Confessions of a Preteen Arsonist

by Donald K. McIvor i haven't been able to uneventfully make a hotel reservation since 1985. That's when MacGyver premiered, and guess how you pronounce my last name? I always get a chuckle when, after the clerk makes the connection, I relate how I can fashion an atomic weapon out of paper clips or whatever.

Back in the 1930s, however, when I was growing up in East Kildonan, a tiny suburb on the outskirts of Winnipeg, Manitoba, not only was there no MacGyver—there was no TV. Not to mention no computers, video games, or Xbox 360s. On the Canadian prairies, life was pretty simple. So kids like me made our own entertainment and adventure. This story relates how a buddy and I amused ourselves with a tricky little contraption that, now that I think about it, probably would not have made our hero proud (and which I don't recommend you try at home).

Here's how we made it:

1. We got two standard wooden spring-loaded clothespins.

2. We took one apart.

3. Then we forced one of the wooden halves of the disassembled clothespin through the spring of the other.

4. And finally, we used the loose spring to clip the whole thing together.

We could now cock the spring like the hammer of a rifle. The bullet, in our case, was a standard strike-anywhere wooden match that was wedged into the jaws of the contraption, with the match head facing the shooter. With a flick of a thumbnail, the cocked spring would snap forward to light the match and send the flaming projectile twenty-five or thirty feet.

One mild September day, my friend Sam and I were riding our bikes along a gravel road, firing lit matches into the grassy ditch to our right. No particular reason, of course, just a cou ple of bored boys engaging in some random pyromania. Usually this would burn the grass out of the ditch, but not much more. This time, however, the wind carried the fire up out of the ditch and into the tinder-dry grass of the adjoining field. We got out of there in a hurry and hid to watch the fire eat through the field.

And that's when we noticed that a wooden frame for pouring the foundation of a house had been built in the middle of the field, directly in the path of our blaze. We hadn't seen it at first because it was hidden by the high grass. Too late now. As the frame was consumed by the flames, we knew we were doomed to life behind bars. Not that we planned to turn ourselves in. Instead we slunk back to our homes by way of back routes and destroyed all evidence. I was petrified, of course. Not only of law enforcement, but of how my parents would react—would the good name of the clan Mclvor be forever sullied by the criminal acts of one of its junior members?

Each time we saw Chief Coley, the lone policeman in our town, we behaved furtively. But as the weeks turned to months and then to years, we realized we'd gotten away with (accidental) arson. We never did find out whose would-be house that was. But ever since, I have been very careful with matches.

Donald McIvor was able to rise above his early life of crime to become a geologist and oil-company executive. Now retired, he is the author of Curiosity's Destinations: Tales and Insights from the Life of a Geologist (Grindstone Press, 2005).

Pass the Potato by Donnie Snow

IN THE LATE '90S, BEFORE THE DOT-COM CRASH, AN INTOXICATING mood of Clintonian prosperity allowed otherwise-modest young liberals to indulge in the type of lavish, guilt-free revelry more common to the supply-side P. J. O'Rourkes of the world.

As a grad student in Baltimore at the time, I'd found a small collection of these people for friends. We all believed in quality debauchery, but had reached the age when waking up on somebody else's floor and breakfasting on warm beer and cold pizza was, frankly, unacceptable.

These generally higher standards for comfort and quality led to an upgrade of our traditional New Year's Eve bash: The liquor still came in a bottle with a handle, but the beer was mi-crobrew, the food was prepared instead of purchased, the cigars didn't have plastic tips, and the ritual sacrifice of empty kegs was altogether discontinued.

Even the marijuana was high-end. Bobby, a future attorney, had just scored a bag of grade-A hydroponic from a Grenadian short-order cook. But somehow we'd all become so adult that nobody could scramble up so much as a pipe or even rolling papers. And I'd long ago jettisoned the port-a-bong stowed in my VW microbus.

Crowded into a narrow apartment kitchen with Bobby, a Czech expat, and Frank, an environmental lobbyist who was hosting the party, we exchanged incredulous gazes, then tried to decide what would be worse: rolling it up in newsprint or asking strangers at the party if they had anything we could use.

Before Frank could get to his recycling bin and yesterday's classifieds, I remembered the potatoes I had brought to make my famous hangover huevos for brunch tomorrow.

"I'm all over this," I said, reaching into the pantry for a spud.

Bobby handed me his Montblanc and offered some advice: "No need to be an artist. It's all about airflow."

