1944, Grammar School
Two burly maintenance men tramped into the classroom, glanced about and quickly got down to business.
Number one proceeded to examine an electrical outlet on the wall. He held a small, rectangular black instrument with two dangling leads—one red, the other black. He rotated a knob resulting in a series of loud clicks, thrust its leads into the outlet, glanced at the instrument. Satisfied, he moved to another and did the same. I caught a glimpse of the instrument’s face which had a dial and a calibrated scale across which a needle-like pointer moved whenever he poked its leads into an outlet. Though I’d not seen one of these instruments, I knew what it was: a voltmeter. And I knew what he was looking for: a hundred and ten volts alternating current.
Number two in the meantime unscrewed and removed the switchplate from the three switches controlling the overhead lights. Except now they controlled nothing because all six were dark. It was Maintenance’s job to find out why and get them back on.
He extracted a blackened switch and replaced it with a new one, returned the plate and screwed it back into place. Then both left, leaving me to ponder what would happen next.
I had not long to wait.
One returned shortly, toggled the first switch and the two lights in front came on, toggled the second and both fixtures in the middle lit up. I felt a rush as he put his finger to number three, scarcely daring to breathe, heart pounding. He glanced up at the last two fixtures in the rear and toggled number three.
Pfft-bam! A fat, angry-looking, reddish-orange spark leapt from behind the plate, followed by a brief, loud hum startling me—why hadn’t this happened when Teach switched on the lights earlier? Both front and middle lights dimmed briefly before going out, plunging the room back into darkness. The maintenance man gingerly removed the switchplate a second time, unscrewed and pulled out the fried switch and taped up the leads before thrusting them back in and replacing the plate. He left, returned briefly and switched on the first two rows.
Through it all Teach was vying for our attention, a lost cause in my case because I had something more important on my mind.
Eleven years old, I was bored with having to suffer through a second year mired in fifth grade, held back on account of my somewhat less-than-stellar performance the preceding year. Report cards were graded S for satisfactory, U for unsatisfactory. My last had been decorated with a string of bright red U’s, one or two lonely, disembodied black S’s marring the symmetry. I could always count on a black S for attendance since I was never late and rarely failed to show. That lone S didn’t amount to much, its main requirement being my presence, and presumably warm to the touch though no one ever tested for that.
I observed the maintenance men as intently as I dared without appearing overly curious. Because I had access to a piece of knowledge that, were it to fall into the wrong hands would surely have earned me a stern lecture and perhaps a good licking besides, maybe even expulsion. Threats of being packed off to reform school hung heavily in the air those days, evoking a fear intended to keep potential troublemakers in line. I had mischievous energy to burn, a seemingly inexhaustible supply. Ever on the prowl for weaknesses I might exploit, I favored those affording a maximum of disruption with a minimum of risk.
I was the agent of this sudden plunge into darkness. I’d previously worked through many scenarios on how to bring that about but failed to come up with anything workable. The ceiling was fourteen feet high, and each of six fixtures was suspended by a slender rod three feet long, placing them well beyond reach. I had targeted the two in rear because Teach always turned them on last; I deemed it more dramatic if the first four were aglow before the fatal third switch was toggled.
Cold light bulbs, big ones in particular, have markedly lower resistance than when lit. Occasionally, after Teach had switched on the lights in front, switching on the middle or rear resulted in a just-noticeable, fleeting dip in brightness of those already lit owing to the high inrush current of their cold filaments. That informed me all were likely on the same circuit.
Short-circuits in ceiling fixtures are exceedingly rare; the usual mode of failure is a bulb’s filament burning out opening the circuit, leaving others on the line unaffected. The only way to bring about a blackout would be to introduce a short in any one. But how to reach it, and of far greater importance was how to do this without anyone knowing. A known trouble-maker, I had to be constantly on guard, particularly in regard to anything considered out-of-bounds like climbing up brick walls or getting on the roof, both of which I’d done, miraculously avoiding serious injury from several failed attempts. I got caught on my last attempt when about ten feet above the ground, earning for my efforts a stern lecture never to attempt anything like that again.
I could barely conceal my jubilation; it wasn’t every day I got the chance to let the world know I existed, that maybe I could amount to something after all. But no kudos would be forthcoming because I could tell no one, having to let my actions speak for themselves. An unanticipated bonus was seeing two experienced maintenance men, who knew more about electricity than I could scarcely imagine, puzzling over straightforward lighting circuits that ate switches. I could’ve told them of course, but that would’ve been suicidal.
