a child, a dog, you know, whoever

CW: violence, bombs, mention of CSA (not graphic, just a mention), mention of suicide, descriptions of dead bodies

Twenty-five years after a pipe bomb detonated inside a library book depository in my hometown, a high-school friend confesses he was part of the plot.

March 1991 newspaper graphic of the Marion library block and headline: Public’s help asked in probe of Marion library blast; a map shows the location of the bomb as well as damage to a Pizza Hut’s roof across the street

“We needed money our parents didn’t know about,” he says. “We needed a couple hundred bucks fast.”

One of the co-conspirators – a chemistry prodigy – had figured out a formula to synthesize LSD, and they needed chemicals and equipment for a basement lab.

“We were stealing money from vending machines using a magnet device one of us invented. You swiped it over the money slot, and it tricked the machine into spitting out change. But nickels and dimes take forever.”

So they built a bomb. The plan: stick the pipe bomb in the dispensing chamber, flee for safety, blow open the machine, and raid the cash box.

Middle-class white boys, all of them. I can’t believe they didn’t just ask for extra allowance–make up a lie. All of them had jobs, too. Why not just save up the money?

“We didn’t want to hurt anyone. We chose a pop machine at a gas station on the outskirts of town, planned it for late at night.”

But the pipe bomb wouldn’t fit in the take-out port.

“The other guys drove around all night looking for a place to dispose the bomb. The book depository seemed like a good idea.”

Cedar Rapids Gazette newspaper photo of bomb damage with headline “Bombing: ‘Pretty powerful explosion’

Back in the 90s, the LSD laboratory and pipe bomb took on the quality of urban legend: friends of friends of friends. I knew peripherally the chemistry prodigy; I knew he concocted a formula for LSD; I didn’t know the drugs and the bomb were connected.

And I didn’t know my friend was in on it.

The other boys all fessed up, served probation, and paid fines. Nobody ratted out my friend.

“I didn’t end up going that night,” he says. “I was saved. I had a date.”

But he still helped build the bomb.

I don’t know why he is confessing to me now, in a Pho joint in the middle of Colorado–maybe because the bond of a shared hometown is all we have left. Not just a shared hometown, but a hometown we hated.

Cedar Rapids: City of Five Seasons, City of Five Smells. When the wind blew the wrong direction back in the day, you got a whiff of blood & carcass from Wilson’s Meat Packing Plant. On the way into town from I-380: Captain Crunch from Quaker Oats.

We sneer about Toxic Tuesday, when the sewage treatment plant next to Mt. Trashmore caught fire and a plume of hydrochloric acid smoke loomed over the city like a real volcanic eruption:

Cedar Rapids Gazette front page of section B July 10, 2005, remembering Toxic Tuesday 20 years later with a photo of the smoke plume.

Mt. Trashmore, The Pile of Trash that Could:

Gazette newspaper clipping with photo of Mount Trashmore at the end of a city block. Caption: Cedar Rapids ‘mountain’: Mount Trashmore, a manmade mountain, resembles a Colorado foothill when viewed looking south along First Street East from E Avenue and the Interstate 380 bridge.

A real Midwestern mountain. 

“You’re the only person I know who gets as melancholy about Cedar Rapids as I do,” he texted me once, when he was homebound on I-80.

“Do you think you can be traumatized by a place? A city?” I texted back, even though it wasn’t the city that traumatized me. The city was just the backdrop. Or was it?

