Note: A prologue from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
You Ever Wonder Why…
It’s well known that teenage boys are driven by testosterone; your typical teenage boy is basically a pair of testicles with legs, and I was certainly no exception. At this sensitive age boys are prone to doing stupid things, sometimes to impress girls (that rarely works out like intended) or sometimes just because.
Country kids, of course, have many opportunities to risk life and limb in pursuit of… well, who knows? I certainly don’t. Back then, in the glory days of the late Seventies back in Allamakee County, I didn’t know either. And that probably explains a lot.
This One Time…
One of those “just because” times came in the autumn of 1976. My grandfather had passed away the year before, and my grandmother was preparing to pass off the big farmhouse to my uncle and move into a smaller structure on the property, and so had been clearing out a lot of my late grandfather’s stuff.
By the early November day when my cousin Jeff and I went out to the farm to shoot some pheasants, most of Grandpa’s stuff was already gone, but after we had knocked over a few birds, we went in to the house where Grandma had offered to feed us lunch. As we were eating, Grandma let us know about the few things left.
“Boys,” she told us, “out in the barn, there are a couple of old boxes of Grandad’s things. You two go look through them when you’re done eating. If there’s anything you want, take it; I’m going to have your uncle Norman haul all the rest to the dump.”
So, once we finished eating, we went back outside. We stood in the drive for a few moments. As Jeff was lighting a cigarette, I walked over and poked my head in the small entry door on the side of the barn.
“Hey,” I told Jeff, “there’s a couple boxes in there, just like Grandma said.”
“Well, let’s have a look,” Jeff responded.
There wasn’t much of any use in the boxes. As I recall at this distance in time, there was a small stash of Grandpa’s girlie magazines that gave us a chuckle (a few years later I was mildly horrified when I suddenly realized why Grandpa kept that stash in the barn and not the house), a broken socket wrench and, down in the bottom of one of the boxes, two old sticks of dynamite.
Lots of folks who haven’t worked with explosives don’t know that old dynamite sweats. This isn’t sweat in the human sense, it’s more like an old D-cell battery breaking open. A gritty, crystalline white crust exudes from the paper covering of the dynamite sticks, eventually heavily covering the stick. The main substance of that gritty crust? Nitroglycerine.
This, understandably, makes these old sticks of dynamite tetchy to handle.
Now, then and there, the smart thing to do would have been to leave the sticks where they were, to tell Uncle Norman, who was taking over the farm, about them, and leave him to find someone experienced and equipped to deal with these hazardous objects. But not us – oh, no, not us!
Holding one of the sticks, my cousin looked at me. “Hey,” he said, “I’ve got my .22 in my truck. I wonder if these would go off if we shot ‘em?”
Jeff was four years older than me, and, I assumed, wiser. So, my reply seemed obvious: “Let’s find out!”
Some instinct made us go a good way from the house before commencing our experiment, so once Jeff retried his old .22 bolt gun, we walked through the orchard and out to the far side of the south cornfield. There we propped the sweaty old dynamite sticks up against a dirt clod, backed off about fifty yards and commenced experimenting.
We each had fired off a five-round magazine at the two sticks with no result. After carefully approaching the sticks, we saw several inarguable bullet holes through them. But no explosion had commenced.
It was this moment that Jeff realized the real, physical danger of what we were doing. “You know,” he said, “if Grandma hears the .22 and comes out here and sees what we’re doing, she’ll cut a switch and wallop the tar of us both.”
Jeff and I were big tough country boys. Jeff was about 5’10”, maybe 160 pounds, and hard as rock; at fifteen, I was already a six-footer pushing 200 pounds and could easily toss around 75-pound hay bales. Grandma was 4’10”, weighed maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet, and was in her middle seventies, and we had no doubt whatsoever that she could beat the hell out of us both without breaking a sweat – or that she would certainly do so if she figured out what we were up to.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “We’d better do the smart thing, I guess.”
So, Jeff got a shovel from the tool shed, we dug a four-foot deep hole in the fencerow and buried those two sticks, tamping the dirt down good and hard and scattering dry leaves over the filled hole. Nothing more was said about the incident by either of us for many years, and as far as we know nobody ever got blown up, so presumably the damp earth rendered the dynamite, eventually, inert.
I’m no expert on dynamite, though. For all I know those sticks, buried in the ground all these years, may well still be ert. Personally, even now, I don’t think I’d go back and try digging in that fencerow, but then there’s lots of things I wouldn’t do nowadays.
Youth, Testosterone and Beer
Now, add a couple years and some beer to the mix.
Back in these days, the age of majority for almost everything was still eighteen. I could buy beer at eighteen, any kind of alcohol for that matter, which resulted in my being a legal drinker through most of my senior year of high school. This was the cause of some consternation on the part of teachers, especially since my high school had open campus for seniors. We generally went downtown for lunch, usually grabbing a sandwich and a brew at one of the local taverns.
“These boys are coming to afternoon classes smelling of beer!” the teachers protested to the principal. Bear in mind that this was a time when some semblance of common sense still held sway in a significant portion of the population. So, the principal’s reply was, shall we say, principled; “Are they drunk?”
“No,” the teachers replied.
“Are they disruptive?”
“They’re legal. If they have a beer with lunch, and they’re paying attention after that, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The teachers withdrew their complaints, we went on having a beer or two with lunch, and everybody was, if not content, at least accepting the inevitable.