How to Fashion a Potato Bong with a Pen and Aluminum Foil

1. With the pen, core a potato in two places—one hole on top, another from the side—until the two shafts meet.

2. Using the tip of the pen, poke a tight array of tiny holes into a small swatch of aluminum foil.

3. Tuck that foil into the top shaft.

4. Drop in a bud, fire that mother, and inhale through the side shaft.

5. Pass the hot potato.

Long past midnight, after the whiskey had run out and the potato smelled like the Hudson River, Bobby cornered the three of us. "I have come to the realization that the convictions of my youth are on a collision course with my preferred lifestyle," he lamented. "On one hand, I believe in equal pay for equal work,

a coherent long-term environmental policy, and safe highways. But then again, I don't want those things to interfere with making a shitload of money, reaping the benefits of exploited child labor, and driving a fast car down the interstate with some hottie who may or may not be my wife."

We grunted in empathy.

This went on for awhile, each of us chiming in, until— drunk, belligerent, and increasingly resentful about approaching thirty—we did what most guys in our position would do: We broke into one of the Johns Hopkins frat houses across the street.

Three Things to Remember When Raiding a Frat House to Recapture Your Youth

1. Bring beer. If stopped by a cop on the fraternity's property, you can say you're late for the party; if caught by a frat brother, well, you've brought gifts.

2. Use the front door. Frat houses are rarely locked. You can usually walk right in like you own the place.

3. Confiscate any beer from the fridge and at least one useless, miscellaneous item for sport.

We heard some rustling upstairs as we liberated thirty-two cans of Schaefer and Milwaukee's Best, along with the frat's framed yearbook photo from 1998, but the house seemed mostly empty. It was the middle of winter break, after all, and most of the brothers were home for the holidays.

There's no telling exactly how much time passed before the lingering frat guys woke up and noticed their missing 3' x 4' photo or crappy beer, but the cop who answered their call took only a few minutes to notice the Bacchanal raging across the street.

It must have been past 3 a.m. when the officer knocked on the door. Frank invited him in and poured him a beer (hey, it's Baltimore) while everyone else tried not to look at the pool table where we'd hidden the photo under the cover.

By the time the cop finished his cursory inspection of the apartment, I was slicing the potato into the sausage gravy.

"Hungry, Officer, uh, Levy, is it?" I asked, proffering a biscuit.

He took the biscuit and drank the beer, but passed on the gravy.

We all did that year.

Donnie Snow is a freelance reporter who lives in Memphis. He still brags about his famous huevos.


WHEN I GOT MY FIRST BIG PROMOTION BACK IN 1997, MY DAD wrote me a letter. It was a beautiful letter, full of love and pride, and it was designed to both congratulate me on what I'd accomplished and prepare me for what was to come. "Never compromise your integrity," he wrote. "No matter how dire the situation, keep your cool.""Practice empathy." Yes, it was the advice of millions of fathers to millions of sons—and millions of senior executives to millions of middle managers—but this was his advice, his hard-won wisdom, and he'd taken the time to boil it down for me, one nugget at a time. I still pull that letter out and read it every once in awhile, and in twenty years or so, when, God willing, my own son finds himself in a position of responsibility, I intend to steal from it liberally.

But there was one line that I remember more vividly than the others, and that's because I found it so surprising: "Act confident, even if you're not. No one can tell the difference."


Dan Vaughan, a banker who stayed in his first job for more than twenty years, an Irish Catholic who went to church every Sunday, a company man who wouldn't call in sick unless he was literally unable to move, was telling me to . . . mislead?

Of course not. Now, almost ten years later, I understand what he was really saying: Sometimes you gotta be MacGyver on the job.

Not in the traditional sense. My dad has no gift for the mechanical arts, and because he was never able to teach me how to work with my hands, neither of us expected me to wind up working with my hands. What he meant is that in almost any job, the single most important qualification is the ability to just figure it out, even—especially—when you have no idea how. You need to be cool, no matter how hot the situation. You need to be (or at least look) unflappable. Confidence, after all, is the first step toward solving any problem.

In one way or another, all of the characters in these stories followed my dad's advice. Sportswriter Chris Jones had no idea how (or even whether) he would find Ricky Williams, the Miami Dolphins running back who'd fled to Australia, but that didn't stop him from assuring his bosses that he'd pull it off. A.J. Jacobs, who wrote a book about reading the entire encyclopedia, came up with a brilliant, preemptive scheme for dealing with the hecklers he knew would hound him on his book tour. And Stacey Grenrock Woods, well, Stacey's workplace MacGyverism may be the most genuinely clever (and entertaining) story in this entire book.

We begin at the beginning, with Susan Casey's story about MacGyvering herself into her very first job. I doubt my dad has ever done anything so daring, but he'd definitely applaud her chutzpah.

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