The last time I visited, I toured the Time Check neighborhood where my mother grew up, documenting houses destroyed in the 2008 flood–a flood brought on by global warming, by the city itself: the way it clings to car culture: the ethanol plant on Highway 30, its hatred of buses and sidewalks.

white house in the Time Check neighborhood with boarded windows and the words Home Deceased Home spray painted in blue by the front door

 

Cedar Rapids: city of missing sidewalks:

CR Gazette headline: Sidewalk expansion plans continue to get pushback in Cedar Rapids; water main plan calls for expanding sidewalks near Jefferson High School / photo of yard sign that says STOP SIDEWALKS /WALLS SAVE OUR TREES

City of no buses on Sundays, of intersections and no crosswalks, of relentless parking lots, of the Facebook group, You know you grew up in Cedar Rapids in the 70s and 80s because … where members post, “Cruisin’ the Ave!” and the chorus comments:

Up-and down and up-and-down!
Vickers to Hardee’s!

and I do not know the landmarks, because I never had a car, never drove a car, never learned to drive a car. I did not grow up in the same city as they did. I do not know their Cedar Rapids, and they do not know mine.

Where people post, “What muscle car did you drive?” And the chorus comments this:

Plymouth Roadrunner ad featuring a red car and tagline: The standard insurance rating is standard. The Rapid Transit System Coming Through.

and:

Dodge ad with a blonde, white woman standing in a lace dress with her hand on the trunk. Text says Mother warned me ….

and:

1970 Chevelle ad with an orange and black striped car and the tagline: In ten seconds, your resistance will self-destruct.

But my answer is this:

My sister, a blonde little girl showing off a yellow bicycle with a dramatic hand gesture and smile

 

My banana-seated bicycle with rainbow spokes, tossed out in the neighbor’s trash, scavenged for my sister, handed down when she outgrew it, an authentic muscle car because my muscles were its motor, and it ran on the fuel of human food.

I pretended my yellow bicycle was a semi-truck. I rode it up and down the street all day with my best friend. His house was a diner where Ore Ida fries were served up with burgers and peas, and mine an imaginary gas station, where we pretend-pumped diesel from a rusted-out snow blower in the garage.

We did not know Interstate 380 was unfurling like a scroll over the prairie, our futures inscribed upon the pavement like ink on parchment:

Cedar Rapids Gazette graphic of Interstate layout with headline: New Road, new challenges

Epileptic, future black mark next to my name at the DMV.

And from that day forward, all my friends became Car People and we did not travel the same roads.

“I used to see you walking on the shoulder of Blairs Ferry Road, straight into oncoming traffic,” another high school friend told me recently. “I should have pulled over, given you a ride.”

I do not know their Cedar Rapids, and they do not know mine.

 

___

By the time my friend drives me out to Pho & confesses his life as a Teenage Pipe Bomber, I have lived in Colorado six months. For years, he coaxed my husband & me into moving here from Utah.

“Get away from the Mormons,” he would say. “In Colorado, fun is legal!”

We signed a lease, and he said, “Come stay in my basement until your apartment is ready.”

Then, my syringomyelia —  a spinal cord condition meaning cavities in the spine — got diagnosed during a cascade of worsening symptoms: falls, spasticity, abnormal eye movements, pain, asymmetrical reflexes, and problems with coordination.

My invisible disabilities became visible, and my friend vanished.

When it came time to roll into Colorado with our U-Haul, his offer to crash in his basement evaporated. We had nowhere to stay and not a single vacant hotel room in the Denver metro region. Finally, we booked an overpriced hotel in Wyoming, which meant we wouldn’t have money for my epilepsy medication.

Now, I am homebound with ataxia, chronic pain, and a rolling walker I can’t get down the steep staircase outside my second-floor apartment so I use my walking cane even though it’s not as good.

Every morning, I circle a nearby hospital for exercise.

Google Earth view from above a large hospital complex encircled by a sidewalk.

My walking cane taps taps taps. From a drone, I am the minute hand tick tick tick.

two laps=one hour 

one lap = half hour

I am restless as a clock face.

The first thing I said as the moving truck pulled into my new neighborhood: “It looks like my childhood.”

In Cedar Rapids, we didn’t have sidewalks leading out. We didn’t have a bus stop. I walked alone on the shoulders of four-lane roads in the dark. I balanced on railroad tracks (I could do that back then). I spent a lot of time alone.

a sidewalk that abruptly ends, turning into grass and gravel. Text overlaid in all caps: YOUR KIND NOT WELCOME.

