Long before Uncle John became known as Crazy uncle John, he did some pretty crazy things.
Casting my minds eye back to my childhood, I can remember such delights as him placing a pillow on top of a slightly ajar door so that it would fall onto the next person to enter the room. In this case it was my mother, carrying a plate of spaghetti bolognese, which received the pillow and got uncle John a telling off of great magnitude.
Childhood, or at least my childhood, was pretty good fun with uncle John around. He showed me stuff like how to ink dots onto the page of paperback books so that when you flicked through it looked like the dot was moving. He told me all about the Gemini and Apollo missions with all the intensity that I believed he had been there to witness each blast off. Add to that launching water/air propelled rockets in the park across the road and we have one cool uncle. Into the bargain, he also showed me how to make Hydrogen with a couple of bits of copper wire and a Scalectrix transformer at some point along the way. Not your conventional slippers and pipe uncle by any means.
The particular incident from the title came one lazy afternoon when I had stolen myself away in the attic to read uncle John’s collection of Mad magazines. Whether he still has them or not, I don’t know, but the collection was awesome and although I didn’t always get the gags, I appreciated the way they were put together and the crazy stuff between the covers. Each issue would end with a folding scene on the back cover – most of which had only been partially folded and I was so worried about ruining uncle John’s magazines that I would carefully push the folding points together, trying not to let them crease, before taking a best guess at the odd scene it was depicting. But I digress.
There I am, up the loft, when uncle John comes up to work on some stuff. Not sure what, but I think he was moving boxes around or something – tidying up. After a while of my inane 8 or 9 year old style chatter, uncle John produced a glass cylinder from one of the boxes he was moving around.
“Wow! What’s that?!” I asked, eyes widening at the trinket he had uncovered.
“It’s a bomb!” he replied, with dramatic empasis on the b word.
Although fascinated by the bomb, I couldn’t help but feel unsafe with this small glass bomb in my vicinity, which quite clearly contained bits of wire and other odds and ends. To me, this was pretty much what a small bomb should look like.
I began to make my excuses and made for the loft hatch to go back downstairs. The bomb was fascinating, but when you know the guy with the bomb is a little bit of a wahoo, you want increase the distance between yourself and the bomb pretty urgently. Even at 8 or so, my self preservation instinct was pretty strong.
After a prolonged period of threatening to blow us both up if I left, uncle John relented when I pointed out that I would tell my mum. Then he’d be in really deep trouble. I called his bluff at this point and decided to bottle it and go – heading for the ladders.
In a dramatic change of heart uncle John relented, and with what can only be described as well placed trust, he gave me the bomb and told me to look after it. He said I could go out and play and show my friends the bomb, but I should be very careful with it.
No shit, Sherlock. Yes, hindsight does beg me to ask what sort of man gives a child a bomb to show to their friends. Always 20/20, isn’t it, hindsight.
I made my way across to the public park in search of some people to show my bomb. As I approached the swings, roundabout and climbing frame area, I realised that the only kids on offer were two lads who were more likely to bully me than be impressed. I felt a little tense at this point, but for the first time in my short life, I wasn’t facing the bullies alone. I had my bomb.
As I approached they immediately turned to face me from their places on the lower rungs of the climbing frame.
“What have ye got their, Robert?” one of them asked. Probably David Pilkington, I imagine – he was always the talkative one – Steven Telfer, the other lad threw me a look of disinterest.
“I have”… pause for uncle Johnesque dramatic effect “A bomb!”
The pair of them recoiled with a mixture of horror and disbelief.
“Liar!” Steven Telfer spat from his position which had just increased to two rungs.
“No I’m not.” I said, holding my bomb aloft for them to see. The glass cylinder, six inches or so in length, filled with wire and all sorts of small, intricate stuff sparkled in the afternoon sun. It was domed at one end, while at the other pieces of copper stuck out… probably for connecting to some other bomb type device, I imagined.
The bullies moved much further up the climbing frame at this point – right to the top. One of them asked what I was going to do with the bomb, what it would be likely to take out if I dropped it, and where I had gotten it from.
“My uncle John gave it to me.” I proudly announced – “He makes them.” I adlibbed “It’s strong enough to blow this climbing frame right up – and the both of you, too.”
What we now had was a hostage situation. I could tell they were scared – for the first time ever I was managing to scare a couple of bullies who always gave me a hard time.
