How My Youthful Junkyard Scrounging Habit Got My High School Evacuated By The Bomb Squad

Illustration for article titled How My Youthful Junkyard Scrounging Habit Got My High School Evacuated By The Bomb Squad

After reading the tale of the science-geek kid whose innocuous Gatorade-bottle-based motion-detector project got the bomb squad on his ass and his life ruined forever, I was reminded of my own similar experience involving a '75 Ford LTD seatbelt buzzer.


The difference, of course, is that my ridiculous bomb-squad-triggering, school-evacuating experience took place in 1983, before a handful of religious-gibberish-spouting Middle Eastern whackjobs somehow managed to transform the most powerful nation on earth into an asylum full of cringing, paranoid pants-wetters. So, rather than being the event that defined my life from that day forward- as it will be for this poor fucked-for-life 11-year-old in San Diego- it's simply a mildly amusing story that I'd nearly forgotten. So here goes:

Illustration for article titled How My Youthful Junkyard Scrounging Habit Got My High School Evacuated By The Bomb Squad

Once I got my first car, pretty much the first thing I did with it was cross the bridge from Alameda into Oakland and start prowling through the local junkyards. The now-defunct U-Pull Auto Wrecking on 85th Avenue was my favorite, and I'd go there at least a couple times a week with a couple of my gearhead buddies and we'd dig through the old cars and pick up weird parts for our stashes; the all-biker U-Pull staff would usually just wave us out the gate without making us pay for anything smaller than a cylinder head ("Aaaah, get the hell outta here, kid!"), so of course I started a big collection of Malaise Era Ford and GM seat belt buzzers. Why the hell would a 17-year-old stock up on seat-belt buzzers, of all things? I had some idea I'd install a hundred or so of them in my hideous crypto-Baja-ized '58 Beetle and drive my passengers crazy at the flip of a switch (as you can see from projects like this- which features some components I'd hoarded since my early U-Pull scavenging days- I haven't grown up much during the intervening 27 years). Ha ha ha, it's fun to scramble the brains of the Normals with shit like this, eh?

Naturally, it didn't take me long to discover that 8 AAA batteries in a $2.99 Radio Shack holder will provide sufficient current to run a '75 Ford Elite seat belt buzzer all day long, and- in the mind of a 17-year-old under the influence of certain evil corruptors of youth just across the Bay- there really aren't too many mental steps between this realization and the idea of placing a battery-powered Ford seat belt buzzer in a high-school locker with the power switch in the ON position. BZZZEEEEEEEEEEEP!!! It'll drive everyone crazy! Ho ho!

So, a few hours later I'm in physics class, having already mostly forgotten about the maddening Malaise soundtrack issuing from my junkyard pal's locker (I could never remember my own locker's combination, so I stashed it in my friend Scott's locker), and my classmates notice some sort of commotion in the street outside. Cop cars all over the place! We're all crowding for a look out the window when several APD officers come into the classroom and ask the teacher to identify… me! Oh, shit! I get not-quite-frogmarched out of the room, it being clear that I'm in Big Fucking Trouble, and as I'm contemplating the reality that every wholesome Duran Duran-listening, lip-gloss enhanced girlie in the school will consider me a totally, radioactively untouchable, criminal for the rest of my high school days and probably- if I don't go to college in some other state- well beyond that, and I'm probably going to have to answer a lot of very pointed questions from the kind of humorless Authority Figures I dreaded most, it occurs to me that perhaps this whole hassle might have something to do with my harmless seat belt buzzer prank.

Yeah, sure enough, they've got the Alameda County Bomb Squad truck out front, surrounded by black-and-white Dodge Diplomats and every cop in the time zone, and I can hear the sound of a Ford Elite seat belt buzzer issuing tinnily from a cement-lined 55-gallon drum set up on the sidewalk. Everyone is keeping a respectful distance from the "bomb," and several beefy detective types are sweating Scott- who'd been hauled out of his class first- about the deal. Scott was the son of a huge mountain-man-esque genius blacksmith from the Sierra foothills, and he grew up steeped in his dad's Unabomber-grade anti-government paranoia, which means he's clammed up and refusing to admit anything beyond name, rank, and serial number; he's clearly driving the cops- who can't put this punk in his place, Oakland style, with all these teachers watching- completely crazy. Various snitches, meanwhile, have informed The Man that I must be involved in any crazy shit involving Scott and/or menacing junkyardy-looking devices.