On Facebook, I click the photos of my friend’s inaccessible parties.  I say a mantra to myself: Twenty-six years post-ADA. Twenty-six years post-ADA. I forgive 100 times a day.

Sometimes he invites me but doesn’t offer a ride. I have no transit access and Via, the accessible van service, doesn’t take me most places, costs $6 each way for regional trips, and is usually booked solid a month in advance.

On a calendar, I start to mark the days I see nobody:

calendar from end of June 2016 to December 2016, with days without outside contact marked with a black dot. December 28th is not marked because it’s the day I have lunch with my friend.

By December, it looks like a DNA test. My DNA test. Bisulfite mapping of my methylation marks would look like this. Isolation methylates DNA. Obliterates genes. Marks people.

[I forgive 100 times a day.]

I text him the calendar.

He says, “Let’s go to lunch.”

Now he wants to make me his confession booth? I’m the “friend” where secrets go in and never come out, because I never get to go out. Who am I going to tell?

___

 

One year before the library bombing, I got locked up in the St. Luke’s Hospital adolescent psych ward.

First thing I witnessed when the security doors locked behind me: Doogie–so nicknamed because of his uncanny resemblance to Doogie Howser, MD–wrestled to the floor by two security officers, dragged to the Quiet Room, and the door slammed shut as he screamed.

It wasn’t quiet in the Quiet Room: you could hear him banging on the padded walls.

The next morning, when he got out, we fell for each other hard. He didn’t care I had EEG electrodes glued to my scalp–even got a pass to ride the elevator to neurology with me when I got them removed. We bought soda and chocolate from the gift shop; he asked me to meet him in the shower the next day.

That’s how kids in the ward hooked up. It was tradition.

“Don’t lock it when you go in,” he said. “Nobody is watching closely enough. I’ll sneak in. Then you leave first.”

I was locked up for a suicide attempt; Doogie was locked up for a pre-sentencing evaluation. His crime: chaining an ATM machine to his father’s pickup, dragging it out of a gas station parking lot, and busting it open with a hammer.

He needed money his parents couldn’t give him; he needed it fast.

He was poor, malnourished, neurodivergent, and on his way to serve time in the State Training School in Eldora.

Doogie never built a bomb, never would have even thought of building a bomb. But poor and neurodivergent gets you time–not fines, not probation–even if you didn’t actually hurt anybody.

___

 

After the 2008 flood, the Department of Justice came down hard on Cedar Rapids for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Project Civic Access, it’s called: an effort to make cities accessible. In 2011, auditors visited public spaces all over the city and declared: disabled people are denied the benefits of civic life here.

In 2015: the DOJ sent Cedar Rapids a settlement. Fix it. Pave the sidewalks and curb cuts.

Still missing sidewalks, in red:

map of Cedar Rapids with many pathways in red, indicating missing sidewalks

 

“I don’t like sidewalks,” 94-year-old Ida Pratt says in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “We don’t need them. Nobody even walks here.”

Nobody even walks here.

I am nobody. Nobody is me.

The city creates a master sidewalk plan, one criteria for high-priority paving being “evidence of pedestrian use”:

The final pedestrian use criteria is actual evidence of pedestrian use. Segments that have specific evidence of use by pedestrian should have a high prioritization. Each segment with evidence of use was assigned 10 points. The criteria are as follows: – actual dirt path on the ground – observed use – direct requests to city staff – survey responses to areas of pedestrian use

Evidence of my use. Tracked like some wild thing.

What evidence would I leave now? I cannot walk on uneven ground. If I walk on the shoulder and nobody sees me, is there still evidence of pedestrian use? 

The sidewalk plan identifies pedestrian generators: places that produce pedestrians. St. Luke’s Hospital makes the list, and I think: they are a pedestrian generator, literally. The doctors there made me epileptic.

But the city resists. The city feels under siege.

 

tweet from @bmorelli, a Gazette reporter: This meeting has it all. Commenter accuses city staff of being “Russian” for proposing sidewalks to a park in their neighborhood.