I discovered early on how easy it would be to wreak havoc with the school’s electrical system. Access was readily available. Electrical outlets were not padlocked, light switches not under armed guard. True, fuse boxes and circuit breakers, master-control switches and transformers were strictly off-limits for safety reasons. I was not interested in them anyway; they were way too big to tackle besides extremely dangerous. I preferred a local, relatively minor disruption rather than one wholesale, enough to arouse attention—but not too much lest it attract the wrong kind.
Few books on electricity existed in the rural area I lived. And my parents couldn’t afford to take me to a good book store in San Francisco more than a couple of times a year, thirty-five miles distant on traffic-clogged streets in pre-freeway days. When I saw some of the books, weighty tomes brimming with graphs and abstruse mathematics, I figured I’d never learn much about electricity deeming it a subject beyond my reach. But that didn’t deter me since I was busily learning via experimenting with whatever electrical apparatus I could lay hands on. My small but growing cache consisted of assorted light bulbs, sockets, switches, outlets, wire, friction tape, plugs and a few hand tools, nearly everything hand-me-downs.
I was having a grand time experimenting—until one day sparks flew about, starting a fire which I quickly extinguished. My father seeing this was furious, putting an end to further experiments, though briefly it turned out. I prepared future experiments after everyone had gone to bed, struggling to see what I was doing in the light of a flashlight with failing batteries, sometimes guided mainly by touch. Since dad frequently awoke during the night and might get up any time, I couldn’t risk turning on the light for fear of being discovered.
I’d wait until he left for work the following morning, feeling safe to blow more fuses if it came to that. Fortunately no more fires and few blown fuses followed. Those that suffered that fate were discretely deposited in a wastebasket at school. I taught myself as best I could, spurred on by a gnawing curiosity that sometimes kept me awake at nights planning my next experiment. Little wonder Thomas Edison was my boyhood hero; I came to know more about him and his life than my parents.
I’d learned from experience that a dead short was a sure fuse-killer, sometimes accompanied by a shower of sparks inches from my hands. That never failed to scare me—still does. From that I deduced the sure-fire way to darken all six overhead fixtures simultaneously would be to introduce a short in any one. But how?
Since each bulb drew a thousand watts, that figure neatly printed on its underside and easily readable from below, I knew a short to be effective would have to withstand a large current surge. Six thousand watts per classroom called for a fuse rated at seventy or more amperes assuming all on the same circuit. At first I wondered why the bulbs were so large, six or seven inches in diameter and about ten inches long. But it didn’t take long to find out. My father had a 16mm movie projector which used a two hundred watt bulb about four inches high and slightly larger than an inch in diameter. I’d seen some of them after they’d burnt out, a few with large blebs where the glass had softened from the heat. While the projector had no cooling fan, air was circulated from the mechanism below affording a modicum of cooling. Pausing the film for more than a fraction of a second could result in that particular frame melting, ruining it. Conclusion: a thousand watts called for big glass containers to avoid meltdown and possible implosion followed by glass shards raining down from above.
The ceiling fixtures were constructed in such a manner their bulbs screwed in base up through a circular hole in a three-or-four-foot diameter, semi-translucent saucer-like disk. The bottom half of each upside-down bulb was silvered, coupled with the surrounding disk providing indirect lighting, a horrendously inefficient arrangement by today’s standards. Replacing a burnt-out bulb was easy: unscrew the old from a relatively short stepladder, screw in the new, no need to fuss with anything else. Easy as pie—if one had a way of reaching it.
Since Christmas was approaching, Teach had enlisted a number of us to help put up decorations. Given the room’s high walls she requisitioned a short stepladder.
Imagine my surprise when a huge ladder showed up instead, probably the only one available on short notice. I could scarcely believe my eyes—here was my stairway to heaven! I could now reach any bulb. This revved up my scheming apparatus to white heat. I had no idea how long the ladder would remain in the room; someone could show up any minute and tote it off to another job. Here was my chance—but I’d have to act quickly and decisively. I cringed when I thought of all the things that could go wrong and get me into a heap of trouble. I writhed when I imagined my crumpled body lying alongside the tipped-over ladder, broken glass littering the floor, splattered blood and maybe a few broken bones. I felt my derring-do plummet. Maybe this wasn’t such a keen idea after all.
But I couldn’t think of anything else, consumed by that ladder lying innocently against the back wall. Now and then I’d steal a sidelong glance to see if it was really there, that I wasn’t imagining. I practically wore out its steps in my imagination running up, unscrewing the bulb, planting my device, screwing the bulb back in and scurrying back down, overly careful not to miss a step in my fevered state. I wished I had the power to make myself invisible as I’d seen in the movies.
