My Dad was a very smart guy. For me, a kid who had a somewhat inflated imagination and the industry to try ideas, he was the perfect dad. In our lives there were many opportunities to try our wits at outthinking the neighbors with one far-fetched adventure to the next. Dad, with his little assistant team made up of my brother and me, would spend a good deal of time trying to best all the folks on the block by cooking up original inventions. Dad was great at displaying a knack for gadgetry that was befuddling to most folks, magic to some, and downright practical to us.
Dad had a knack for mechanical problem solving, and he went headfirst into grand projects whose mysteries held a healthy fascination for many young fathers returning from the Second World War. He invented and built a multi-use, six-wheeled vehicle in the early to middle 60’s….several years before popular plans for a similar type vehicle were published in the standard “Dad Bible” of the day, Popular Science Magazine.
In all his test runs and gadget tryouts, we were fortunate we never suffered any bad injuries, except for a few skinned arms and legs with a smashed finger or two. For all these minor mishaps the three of us had a strict code of silence, lest Mom would swoop down and put a stop to our endless building and experimentation.
When I was 5, I decided I wanted to take a journey on foot to The Edge of the World. I remembered something about a “continental shelf” from some grownups I heard talking at the barbershop in town. I imagined a shelf like the pickle shelves in our basement, only bigger. I could walk to the edge and look out into…………..well, into…that’s what I wanted to find out.
My brother was never supportive of my best ideas. With the help of
his confederates, he tried to destroy my confidence.
“Dumb-shit. You can’t walk that far. You have to swim, and then walk over China and Japan. Then what are you gonna do when you fall off the edge?”
I thought for a minute…
“I can take a parachute, or a big umbrella. And I can take my blow-up life saver, ‘cause it can fit small in my bag.”
My brother rolled his eyes and snickered.
“There are big, cruddy monsters that live under the continental shelves. They are so fast, they can burn and eat your guts while you watch… before you die.”
It was not very difficult to scare the crap out of me at this age. I knew it was a risky adventure, and I went to Dad for his thoughts.
“Gare, a trip like that is dangerous. You’re gonna have to eat….maybe hunt for game. You need to take a weapon of some kind.”
Dad always let on like he thought my ideas were good, at least in the first part of every discussion. I know he wanted my imagination to develop un-encumbered by the boring reality of physical laws and popular belief.
“Can I take your gun?” I asked with hesitation and a little fear.
“No Son. We’ll have to make something a kid can shoot. Something that fits your hand. We can make it together. We can make a firecracker gun, like the one I built when I was a kid!”
Dad was always slightly giddy when he found a reason to build something new.
I understood the concept of “firecracker” very well. Every late June and early July, our allowances were spent on “Black Cat” brand firecrackers; endless packs of kid-sized explosives. Hours were spent blowing up empty vegetable cans into the air, assaulting unsuspecting anthills, and finding unending, dangerous ways to channel the power of miniature explosions. Our labors sent smoke and microscopic debris into the trees, and into the lower atmosphere of our neighborhood. We were permanently branded as little outlaws. We carried loose firecrackers in our denim jeans pockets, the leaking “high powered” powder migrating through our pocket fabric until our thighs were stained with the metallic component of the volatile mixture. My brother’s warning that my stained thigh would kill me had been proven wrong several times.
I followed Dad as he went into his shop. He reached into one of his fixture bins and pulled out a steel pipe, about ten inches long, with a one-inch diameter.
“We can use this. With one of your Black Cats we can shoot a ball over two football fields!”
To me, one football field was large, but two! I knew how difficult it was to throw a rock a hundred feet. I understood the potential function, but the image of a weapon was a mystery. Dad explained the physical principal, then described how the weapon might look, making the outline of a gun handle in the air.
“Now Gare, you make me a nice drawing and we can build it.”
Attempts at safety, by children, are usually frustrated by the “exuberance factor” afflicting anyone between the ages of 1-18. I remembered the power and danger of a Black Cat firecracker. One had gone off close to my hand the week before. My fingers were numb for an hour or so, but I knew a single firecracker didn’t have the power to do very much damage, unless, as Dad pointed out, the explosion was controlled and channeled in one direction….the same principal a cannon used.
I worked on a plan for the rest of the day, with a slightly older friend, Jeff, helping me adjust the look of the drawing. I couldn’t wait to go over it with Dad. I had anticipated some dangers with the invention, while ignoring others. There were several concerns I had with my design:
1. It can’t blow my hand off
2. It has to look good (Mom and Dad have to like it)
3. The gun must get me food and protect me on the trip
My brother examined the drawings before Dad got home.
“You need to shoot something heavy out of the barrel if you’re gonna kill animals to eat, and protect yourself from monsters dumb-shit. What’re you gonna use for ammunition?
I felt a ripple of little kid shame begin to rise.
“A rubber ball.”
“Why?.............It should be a rock, or steely, or a flashlight battery.”
He waited while my panic and little brother inferiority complex took hold of me.
“I,…….I don’t want to hurt anything………”
“You’re such a good boy.” We turned to see Mom smiling one of those faces that melts steel; the face that dissolves monsters, thieves and all other villains.
Mom had been overhearing the conversation the whole time. She knew so well the vagaries of kid conversation. She understood how our fantastic infatuation with lofty goals where mixtures of fact, fiction, intent and speculation often mitigating ugly failure. She trusted Dad in all things, and certainly trusted him to guide me through some of my roughest ideas to a soft landing.
