When the Pipe Bomb Blows

I was hooked the first time my friends and I built a pipe bomb and set it off under a rural night sky. I was sold on the art of making bombs. As a teenager, I obsessed over their alchemy, over the spell of unleashing them. How they could shudder the earth and widen the sky. Their power, to me, was undeniable. To lord over something so destructive was to see my work transform matter and rearrange physical space so that it was, at once, wholly foreign and strangely familiar.

But that person, that boy, whose attention was singularly fixed on making bombs, is alien to me now. When I look back, I find myself both alarmed and gratified by his audacity, both surprised and not surprised that he could take to something that destructive so naturally.

If you live through it, you will always remember your first bomb. I recall mine this way: It is March 1987 and four of us pile into a Chevy pickup. Darren, a wiry senior, in his usual uniform: cowboy boots, jeans, letter jacket. L.D., a quiet, if not smug, offensive lineman. He sits shotgun, leaving Shane and me–freshmen–in the middle. As teens, we generally have little to do but drag our main street in Soda Springs, Idaho. But this night is different.

While Monsanto and other incendiary mines emit plumes of smoke and fire from furnace stacks, the town is asleep. The wind is ragged in the treetops. We sip cold beers and notice that ours is the only car out (save the occasional semi that blows through to Wyoming). I look over. The bomb rests in L.D.’s lap. The thick green fuse is coiled around its steely skin.

We head north of town, toward the silica quarry. We pass Monsanto, Kerr-McGee, Agrium, and a handful of other mining operations scattered among grain fields. Out here, farms abut mines. Years later I would spend a long time considering that kind of Western collision. But tonight it is all tapestry. The black ribbon of highway cuts through fields and patches of snow.

At the quarry, mounds of processed sand rise like pyramids. The surrounding hillside is exposed and stripped of vegetation, its insides spilling onto the ground. Darren parks the Chevy near a bulldozer and a front-end loader, and switches off the truck. We sit for a minute and then get out. The air smells good. It smells like diesel. It smells like work.

We trudge our way up a sand mound, one that is a good 30 feet high, and up on top the wind cuts through us. I look south toward Monsanto. They’ve just dumped a molten pot of slag and the sky shoots orange. To an outsider it might appear as if a volcano has erupted, but to us, nothing could be more ordinary. The slag is a by-product of the ore they mine, and about five times an hour they slop this magmatic refuse down a hill into a waste lagoon the color of graphite. When it is dumped, the sky glows orange. Everything appears reversed, as if the landscape has been double-exposed. Up on top of that mound we look radiated.

L.D. places the bomb on the sand, pulls a lighter from his pocket, and lights the fuse. Shane and I jump down the side of the mound and sand fills our shoes. Darren is right behind us, L.D. behind him. We run and duck behind a distant berm of sand. We crouch and wait. Blood pounds in my ears. We’re ecstatic, laughing, happy.

And then–it blows.

It is spectacular. A pale blossom erupts and presses itself against the sky. I feel the earth give beneath me and the report solid in my sternum. I’m smitten by the gravity of this thing we made, by the ringing song in my ears. After a round of high fives, we drain our beers and take the rutted road back to the highway.

I had seen a whole new world, or at least my familiar world reordered.

By my senior year in high school, our pipe-bomb stories had woven themselves into the fabric of teen lore in our small town. And because we were widely known for our pranks, it seemed inevitable that we would marry our love of building bombs with the sphere of the public school. Some things seem fated to lead to others.

Let me be clear: Our intention was not harm, but entertainment. The high school’s 300 students knew our stories; they were a captive audience who understood the plot without knowing the surprise ending. The plan was simple. Hurl a lit, empty pipe bomb down the hallway during lunch hour. We would watch everyone scatter like roaches under the glow of floodlights.

At two minutes before the bell, the hall was utterly clogged with milling students, fumed with hairspray and humming with the din of chatter. I pulled the hollow pipe from my backpack. We lit the fuse. Then I slid it down the hall, and as it spun, sparks flickered in a series of mesmerizing curlicues.

