†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Unabomber Junior
Itís the first week of school at Traverse High and Iím in my second hour class. Mr. Roach is on his soapbox, preaching about Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group that advocates violence.
A throwback from the sixties, Mr. Roach sports a graying ponytail and a wispy beard; his watery yellow eyes look malarial, but he is, no doubt, the coolest teacher Iíve ever had. He has sworn the class to secrecy about his radical teaching materials, something akin to asking Jay Leno not to bash the president; but, so far, we twenty-three scholars in Contemporary Issues have managed to keep our yaps shut.
Would you believe weíve been studying the Unabomber Manifesto! I was thrilled to finally get to read it. You see, they call me Unabomber Jr. around here because of my fondness for mathematics and computers. For that reason and because I look a little like him. My most trenchant response is usually, "Shows what you know; Kaczynski hated computers."
My real name is Dwight Donner; my parents named me after Dwight D. Eisenhower, for whom my granddad fought during the Normandy invasion. Gramps is a good shit; his son, on the other hand, is so anal his picture should next to the syndrome in the Britannica.
Mr. Roach goes on to talk about the attack on the Vail Ski Resort in 1998, a series of seven fires damaging four chair lifts and buildings, including the Two Elk Lodge Restaurant that burned to the ground. Twelve million in damages. According to Roach, ELF has established contact with the Unabomber.
"Theodore Kaczynski was not insane," Mr. Roach projects toward the back of the room, where my nemesis Corey Manfred and his fellow neanderthals hold sway. I canít say they actually pay attention, but itís amazing theyíre even taking an elective social studies class. "Mr. Kaczynski is as sane as the Dali Llama," Mr. Roach says; "itís the rest of us that are delusional." Mr. Roach wipes his forehead with a blue farmerís hanky. The man wears a chambray shirt, blue jeans, and work shoes to school. Principal Hall tried to make him dress more appropriately but backed down when Mr. Roach threatened to bring in the Civil Liberties Union. "Weíve been brainwashed," Roach thunders, his booming voice causing some of the girls to wince. "We pollute our stomachs with burgers and fries while Ted Kaczynski ate a sensible diet, dried fruits and vegetables he kept in his root cellar."
"How can you say that bastard wasnít nuts?" Corey Manfred interjects. "He murdered three people."
Mr. Roach ignores Manfredís cussing. Any other teacher would have bounced him. "Mr. Kaczynski embraced the scientific method, rejecting morality as unverifiable emotionalism. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Different societies have different values. Cannibalism, for instance, is a taboo in America; whereas, on certain Indonesian islands human protein is considered a delicacy.
"No, what Kaczynski did was not murder in the strictest sense. He was a combatant fighting a lonely war. His targets were computer scientists, airline executives, and psychology professors, all of whom are in cahoots with the government."
Corey Manfred could have cared less how many people the Unabomber killed with his bombs. Ever since third grade heís been harassing the teachers; usually heís enrolled at the Area Learning Center, but his father, owner of Minnesota Snowplow, the biggest employer in Traverse, keeps strong-arming the school board to let the maniac back in. Heíll have to kill someone before heís booted for good, that is if I donít kill him first. Let it suffice to say Corey is not my favorite person. Just the other day he pulled down my gym shorts in front of Cindy
Nikolai--my lady love, my Guinevere.
Iíve read the Manifesto, all 35,000 words, from cover to cover three times now and I plan to read it again. Itís like the only book Iíve ever read that made me think. Iíve also visited the Earthfirst! web site where I found an account on the attack on the Global Warming Summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, where 600 people were arrested. A writer named Alston Chase says Kaczynski is in touch with these people, advising them to "hit where it hurts . . ., the best target being "the leadership of the biotechnology industry." Iíve been making a small contribution to the revolution myself, monkey-wrenching billboards. Donít you just hate freeways? Theyíre such a blight on the landscape.
Corey asks Mr. Roach if heís ever been to a protest, and Mr. Roach tells us he knows Martin Sheen, the most radical of your liberal Hollywood actors and how one summer he spent the weekend in jail with Sheen after protesting at a nuclear power plant.
The room is buzzing after class. One of the twits asks Mr. Roach if he knows Sara Jane Olson, the Minnesota housewife whoíd pleaded guilty to placing a bomb under a cop car during her days in the SLA.
After class Iím paged to the office. "Mr. Hall wants to see you," Mrs. Ziegler, the matronly office manager, says. "You can go right in."