On schooldays at lunch, see, we were mostly responsible. But add girls to the mix! That’s when the old saying about “hold my beer and watch this” really gains some traction.
At This Dance…
Fast forward to the summer after I was manumitted from high school. That summer of 1980 I was working at some odd jobs (bouncer, car repo guy, various farm jobs) while I tried to decide what to do next. But the highlights of that long-ago summer took place in the little town of Highlandville, about six miles from the Old Man’s place. That little unincorporated village contained an old one-room schoolhouse that had been converted into a little social center and, that summer, there were danced there every Saturday night. There was always a local band, usually a few unofficial kegs of beer in crates of ice, and local farm boys and girls from miles around came in to check out the other farm girls and boys.
One particular Saturday found my folks leaving to go to an Audubon Society conference down in Decorah. Dad was annoyed with me for some reason I can’t recall and so, when he and Mom left in Mom’s car, he took the keys to his pickup. He knew my old 66 Ford’s gas tank was dry as a fart and the big gas tank out by the shed was likewise empty, and so presumed I’d be left to sit out a Saturday night at home.
But there was one thing he forgot.
After the folks left, I walked around a little bit, grumbling to myself and considering possibilities. It was a beautiful July afternoon getting along towards evening; the afternoon heat was giving way to the cool of the evening, and the cicadas were still calling from the big box-elders along the driveway; a perfect evening to find a girl and enjoy some of the finer things in my eighteen-year-old life.
For a few mad moments I considered getting my old bike out of the shed and riding it to Highlandville, but I would not garner any respect from the other local kids if I had to resort to that, and so dismissed the idea out of hand. It was too far to walk, and I wasn’t interested in driving the tractor that far.
Then, as I stood irresolutely in the yard, a bright light dawned: It was the sun, glancing off the windshield of Dad’s 1954 F-500 six-yard dump truck, parked in the orchard.
I hopped in. The old truck, being an unlicensed farm vehicle that had nevertheless seen many years of hard use on northeast Iowa’s graveled roads and farm fields, didn’t have a conventional ignition switch any more, the key switch being replaced by a simple old Radio Shack toggle. To start the truck, one had to flip the toggle to On, pump the gas pedal three times – not twice, not four times, but three times – and then step on the starter button on the floor, at which point the truck’s old 312 Y-block engine would cough, sputter and come to life with a flatulent roar.
At least, it did so on this occasion. I had been driving the truck for several years already, hauling dirt and gravel for various jobs around the place, and so was already well familiar with its operation. I crawled the old vehicle out to the road, stuck the two-speed rear axle in High, and headed for town.
I arrived without incident. The old dumper, parked at the edge of the parking lot, occasioned some comment from the dancegoers, but otherwise my evening went well. I danced with a few girls, drank more than a few beers.
About ten o’clock, having had no luck with the local girls at the dance, I went outside to grab a beer. A group of local rowdies were gathered around the keg in the back of Miles Duffy’s pickup. As I was filling my cup, one of them asked me, “Hey, are you the guy who drove the dump truck in?”
“Yup,” I agreed. “Was either that or walk.”
“I hear ya,” he agreed easily. He drained his beer at a single pull. “Say,” he went on, “if a fella was to climb in the back of that, and you were to dump it out, how long you reckon a guy could hang on?”
“I can’t think of but one way to find out,” I answered.
We found out. Not one guy but about six climbed in the back of the truck. I started the old monster up and, after letting the engine run a moment to build up hydraulic pressure, pulled the knob to dump the box out.
Bear in mind that this vehicle, like a lot of old dumpers, had a tailgate that was hinged not at the bottom but at the top, allowing it to swing open at the bottom to release the contents. I had undogged the latches on the tailgate before climbing in the cab. As the box upended, I heard scrabbling as the fellows tried to hold on to the rusty surface of the dump box, and then sliding sounds, followed by a few hard thumps as a couple of them hit the tailgate hard before sliding out.
Leaving the engine running, I climbed out to see the results. The first guy to have the idea had a welt on his forehead and a swelling under one eye that looked like it would turn into a beautiful shiner. “Hey!” he yelled. “Let’s go again! I think I can do better!”
We ended up trying it four or five times. At one point I tried a run in the back myself and managed to slide out without breaking any bones.
None of the local gals were impressed, of course, even though at the time we young guys had considered it a serious possibility that they would be. Eventually an older fellow, certainly on the wrong side of twenty and therefore expected to be responsible, walked over and pointed out, “you know, if you guys keep doing that, someone is gonna get hurt.”
We all looked at each other, with our collection of bruises, scrapes, cuts and sprains, and agreed that he was likely right.
Thus, ended the great dump truck experiment. Eventually, girl-less and bruised, I finished my last beer, climbed in the old dumper, put the axle in Low to keep the speed down to match my impaired reflexes, and guided the waddling, farting old beast back home.
As It Stands
Many years later I told my Mom of the incident, one in a series of things that I revealed to the folks after enough years had passed that they would hopefully find the stories amusing rather than enraging. I had generally been surprised to find out how much they already knew of my escapades, but that one they weren’t too sure of, although Mom remembered one time when they came back from a weekend in town when Dad swore the dump truck wasn’t quite where he left it.
Nowadays I’m a much more settled sort of fellow, and a phrase like “hold my beer and watch this” will only pass my lips in jest. Then again, there’s the time I crossed a flooded Arizona creek in the middle of the night in my old Bronco by hitting the stream at about sixty miles per hour and skipping the truck like a rock across the water…
…but that’s a story for another time.