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A Nasty Surprise
The following incident happened to me in Bury, home of those scrumptious black puddings, back in 1960. I have verbally, over numerous bar counters and many years, told the story on countless occasions and now, at risk of causing our more adventure seeking readers to yawn, I thought to put this rather mundane (but nevertheless pretty scary for myself at the time) experience into print.
A group of friends had just left, after spending the day helping me to rejuvenate a mid 19 century, three storied, rundown pile of bricks, which I was shortly hoping to move into. Since early that morning we had been scraping paint off doors, skirting boards and banister rails, chucking out a century of accumulated junk from the cellar and ripping old layers of faded embossed paper from the three meter high walls.
It was a typical damp, mid-autumn evening and the light was already fading. I planned to stay the night and to start work again early the following morning. I was going to camp out in the only room which had a fireplace and I had brought with me a mattress, a sleeping bag, a primus stove and a kettle for my morning tea. For my supper there was beer enough, plus a few sandwiches and quarter of bottle of Johnny Walker, left unfinished by my friends.
The fire place was already full of wall paper, bits of wood and sundry other burnable remnants piled in the grate; enough to kindle a good fire. Using a strip of rag soaked in paint remover for a fire lighter, it did not take long for the fire to be burning merrily.
Pulling the mattress closer to the hearth, I threw some more rubbish on the fire, opened a bottle of beer, and selected a tired cheese and onion baguette as my supper. Squatting there, in what was soon to be the lounge, a feeling of drowsy contentment washed over me. Satisfaction of a day’s work well done and an equally deserved night’s sleep ahead were my justified reward.
I opened and drank another beer and, with a length of metal curtain rod, stoked the fire. The wood and paper were now reduced to a hot red mass and I added more rubbish. Aimlessly poking around in the hot ashes, the rod struck something hard. Curious to see what it could be I raked it to the front of the grate. I determined that it was metal, and that it was egg shaped, and that it was glowing and – My God! It was a hand grenade.
Instant panic! I threw myself away from the fire, at the same time pulling the mattress on top of me. There was no mistaking it was, without doubt, a hand grenade and a very hot one at that. As a former soldier, I had seen, primed, thrown and defused enough of them to recognize one when I saw one. But such expertise had not prepared me for finding a very hot one in my lounge fireplace.
For what seemed like a few hours but in all probability was a less than sixty seconds, I lay there on my yet unvarnished oak floorboards awaiting the explosion that had to happen. But, when it didn’t, I shame facedly pushed the mattress aside, crawled across the room to where the whisky bottle stood and in an effort to calm my nerves, took a desperate draft, almost finishing the bottle.
The grenade still had not produced its awaited blast and with the alcohol inside of me beginning to give me the much needed courage; I took the rod and gingerly manoeuvred the beast out of the grate and onto the stone hearth. Taking my kettle, I slowly poured the entire cold contents over it. The dreadful hissing sound, the frightful spitting and the cloud of hot steam created by my non-text book way of disarming live ammunition had me gulping down the remaining dregs of the whisky.
For some stupid and unknown reason it had not occurred to me to exit the room fast and call the fire brigade. After all those people are the experts to be called for such events. But it was then too late and probably my handling of the crisis would have had them killing themselves with laughter. I waited, bathed in sweat and in some trepidation, until the grenade cooled sufficiently before attempting to disarm it by removing the pin.
Now I could bring my expensive military training to the fore. I took hold of the grenade in my right hand and with my thumb firmly holding down the lever, I pulled at the retaining pin. It didn’t budge and I sweated some more. But by twisting and pulling on the ring end of the pin I was gradually able to remove it and immobilized it by gently releasing the spring leaver.
By then, as my self confidence returned and begining to feel more than a little pleased with my achievement, I decided to examine the little beast. It was a real one alright, similar to the ones used by the British army but what was it doing in my lounge and in my fireplace? It was considered a serious criminal offence for anyone found to be in possession of one.
The next and final step was to make it permanently safe by removing the detonator. It was while attempting to clean away some of the debris which had seared itself to the casing by the intense heat of the fire; I discovered that a slot had been cut into the top side of the grenade. As I investigated the slot closer, I noted it had been cut wide and deep enough to take – Eureka! It took coins! The damned grenade which had made me sweat buckets and almost turned my hair white had been nothing more dangerous than some child’s piggy bank.
This truthful, rather pedestrian anecdote, told at the pub, has won me a few free drinks over the years. If you also enjoyed it in print, I’m unashamedly prepared to accept your cheques.