10. Briefcase

Briefcase

Turn to me and be gracious, for I am lonely and afflicted.

Psalm 25:16

Although Austin struggled with porn too and spent many hours with videogames he had other struggles. He accompanied the mostly young, dejected masses who felt displaced in the nineties, finding refuge in the dreary dirges of that era. Bands like Nirvana, Green day, The Offspring and other gloomy lullabies filled his speakers.

He didn’t let the distractions that I used mitigate his burgeoning bitterness towards dad, mom, Lee and the world. This twisted him as he became influenced by his own thoughts during the long stretches of isolation he endured. In the short periods of socialization, he banded with similarly troubled teens.

One of his first not so great friends was more of a lost boy than Austin, and he taught him to escape through fantasy movies and eat his troubles away. Once this buddy dropped off the map, Austin sustained a long, friendless stretch of time. During 7th and 8th grade he finally got a break when he slipped his way into a cool clique.

This new crew consisted of the punk outcasts. They were the ones who were confident in their idiocy, didn’t care about authorities, and were led by a charismatic alpha who lived down the street from us named Lyle. Though Austin sensed this rebellious crew may lead to trouble, he set aside his instincts because he now had friends.

Austin’s fourteenth birthday approached in the year 2000. His elation overflowed as he finally could invite companions over to celebrate with him. The last time non-family peers accompanied him for a birthday was at a minimum of three years prior. Now there were nearly ten teens joining him to celebrate and to top it off, girls were in the mix.

By all accounts the day went very well. Hypomania fueled his positive emotions as they burst forth from a dam of angst. Austin floated on a cloud as an excited tour guide, pointing out his most prized possessions. The same cloud that carried him throughout his party though, obscured his judgment as it led him to unbox the collection in his private briefcase, the contents of which he collected over a the past few years.

When the Fourth of July would come around, dad took us to the nearby fireworks metropolis called Boom City. There he haggled with salesmen, making them sweat as he whittled down their prices of bottle rockets and firecrackers. I’d take my bricks of explosives and stack them up like a wad of cash as I relished in the scent of their unlit powder. During the few dry 4ths Washington reluctantly granted us, we escaped our unhealthy coping mechanisms for the thrill of blowing stuff up and shooting missiles in the air.

Bottle rockets were depleted first, but firecrackers lasted forever. Never lighting them off in their braided bundle, we would methodically unwind each one and plant them in dirt, jars, and any fragile item that they could possibly destroy. We’d light them in our hand and toss them at each other or on the road. Once the firecracker’s fuse ignited, it is expended in less than a second, and must be quickly jerked outward before exploding, oftentimes before hitting ground. Occasionally this sequence occurred in reverse order. Their fractional size would rarely break skin but always speckled our fingertips with gunpowder. Oftentimes we’d run out of hours in the day to legally pop off our baby boomsticks.

When July 5th came, one or both of us usually had remaining Black Cats or Mighty Mites. We never dared ignite them any other day of the year. Firework laws were getting stricter. Not only that, but from our immature perspective, our neighbors had wads far so up their tightly puckered asses that if they heard the sound of one small, pitiful crack in our backyard on any of the other 364 days of the year, this would require the immediate action of emergency personnel to quench our fiery mischief with a squad of engines. I thought someone should admit them to the nearest hospital for the surgical removal of their bowel impaction. Or maybe we should have quit our destructive day jobs and sought the opportunity to be enriched by Ferris Bueller’s advice when he observed his buddy was so tight that, “If you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond.”1

(Add section from marine focused)

With the risk of negative repercussions being too great, we were forced to hibernate our remaining fireworks. The little explosives sat dormant for the year, only to be unboxed occasionally as we envisaged the carnage we could unleash on the next Independence Day. That is, until Austin had an idea.

On one of the many days that Austin’s boredom settled in, a new use for firecrackers emerged. He had completed a model of a WWII medivac truck and never tossed his empty half-thumb sized paint bottle. He wanted to spice things up next July by breaking open his unspent rounds and dumping the gunpowder in the container. He punctured a small hole in the cap and stuck one of his extra three-second fuses in it. Then he packed it down, tightly fastened the cap and wrapped the whole explosive in electrical tape. Once complete, he set it aside in a briefcase he found in the garage. From then on the briefcase became the place where he decided to store his coolest possessions.

Austin rummaged through the garage frequently. His bedroom occupied the lower floor of our split level home, and the closest entrance to his space was the garage door. When dad quickly left he only could scrape up a select few of his belongings and Lee added a whole assortment of new goodies stationed in that cellar.

This reliquary became a tomb of lost treasure that Austin explored many times. While unearthing ancient artifacts, he found a banana clip used to supply an AK-47. Not only that, but the magazine contained a full loadout inside of 7.62 mm ammunition. Upon discovering this the gauge of Austin’s awesome-meter shot off the charts. He quickly threw it in the pleather-bound lockbox.

While digging through relics he unsheathed a twelve-inch bowie knife that looked like it belonged on Leonidas’ thigh as a backup gladius for emergency use.2 This weapon’s length, probably a micrometer away from legally being labeled a sword, Austin identified as the perfect item to put in his mancase.

