When the Obvious Is the Unexpected
August 1, 2012
Writer’s Tip: When writing a scene in a short story or novel, try a little sleight of hand the way a magician would do it. The obvious is often the most unexpected and thus has the greatest and most unforgettable impact.
During World War II, my father made bombs. Take a bunch of metal. Pack in a lot of firepower. Screw the tail in tight. Make sure it’s straight. If the tail is crooked, you have to knock it back out with a sledge hammer, hope the firepower doesn’t ignite, stack the bombs high, and build another. He would have little to show for his long hours in a bomb plant. Most of his handiwork was falling across Germany and found only in craters packed with twisted metal and heat.
He had seen the posters hanging all over the plant, the one that proclaimed: Loose Lips Sink Ships. The message came through loud and clear, and he believed every word of it.
The streets in town may or may not have been crowded by German agents. The government said they were out there. He didn’t know. It’s just that my father didn’t take chances, not with his country anyway.
The bad guys were killing our boys, he said.
He was striking back.
He tried to enlist. The Army wouldn’t take him.
He was drafted. The bomb plant wouldn’t let him go.
He was satisfied to pack his lunch pale, walk down the street to work by daylight every morning, stay until the last bomb built that day was on its way to Europe, and take out as many bad guys as he could – one bomb at a time.
He scratched his initials on a few of the bombs.
Tell the Nazis hello, he said.
Tell them goodbye.
The work wasn’t secret. Everybody in town knew what was going on beyond the tall wire fences. The tall wire fences couldn’t keep out anybody, but the man at the gate, the one with the rifle, the short hair, and the nervous eyes, could. Never had to. But he was ready.
The guard had worked as a street cop in Waco before the war. He knew how to keep the law. He knew what to do with those who broke it. He put on his suspicions every morning before he pulled on his pants, and, as far as he was concerned, every man in the plant looked like a German spy until he proved he wasn’t.
One man troubled him a great deal. Burkett, for the past two years, had been a good employee: faithful, reliable, and competent. His work was solid. So was his work ethic. He came early. He stayed late. And every afternoon, as darkness crept across the hard, Central Texas landscape, Burkett came wandering out of the plant alone, hauling off a load of trash packed high in a wheelbarrow.
The guard always stopped him. “What you hauling?” he asked.
“You can check it yourself.”
The guard frowned.
And he checked every piece of junk stacked in the wheelbarrow. Boxes. Boards. Paper sacks stained the color of fried chicken grease. Paper. Scraps. Metal shavings. Nails, some rusty and some having fallen new right out of the box. Chicken bones. Bread crumbs. Busted concrete. Cracked bottles. Broken glass.
Every night, it was always the same. Burkett came out of the plant with a pile of junk in a wheelbarrow.
The ritual never varied.
“What you hauling?”
“You can check it yourself.”
And the guard always did. He told my father in private, “I think Burkett’s a spy.”
“What makes you say that?”
“He’s smuggling out secrets.”
“Why would Burkett do that?”
“He can sell them to Nazi Germany. Make himself a small fortune,” the guard said. “I can’t find them or any trace of them, but I can guarantee you he has blueprints and all sorts of mathematical and chemical formulas secretly coded somewhere in that pile of trash.”
“You been watching too many propaganda films,” my father said.
“He’s out to get us.”
“Then you better stop him.”
“If the war goes on long enough, I damn sure will.”
The war didn’t go on long enough.
The bombs did exactly what they were supposed to do.
They ended it.
Years later, the guard was back on the streets as a cop in Waco when he glanced down the sidewalk and saw Burkett walking toward him.
The men spoke, exchanged a few pleasantries, then the cop whispered in low tones, “Burkett, I know you were stealing from us all of those nights down at the bomb plant.”
Burkett shrugged. “I was,” he said.
“What were you taking out?” the cop asked. “Secrets? Formulas? Blueprints?”
Burkett laughed. “No,” he said. “I wouldn’t have known what to do with anything like that?”
The cop frowned. “Then what were you stealing?” he asked.
“Wheelbarrows,” Burkett said.
Caleb Pirtle III is author of the Christian thriller, Golgotha Connection.