City Council Meeting June 2017, resident Joe Day:

We don’t walk down the street. We drive.

It has no purpose whatsoever, other than Russian logic that because we (did road work on) Bever Avenue, ‘Ve vill have sidewalks whether you like it or not.’ [mocking a Russian accent] “Well, we don’t like it. It has no purpose.

Sidewalks get voted down. Them Russians Them Russians. Them Russians. Nuclear winter is coming. The Russians are going to nuke Cedar Rapids.

That’s what they mean by “Russian.” Cold war all over again, except now, sidewalks are the bombs.

That fear got drilled into us from childhood. Cedar Rapids was a prime target:

 

1982 newspaper clipping with a map of Cedar Rapids & a nuclear destruction zone drawn on it in concentric circles from Rockwell Collins

Rockwell Collins, makers of military aircraft communications, of shuttle parts: a nuke attractor.

Now, I am my hometown’s biggest fear: a disabled person demanding access.

You can’t equate sidewalks to bombs without equating me to a bomb.

I am your epileptic bomb, come to blow up Car City. tick tick tick 

 

 

___

“The worst part,” my friend says, “is that boy who died a few months later.”

He means Mitch McWhinney:

Cedar Rapids Gazette newspaper clipping dated April 17, 1991 with a photo of Mitch McWhinney and the bombing scene with the headline “Homemade bomb kills teen in Linn”

“It still haunts me. How that kid died copy-catting us. I’m responsible for that. I never wanted to hurt anyone, and I did.”

I reach out for his hand and tell him, “You couldn’t have known.”

Later, I think: How could you not have known? How can you plant a bomb anywhere and not think, this could kill someone?

___

Maybe my friend confessed to me because he is not the only pipe bomber in my life. 

In Salt Lake City, my way into Mormon theology was through one of the most notorious criminals in Utah history: Mark Hofmann, forger of Mormon historical documents and planter of nail-filled pipe bombs that murdered two people and blew out his own kneecap–all to cover up his forgery schemes. 

He forged a lot of documents, but the one that got me gripped into Mormon history was the Salamander Letter–not only because of its content, but because it was true. A forgery that was true.

In the letter, Hofmann assumed the identity of Martin Harris, witness to the golden plates and patron of the translation from “reformed Egyptian.” Hofmann-as-Harris wrote:

front and back of Salamander Letter

 

Palmyra October 23d 1830

Dear Sir

Your letter of yesterday is received & I hasten to answer as fully as I can–Joseph Smith Jr first come to my notice in the year 1824 in the summer of that year I contracted with his father to build a fence on my property in the corse {sic} of that work I approach Joseph & ask how it is in a half day you put up what requires your father & 2 brothers a full day working together he says I have not been with out assistance but can not say more only you better find out the next day I take the older Smith by the arm & he says Joseph can see any thing he wishes by looking at a stone Joseph often sees Spirits here with great kettles of coin money it was Spirits who brought up rock because Joseph made no attempt on their money I latter dream I converse with spirits which let me count their money when I awake I have in my hand a dollar coin which I take for a sign Joseph describes what I seen in every particular says he the spirits are grieved so I through {sic} back the dollar in the fall of the year 1827 I hear Joseph found a gold bible I take Joseph aside & he says it is true I found it 4 years ago with my stone but only just got it because of the enchantment the old spirit come to me 3 times in the same dream & says dig up the gold but when I take it up the next morning the spirit transfigured himself from a white salamander in the bottom of the hole & struck me 3 times & held the treasure & would not let me have it because I lay it down to cover over the hole when the spirit says do not lay it down Joseph says when can I have it the spirit says one year from to day if you obay {sic} me look to the stone after a few days he looks the spirit says bring your brother Alvin Joseph says he is dead shall I bring what remains but the spirit is gone Joseph goes to get the gold bible but the spirit says you did not bring your brother you can not have it look to the stone Joseph looks but can not see who to bring the spirit says I tricked you again look to the stone Joseph looks & sees his wife on the 22d day of Sept 1827 they get the gold bible–I give Joseph $50 to move him down to Pa Joseph says when you visit me I will give you a sign he gives me some hiroglyphics I take then to Utica Albany & New York in the last place Dr Mitchel gives me an introduction to Professor Anthon says he they are short hand Egyption {sic} the same what was used in ancient times bring me the old book & I will translate says I it is made of precious gold & is sealed from view says he I can not read a sealed book–Joseph found some giant silver specticles with the plates he puts them in an old hat & in the darkness reads the words & in this way it is all translated & written down–about the middle of June 1829 Joseph takes me together with Oliver Cowdery & David Whitmer to have a view of the plates our names are appended to the book of Mormon which I had printed with my own money–space and time both prevent me from writing more at present if there is any thing further you wish to inquire I shall attend to it
Yours

