Saturday, July 2, 2011

"Scoop" by Al Miller (chapter 4)

1961
Third period Chemistry. I loved Chemistry class. Not that I particularly liked chemistry. But third period was just before lunch started. We got to do all sorts of gross things in Chemistry class. It was most fun to create something that would stink up the halls. Then the girls would freak out on their way to lunch. Of course Tommy and I were in the same class. You'd think the teachers would have gotten wise to us by this time, but they put us together as lab partners.
The teacher opened the class that day with, "Class, I want you to take the lessons we've learned this semester, and come up with an experiment to demonstrate how they can be applied in a real life situation. All experiments will be cleared through me before you do anything with them. The best experiments will be used for our science fair in February. Are there any questions? Yes, Tommy."
I looked at Tommy and winked. He turned back to Mr. Pennington, the Chemistry teacher. "Can we experiment with fire prevention?"
"I don't see why not, Tommy, provided you clear your experiment with me first."
The door was opened, and we were about to walk in without even thinking about it. My mind began to consider the possibilities. I don't remember much about the rest of the class. I was too busy planning our "experiment."

On our way to the lockers, I began to tell Tommy what I thought would make a good experiment. "We could build a model house, and show where all the fire extinguishers would be placed. Then we could show the different kinds of fires, and the chemicals you need to put them out."
"Yeah! Cool," said Tommy, with a gleam in his eye. "That oughta satisfy old Pennington. Then, when we're done with the house, we can blow it up, like maybe it was a boiler explosion,  just to show that there's some fires you can't do anything about."
"Hey! Maybe we could write it up for journalism class," I added. "That oughta make a heck of a good story."
*  
Tommy's Dad helped us build the house. Just to make it more interesting, we made it an apartment house. He made little sprinkler system nozzles to put in the rooms and even installed plastic tubing to the sprinklers. Then he put in a little water tank and a squeeze bulb so we could make the sprinklers work. Tommy hid one of the sprinklers out in the front so when you squeezed the bulb, whoever was standing in front would get sprayed.
But the crowning touch was the M1 firecracker. I had found it in our garage. Dad had gotten some for the Fourth of July celebration that year, and when we set them off, we thought the salesman had shorted us, because one of them was missing. It was no longer missing.
"Where'd you get that?" asked Tommy when he saw it. After I told him about it, he had another suggestion. "My Dad has an old Model T spark coil. I bet we could rig it up to detonate that firecracker."
"Yeah! I think we could do that. But don't tell anybody about it. It'll be a dandy surprise at the end of the fair. Besides, old man Pennington would never let us do it."

*
Our little apartment house was the hit of the science fair. Mr. Pennington got up to give out the awards. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I think everyone would like to know who has won first prize for their exhibit, but let's give out the other awards first."
"Good," said Tommy who was standing with me next to the apartment house. After they give us the prize, we can give 'em the big finish. That oughta wow 'em."
Mr. Pennington droned on through three "Honorable Mention" awards. Then he gave out the third prize to Scott Oswald and Oscar Stuart for their Volcano. They had built it on a wooden frame with wire mesh over that. Then they covered it with candle wax and different colored crayons. At the base they built little homes out of match sticks and cardboard. They said this was Mount Vesuvius, and the homes were Pompeii. Then the second prize was awarded to Veronica Ogelvy and Sarah Fisher for their demonstration on the manufacture of modern cosmetics. Tommy said that was just a lot of girl stuff, but I still liked her, so I said nothing about it. The suspense was building now. Tommy and I could hardly contain our excitement. It was unthinkable that anyone else could beat our exhibit, but we had to hear those words before we could breathe again.
Finally it was time.
"And now for the best overall exhibit of this year's fair . . ."

Tommy whispered in my ear. "You go up and accept the award. I'll stay here and trigger the firecracker right after the applause dies down."
"I must confess," continued Mr. Pennington, "I certainly didn't expect this from these two. They have been a thorn in my side for most of the semester."
I talked quietly to Tommy. "Don't forget. It takes about five seconds for the wick to burn down, so get out of the way before it goes off."
"But these boys have put in a lot of effort on this project. Now it gives me great pleasure to award this first prize for their fire prevention exhibit, to Tommy Sutherland and George Wilson. Let's hear it for 'em, folks."
The applause started slowly. Other parents were still a bit jealous of our project. But then they began to appreciate our effort and the applause began to build. By the time I made my way to the stage, the noise was almost deafening. Then Mr. Pennington motioned for them to quiet down.
"Here to accept the award is George Wilson. But I think we should have both boys up here. They both worked very hard on this one. Tommy, would you come forward too please?"
It was decision time. Tommy hesitated. Should he come up and accept the award, then come back to trigger the firecracker, or should he trigger it now and run to the stage? Everyone could see him debating with himself, though they had no understanding of the dilemma. Finally, with the entire assembly watching him, he made his decision. He reached under the front edge of the base and pressed the button we had installed there. There was an audible snap. Then Tommy walked as fast as he could toward the stage.

