Mr. Johnson also made a grotesquely huge fortune selling campaign hats to the Army in the run-up to the Spanish-American War, and then, swept up in a fit of patriotic fervor, joined the Army himself. This was not the best business decision Mr. Johnson could have made under the circumstances, but his wife was proud of him anyway. He gained a captain’s commission in the Quartermaster Corps; his father-in-law’s influence with our local Congressman saw to that; and the Army sent him to Cuba after the fighting was over, where he saw no Spaniards to speak of, became one of the first Americans to taste a daiquiri, and died of yellow fever shortly afterwards. In his many long letters to his wife, he does not mention whether or not he saw any American soldiers wearing his company’s campaign hats; the subject never comes up. He did mention how beautiful Cuba was, however, and he complained a lot about the mosquitoes, which, given what eventually happened to him, was perfectly understandable. So, as I said, I am sure that he would approve of what the boys in his eponymous fire company are doing these days.
That they were going to have to tell someone what they were doing sooner or later was inevitable; that the someone they had to tell was me only became inevitable when they damn near took my head off with the stupid thing. I am, usually, a fairly calm and unruffled person who does not get too excited about the passing hubbub of day to day life, but it is difficult for anyone to maintain their composure when a projectile came flying out of a firehouse at hypersonic speeds and comes perilously close to taking one’s nose off. And so it was that my composure decided to take a vacation while the next three words out of my mouth, a blasphemy with an obscenity sandwiched in the middle to improve the phrase’s aerodynamic stability, was heard over much of our happy little burg, as was the rest of my protest, which combined blasphemy, profanity, obscenity, and scatology in no particular order. I also wish to take this opportunity to apologize yet again to the mothers, living and dead, of the current membership of the Eldon T. Johnson Volunteer Hook & Ladder Fire Company. What I said about all of you was unfair, unjust, and unkind, as well as ungentlemanly, however sufficient I believe the immediate cause of such sentiments to be. Over the years, I have grown used to my head being where it is and I see no reason why this state of affairs should change at this stage of my life. Call me selfish and unpatriotic if you must, but there it is.
The cat being out of the bag, the pig having escaped from the poke, and me screaming like a banshee—it is hard to keep any kind of secret hereabouts—the boys grabbed me and dragged me into the fire house, trying to get me to shut up and calm down, or the other way around, I’m not sure I remember the order at this point—I was pretty steamed at the time—but after several minutes of trying, during which time I uttered the slurs mentioned in the previous paragraph, and again, my apologies, ladies, I eventually calmed down a bit and even reacquired some small portion of my usual equilibrium, at which point I demanded to know what the hell was going on.
At first the boys tried to pull the national security routine with me, but was in no mood for that sort of nonsense, and, let’s face it, how many national security secrets does any local volunteer fire department have? Not a whole hell of a lot, I’d say, although I’m certain that the ex-sailors among them would probably not want their wives to find out about any number of loathsome diseases our erstwhile swabbies picked up while serving at Subic Bay during the 1970’s and 1980’s, but that seems more a personal security issue than one of national security. So, as I said, the guys, they hemmed and hawed for a minute, but I was not going to take no for an answer, and so finally they all looked to Joe Finnegan, the fire company’s long-time lieutenant and a great guy [full disclosure: we went to high school together], told the others to go get the thing. There was a brief protest from some of the younger members of the company, but Joe told them to be quiet, everything would be all right.
The thing, as Joe insisted on calling the thing, consisted of three lengths of black metal pipe about seven feet long all told that the firemen quickly screwed in each other. It was a cold, ugly looking thing, functional, utilitarian, relentless in its look, stripped of the martial fripperies that men use to hide the true purpose of many a weapon of war.
“You built your own bazooka,” I asked. “What the hell for?”
“The thing’s not a bazooka,” Joe said. “It’s a…thing, I guess you’d call it.”
“You guessed wrong, guy,” I said. “I call it a damn bazooka. What’s it shoot?”
Jim tried to mutter something quickly, but I didn’t catch what he said.
“Try again in English, Joe,” I said.
“Potatoes,” Joe Finnegan said.
I was stunned. I was stunned because I did not realize that potatoes had any sort of offensive capability at all, unless you mash them and put scallions in them, which offends me greatly; if I wanted scallions, I’d eat scallions, and I prefer to have my potatoes without, if it’s all the same to you; and I was stunned because this crew of idiots had damn near taken my head off with an Idaho baking potato. I understand that this life is not forever, that we all owe God a death, and that we must all at some point join the silent majority of the dead. I refuse, however, to go because someone else chose to be an idiot that day, and I refuse to die in a manner that will cause chuckles to reverberate from one end of this our Great Republic to the other, and having my head blown off by a spud definitely comes under the heading of chuckle-inducing. You can talk about how tragic any death is, how, as Donne put it, “…every man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind…”, but if that person died doing something incredibly stupid, then the idiotic manner of his passing is all you’ll ever remember about this poor schnook. Sometimes even that doesn’t work; there were no horses anywhere near Catherine the Great when she died and see what good that’s done her these past two hundred years or so.