Respectfully
Martin Harris
(sic)

Joseph Smith: money-digging, glass-looker con artist who founded a whole religion on magic.

He was poor. He needed money his parents couldn’t give him. And he was temporal lobe epileptic, like me. Prone to religious visions.

Joseph Smith — History 1:14–16

After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction …

… just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.

Joseph Smith — History 1:17–20

When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven.

Psychological Report for Karrie Higgins 5–11–1990: … “states that with her seizure episodes, she has difficulty with word finding, memory gaps, staring spells, and loss of consciousness. The patient denied any substantial personality changes since the onset of the seizure problem, although she does mention that her anger seems to be a bit more intense. She is a big more detached from friends, but at the same time, sees herself as being more mature in her relationships and with a deeper sense of religion …

In 1945, historian Fawn Brodie wrote about Smith’s first run-ins with the law on “disorderly person” and “imposter” charges in No Man Knows my History. Smith, she wrote, confessed to “indulging in magic arts and organizing hunts for buried gold.” As an adolescent, he was “notorious for tall tales and necromantic arts” and “spent his leisure leading a band of idlers in digging for buried treasure.” His divine First Vision, then, maybe derived from something less than divine. For that, she got excommunicated.

And that is what made the Salamander Letter so dangerous: it corroborated forbidden knowledge. It corroborated the damned.

“I believe the documents I created could have been part of Mormon history,” Mark Hofmann said. “In effect, I guess the question I asked myself in deciding on a forgery, one of the questions was, ‘What could have been?'”

I became obsessed with forgeries that were true and made it the basis of my book about my dead brother Greg, who sexually abused me from ages 5-11: I would forge the truth, make him confess.

I learned to make inks from Hofmann–and how to age them.

I learned how to chemically strip ink from vintage Valentine cards, write something new in my brother’s “authentic” handwriting, and re-age the paper.

 

 

Valentine with a girl in a car and a policeman stopping her. Text creepily says Police Don’t Stop!

 

Back of original card says To Barbara from Elaine and Carol.

After stripping, forging and re-aging:

Front and back of card. Back now says: If you tell on me, you tell on yourself. – Greg

The only difference: I wouldn’t try to bamboozle anyone. I would always confess to the forgery. I wanted the fact of the forgery to become part of its testimony. Look what I have to do to prove my own history. 

I wrote Hofmann letters to his address in Utah State Prison in inks I learned to make from him. I asked him about his fast car:

Letter to Mark Hofmann in prison, written in his iron gallotannic ink formula: Dear Mark: Tell me about your fast car, the hot little Toyotoa MR-2. The “poor man’s Ferrari,” the car that “brought back the fun.” What made you want that machine? Was it the five-speed pistol grip shifter? Was it the pop-up headlights? The transversely mounted, 4-cylinder engine? How it handled like a roller coaster?

I wrote him letters about learning Deseret Alphabet, about ink-making, about my brother.

____

 

In 2012, I sat down in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building on Temple Square with forensic document examiner George Throckmorton. He is legend: the cop who unmasked Hofmann. Upon discovering a distinct cracking in the ink on almost every Hofmann document, he proved the forger’s methods by becoming him: brewing iron gall, writing on authentic period paper, and rapid-aging the ink.