When Dad came home Mom told him the conversation she had overheard earlier. They talked in low, almost whispery voices. My Dad laughed for almost fifteen minutes, and I thought he might loose his breath and fall to the floor. Mom had to sit down. They laughed in waves, interrupted by two or three word sentences, each causing a glorious eruption of unchecked joy. Their eyes watered and I was afraid for a moment that joy had turned to sadness, but it was exhaustion that caused their howls to fade away.
Dad looked at me.
“Gare, come on, lets see those drawings.” He was rubbing his eyes as we sat down. “Uh Huh……..hmmm. Pretty good. Those eye holes got to go. When the firecracker blows up, it could go through those holes and blind you.
“OK… then I couldn’t see if I got the monster.”
There was another wave of laughter,……….. Dad caught himself, snorted, and said,
“Good, I think we can make it safe.” He turned and winked at Mom as we headed out to his workshop.
Dad was so fast when he made things. Even with a workbench piled high with tools and parts, he always seemed to know where everything was. In this instance, he had all the necessary parts laid out. I knew he had already decided the day before how he would build the gun, but I remember not wanting him to have any hint that I knew it. With the level of love I had for my Dad, it felt better if he thought I believed my idea was valuable to him. My brother and I watched Dad’s skilled hands shape the wood, drill the pipe and custom fit the components together. I excused myself to run to the washroom. My brother followed me until we were out of Dad’s earshot.
“Hey dip-shit. Tell Dad to make the eyeholes for your safety guard. Then when you shoot monsters and miss, you’ll be dead and blind!”
I felt a snicker coming, but something inspired me to withhold joy from my brother…at least where this project was concerned.
“Very funny…why don’t you come with me?”
I was sure he wouldn’t even think about it, because we could never get along, or agree on anything, especially when confronted by DANGER. He declined, but for a bizarre reason.
“Remember those cruddy monsters I told you about?”
“Wait here turd-face, I’m gonna show you something.”
He brought out a thin, paper booklet, with large black and white pictures.
“I’ll show you real monsters.”
“What is it?”
My brother didn’t answer. He was reading something on a tear-out sheet. I knew at a very young age not to even try to get his attention when he was reading.
“OK, listen. I’ll read this to you. About the explosion.”
“Splosion?” The plant thing in the photo was so strange, like the underwater objects I had seen in aquariums, and on TV. I didn’t think of an explosion….I thought of firecrackers.
“Yeah, it’s a bomb we dropped on Japan. It says here, ‘Our boys really get the Japs running after dropping Little Boy in the heart of Hiroshima.’”
I imagined hordes of people running away from a large firecracker about to go off. I could see waves of people ducking behind cars, telephone poles and big rocks, just in the nick-of-time.
“Was anybody hurt?”
“Yeah dip-shit, about one hundred thousand people died.”
We were both silent for a long time…
“Uh-huh, babies, grownups, dogs, cats, birds,…..all animals, insects,…all living things. See, that’s a real monster, and your stupid little gun won’t work, because you can’t kill it.”
I was puzzled at the breadth of calamity such an event could manufacture in any part of my world. After a minute or two, it was easier to understand my brother’s “monster” metaphor, and it began to make sense how grownups had been talking about digging holes in their yards big enough for their families to climb into if they saw bombs in the sky…coming down through the clouds.
When I returned to Dad’s shop, he was sanding something and I told him I wanted to make the gun, but I was going to postpone my trip. He was still in his “humor Li’l Buddy mode” and he asked why. I handed him the picture and tear sheet. He stopped.
When a parent’s reaction generates changes in the moment, those energies grip the child and move them towards an attentive state of fear. This was a moment where solemnity crept like a dark veil over the empty spaces of the shop. I saw Dad’s face go ashen, his hands dropped, and he stared out the shop window at something in the distance.
After a time, he put his great hand on my tiny shoulder and said,
“I was hoping you wouldn’t see this until you hit school Li’l Buddy. The world has so many dangerous things, and your brother is right, there are real monsters where you wanted to go, really cruddy ones.”
His huge moist eyes made me even more afraid, but a strange sadness pulled me closer to him… After a moment, he brightened.
“Here, look at this!”
Dad’s eyes fell back to the picture.
“It ain’t a toy is it Dad?”
“No, it ain’t……." He paused and cleared his throat."Well…. maybe in a way it is….the most dangerous toy Man has ever known.”
At first I was puzzled, until I realized Dad thought I was talking about the bomb, “Little Boy.” I wondered why someone would give that name to a toy that kills people. I knew that some of my friends had dads who didn’t make it back from the war, and those kids were always interested in hearing things about my dad. I guess in a way, they wanted to be near him like I did. They told me about the things their dads had done in the war. I had dreams about finding their dads and bringing them back so we could all make things together, build forts, play ball, and maybe take journeys.
With the firecracker gun, I was allowed to shoot it, but Dad made me clamp it in a vice and stand behind a wood panel, while I tried numerous times to light the charge with a match tied to a stick………great fun…..yeah.
In the frustration I felt about my “Dangerous Toy”, there was a bit of relief from the responsibility that it might inflict pain in some way, on anther person, an animal, or myself. I couldn’t stand to see anything suffer, and I was always sickened by the evil inventions some of my little pals used to dispatch bugs and small amphibians.
My fun was lost. But, it seemed so unimportant, compared to the fun lost by so many children on the other side of the planet; and the thousands who would never know any fun. With the product of Dad’s and my imagination in my hand, I went down into the storm cellar, found a spot on the pickle shelf way towards the back, laid my dangerous toy down and trudged back up the stairs through the cobwebs and sodden shadows.
"Little Boy" ground level, 6th of August , 1945