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A Shout From The Attic: Youth And Confusion 13

...Now, if Pete’s mother, Ethel, or my mother, Louie, had formulated the warning as, “Don’t play with live ammunition, and especially don’t stick a bullet down a crack in the pavement and hit a poker with a coal hammer to try to set it off!” then we would probably have thrown the shiny treasure in the lake at TP Woods for the big pike, reputed to be ten feet long, to nibble on. But neither of our dams said anything remotely like that...

Ronnie Bray recalls a boyhood encounter with live ammo.

The Bullet

I recall the time that Pete West and I got hold of a bullet that didn’t have the magic mark on its base that showed it had been fired. It was a .303” round, standard for the Short Lee Enfield bolt action rifle that was the standard weapon for the British Army for many years.

You must not take away a wrong impression of my boyhood best friend and me. It is not the case that Pete and I were beyond the control of our parents; it was simply the case that they exercised no hands-on control of us apart from blanket threats of condign punishment if we did ‘something.’

Not knowing what ‘something’ was, made cowards of us both, just in case we inadvertently crossed the line and were sent to the gallows – or worse - for "it''. Unspecified punishments for unspecified crimes can have a salutary effect on the conduct of young lions, but it can also curtail the boyish spirit of natural inquiry to the point where a state of fear-induced catatonia overtakes the subject.

When we were in our normal senses, Pete and I picked our way through the minefield cautiously, hoping that our feet stayed somewhere near the centre of the path that ran through the maze of adult thinking with its hidden trapdoors, through whose sudden breach unwary children would be swallowed into the dark maws of goodness-knows-what and never see the light of day again.

To our tiny minds it was the equivalent of the immediacy of Hell that terrorised our Mediaeval forbears, who believed that for some small infraction of an arcane labyrinthine theological code that they understood but little, and that through a glass darkly, they would be immediately propelled into the fiery jaws of a relentless and humourless Beelzebub. Equating this Roaster with what our parents ‘might’ do to us kept us mostly on the straight and narrow.

However, whilst sticking to the narrow way served only to curtail our natural penchant for gross wickedness and insensitivity, it did not stop us being stupid. Experience had taught us that stupidity often brought more pleasure than being ‘sensible,’ which, in grownupspeak, meant ‘behaving’ ourselves. I always adhered to the parental admonition delivered when I was detected leaving my lodging to ‘behave yourself.’ And so did Pete. We always ‘behaved’ ourselves, but not always in positive ways.

Now, if Pete’s mother, Ethel, or my mother, Louie, had formulated the warning as, “Don’t play with live ammunition, and especially don’t stick a bullet down a crack in the pavement and hit a poker with a coal hammer to try to set it off!” then we would probably have thrown the shiny treasure in the lake at TP Woods for the big pike, reputed to be ten feet long, to nibble on. But neither of our dams said anything remotely like that.

The hammer was the standard two-pound ball pein used for breaking up cobs of coal; the poker was a steel spinning spindle of twenty inches, pointed at its tip; and the bullet was as previously described. The house where Pet lived with his parents and elder brother was divided into flats, and the West family lived in two or three basement rooms. Outside, they walked up five or six stone steps and were immediately on the flagged walkway. The big flagstone at the head of the steps was cracked in a couple of places, and one spot especially had an inviting hole that accommodated the bullet, nose-down, perfectly.

We took it in turns to hold the poker, the other striking it with the hammer. Then we changed tasks, but nothing we did had any effect on the round. It is probable that we did not get the tip of the spindle directly into the detonator cap, and so escaped injury or death. Disappointed, we slung the round down the line of overgrown gardens in Bath Street, climbed onto the old ack roof, and scratched our names into the soft sandstone. It wasn’t very exciting, but it was probably ‘behaving' and likely better than dying.

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