Heads turned and smiles wilted as everyone started to run and scream. People nearly trampled one another trying to get to safety. And while those images–the faces, the people, the shock in their eyes–are somewhat muddled in my memory, one image resonates with haunting clarity.

Our biology teacher, Mr. Carter, stood at his locked classroom door with a foam coffee cup in one hand and a jangling set of keys in the other. The fuse hissed just a few feet away as he tried frantically, desperately to unlock his door. And when it became clear to him that he would never open that door and might in fact die trying, he shrieked, “Shit,” dropped his coffee and keys, and bolted for the stairwell. All that remained in the hallway was a pool of spilled coffee, the cup and its white lid, the empty bomb, and four smart-mouthed recusants who thought they had done something funny.

Now, as a parent and teacher, I struggle to reconcile my current self with the young man who built bombs, who dreamed of that kind of violence, or gesture of violence, even in jest. As a parent, nothing could be worse than seeing my child’s school on national television swarming with police. As a teacher it is my quiet nightmare. Most shocking is that my preoccupation with bombs was a matter of violence for the sake of violence.

The broken window theory holds that if a window in, say, a warehouse is broken and goes unrepaired, it sends a message that no once cares about the neighborhood (and by extension its people), and as a result, another window will be broken, and another. Soon, graffiti will appear, and after that, other crimes will crop up. While the theory has seen some criticism, it posits what many of us already believe: Environment affects behavior.

If the theory can be applied to an urban landscape, could it also be applied to a rural one? What might it suggest about kids building bombs in rural Idaho? If, for instance, you live in a dismantled, rearranged, and strip-mined landscape, as I had, what sort of cues and messages does the place you inhabit send?

One morning last summer, while I was visiting Soda Springs, I packed a sandwich and drove north for some bird watching. I noticed that Monsanto’s operations had expanded. A strip-mined mountain my uncle had pointed out years ago wasn’t gone, but was noticeably, eerily smaller. The tailings piles were significantly more expansive. On the east side of the road, what used to be miles of farmland had been razed to a barren peneplain of sun-baked dirt.

I returned my gaze to the road in time to see what I took to be a construction crew stopping traffic. When I couldn’t see any discernable road work, I began to wonder why we were stopped. And then I felt it–that old familiar thud, the thick report of detonation. From the center of the razed land erupted a dark mushroom cloud of earth and dust. When the air cleared, two white pickups, each crowned with a yellow, glowing light, approached the fumarole. We had been stopped not by a construction crew, but by a mining company.

It was not strange or troubling that I had witnessed such a blast. The strange and troubling part was my reaction. Caught unaware, I felt a surge of delight resurface after years of dormancy. The mushroom cloud, about half a mile in diameter, was a spectacular sight by any definition. For that instant it was as if the wiring of my former self had crossed with my current self, and I felt the world give way for a moment.

Perhaps an overmined, bombed-out, and gutted landscape cannot influence behavior. Maybe I am overstating the case. But does it seem entirely unreasonable that generations of industrial extraction or clear-cutting or waste storage could negatively affect local communities’ perception of their landscape? As a teenager I never consciously thought, No one else seems to give a shit about this place, so why should I? But the idea was there, I think.

We could do worse than to consider the relationship between a rearranged landscape and our own desperate behaviors. It is alarming when silos and slag pours seem natural to us, when we forget that the land didn’t always look this way. We see the damage, but not the repercussions. But seeing is hard work, and I am only beginning. I am hopeful that from now on when I see the glow, I won’t look away.

Brandon R. Schrand’s memoir, The Enders Hotel, will be published this spring by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted from High Desert Journal(Spring 2007). Subscriptions: $14/yr. (2 issues) from 2630 NE Daggett Lane, Bend, OR 97701; www.highdesertjournal.com.

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