Corey Manfred, Cindy Nikolai, and Werner Boros, one of Coreyís flunkies, are already in there, Corey leaning against a bookcase chewing on a toothpick. The other two are ensconced in leather visitorsí chairs in front of Hallís desk. "Why donít you get a couple of chairs from Mrs. Ziegler," Mr. Hall tells Corey, who shrugs, then does as heís told.
When Corey returns with the chairs, barking me on the chin with one of them, I take a seat and sit there wondering what in the world this is about.
Mr. Hall is taking his time. Itís a tactic he uses quite often. Heíll let you sweat and sooner or later somebody will break and try to blame somebody else. It isnít working this time since apparently none of us have the vaguest idea whatís going on. Mr. Hall has to be at least sixty, but it seems as though heís been sixty for twenty years. We students leave for vacation hoping heíll have retired when we return, but heís like a case of the herpes, he keeps coming back. The man looks like those old pictures you see in the history books from around the turn of the century, one of those robber barons. Three-piece suit, watch pocket, bulbous nose shot with broken blood vessels.
"Corey, Cindy, Werner, Dwight . . . This is about Mr. Roach." Thereís that pause again, the old man expecting us to fill in the blanks. "Youíre all in Mr. Roachís Contemporary Issues class, is that correct?"
Three of us nod, Cindy says, "Yes sir." Sheís the foxiest babe in the school, with long flaxen hair curling well past her derriere, and legs a Rockette would murder for. I know I havenít got a chance with her, but I canít seem to help myself. Maybe itís the movies Iíve seen where the Woody Allen character gets the girl. They shouldnít make those; it never happens.
"Iíve been hearing some disturbing things about that class,"
Mr. Hall says.
Corey crosses his legs, says, "Whatíve you heard?"
Hall stares him down. "You donít want to test me, Mr. Manfred. Youíre on a very short leash around here."
"Sorry," Corey says.
"Why donít you tell me what this looks like, Mr. Donner," Hall says to me, the weakest link. He hands me the Manifesto.
"I donít know, sir."
Mr. Hall breathes on his glasses, wipes them with his tie. "Come on now, Dwight. You know youíve seen it before. Mr. Roach assigned this in his Contemporary Issues class."
Iím sweating like a towel boy in a sauna when Corey says, "We refuse to answer on the grounds that we may tend to incriminate ourselves."
"That will cost you a weekís suspension, Mr. Manfred. Now, Iím giving the rest of you ten seconds to own up or youíll be keeping Mr. Manfred company."
Werner cracks. His father is old school and beats the crap out of him when he gets in trouble at school. "Roach assigned it to us," Werner croaks. "Heís always lecturing us about ecosabotage and anarchism. He wants us all to demonstrate."
Corey looks at Werner as though heís just thrown up on his new Nikes. "Youíre a dead man," he snarls.
We have a substitute for Contemporary Issues the next day who has us read aloud out of some NEWSWEEK magazines sheís brought along. Thatís all we do, just read aloud. We never get around to discussing anything.
Turns out thereíd been a locker check and thatís where Hall found the Manifesto. The kid admitted heíd gotten it as a class assignment from Mr. Roach. Hall had just been looking for more evidence when heíd called us into the office. The kid hadnít said anything about the proselytizing Mr. Roach had done, but that was easily confirmed as well. Mr. Roach was summarily fired without a hearing.
After school Cindy, Corey and me sit on the porch of the abandoned house down the block from the school, smoking blunts and rapping over what to do about Mr. Roachís firing. Iíd come because Cindy had asked me to; if Iíd known Meathead Manfred was going to be here I wouldíve told her I had to change the oil on the family Ford.
"Hall is small potatoes," I say. "There are worse Fascists right here in Traverse. Canyon Containers, for instance. Without them, the capitalist system would come to a grinding halt."
"Yeah," Cindy says. "People would have to grow their own gardens. Can their own vegetables."
Corey cracks his knuckles, once, twice, and a third time for good measure. "You a vegetarian?" he says.
"Iím a vegan," she says. "Thereís a big difference. Vegans donít eat any animal products."
"No wonder youíre so scrawny. Canyon Containers can wait. We have to teach Hall a lesson."
"Who made you king?" Cindy says, grinding the blunt beneath her sandal.
"I got the wheels. I got the fire power. I got money from my part-time job bagging groceries."
"Bagging groceries?" Cindy scoffs. "Youíre practically one of them. I think we should start up a petition. This firing is a gross violation of Mr. Roachís first amendment rights."
"Remember the time Sherry Student Council submitted that petition to fire the food services director," I say. "Nothing came of that. I hate to agree with Corey but maybe strong-arm tactics will publicize the issue."
