The Bomber

The bomber walked through the basement hallway, checking rows of lockers, noting the unused ones, the ones without locks, looking for the one he would fill with explosives. The still summer air, long after midnight, reeked of cigarettes, sweat and petiole oil, and the radical student could almost hear the bustle of the day hanging in the air. The young anarchist had been there earlier, shoulder to shoulder with the press of students, walking through the hallway, trying to decide what a bomb of this sort might do in such a long, enclosed hallway.

“Ok, I have it. More than enough to get the job done.”

The bomber had met the other members of the cell, Frank and Ralph, through the anti-war movement. Frank was a mover and shaker.

“Be at the school by seven. Ralph is hung up at class till then. Same place as Friday.”

Frank was a freshman at Harvard and he was angry. He was the most well-read among the three conspirators, at least in revolutionary literature. All he could talk about was the working class and the Vietnam War.

“I’ve got some guys who want to help.”

The PLP, or Progressive Labor Party, was a Maoist splinter group that had broken off of the Students For a Democratic Society, commonly known as SDS. The anarchist’s life swirled, like alphabet soup, around acronyms for political parties and drugs: SDS, TNT, RYM, STP, LSD, PLP, THC.

For the past year, the cell members had “taken to the streets,” pulling dormitory fire alarms and revving up the students who poured out of the buildings and into the streets of Boston. It wasn’t hard to get the kids stirred up, march on some building and break some windows. The cops always showed up and traded blows with the radicals. The students would usually get the crap beat out of them and the cops would get bricks through their squad car windshields. None of the cell members minded the cops beating people up; it just made the students hate the police. It was called “radicalizing.” One time, Ralph and his co-conspirators started a riot and went home to watch it rage on TV. The three of them laughed out loud as they watched the now headless mob run through the streets, fighting the police and causing no end of mischief. After talking about bombing the campus for months, the three radicals had finally decided to act.

Ralph, unlike the rest of the cell, was actually from the working class. He was on a scholarship and his Dad worked at a gun factory in Connecticut. Ralph always enjoyed a good time and smoked a lot of dope. His Italian features and wry smile went well with his laid back attitude. He was, for sure, smart; but he wasn’t any bookworm. He never fit in with the serious types at the PLP, and didn’t read the political treatises they loved to produce. No, Ralph was just an all-around good guy, who didn’t like the War, and now he was going to send the University a message.

The three conspirators sat in a semi-circle, awkward and uncomfortable, in cheap Formica chairs under the sterile fluorescent lights of the classroom.

“We have to make sure they all go off together.” Frank leaned forward.

“And we better make damn sure no one’s around when we drop these babies off. I’ll handle the research center. Ralph, you check out ROTC.”

“I’ll check out CLA,” the bomber interrupted. The College of Liberal Arts stretched along Commonwealth Ave for a block, and was the centerpiece of Boston University.

At one in the morning, he returned to inspect the basement hallway, carefully choosing the best place to set off the explosives. It was deathly still; the only sound was the distant hum of a basement air conditioner. The radical student chose an unused locker in the center of the long passageway. As he turned towards the stairwell, an older, heavyset man slowly waddled down the hall. The anarchist’s heart raced, and he quickly turned his face. The old man, now clearly identifiable as a school janitor, seemed oblivious to what was going on.

The angry radical faced the approaching maintenance man. As the old man moved closer, his stiff hip and slight limp became obvious. As the bomber watched, the elderly man shut one locker door after another; the sound of each door slamming shut exploded down the hall. He looked up and smiled as he reached the bomber.

“Good evening.” The man’s voice was a bit gravelly, but welcoming. The anarchist wondered if he had a wife, children, or maybe grandchildren. The older man stepped by the youthful bomber. The radical student smelled the scent of cologne, and saw a gold band on the janitor’s weathered hand. The old man smiled and his eyes came alive.

“You’re up late, young fellow.”

He imagined the elderly gentleman passing by the locker the moment it exploded, dark red stains soaking his green shirt.

“Yeah, I guess so. You always work late?”

“All night, every night.” The janitor was only a foot from the student, and his large frame seemed to jump out of the air, more real and alive than anything the boy had encountered in a long while.

“OK. Well, don’t work too hard.”

The janitor placed his hand firmly on the bomber’s shoulder.

“It’s too late for me.” His voice was soft and steady. “I’m afraid I’m gonna work hard ’till the day I die. But not for you. You got a long life ahead of you. Do something important.” His fingers tightened and then fell away. He smiled and started slowly limping towards the other end of the hallway.

A feeling of shame welled up from deep inside the young bomber’s heart. The reality of the elderly man, the pressure of his hand upon his shoulder; the vulnerability of his halting gait, his twinkling eyes and inquisitive voice were in stark contrast to the boy’s fuzzy-headed politics, his emotions clouded and dulled by pot. The young man felt awkward and empty, his deeply held passions seemed paper thin and meaningless. It occurred to the bomber that this very man might die tomorrow in this hallway. He wondered how the man’s wife would respond at the news, what his children would say at the moment they found out their Dad was dead.

“Shit.”

The boy walked down the hallway, mounted the stairs, and found his way back onto Commonwealth Avenue. Heading towards his apartment, a lone figure in the dim streetlight, the young student never looked up as he made his way home. There would be no bomb. For him, the war was over.

Decades later, the young man watched the news of the Boston Marathon bombings play out on TV. He drifted back to another day in Boston, so many years ago, when he stood in a hallway and decided that the forces of death could never match the simple gift of life, and that evil destroys those who wield it against their enemies. As he sat on the couch, his wife and children beside him, he realized that the life he saved in that empty Boston hallway was his own.