S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “The Big Bang,” Park talks about facing fears and leading a cherry bomb life.
The thing I’ve hated most about COVID is the fear. (Other people’s … not my own.) I contracted the virus last February and it was milder than any flu I’ve ever had, plus I’m not fearful by nature.
Oh, I’m as frightened as the next guy if startled, but otherwise I try to confront things that scare me. I credit the d.t.’s for this (there’s no hiding from the terror in them), but I’ve actually been staring down the barrel all my life.
I thought of this as I reminisced about my old buddy Jack Benson the other day. It’s been ten years since he died and I was recalling how, when we were thirteen, the summer before our eighth-grade year, we had lunch at the Burlingame Country Club with a couple other classmates. It was a very exclusive place and one or another of their parents were paying for it because—like most students at the ritzy junior high I went to—they came from big money.
It was a warm day and we were seated at a poolside table with an umbrella overhead and Lenny and Ted between Jack and me. When we’d finished eating and the plates were cleared Benson leaned forward, pulled a cherry bomb from his pocket.
“Hey guys,” he said, “what if we set this off right here? How many of these geezers would die from shock?”
“All of ’em,” said Lenny. “You’d be facin’ a murder rap.”
It was late in the day, around teatime, and we were the only people on the patio under seventy. I gestured to Jack.
“Here,” I said, “give me that thing.”
He handed it to me and I grabbed the large ashtray in the middle of the metal table, turned it over; slid the cherry bomb beneath it so only the fuse stuck out.
“What if we lit it this way?” I said. “Wouldn’t that muffle the sound, produce a subtler effect?”
(I moved from school to school as a kid, so was constantly re-establishing my “bad idea” rep.)
“Jesus,” said Ted, “that’d just make it worse.”
“Yeah,” chimed in Lenny, “that ashtray’s made of clay. It would definitely explode.”
I looked across the table at Jack. I didn’t really want to set off an explosive in a highbrow setting like that; it’s why I’d posed the fuse as starkly as I had, certain he’d realize what a stupid idea it was.
Instead he looks back at me, shrugs and says, “Do it.”
What!? Had I heard him right? Was he kidding?
“Are you serious, Benson?”
“Yeah,” he repeated. “Light it, man.”
I looked at the other two but they were no help … suddenly the guy who never backed down had backed himself into a corner and they were enjoying it.
I looked at the other two but they were no help … suddenly the guy who never backed down had backed himself into a corner and they were enjoying it. I pulled a book of matches from my pocket, ripped one off and waved it at them.
That got ’em moving, as they jumped up and scurried to the clubhouse. (Poker was the first game my father taught my brothers and I, so I was certainly no stranger to bluffing, but I’d never been that nervous in a card game.)
Because it was the Bay Area, after all, and looking back my buddies and I did some pretty horrific stuff as kids, gave whole new meaning to the “juvenile delinquent” tag. I remember, for instance, spreading Limburger cheese on leather car seats on hot days (the vehicle would have to be destroyed), throwing rocks at a kid’s father who had a heart attack later, and sawing down trees in plush Hillsborough yards for laughs.
Malicious little bastards. Plus if flames were involved I was likely the ringleader. Not only did my pockets bulge with matchbooks (I’d been smoking cigarettes since I was seven), but I’d started fires in a motel and forest before I was eleven.
Jack knew this (so wouldn’t be fooled by a firebug’s bluff), but I was beaming him subconscious pleas anyway, thinking, Come on, Benson, be the grown up here, do the right thing and call this off!
“You sure about this, Jacko?” I asked. “Because you signed the lunch ticket, which means they’ll know who you are, anyway, and the moment I light that fuse and we start running we are fucked, buddy. We may be moronic legends afterwards, but we’ll be fucked.”
Benson made a big show of pondering the consequences, then flashed that cartoon grin of his.
“You know, High,” he said, “I’ve always wanted to do something totally crazy. So light that thing before I chicken out.”
