My Brush With Eternity
July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
I was elected president of the Eighth-Grade History Club at Beaufort (South Carolina) Junior High. I don’t know why that honor was bestowed upon me, but I served to the best of my ability and, on at least one occasion, considerably beyond it.
Those were the days of the Civil War Centennial, and I had been brought up on a steady diet of that great conflict since my early childhood: we saw it, heard it, breathed it, stumbled over it. Yes, stumbled over it, for in the 1960s there was still a fair amount of military hardware lying around. Beaufort County had been the scene of continuous deployments, occupations, feints, and battles, and its fertile soil regularly yielded up cannonballs, minie balls, and tons of shrapnel. But year by year the take was getting leaner.
As president of the history club, I took it upon myself to garner and preserve as many of those fast-disappearing artifacts as possible. I marshaled my troops and sallied forth. We explored the serpentine earthworks on nearby Hilton Head and crawled through the cavernous bowels of Fort Pulaski near Savannah, which was the first command of the young Robert E. Lee. I borrowed a military-surplus mine detector but gave it back in disgust after spending the better part of an afternoon digging up the rusty remains of a wood-burning kitchen range.
Nowadays there are signs at historic sites saying, “Take only photographs, leave only footprints,” but we carried away everything we found: minié balls, half a sword, a peck of shell fragments. Finally we approached the junior high school principal and asked for a place to display our growing collection. He found us a corner of the library, complete with glass-front cases that formerly had housed athletic trophies won a generation before. We carefully labeled and laid out our treasures for all to see. The Beaufort Junior High Eighth-Grade History Club Museum soon became the talk of the school.
The buses in those days were driven by high school seniors and operated on a somewhat lackadaisical schedule. They drifted in one by one, bringing students from the islands and farms, depositing the earliest in front of the locked doors of the junior high. It was a good time for meaningful conversation with the girls or a quick game of football. Today educators call this “unsupervised free time,” and in an age of eighth-grade drug deals, truancy, and mayhem, it is avoided at all costs. But in 1961 it was not unusual to find a hundred students killing time, waiting for the doors to open.
This was the scene when one of the charter members of the History Club got off the Gray’s Hill bus lugging an artillery round. He attracted immediate attention and was soon surrounded by a clamoring crowd. Another boy asked to hold it, and in the exchange it slipped and fell, nose first, to the ground. The girls screamed, and the boys scattered. Then the less cautious walked back to where the shell lay. Someone kicked it and, when he got no result, picked it up. Soon they were passing it around, admiring its heft, shape, and size. Somebody tossed it underhand to a friend. The friend flinched, caught it, and tossed it back. Before long they were chasing each other all over the schoolyard, heaving the shell overhand like an overweight football.
I got wind of these goings-on immediately after my arrival and exercised my authority as Eighth-Grade History Club president to duck out of my homeroom and retrieve the shell for our museum. I brought it to my first-period biology class and had a good look at it.
It was about five inches in diameter and twenty inches long and must have weighed twenty pounds. There was a broad copper band inlaid around its base and an oak plug in the front fuse hole. I guessed it to be from a Parrott rifle, a gun used by both North and South that was a forerunner of modern field artillery and fired an extremely destructive high-velocity shell. The marks of the rifling upon the copper band told me it had been fired. But Parrott rifle shells were filled with black powder and designed to explode on impact. This one, obviously, had not. Was it a hundred-year-old factory defect? Had someone forgotten to screw in the fuse? To fill it with powder?
I mulled it over for a few minutes and was seized by inspiration. I would remove the oak plug and dump out the powder—if indeed there was any—before placing it in our museum. The biology teacher was a few minutes late that morning, so I gathered several classmates, got my dissecting kit, and went to work. I began whittling away at the plug with the knife and carefully removing the chips and splinters with my tweezers. At some point one of my cohorts speculated that my knife might raise a spark against the inside of the fuse hole and ignite the powder. So we got a test tube, filled it with water, and dribbled it into the hole as we worked.
We were thus occupied when our teacher arrived. She noticed us at work at the back table and came over.
“What are you boys doing?” she asked.
“Disarming this artillery round,” I said matter-of-factly.
Her eyes briefly rolled back into her head, and her face turned the color of stove ashes. “Ge—, ge—” she said, laying a hand on my shoulder to steady herself, “get down to the office with that thing!”
I was an obedient young man in those days, and I did as she said. But since she did not forbid us to continue working on our project, we gathered up the dissecting tools and took them along.
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!”
“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?”
“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.