision in going past that sign…”
–and I wonder, does this mean he’s going to do what the signs in his life say and try to stay safe?
Or is he going to go past them in hopes of coming up with weird stories to tell his little boy when he has one?
Note: I originally wrote this story as a note to my mom and dad when he was 7. He’s now 19, and when I told him yesterday, “Hey, 33 years ago yesterday…” – he finished the sentence for me, “…was a day of extremely high caliber stupidity…” He didn’t realize the bad pun until I started groaning.
If I ever catch him doing something stupid, I know I’ll hear back, “You’re out there on a LIVE artillery range, DANCING ON THE FREAKING TARGETS, and you’re worried that I’M going to do something stupid?”
Well… yeah… I am…
I do hope I’ve set the bar too high for him to ever reach the levels of dancing on targets on an artillery firing range… but Lordy, I know stupidity of that magnitude is definitely possible.