"Yeah, if we trash Hallís house, Mr. Roach will be a prime suspect," Corey says. "Theyíll be a trial and we can demonstrate."
When we arrive at Mr. Hallís house, a giant colonial whose garage is bigger than my parentsí cottage, we huddle in the nearby woods to get our bearings and finalize our plan. Itís eleven oíclock, one light showing in a third floor window. A gust of wind is blowing in from the west and leaves roil up around us, but thereís a harvest moon bright enough to light Yankee stadium. Our faces blackened, we shrink back beneath the trees for cover. We are Spartacus, a name that Corey came up with after watching the Kirk Douglas movie on cable, and we plan to show Hall the meaning of the word "terror."
Corey takes the letter Cindy has composed and reads it over one last time:
We demand Mr. Roach be reinstated as social studies teacher. We further demand an apology and a salary increase. We also demand that you submit your resignation so that the school board can hire a less fossilized administrator. If these demands are not met, our next 'reminder' will not be as lenient.
Cindy will deliver the letter while the rest of raise havoc. Corey has brought along a .22 rifle, but thereís some disagreement among the troops about how far we want to go here.
"What if somebody gets shot?" Cindy says. "Weíd be murderers." Sheís looking cute as a button in a hooded navy-blue sweatshirt with her hair braided in pigtails.
"Come on, Cin," Corey says. "Itís only him and his stupid wife. They ainít got no kids."
"The bullet could ricochet. If you use that rifle, Iím leaving."
Iíve come prepared with a backpack full of hand-sized rocks. "A stone thrown through the window might be better," I say. "Itís more psychologically effective. First the noise, then the shattering glass and the possibility somebody gets cut by flying shards, with blood everywhere."
"You got that kind of arm?" Corey says. "Thatís at least fifty yards of open lawn between here and the house and that moon is like a flood light."
"We can tie the note around the rock like they do in the movies," I say. "Thereís a tree next to the house. I can crawl out there on my hands and knees and use it for cover."
"Be my guest, Cowboy," Corey grumps, tucking the note in my backpack. Heís no longer the star of the show and he hates it.
It takes me a good twenty minutes to travel thirty yards. My underwear is bunched up and cockle burrs are clawing at my legs. My arm is aching from dragging the book bag full of stones and Iím thinking about giving up when a shot rings out and the glass on the third story window explodes. "Get the hell out of there," Corey hollers as he and Cindy hightail it toward Coreyís truck parked in the lane behind the woods. I know theyíll leave me if I donít jettison the backpack.
I run a 9.9 hundred-yard dash and jump on the running board as the truck spins out of the lane, spraying sand and pebbles. "What the hell happened?" I say when we let Cindy off a couple of blocks away from her house.
"Sorry, Dude," Corey says. "I was fooling around and the damn thing went off."
"What the hell," I say, with more bravado than I feel. "Mission accomplished."
Cindy kicks up a divot of sod. Sheís even more beautiful when sheís mad. "What about the letter, you guys? What good is this if Mr. Hall doesnít know heís got Spartacus on his ass?"
"The copsíll find it," I say. "I thought youíd leave me behind so I dropped the rocks on the lawn."
"Holy shit!" Corey squawks. "I hope it didnít have your name on it!"
I try to think. Thereís always the possibility my mother has
stenciled my name on the thing and I havenít noticed. Iíve lost more than one over the years.
As Iím about to hop back into the truck, Cindy jerks me back by my collar and lays a lip lock on me, tongue and everything. When I come up for air, she says, "Thatís for being so brave."
When Corey lets me off, I float up the walk and breeze through the door. I soar up the stairs to my bedroom on a cloud, not even bothered by the possibility I could be arrested the next day. That night I canít sleep, remembering her sharp little teeth nipping at my lower lip.
"Thank God no one was hurt," Cindy says. We are sitting around a library table, ignoring the threatening stares from Mrs. Hood, who insists on a good study atmosphere. It is a couple of days after the shooting and weíre reading a news article in the Traverse Tribune.
"Says a table lamp was busted," I say. "Sheriff Oates thinks it was a stray shot from a hunter."
"Heís such an idiot," she says. "What would a hunter be doing out that late at night? They never found the book bag. I wonder what happened to it?"
"They could be keeping that part back, like they do with serial killers. Or maybe Hall doesnít want anybody to know his student body is out of control."
"I think he found the satchel and heís just waiting to lower the boom."
"We need to assume he found it, and we have to live up to what we said in the letter by escalating the violence."
"I told you nobody gets hurt."