Twelve noon and the bell clanged loudly, jerking me back to cold reality. I had envisioned myself running up and down that ladder so many times I’d practically worn myself out thinking about it.
As was customary Teach switched off the lights, herded the class toward the cafeteria on the ground floor. Those in front started downstairs, Teach in the lead as usual. Since I was almost always last in such situations, trailing some distance behind the others, I saw my opportunity. In a flash I ducked into a nearby lavatory, counted to ten before placing my ear against the door. Silence. I cracked it a mite, warily peered out. Nobody in sight. I pushed it open just enough to slip through, alibi primed if challenged. “Had to go,” which had worked before.
With pounding heart I bolted back to the classroom. The slightest sound and I would’ve been thrown into instant panic. I was prepared to make a dash for the stairs any moment. I waited to see if I’d been discovered and someone was coming toward me.
I was thrilled—and terrified as I approached the ladder. The room was mine now, the ladder mine—but how long? I glanced up, chose the fixture in the back nearest the cloakroom door. I examined the ladder which seemed to have suddenly gotten bigger. Though small for my age I held myself to be moderately strong. But I wasn’t thinking about that now; the task was to get the ladder into position, and quickly. I opened it, an old rickety, wooden contraption. But when I started to drag it to its destination it made a loud scraping sound. I put a sheet of paper under each rear leg, lifted the front and started to drag again. The idiot thing slid off the paper and scraped again, arresting my progress. In desperation I lifted the front two legs, tilted the ladder slightly and swung a wide arc, nearly tipping it over. I stood beneath affording better control as I walked it into position. I tiptoed to the door, placed an ear against it. Silence.
This is it, I told myself, starting up. The old ladder wobbled some so I slowed my pace. Step by cautious step up I went, each taking me higher into wobbleland. This alarmed me but no turning back now, I resolutely told myself affixing my foot on the next step and the next. If I gave up now I’d spend the rest of my life torturing myself for chickening out with success so near, adding another failure to a growing roster of perceived failures. This was my chance and it wouldn’t come again.
I reached the bulb, placed my hands on it and immediately drew back. Still hot. I blew on it a couple of times, braced my legs against the ladder’s sides and tried to unscrew the uncomfortably hot hunk of half-silvered glass. But it wouldn’t budge. I grabbed it firmly with both hands, gave a sudden, counterclockwise jerk—nearly propelling me off the ladder. I closed my eyes, prayed it would remain upright.
The bulb was loose! I ever so carefully unscrewed it, a quarter turn at a time, fearful it might suddenly disengage and go plummeting to the floor with a loud bang. Since this required both hands my perch was precarious; the slightest sudden motion could sent me sprawling. With the monster safely out and tucked under an arm, I guided myself back down gingerly, a step at a time feeling its decaying warmth against my ribs, sighed with nervous relief the instant my foot hit the floor.
Now for phase two. I had previously wadded up several layer of tinfoil provided courtesy of the Christmas decorations, pressed it into a hard, mogul-socket-sized pancake, a perfect fit for the fixture’s socket. It had to be thick enough to withstand a momentary surge peaking hundreds of amperes. It wouldn’t do if the tinfoil burnt away, the fuse failed to yield or a fire got started. Or—horrors—if nothing happening. This had to work!
I molded the tinfoil pancake tightly around the bulb’s base, massaging it into place. Next was to get the affair back up and screwed in. Two steps up the ladder, I became aware of a disturbing sound.
Click-clack, click-clack. Barely perceptible at first Click-clack, Click-CLACK, CLICK-CLACK! A woman’s footfalls!
Someone was approaching, and rapidly. Was she headed here?
CLICK-CLACK CLICK CLACK!
I dashed back down as fast as I dared, barely avoiding dropping the mountain of glass whose base fairly dug into my side. I bolted for the cloakroom, banging my shin smartly against a desk. Once inside I pulled the door nearly shut—just as I heard the door to the hall open. I buried myself as deeply as I could into a mass of smelly, still damp raincoats. I hoped whoever had come in wasn’t looking for me, meaning my absence hadn’t gone unnoticed. Beads of perspiration ran into my eyes causing them to sting savagely. I squeezed them shut trying to make the pain go away.
I thought the ladder’s position a dead giveaway; all one had to do was glance up to see the hole where the bulb should’ve been. I drew slight comfort in the thought that whoever had entered would likely dismiss it as routine maintenance or similar.
My thoughts were interrupted by the squeak of the cloakroom door being yanked open. I held my breath, gripped by terror the likes I’d not experienced before, daring not to move a muscle. Worse, I had not cooked up an alibi this time, a giant light bulb clutched against my chest a dead giveaway.