For most of my of my childhood that had involved going to primary school, I had to journey home past their houses at the edge of this very park. My heart would race until I was a safe distance passed the area because, on more than a few occasions, they had been there waiting for me. Most of the time they wouldn’t do anything, but occasionally they would stop me and threaten me and just generally make me scared.
Living in the fear of something happening is almost 100 times worse than something actually happening to you. Bullying does that to a young kid – you tense up, your heart races, you frown your face into an expression that says “Punch the fuck out of me – I wholly expect you to anyway.” So they do.
Anyhow, due to all of the above, I suddenly realised that I had the root of most of my problems scared and at the top of this climbing frame in front of me. In my hand I had a bomb. Wow. I could wipe them out… or at least injure them… maybe just enough to make them wary of me in future. After all, I told them that uncle John made these things – I could easily get another one, for all they knew.
But the fact was, the longer the silence went on, with these guys shifting around the climbing frame, the more the doubt set in. Would the bomb be powerfull enough to take them out and let me get away?
My doubt checklist was cut short by David Pilkington moving down the climbing frame towards me. “What are you doing?” I asked, backing away.
“Well if you’re going to blow me up I’m at least goannie try and get ye!” He answered back.
That was it – the small me in the control room of my brain flicked the panic switch and things developed pretty fast. I raised my right hand, waiting long enough to see that David was still coming at me, and threw the bomb at the concrete in the center of the climbing frame.
I had already started to back away hurriedly as it sailed towards its target. I knew I had better be out of range, but I also didn’t want to miss the explosion.
David Pilkington screamed, lifting a hand to cover his eyes. Steven Telfer slipped in panic and fell down a level of the climbing frame – I remember hearing the “dong!” as a shin bone connected with the metal frame. Ouch!
Then the bomb hit the ground. Or as it turned out at this point, the glass valve from an old television hit the ground – made a “POP!” and shattered its contents all over the concrete.
“GET HIM!” came the cry, as the bullies raced from the climbing frame.
Although my legs jellied a bit with fear, I managed to start running before they buckled. I had always been a fast runner as a kid – mostly because I’d start running the second the school bell went so that I could be home and passed the bullying area before they could get home. Of course, all the adults just assumed that I loved running and that I was trying to make it home from school fast so that I could go out and play.
Yeah, right – every day I was running for my life. I ran because I imagined the momentum would take me safely past the danger area before they could stop me. It actually had a couple of times, with a bit of dodging. I would only jog up until I got to their area, then with two hundred and fifty or so yards to the house, I would floor it – running as fast as my legs would carry me, sometimes closing my eyes and just using every last ounce of energy to pound my legs into the ground and propel me homeward.
And now I was doing it on weekends too, as I raced the hundred and fifty yards to my house, not even daring to look over my shoulder. As I got to the road I done a quick double take for traffic, leaping from the grass verge onto the tarmac – my right leg almost buckling on landing, but just holding enough so that I didn’t trip before I reached the other side.
Stumbling up the grass verge beside my home I raced through the gate, slamming it behind me and tearing round the pathway to the back door of the house. (we have a weird family, everyone has to come and go through the back door to this day – don’t know why.)
I scampered up the stairs, breathless but fuelled with adrenaline and panic, “Uncle John! Uncle John!” I cried as I reached the landing, “The bomb didn’t go off!! The bomb didn’t go off and now they’re after me!!” I explained, panting and gasping for air.
Darting back to the window I could see the bullies outside the gate, obviously out of breath but with the intention of waiting for me to re-appear for a kicking.
“What?” asked uncle John as he came down from the loft. “It didn’t go off?… must have been a dud.” he shrugged before explaining that he had to go out.
I pointed out the bullies and that they were going to get me if I went outside again. Uncle John being very helpful told them to go away, then got in his car and drove off. At which point they came back and continued their stakeout.
I sat in my room, recovering from the ordeal of the dud bomb, stealing quick glances through the window to see if I was still under seige and replaying the events over and over in my head to see if there was something I could have done to make the bomb go off as intended.
It was a long afternoon before my mother came home and cleared them away, I can tell you. Later on I learned that the “bomb” had, in fact, been a valve of some sort from an old television set.
My level of trust for uncle John dropped slightly that day, but maybe only for a few weeks. He might not have given me a bomb, but I think he helped me learn that it’s not always what you have that counts… it’s more what you’re perceived to have.