"If they get me, theyíll inject me with truth serum and make me talk against my will. Youíll go down, too. Your life will be ruined."
Corey is all for it. Heís taken to wearing a WWII Nazi helmet and has visited a web site with explicit instruction on how to make a pipe bomb. We buy a couple of boxes of shotgun shells and steal some threaded pipe and end caps from Millerís Hardware. Corey already has a fuse from his model rocket days. When we put the thing together, we wear rubber gloves and wash the pipe and threads with rubbing alcohol, then let it dry. We drill a hole in one of the end caps for the fuse, screw on the end cap without the hole and fill the pipe with powder from the shotgun shells, throwing in buckshot, nails, and screws, leaving a little room at the top. We stick the fuse in about a third of the pipeís length, thread it through the hole in the cap, fill in the gap with Kleenex, then screw on the cap. Weíre careful to make sure there are no granules of powder on the threads.
"This could get a little hairy," I say. "Shouldnít we test this baby at the quarries?"
"You got the money for more shotgun shells?"
"You have a point. Ten feet of fuse ought to be enough. Where do you want to put the thing?"
"Letís put her in his lavatory. I happen to know Mrs. Ziegler goes on her coffee break at 10:00 on the dot every day. She has it down in the teachersí lounge."
"I donít like it," I say. "I read where Kaczynskiís first couple of bombs were duds. Besides, somebodyíll see you. Thereís always somebody hanging around the office."
"Got a better idea?"
"The undercarriage of his car, like Sara Jane Olson. Itíll show him we mean business."
"I wish I knew how to make a detonator," Corey says.
The thunderclap and what sounds like an avalanche of hub caps can be heard in Contemporary Issues where we are holding a paper airplane competition, despite the frantic pleas of the young woman substitute, who looks even younger than we do. She hadnít even noticed Corey ducking out when her back was turned.
Five minutes later the fire alarm goes off and we all head for our prearranged exits. They have drills a half dozen times a year so everybody is out of the building in five minutes or so. We go out the back door into the teachers parking lot where, off to the side, Hall has his own little slot with "principal" written in bold black letters on the wall. The bomb, having blown the back wheels right off Hallís Ford Maverick, is definitely not a dud.
Weíre out there for maybe five minutes when Hall comes on the PA telling everyone school has been called for today and tomorrow and that the buses would pick us up in fifteen minutes.
When school starts again, there are cops all over the building, and Sheriff Nielson, a red-headed goof with mutton-chop whiskers, is interrogating the teachers and students, concentrating on Mr. Roachís Contemporary Issues class.
Iím called to Mr. Hallís office on the second day. Nobody bothers to search me so they donít find the small tape recorder Iíve got taped to my chest so Corey and Cindy will know what to expect.
The sheriff asks if I want one of my parents to be there while Iím being questioned. "I have nothing to hide," I say. "Anything I can do to help."
He asks a bunch of preliminary questions about what grade Iím in, how I do in school, and if Iím involved in any extracurricular activities. Then he gets down to the nitty gritty. Asks if I have any friends. Iím thinking, Whatís that supposed to mean? Does he think Iím one of those Jeffrey Dahmer types with a human heart in his refrigerator? "Sure, lots of them," I say.
"Could I have their names?"
"I donít see what this has to do with anything," I say.
"Mr. Hall tells me he thinks Mr. Roach is behind the bombing. Roach was working at the Wal-Mart when the blast went off so it canít be him. Weíre thinking some of his students may have gotten a little carried away."
That was when he showed me the letter and my school bag. Thank god there was no stencil with my name on it. Iíd give my mom a big smooch when I got home. "Never seen them before," I say.
"Would you be willing to have your fingerprints taken?"
"You found a fingerprint?" I say, my voice breaking like a goddamn freshman.
"We wouldnít be asking if we didnít," he says.
It canít be mine; I never touched the letter. So I am happy to volunteer my prints. But I practically run down to the Civics classroom, where I ask Mr. Boone if I was obligated to do so. He gives me a Clint Eastwood squint. "You didnít do this, did you Dwight?"
"Hell no," I say. "I just donít think itís fair to be pushing kids around because we donít know our rights."
He tells me heís not sure, but heíll ask his lawyer brother.
After school we walk down to the abandoned house, where I tell Cindy about the fingerprint.
"Heís running a bluff," she says. "I was wearing rubber gloves when I wrote the thing and I used a school computer."
"Iím just telling you what he said," I say. "They know Roach didnít plant the bomb; he was at his job at the Wal-Mart when it went off. So we students are the principal suspects."