I should have made him do it. Instead I sparked up the fuse and the only thing that saved us afterwards was how, for some strange reason, that ashtray didn’t explode, but blew straight in the air (with the umbrella and table close behind).
At least to hear Lenny and Ted tell it, because Jack and I were sprinting through the front gate by then. When we finally heard the boom! and screams behind us (that table acted like a percussion instrument, so it’s amazing none of those old folk stroked out), we’d reached the edge of the golf course.
Good thing, too, because it gave us a healthy lead on the waiter and maître d’ chasing us. They’d have caught us otherwise, as—in the fashion of the times—we were wearing pegged pants and penny loafers, so did more sliding than running on the slick fairways.
We split up at the far end of the course, figured we’d see each other at the police station next, but we underestimated the vast privileges of wealth, how the local cops were just glorified babysitters. I was playing Whiffle Ball with neighborhood kids later that evening when a squad car pulled into our cul-de-sac. The cop on the passenger side rolled down his window, beckoned me into the back seat, where I was given a stern “What was I thinking?” lecture, how it was a miracle I hadn’t hurt or killed anyone et cetera, et cetera, and finally:
“The next time you do something that stupid, Stretch, you’ll be in serious trouble.”
Then they booted me out of the car (earning me major cred with the other kids) without a word to my parents. (Not that it would have surprised them any … they’d been telling my brothers not to dare me to do anything since I was five.)
Which isn’t to say there weren’t consequences. I was never welcome at that country club again, and as eighth grade drew to a close and I was competing to give the graduation speech with another kid, Principal Fineman called me into his office.
“I’m awarding the graduation address to Doug,” he told me.
“Really?” I said. (The ham in me was heartbroken.) “Why?”
“Well, Wilson, Mr. Stillman says you let other kids cheat off your tests.”
I feigned surprise, pretended I hadn’t noticed that—the worse the student—the likelier they were to sit near me.
“Why, I’d never do that, Mr. Fineman,” I said. “And besides … isn’t that their problem?”
“Oh, you’re just an angel, aren’t you, Wilson?” he said. “Or should I call you ‘Eddie’?”
“Yeah … like ‘Eddie Haskell,’ a smooth talker who’s up to no good.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far,” I said, thrilled that he’d compared me to that rat bastard.
“You wouldn’t, eh? How about that cherry bomb at the country club last summer? Was that far enough?”
“You heard about that?”
“A friend of my eighty-year-old mother was there that day, you idiot! Her ears are still ringing!”
My interest piqued. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Is that what this is about? Payback?”
I thought he’d come across the desk and strangle me; when he didn’t, just sat back and grinned instead, I knew something was up.
Then it hit me. “Oh you wouldn’t, Mr. Fineman,” I pleaded. “Come on, I’m a screwup, but I’ve been an honor student here.”
“Exactly, Eddie, one of our finest, and that’s why you’ll be giving the Pledge of Allegiance at graduation.”
As a transfer student I’d met with Fineman the year before, and he’d told me he’d be keeping his eye on me, that according to my transcripts I was the only student he’d ever heard of who’d been sent home from grade school not once, but twice, for refusing to join in the flag salute.
“What was that about?” he asked.
“I think it’s degrading.”
“Degrading!? What do you know about degradation? You’re a kid for Christ sakes!”
I saw Jack for the last time in 2010, just months before he died from stomach cancer. We were sitting in his front room, sharing a joint, when he looked over at me and laughed.
“What?” I asked.
“It’s just strange, old buddy, the men that boys become. Do you remember when we lit the cherry bomb at the country club that summer?”
“I’m surprised actually. It was a wild, out of the blue impulse on my part, and I never did anything that crazy again. But you, High? That’s pretty much all you’ve done, you’ve lived a … cherry bomb kind of life.”
I was moved. “Well, thank you, Jack” I said. “I really appreciate that.”