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Boomtown Boy Bombs Out

by Frances Giles

When my brother Butch was young, about grade school age, he spent hours and hours perusing catalogs of a certain type, those that sold fascinating items he longed to be able to buy. He was a regular reader of Boy's Life magazine for Scouts, too, which had colorful ads scattered throughout that were cleverly designed to catch a kid's eye. Somewhere about the age of 9 or maybe 10 he acquired a catalog from the Johnson Smith Company which sold mail order gag gifts and novelty items, and he read it until it was just about in tatters. Remember whoopee cushions and cameras that squirted water when the shutter was depressed? How about those cans of peanut brittle which were actually stuffed with cloth covered spring “snakes” that burst from the can when the lid was removed, scaring the unsuspecting victim out of their wits? I particularly loathed the stupid hand buzzers that delivered a nasty vibrating shock when shaking hands with a deviant boy (it was ALWAYS a boy) who held out a supposedly friendly hand in greeting or to hand over a gift or treat. I don't believe Butch ever actually owned one of the evil little inventions, but he was able to borrow one from Ricky Walker or Johnny Steen or maybe one of the older boys, Don or Randy Ray, and terrorize and annoy me, his younger sister, until the rightful owner reclaimed the beastly chunk of junk for mayhem of his own. At any rate, Johnson Smith had everything a kid or zany adult could possibly want.

It was during this time, in what I assume was a moment of boyish whimsy, that Butch sent away to Johnson Smith for some exploding cigarette loads. He pasted a coin or two on a small piece of cardboard and mailed it with the little name and address label, then waited for their delivery. The cost must have been between a dime and twenty five cents because that's about all Butch could have laid paws on back then. The loads did finally arrive and he began thinking how to put them to best use. He put virtually no time into this part of the project, nor did he develop a very complex plan of action, given his choice of victim and the eventual outcome. The ice upon which he stood balancing precariously was extremely thin, but Butch ignored the posted warning signs and skated far, far out onto the big, cold, deep Lake of Stern Fatherhood, aka Lake William, Sr. aka Lake Willie.

Once Butch made the decision to go ahead with blast off, which was pretty much the instant he opened the package, he went ahead full tilt. The lure of the dynamitical doodads was as strong as a Lorelei's song, beckoning him to come hither, luring his ship (of fools) to the rocky shore. Usually a creature of impulse, the little guy apparently figured any pack of smokes would do. Given that our Dad smoked daily and our Mom only occasionally, so she usually kept hers in her purse, he went with the closest, and only, pack at hand. Foolish idea+ absence of logical planning+dearth of rational thought=impending disaster. Do the math, as they say. I'll just add here that this was the 1950's and a lot of people smoked, unaware of all the health implications that were later publicized.

Strolling blithely down his chosen path, Butch selected a pristine, white, firm cylinder from the packet and methodically inserted the mini bomb in one end of the unfiltered Chesterfield, tamping it carefully until it wasn't visible to the casual eye. Battlefield cannoneers were scarce so precise. Fade now to an evening after supper. Butch and I both were sitting in the dining room with our Dad at the round pedestal table. Willie removed THE ONE from his pack and lit it. I had no idea, and I doubt Butch did, either, that this would be the shot heard 'round the golden oak table, because he had poked the teeny TNT time bomb-loaded cigarette back in the pack at random, no doubt hurrying to avoid getting caught in the act.

Maybe I should explain a little about these exploding pipettes to those of you who may not be familiar with such things. They were very, very small tubes of paper about 3/8”-1/2” in length and were about the diameter of the thinnest egg noodle when cooked al dente. They were packed with gunpowder, or the same substance found in the long, flat, red paper rolls of caps we used in toy pistols back in the day. Given their length relative to a little mound on a single cap, the cigarette loads must have contained more gunpowder, maybe 2 or even 3 caps worth, I'd estimate.

Well, Willie drew on his cigarette for a bit until it reached the end of the load. I heard a sharp, very loud CRACK!!, much louder than a single cap ever was, and the end of the cigarette just kind of blew open, showering our Dad with a few sparks and some ash, leaving him flushed and momentarily stunned. Butch had a similar visceral reaction, except that his face looked like wallpaper paste, putty colored and bloodless, and his eyes were wide with pure terror.

I could have told Butch that, as ideas go, this was a stinker, but since he didn't consult me I guess I felt no obligation to warn him. Our Dad was born very near the beginning of the 20th century, had fixed ideas about child rearing and suffered fools, great and small, not at all. By the time he realized what had just taken place he already had his hand on the perpetrator. He seemed to know right away who the guilty party was. My mother rushed in from the kitchen to rescue Butch from the worst of his wrath. I have to admit, I can still laugh myself stupid all these decades later when I think about it. Stars fell on Alabama, cinders fell on Willie and a few well placed swats landed on Butch's bottom. Thinking about it I think it was the only time I ever heard my father swear. He thought swearing was “vulgar” at the very least and was the mark of an “uneducated knucklehead”. I suppose having something blow up so close to the end of his nose was enough to shock him into it.

© Frances Giles
"True Confessions and Mild Obsessions" September 24, 2014 Column
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