The intruder rummaged through raincoats inches from my face, fished something out of a pocket, turned and left. I thought I’d collapse from fright but the thought of the monster pressed tightly against my chest steadied me. Feeling a mite light-headed, I held my position momentarily, dreading my presence had been detected and faculty were en route to yank me from my hiding place, an indignity I could ill suffer. What had begun as an ascent to heaven had somehow gotten redirected in the opposite direction.
I cautiously, slowly emerged from my hiding place. The room was mine again but not like before. I felt its walls closing in on me, imagined hidden eyes watching and cataloguing my every move. I felt too weak to go climbing up the ladder again but knew I must because time was precious—any minute someone could come bursting in. Young and in good health, I quickly recovered.
Feeling the mounting weight of the shortness of time, I scurried up the ladder as fast as I dared, shifting my weight now and then in an attempt to counterbalance the wobbling. I reached the top, started to screw the bulb back in. But the fool thing wouldn’t catch! Perspiration was stinging my eyes so fiercely I had to close them against my will, work the bulb in by touch. Finally it caught and I screwed it back in, gave it a sharp final clockwise jerk after it went no farther.
Free of the thousand-watt monster, I scurried back down, secure in the knowledge that each step down meant less wobbling, less chance of the ladder’s going over. I hopped onto the floor skipping the last few steps, dragged the ladder back scraping be damned, hastily folded it and leaned it against the wall where I’d found it. Throwing caution to the wind I bolted out of the room and into a nearby washroom. A burst of diarrhea suddenly took hold. I thought I would faint and fall off the toilet seat so I lowered my head as much as I could, waited to see what might happen. I felt terrible; this time if approached I had a valid alibi, no more playing games, no need to pretend because this time it was for real. Before leaving I peered into the mirror, beheld a colorless face glowering back.
Still time for a quick lunch though I had not the slightest appetite. Best I go for appearance’s sake. I went downstairs meekly, practically tiptoeing the distance. Before I entered the cafeteria I paused briefly, stood up straight, marched in as if I owned the place. No one paid me the slightest attention, partially allaying fears that I would be accosted and drilled as to my whereabouts. I picked up a tray, stood in line to get it filled, joined my classmates. My hands were trembling so I hid them under the table as much as I could. I toyed with the food, managed a few token bites.
I raced through the previous ten or fifteen minutes in my mind. Was the pancake strong enough to survive the initial rush of current? I visualized the Principal bursting into the classroom unannounced, holding up the burnt switch for all to see. “All right, which one of you is responsible?” That thought panicked me as I visualized everyone directing their gaze in my direction. I further imagined a long, hard grilling from the Principal in his high-ceilinged cubbyhole of an office with its single, dusty window looking out on the parking lot. I pictured a detective dusting for fingerprints on the ladder. One way or another I would be found out.
Then there was my father—a strong man quick to anger. No telling what he might do. More than once I’d found myself knocked to the floor or smashed against the wall, blood pouring from my battered nose. My mother admitted to being afraid of him too. If someone had come up from behind and said boo! just then, I’d probably have jumped clear out of my seat.
Lunch over, we straggled back to the classroom. I was afraid someone would turn on the lights before Teach arrived. She sashayed in, put her hand to the switch plate. Click, the front row, click, the middle. I held my breath. Click—sudden darkness, a forbidding darkness I didn’t like which surprised me. She toggled the switches several times to no effect. In a queer, unexpected way I missed the light, its comforting rays I’d single-handedly abolished.
When I returned to class the following day all six lights were back on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Well, not quite since the sabotaged fixture had been replaced with a slightly shinier one.
What of the old? Surely someone must have salvaged the bulb, in the process discovering the agent of sabotage. I expected the Principle to burst in any minute, motion me to his dank office, I cowering under his soft, unctuous voice. “Mark, would you happen to know about this, he might ask, waving a fused hunk of blackened aluminum foil inches from my face. Of course I would know—but how long could I hold out?
Nothing of the sort happened, the incident to all appearances forgotten.
Only later did it occur to me why. Apparently the pancake had been jammed in so tightly by the bulb that it had taken the shape of the socket’s bottom and remained there after the bulb’s removal, a quick glance revealing nothing unusual. Except perhaps a slight blackening pointing to a now-defective socket. Maybe Maintenance didn’t know that much about electricity after all, certainly not about custom-made, metallic objects rammed deeply inside sockets of out-of-reach ceiling fixtures.
Who’d ever think of that?