My Brush With Eternity


The principal was elsewhere on business, but his secretary told us to go wait in his office. We went in, sat down, broke out the tools, and continued to pick out the oak.

The principal arrived in due course, strolling in and casting a practiced and jaundiced eye in our direction. When he saw what we were up to, he also was rendered speechless, but not for long. He collected himself and spoke deliberately.

“Roger, what are you doing?”

I gave him the same answer I had previously given my biology teacher.

“Put that thing down! Now!”

I did.

“Now back away from it slowly.”

I tried to tell him that some boys had been playing football with it an hour earlier, but he wouldn’t listen. He led us outside, stood us on the far side of a large tree, then went back inside the building. The secretary came out, wringing her hands. The fire alarm went off, and the entire school filed outside and joined us. The principal ventured back in and called the police.

But the police had no provisions for dealing with explosives. They called the local Marine Corps base, and an hour later a dozen men, a semitrailer piled with sandbags, and two escort jeeps fitted with flashing lights and red warning flags arrived.

A lieutenant spoke briefly with the principal, then slipped inside to investigate. After a minute or two he stuck his head out the door and waved for his men. They donned helmets and heavy padded jackets and struggled inside, carrying a flat wooden box, also laden with sandbags. They emerged with our shell, carefully loaded it onto the trailer, and covered it with more bags of sand. Then they drove away, one jeep ahead, one behind, lights flashing and flags fluttering.

“What are you boys doing?” asked the biology teacher. “Disarming this artillery round,” I said matter-of-factly.

Two days later a call came over the intercom summoning me to the office. I reported, expecting the worst. But instead of detention, expulsion, or corporal punishment, I found the Marine lieutenant waiting for me. He had our Parrott rifle shell tucked under his arm.

“I have something for you,” he said.

I took it and looked it over. There was a large jagged hole punched through its side.

I was outraged. “You ruined it,” I said. “It was for our museum!”

He laughed. “Ruined it, indeed! You boys had the right idea, but you were going about it from the wrong end.”

I demanded to know why he had not simply removed the oak plug instead.

His eyes widened. “Plug? That was no plug! That shell had hit a tree. That’s where the oak came from. We chucked it into a disarming press that we switch on by remote control.”

“Why didn’t it explode when it hit the tree? Wasn’t there any powder in it?”

He laughed again. “Any powder? Son, we flushed a good eight pounds out of it.”

“Eight pounds?” I mused. “That’s quite a bit.”

“Yes,” he said, his eyes narrowing and staring into mine. “And that’s not all. This shell was fused with fulminate of mercury. It gets very sensitive with age.”

“You mean there was still part of the fuse in the shell?”

He nodded.

“How much further did we have to dig before we got into it?”

He continued staring at me. “About half an inch,” he said.

“You mean I was half an inch from blowing myself up?”

“Yourself, your friends, and about half this school.”

He left after extracting a solemn promise that I would never, ever try something like that again. It was an easy promise to make. Future years would find me concocting homemade explosives, fooling around with dynamite, dodging bullets. But since I never encountered any more hundred-yearold ordnance, it was an easy one to keep as well.

I made a neat label out of a piece of cardboard and taped it over the hole left by the Marine Corps bomb squad. Then I carried it up to the library and carefully laid it in the Eighth-Grade History Club Museum.

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