To say I was furious underestimates the extent of my rage, but Jim, having thus exposed the Eldon T. Johnson Volunteer Hook & Ladder Fire Company’s greatest secret, now threw caution to the winds and began telling all about the thing, which apparently has an actual name: the Mark 10 [I kid you not; there are nine previous models of this gizmo] recoilless potato rifle. The Mark 10, which Jim now insisted on calling the thing when he wasn’t busy calling the thing a thing, could hurl your standard unpeeled potato some two hundred or so feet down range and still put a walloping big dent in the side of a metal garbage can, making the Mark 10 a very effective method of crowd control should metal garbage cans ever become a major threat to the peace, order, and domestic tranquility of the country. To fire the Mark 10, your standard Special Operations operator first sprays the barrel with a coating of cooking oil—WD-40 is good if there is no cooking oil in the battle space—and then inserts the spud into the breech, wrapped in a damp paper towel. The operator then sprays about fifteen seconds worth of hair spray into the firing chamber; Lysol works just as well if there are no teenaged girls going to their first prom in the neighborhood; the firing chamber is then quickly screwed on and locked shut. Having armed the weapon, our trusty operator then looks for a suitably offensive metal garbage can to put paid to. Finding one, which is easy to do today; the Sanitation Department comes around for the weekly pick-up tomorrow morning here in our happy little burg, aims his weapon and pulls the trigger. An electric spark from a standard AA battery shoots across the tiny space between two contacts in the firing chamber, ignites the hair spray, and the resulting explosion sends our spud hurling down the greased barrel and out into the open air to find some metal garbage can out to cause trouble, or my head, whichever comes first.
There are, as you might imagine, several significant problems with the Mark 10, the first of these being that potatoes are in no way aerodynamic in their natural state; they are a root plant, after all, and aerodynamic efficiency was never an evolutionary necessity for them on their long biological march from simple tuber to potatoes au gratin. Second, modifying the potato’s DNA to make them aerodynamic is not cost-effective. Third, potatoes do not explode and there is, as far as I know, no way to insert a suitable warhead inside even a very large potato, and fourth, no one would ever take the American military seriously ever again if they deployed a weapon that shot potatoes at the nation’s real or potential enemies, with the always important exception of metal garbage cans. In the tribal regions of Pakistan, Islamic extremists are not hard at work developing mortars that fire bunches of broccoli into American airports nor are the Chinese trying to build a new generation of cluster bombs that lay down a carpet of fried wontons all over the battlefield. They just aren’t; it would be silly. I didn’t want to tell the boys this, but someone had to—despite the best and the very sincere efforts of the firefighters of the Eldon T. Johnson Volunteer Hook & Ladder Fire Company, their first foray into the arcane world of secret weapons development was a complete and absolute bust. And then, in a flash, in a moment of utter capitalistic clarity, I saw the investment possibilities of the Mark 10 open before my eyes and visions of pelf, ever-glorious pelf, roll down before me like a river and into my bank account like mighty waters.
With only a few minor adjustments and some new attachments, the Mark 10 could make someone rich, and I intend for that someone to be me. Yes, I need to wrest the Mark 10 from these guys and make it mine. It can happen. David Sarnoff of RCA managed to keep Philo Farnsworth from earning any money from inventing television, even if Farnsworth had all the patents and managed to fight off the slavering wolf pack of Wall Street shysters Sarnoff turned loose on him. In the end, Sarnoff made the money and Farnsworth didn’t, and in a capitalist society, that’s what counts in the end. Yes, indeed, put a sharp grid at the end of that barrel and the Mark 10 and you can shoot French fries to a fan in any sports venue in the world, even a fan in the lousy seats so high up you wonder why they just didn’t stay home and watch the game on the television Philo Farnsworth never made any money on. I could even license the Mark 10 to McDonald’s; they’re always interested in new French fry delivery systems. With the right attachments, there’s no telling what an efficient Mark 10 operator can do; he could slice, dice, and julienne potatoes in their thousands, and why stop with French fries? Mashed potatoes might be beyond the realm of possibility, but perhaps potato salad is not, if there is some way of getting the proper mixture of vinegar, celery, and mayonnaise into the barrel.
And now that I’m thinking about it, why stop with potatoes? Is there any fruit or vegetable a smart entrepreneur couldn’t put in the Mark 10 and shoot over to a willing customer? I don’t know, but I’m sure an engineer could figure out a way, and I’m going to have a boatload of those guys working for me figuring this stuff out and working out the kinks in the thing. For example, the hair spray has to go. It has to. Nobody wants to eat a French fry that tastes like someone just shot the fry through the girls’ high school gym teacher’s beehive hairdo; they just don’t. People are like that, the ungrateful wretches. So the hair spray goes, but what to replace it with? Propane? More cooking oil? Gunpowder? Honestly, I’m not sure, but I am sure I’ll find out once I’ve finished infringing on the firemen’s patents, assuming they have patents. Like I said, that’s what engineers are for. And lawyers…especially lawyers.