The beefy detectives turn to me: "What do you know about this explosive device?"
Me: "Huh?"
Beefy Detective: "The device you put in this kid's locker!"
Me: "What device?"
Eventually, I allowed that the "safety chime" that I'd bought to install as a safety-enhancing safety device in my extremely safe Volkswagen might have malfunctioned, safely, and overly paranoid school personnel might have mistaken it for a not-so-safe device of some sort. "You see, officer, 1958 model year vehicles didn't come with seat belt chimes, or even seat belts for that matter, and I'm just doing my part to keep myself and my passengers safe from harm." Fortunately, I'd walked to school that day, so the cops couldn't see that my car used a lawn chair for a driver's seat and that the only nod to safety was the railroad-tie front bumper.

Eventually, between Scott's refusal to admit anything to anyone and my insistence that I was all about the safety, the Bomb Squad became convinced that they were really just dealing with some kid's stupid AAA batteries, and the whole red-and-blue-flashing-light circus disbanded. I went back to class, and there was no fallout other than being called "The Mad Bomber" by my peers for a few months.

What would have happened if I'd been born a few decades later and these events had taken place in 2010? I'd probably be getting cavity-searched by angry Juvenile Hall jailers right about now, prior to being shipped off to a special re-education facility in the Utah desert, national headlines would be screaming about my "plot," and everyone who had ever spoken to me would be placed on the No-Fly List for life.
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In 1986, I flew home to spend Christmas with the folks. No biggie. But college is turning out to be kind of a snore and I'm looking for more to do than just hop on the bike and ride around when time gets slack. It isn't like DC where I'm going to college, Knoxville's small, the shops are mainstream and they roll up the sidewalks at 8:00. There's nothing to do. So I kiss Mom goodbye and sling her old purse - a repurposed ammo bag, Mom doesn't go in for frilly - full of my electronics junk over my shoulder, and we're off to National - nobody was calling it Reagan National, then.

So anyway. I fall half asleep in the cheap plastic chairs, reading Stephen King's IT. An okay read, lives up to his maxim, "if you can't scare the reader, go for the gross-out." My flight's called and up I get, one carry-on and the ammo bag full of switches and wires, capacitors and motors, batteries. Resistors, all kinds of stuff in there. It's not really neat, but at least I've got all the batteries nice and neat on the bottom. Carefully arrayed, keep the weight low and stable.

Thump onto the X-ray belt with the carry-on, thump with the ammo bag. An endless clank and jingle as my pocketknife, belt knife, wallet, keys and whatnot all go into the little basket. Security guy raises his eyebrows a little at the belt knife - four inches, still got it - and then the lady running the scanner grabs his sleeve. Hard.

Security guy's eyes get big. He unsnaps his holster and takes a step back to open a little room for maneuvering between him and me. At this very moment, I've just casually flipped the knife up, half-twirled and slap it into the sheath on my belt. Wrong Move # 1.

Wrong Move #2: step toward the screen. I don't know why, but security people get really defensive when they see you peeking into their windows on your life. Makes 'em edgy.

Wrong Move #3: Reaching for the ammo bag. Boy howdy, did things get exciting then.

Security guy says, "Hold still. Hands where I can see them."

Well, that certainly got my attention. I put 'em up, just like in the movies.

"What the hell is all that junk, man?" He's got the gun out. It isn't pointed right at me, but it doesn't have far to go. If it goes off accidentally at that very moment, it might take off one of my toes.

"Modeling stuff. Gears and motors and batteries, no big deal."

"I'll decide what's a big deal. With your left hand, reach over and pick it up by the strap, put it back on the belt to scan again."

"I'm left-handed."

"Just the strap. Do it."

I did it. They scanned it again and I kept my hands up and attempted to indicate, by telling and vigorously pointing with my nose, what were batteries, what were motors, what were just tangles of wire. Just to be sure, it went through the scanner again, lying on a different side. The gun slowly went back down, and finally back into the holster.

Finally he was satisfied. Other passengers were watching with the kind of horrified interest I might get if I'd suddenly sprouted an extra head, and it was shouting obscenities in Old Norse. I finally got to pick up my pocketknife, keys, and ammo bag. Security guy stopped me just as I was putting my hat back on (metal wire in the brim)

"Next time, just check that bag."

There was no next time. But I still have the bag.