The last notable object that struck his eye was a smoke bomb that resembled a stick of dynamite. I don’t know how or why this ended up in the garage. Who knows, maybe Lee thought he’d need pop smoke for air support just in case dad rumbled around the cul de sac with an M1 Abrams tank. Regardless, somehow it found its way there and he added it to his collection.

When Austin showed his partygoers the contents of his fancy box, nobody seemed shocked. Some of the guys were wowed by his belongings. The girls could care less. The party continued and by all accounts went swimmingly. Austin felt great.

Almost a year later, his positive mood subsided and the melancholy of his mundane reality returned. Austin entered a bad place. He doesn’t remember exactly what brought him there, but life for both of us wasn’t conducive of mental stability and happiness. He knew no one available for him to vent his feelings to. The only soul remotely close in age accessible to him was me. Even if I wasn’t wrapped up in the incredibly important work of catching every single monster in Final Fantasy X, an accomplishment that takes dozens of hours, I was too numb to relate.

Austin sought companionship on the social media of the day: America Online (AOL) instant messenger. This became the ipecac he drank to void his stomach of all his sickening sorrows. The person he noticed online at the time was an acquaintance named Lindsey. He had hung out with her in his newfound gang and she attended his birthday party the year prior. After some small talk, he laid himself bare to her.

He was hurting. He was alone. Nobody but his thoughts kept him company for months. His unresolved anger and resentment brought him to such a deep pit that he confessed he sympathized with the feelings of the Columbine shooters. Austin never made threats or incendiary remarks, but honestly shared how deep his despair was. Perhaps his frustration got the better of him. Once he opened the floodgates he may have taken things too far. At the very least, a pent up, inarticulate teenager sharing deep hurts to an acquaintance through a coarse, easily misunderstood medium without tone and body language was not a good idea.

With the shadow of this incident still in the back of everyone’s minds, a frightened, emotional teenage girl was the wrong person to divulge this to. Affliction as weighty as what Austin suffered should have only been shared with the most trusted companion. He needed to spill out the tragedy brewing inside him with someone who could be a lightning rod to absorb and ground his pent up vexation. The right person would be able to inhale all his toxic gasses, filter them through sympathy and grace and blow out healing winds. Too bad he knew no one on the other side of such despair.

In light of Columbine and having seen the contents of Austin’s briefcase, fear understandably gripped Lindsey. Maybe she even saw our gag wall ornament on our garage door thinking was a live bomb too. Hanging at eye level of the door leading inside from the garage hung an authentic pineapple grenade with the base hollowed out. This inert explosive was mounted on a stained piece of wood, with the number “1” chained to the pin. Underneath, black letters etched on a brass sheet informed naïve customers how to start the process of filing their grievances. It read,  “Complaint department, please take a number.” If she saw this, her panicked memory may have forgotten this was a joke.

Lindsey notified the Inglewood Junior High faculty. On the following Monday, they called Austin to the administrative office. He sat around in the open common area outside a conference room for quite some time, not knowing the purpose of his summons. When they brought him in, they started to question him about what Lindsey had seen.

He morphed into a bitter, ignorant bear and wandered into a trap he armed and set himself. The fact that he wanted to feel noticed didn’t make things better. He liked the attention. He finally didn’t feel invisible. This made him cocky and defiant because at this point he could care less what the means were, he simply wanted to be seen. Once questioned, his ego emboldened.

“What do you have in your briefcase, Austin?” interrogated the principal.

“I don’t know,” He stated as he puffed out his chest and tilted his eyebrows. “I may have a toothpick, I may have an AK-47. I won’t show you anything. My next birthday is in a few days. I’ll send you an invite. Don’t forget to bring me a gift. My wish list is an ammo reloader, some gunpowder, primers, 7.62 mm bullets and 39 mm brass casings.”

I’ll admit, the response is embellished, but the gist of the message is the same. The bear swatted the hive with a haymaker, not knowing the wasps had a wrecking ball for backup. They would not let him leave until he divulged exactly what he stored inside. After met with this response they smothered his fiery pride.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was sent to mine-sweep the house. ATF brought in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) to ransack his room. From  Austin’s drooping perspective, he felt as if the swarm invading his room sought weapons of mass destruction. They must have been disappointed to find a half-ounce repurposed paint bottle, a smoke bomb, knife and ammunition with no rifle to load.

After a thorough inspection, the officers confiscated his favored items to be forever locked away in a vault of evidence. The state took him to court where they accused him of some amorphous charge like “possession and/or manufacture of an explosive device without a permit.” Thankfully as a minor they extended leniency, especially upon seeing him in his deflated state, so they gave him a legal slap on the wrist.

The bummer for Austin, however, was that his choice words leading up a judge’s finger-wagging set in motion the morale-demolishing path to get there. Not only was Austin expelled for the remaining few months of the 8th grade, his new shallow friend group ostracized him after ATF and EOD humiliated him, all because of a stupid briefcase.

  1. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a 1986 film starring Matthew Broderick.
  2. You’ll know what I mean if you watch this scene from the movie Crocodile Dundee.

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