"Mr. Roach is working at Wal-Mart?" she says. "Thatís like working for the Pentagon!"
Mr. Roach is stocking paint cans in the Hardware section when we arrive. Heís had his hair cut and is clean shaven. He looks more like a goddamn Boy Scout leader than a radical activist.
When he sees us, thereís a glint of fear in his eyes. "Hey, Mr. Roach," Cindy says. "You look good without the beard."
"I . . . ah . . . canít talk right now. My supervisor."
"Didnít seem like you were too worried about your boss when you were teaching us about ecosabotage," I say.
His face turns sunset purple. "You know how . . . teachers are," he says.
"No, why donít you tell us," Cindy says.
He checks his watch. "Okay . . . why donít you just let me go tell my supervisor Iím going on coffee break. Iíll meet you in the snack bar."
We meander back toward the entrance, stopping at the magazine rack where Cindy selects the newest Danielle Steele. "You read that crap?" I scoff.
"Sheís a good writer," she says.
We stroll through the clothing section where she holds a lacey bra to her chest, 36C. I never would have thunk it, considering her baggy Minnesota State sweatshirts.
By the time we get to the snack bar Mr. Roach is already waiting for us with three cups of coffee. "Sugar, cream?" he asks.
"I donít drink that poison," Cindy says.
I take mine black with just a pinch of sugar. "Did you kids blow up Hallís car?" he says.
"Nah, it was Corey," I say. "You know how he is."
Cindy pulls out a plastic chair and slouches down into it. "You were going to tell us how teachers are," she says.
"Give me a break," he says. "I taught history at Duluth East for twenty years and never got invited to a single graduation party. Can you blame me for wanting to be a hip teacher? I wanted to start off on the right foot at Traverse. I thought all of that stuff about the ELF sounded cool. If you donít coach football, you need something."
"You donít really know Martin Sheen?" I say.
"Nope. Never been in jail either."
"Couldnít you find a better job than Wal-Mart?" Cindy says. "You make us look like a bunch of chumps for believing in you."
"They were the only ones hiring. Iíve got a wife and two little ones," he says. "Iím only forty-six, not eligible yet for retirement benefits. Donít think your ecoterrorists arenít hypocrites. Just about everybody I know is for that matter. The deacon at my church is getting a little on the side. The basketball coach is hooked on casinos."
"You got us into this," Cindy says. "Now youíre gonna help get us out."
"So then you did bomb Hallís car?" When neither of us say anything, he takes a card out of his breast pocket, scribbles a name on the back. "This is my lawyer. Make a deal with the county attorney. Testify against Corey in return for immunity. Do him before he does you. Youíll be doing the teachers a favor by getting that jackass out of their hair."
"What do you think?" Cindy says as we saunter through the double doors and out into the parking lot.
"You told Corey not to use the damn .22," I say.
"Yeah, that definitely wasnít an accident."
"Iíve always hated the guy," I say. "But I did help make the bomb and it was my idea to plant it under Hallís car."
"Yeah, and I couldíve stopped you both if Iíd wanted to. You think itís true what he said about Corey turning us in?"
"Itís his fingerprint on the letter. Howís he gonna explain that away? Remember, he was reading it over one last time? Then thereís Emily."
"The substitute teacher. She asked where Corey was during the fire drill."
"So then, let me get this straight. If Corey implicates us, we nail the bastardís hide to the wall. If he doesnít, we let sleeping dogs lie."
"Either way, weíre just impressionable kids. I turn seventeen in November. The most Iíll do is a year in juvenile detention. Whenís your birthday?"
"This really chaps my hide. Whatís a kid supposed to think when everybodyís such a goddamn phony?"
"Weíre not phonies. We wouldnít be having this discussion if we were. We wouldíve just turned old Corey in to save our skins."
Her face lights up in a Pepsodent smile and she grabs hold of my hand, squeezing so hard my fingers ache. "Why donít you come over to my house. My folks wonít be home until late."
We make love all afternoon. Forget all about her parents until we hear the car door slam outside the open window and I have to snatch my clothes, beat it out the back door and hide in the woods until it gets dark, being eaten alive by bugs. Iím sure Iíve contracted Lymeís Disease as punishment for my crimes.
Life sure is funny. One day youíre this geeky-looking math whiz with the physiognomy of a young Unabomber, and the next youíre making time with a girl who puts Faith Hill to shame. Maybe those movies where the shmuck gets the girl arenít so lame after all. From now on, just call me Woody.
A full-length novel by Dave Schwinghammer, SOLDIER'S GAP, is available on Amazon.com.