Character builder

March 1984 Indian Head Maryland, Explosive Ordinance Disposal School.


The scene was right out of a bad war movie, there are bombs lying all over the forest floor.  Some are sticking out of the ground at odd angles; others are simply lying there like they fell out of a truck.  Ordinance is littered everywhere, there are small bomblettes the size of baseballs and large 500lb bombs the size of water heaters.  Everything looks so real, the only give away is the sheer quantity, and the little signs in front of each bomb saying what it is and a reference number for the instructors.  Its cold, with traces of snow on the ground, every where you step it squishes or cracks, the mud can’t make up its mind whether to be a solid or liquid.  It’s a crappy day outside with drizzle and intermittent snow, however, that doesn’t bother the instructors. They believe that bad weather enhances the experience.


I walk up to my bomb the sign says it’s # 47.  I check it out visually trying not to disturb the inert training tool.  After about ten minutes of looking through the technical orders I find out what it was.  The 250lb general purpose bomb from World War 2 was made in Germany and the TO recommends removal of the fuse using a remotely operated rotational device.  Over my shoulder the instructor smiles, he knows I just got one of the trickiest and least likely to succeed methods of disarming a bomb ever devised.  Someone in the army who thought it up, the German army.  I remember the procedure from a previous class; I also remember all the discussion later on how it took three tries before the instructors were able to pull it off. 


The fuse on the bomb is coke can sized, and sticks out of the bomb at a nice convenient angle parallel to the ground.  I go back to the bomb disposal tool shack and retrieve the proper tools of the trade.  100′ of rope, a sledge hammer, three iron stakes, and a pipe wrench was all that is needed.  If I had some help from MacGyver, and some divine intervention and I would be all set.  The instructor stopped me and looked over the TO and checked my toolbox.  He nodded and started his stop watch.  I was so nervous and stressed that I actually started to feel a bit of separation from what I was doing.  I am not sure if this is a normal reaction or not, but I honestly felt like I was watching someone else screw this up. After about a half an hour my Rube Goldberg project was complete.  The pipe wrench was attached to the fuse, rope tied to the wrench handle and wrapped around the fuse the required number of turns, then through a loop tied to the stake and off to a spot behind a near by tree.  The idea was that by pulling on the end of the rope the pipe wrench would start the fuse spinning, and then after the wrench fell off the rope would continue unwinding the fuse until it would eventually fall on the ground, which is a much less dangerous place than inside a bomb.


None of this worked of course.  I pulled on the rope ten minutest after my time limit expired and the wrench fell to the ground with out moving the fuse.  Meanwhile most of the other students and instructors were done with their tests, so they got to watch. To this day the whole experience seems surreal and dream like.  I never did get the whole pipe wrench rope trick to work, nor did I see anyone else succeed with this method of fuse removal during a test.  Luck of the draw I guess.


The reason for this little trip down memory lane is a story that I was listening to NPR this morning.  There was a story on how high school graduates are under so much more stress today than just a few years ago.  Once they graduate and are faced with uncertainty and doubts about the future.  Worry about high fuel prices, increasing costs of education, and costs of health care cause a lot of stress.  Young people are faced with technological challenges with cell phones, e-mail, text messaging, and instant communication creates a society where they are always on, there is no time to be quiet, reflective, and alone.


Give me a break.


Monday, after my failure at disarming the German bomb, I was to appear before an academic board to decide my fate.  The three possibilities were, discharge from the armed forces, re-classified to a different career field (Presumably easier or at least less bomby) or get another go with a previous class and get a do-over.  I had the weekend to think things over and collect myself.  After walking five miles to the credit union I bought a roll of quarters and headed back to the dorms.  Once back I went to the day room and bought a beer from the creatively re-stocked soda machine.  I called my parents and told them that I may be coming home earlier than I thought depending on what the board says on Monday.  Every few minutes I had to feed the pay phone with more quarters. MTV was always playing on the big television in the day room.  It was the only TV with in ten miles.


Ooh, I would have been so much more stressed if I had a cell phone and internet access.


Uncertainty and doubt about the future? Who are they kidding?  Did the people at NPR graduate from high school with a guarantee of graduating from college and a job waiting for them?


Give me a break.

A good amount of uncertainty, stress, and worry builds character.


Whenever I did something really stupid, painful, or made a fool out of myself, my Dad would always have a bit of helpful advice.  He would say, “Look on the bright side, It builds character”


I guess he was right.


5 thoughts on “Character builder

  1. PF, please… PLEASE tell me that you’ve seen the BBC miniseries UXB. IF you have not, then you have some very good TV in your future.

    I really do feel bad for kids today, but not for the reasons that were in the story you listened to. The thing that makes me feel badly for them is that as a culture, we have weighed ourselves down with so much crap that we are expected to buy and support. Internet? Gotta have high-speed internet. Cable? Nah, I’ll get satellite! New car? Well, yah! Gotta have new wheels. Gianormous TV? Hey, If I’m paying that much for sat-TV, It’s going to look good! Cell Phone, too much house, good cloths, organic food, it’s a lot to pay for. We loose sight of the fact that we didn’t used to have all this crap to pay for and it’s the monthlies that kill us. That’s pressure for all of us that we really don’t need.

    -Turkish Prawn

  2. Turk,
    You make a good point. Monthly payments are a trap that we all exist in. Cell phones, internet access, and cable TV are luxuries than can be dismissed in an emergency; it is credit cards that can really screw things up. What’s worse is when I see people use credit cards to make loan payments. It’s a horrible trap.

    OMG, I completely forgot about that series. I watched UXB on (Anglia) ITV in England in 1986. I remember it was a great show, but it’s been so long I nearly forget. Looks like time to see if it’s available to buy on DVD.

    Thanks for reminding me!

  3. planetross says:

    So which of the 3 possibilities actually happened?
    Don’t leave us hanging man!
    The board decided that it was in the interest of the American military that I be re-classified to a position that could better use my as abilities to protect this wonderful nation from threats, both foreign and domestic. They sent me to Texas to attend trade school to become a welder / sheet metal worker. I felt quite relieved; they could have just sent me home. Also, there are hundreds of jobs that sucked much more than civil engineering. Hell, there were many other careers in civil engineering that suck worse than Metal Fabricating Specialist. At least when I ended my enlistment I have a marketable trade.

  4. Layman Pong says:

    “Danger UXB,” by the way, friends.

    Neuroscientists believe a bit of stress actually is essential for the optimal learning environment, but too much is counterproductive.

    “A bit.”

    That’s the real trick.

  5. Layman Pong says:

    Do you think you’d be a much different person had you have passed, and gone in that “direction”?
    Of course I am a different person. It took me years to overcome what I saw as a failure on my part to complete what I started. I think that everyone has a point in their lives that they wish they could have just one “do over” that’s mine. However, if in the process of this “do over” I would loose important parts of my life I would have to take a pass. Hypothetical situations are fun to dream about but in the end just foster self doubts and regrets. I am a different person due to my early choice to join the military. How about you?

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