Things That Go Bang in the Night

A true story from my friend "Jawn" in Washington DC. He sent it to me in response to my explosive story....


You know my brother Jim well enough to know that he's just a tad... er, unorthodox in his approach to things. Well, back about 1977 or 1978 I was manager of a project for the US Army Research Institute being performed by a "Beltway bandit" company in northern Virginia. (As a matter of fact one of the local TV channels did an "exposé" of waste and fraud by Beltway bandits with their talking head posed in front of our very building. As I recall we got some business out of the publicity.)

We were basically testing various techniques, e.g. eye-safe lasers, for simulating combat engagements more realistically; for example, if a soldier exposed his body to hostile fire and was hit by the laser beam, a harness of sensors would be activated and it would turn off that soldier's M-16 so that it wouldn't fire -- in other words, he'd be "dead" for the duration of the exercise. That worked OK for direct fire weapons (within the limits of troop-proofing the system; troopies quickly learned to smear mud on the sensors to render themselves "immortal," for example) but you still needed "controllers" to accompany the units in the engagement and prevent these efforts to cheat, plus these folks had to make judgement calls about casualties if indirect fire or grenades were used in the engagement.

Which brings us to the neat things that go "Bang!"

Grenade explosions and artillery rounds bursting are simulated by nifty king-size firecrackers-cum-flares of different sizes. The grenade simulator's about as big as a Campbell's soup can; the artillery simulator's somewhat larger. These things have fairly short fuses (friction-lit) but have been studied to hell and despite their terrific noise and bright flash when they explode, they are quite "safe" -- I once saw an artillery simulator go off between a troop's legs and while it scared the bejesus out of him (and others nearby), he wasn't injured in the least physically (although I'll bet his ears rang for a while). [But man: talk about "shell shock"! The guy was probably a basket case for a week. -rc]

Anyway, after each exercise, any unused ammo, simulators, etc. that is not sealed in its original shipping container has to be expended one way or the other; it cannot be returned to the armory for quality control reasons. In large scale exercises, what often happens is that there is a general fireworks display during which thousands of blank rounds are fired (often the medics are given a whole bunch of machine-gun rounds to shoot off, as they never get to fire their M60's during the actual exercise, being that they're in a medic role), all the grenade and artillery simulators are lit and exploded, etc. In smaller exercises such as we sometimes ran with platoon-sized units, often the unit commander would leave a few dozen simulators lying out in the open and walk away while us civilian types helped ourselves to them to take home and play with.

I must have brought home several dozen of both types of simulator during the course of the contract. I of course packed them with my checked luggage since even in those days carry-on was searched. Lord knows how much longer I'd have left to serve in Leavenworth if they'd ever have made me open my suitcase!

Well, I lived in the DC urban area and didn't really have a good use for these big firecrackers, but my brothers lived in small towns and had young kids, so I'd just give the stuff to them. Jim's twin brother Rupert would prudently take his kids way out in the country and set the stuff off far away from anybody who might complain.

Jim was another story.

One New Years' Eve (he was single at the time) he and a WV State Police trooper, also a bachelor, were out carousing and were driving home when midnight approached. Their route took them through a string of small towns in western Maryland, down one of the valleys there. Jim had some of the simulators with him in the car, and he was lighting the fuse and throwing one out every so many miles. Right at midnight, they were passing through the middle of one of the towns and Jim did his thing. To his horror -- and especially that of his policeman pal -- they watched the thing with the fuse burning roll through the parking lot of the local police station and come to rest beneath the town's only cruiser, just as it exploded!

Needless to say, they beat feet back home without setting off any more firecrackers! They actually headed first for the state trooper's house, where he had an office with his official police radio set up. Not more than a few minutes after they got there, they heard a call for all highways in the area to be blocked and cars checked, as terrorists had struck in Lonaconing and attempted to blow up the police station and its vehicle! And the description of the getaway car was pretty close to what Jim and the cop had actually been riding in! I don't know if they could have talked their way through a roadblock or not, but they lucked out.

Another time, Jim had some of the simulators with him at a picnic on the Fourth of July, at the farm of a friend of his. The farm has this good-sized pond that is really well-stocked with bass, and the panfish that the bass eat, so that there were some really really big bass in there, almost trophy size. Well, after a few beers Jim decides it'd be fun to throw one of the simulators in the pond and watch the waterspout it'll create. Mike, the owner, asks about whether this is a good idea, as isn't dynamiting fish is a fairly common means of killing lots of them indiscriminately? Well, Jim gives him this song and dance about how the Surgeon General has tested these things and they won't hurt you even if they go off right next to you, blah, blah -- which of course has nothing to do with their capacity to generate pressure. So finally Mike says "OK" and Jim heaves the simulator into the pond. I don't need to tell you what happened: there was a nice waterspout, and a few minutes later, dozens and dozens of dead fish start rising to the surface. I'm not sure Mike has invited Jim back ever since that day.

Posted December 13, 2004

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