The five second fuse did not give him enough time to reach the front of the auditorium. Because of the confined space in the model, the explosion was much greater than we had anticipated. The entire model erupted with a loud report. Parts of the structure caught fire as they flew into the air. Pieces of burning debris fell on the volcano, which was laden with melted crayons and candle wax. The volcano immediately burst into flame and began to run onto the floor where it spread out as oil would spread on water.
The noise of the explosion faded into the background, as people began to scream and run for the exits. The one factor which saved the situation from becoming a disaster was the quick thinking of the custodian, Mr. Chambers. He immediately grabbed the nearest fire extinguisher and subdued the flames before major damage could be done.
*
The following morning, Tommy and I, along with our parents, were in the Principal's office before the rest of the students arrived. Mr. Sharpe, the principal, was there to administer the discipline. At first it seemed there was little being said, but that was too good to last.
Finally Mr. Sharpe began to speak. "I don't know what I'm going to do with you two. First you build the finest exhibit I've ever seen, which wins the prize hands down, then you spoil it all by pulling one of the prize stunts of all time. Do you boys have any idea how much damage you could have done? What on earth were you thinking?"

We stood there for a minute without saying a word. Finally I began to explain. "Well, you see, Sir, what we were trying to demonstrate was that some fires were just too catastrophic to do anything about."
"Yes. Well, we very nearly had one of those fires for real. If it hadn't been for Mr. Chambers, we might have burned the whole school down and very probably several people with it. Do you understand? That firecracker you used, what did you say it was?"
"An M1, Sir."
"An M1. Did you realize those are not legal to use in this state? Where did you get it, anyway?"
I looked at Tommy, who was getting ready to speak, and gently shook my head.
Mr. Sharpe noted the action and turned to me. "Well, George. Then you tell me."
"I found it, Sir."
"Yeah, I'll bet you did. Those things are out there just lying around on every street corner, waiting for you to come along and pick 'em up. Is that right?"
Neither Tommy nor I had any answer for that one.
"Now, as to the punishment. What do you boys think I ought to do about this?" He was looking directly at me as though he knew I was the instigator.
"Suspension, Sir?"

"Yes. You'd like that, wouldn't you? Get to go home and play around for three days." He hesitated for a full minute as though trying to build up the suspense. "Well, gentlemen, I'm not going to do that. Instead I'm going to put you both in an empty classroom for the next three days." He paused again. "During that time, I'm giving you an assignment. You're going to write a newspaper article about this. Let me see now. You're going to imagine that apartment house was real and that the boiler blew up just like you were trying to demonstrate. I want you to include every detail of the disaster. How many people were in the building. How many were killed, how many injured. I understand you've written things like this before. Is that right?"
"Yes, Sir," we answered in concert.
"While you're writing this article, I want you to think about how this could have come true. Then I hope you come to realize that this is something that you never want to witness in all your life. Do you both understand?"
*
2001
By the time I arrived on the scene it was already too late. The sight that met my eyes horrified me all the way down to my soul. The fire was, as I somehow knew, in a large apartment complex. There was pretty much nothing left of it by this time. The firemen were beginning to clean up what few spotty fires were left burning. Worst of all, there sitting on the curb with her head buried in her hands, was Ruby. One of the firemen was trying to help her. She couldn’t seem to cry. She was in such shock, I had to ask the firemen what happened.
Charlie Westburn gave me a funny look and asked, “Weren’t you here a little while ago?”
“Not me, Charlie,” I answered. “Must have been somebody else. I just got here. What happened?”

“Apparently a boiler exploded. By the time the first fire trucks got here, the building was fully aflame. No one was able to get out.”
By the time Charlie got to the end of his statement, I was no longer listening to him. Instead, I was mouthing his words myself. They were my words just as I had written them so many years before. I turned again and looked at Ruby, sitting there just drawing little patterns in the gravel. She was babbling something.
“Won’t someone please get my husband out? And my children. Please won’t someone find them?”
I looked helplessly at Charlie. He looked back, and didn’t have to hear the question. “They were directly over the boiler room,” he said slowly. “They didn’t have a chance.”
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