Before we met, I asked over email for the microscope magnification he used to discover the cracks. I did not reveal that I wanted to examine my own iron gall under the microscope, but I think he knew. Certain information cannot fall into the wrong hands, he explained.

My hands are the wrong hands.

“I never read the content of the Salamander Letter while I was testing it,” he said. “I wanted to find out the truth, regardless of whether it embarrassed the church. My faith was rock solid.”

“What do you think about Mormons getting their faith back when you proved the letter fake? It’s a strange position to be in as a scientist, don’t you think? Saving someone’s faith?”

“What do you think about someone who loses faith over a letter?”

I thought back to a conversation I had with sister missionaries: how testimony is a feeling, not something you can glean from evidence. “They never had faith to begin with?”

“They never had faith to begin with.”

I didn’t tell him how I got faith from that letter.

One line in particular:

the spirit says bring your brother Alvin Joseph says he is dead shall I bring what remains

Joseph Smith’s big brother Alvin fell sick in 1823 with bilious colic, took prescription calomel — pure mercury chloride —and died from mercury poisoning. Joseph never got over it.

The Smiths really did dig up Alvin’s grave. In 1824, Joseph Smith, Sr. placed an ad in the Wayne Sentinel:

To the Public.

Whereas reports have been industriously put in circulation, that my son Alvin had been removed from the place of his internment and dissected, which reports, every person possessed of human sensibility must know, are peculiarly calculated to harrow up in the mind of a parent and deeply wound the feelings of relations — therefore, for the purpose of ascertaining the truth of such reports, I , with some of my neighbors, this morning repaired to the grace, and removing the earth, found the body which had not been disturbed.

This during a time when the “failure to obtain the security of an unmolested, marked grave represented a fate worse than death. Judges could and did punish particularly heinous crimes by consigning the executed criminal to dissection on the anatomist’s table,” writes Samuel Morris Brown in In Heaven as it is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death.

“Though the stench of early putrefaction had dissipated, Alvin’s corpse likely wore a ghastly mien, with missing eyes and nose but large patches of adipocere — an oily white coating — spread across his face and torso,” writes Morris.

Joseph Smith had to look at that, and I know how that feels.

I wouldn’t see my brother’s body until years later, when the Cedar Rapids Police mailed me the death scene photos.

my brother’s apartment door with a golden letter A on it, from the crime scene photos

I had to peer into his grave, too: fixed lividity from the ribcage up where the blood pooled into a purple bloom; putrefactive decay of the jaw after two days face to floor.

All I had for a long time was the autopsy report: I knew the weight of my brother’s heart (480 grams); the bilateral diameter of his pupils (4mm); how his right lung outweighed his left one by 200 grams. I knew his liver weighed 2100 grams, and his left kidney weighed 10 grams more than his right. My brother dissected on the autopsy table.

Years after the exhumation, Joseph saw his big brother in a vision of the Celestial Kingdom. How was it possible? Alvin died before Smith’s restoration of the gospel. Just then, a revelation struck: that the dead could receive the gospel in the afterlife; living proxies could be baptized on their behalf. Joseph Smith built a crucial tenet of Mormon salvation on grief for a dead brother.

Mark Hofmann, once a pre-med major before embarking on his forgery career, made the Smiths’ worst fears come true: he dug up their son and dissected him — in a forgery lab instead of on the anatomy table.

What, then, would Hofmann think of this: that I love Joseph Smith more because of his forgery — not less. That I love the Mormon faith more, too. When it comes down to it, what am I doing by forging my brother’s confession if not fighting to save his soul? Isn’t that a kind of testimony?

____

For a long time, I bought Mark Hofmann’s explanation about the bombings: that he cracked. That he wasn’t a violent, murderous person by nature–that he just lost it when he thought he’d be exposed as a forger.

I think I needed to believe him.

He blew up his own car with a third pipe bomb, shattered his kneecap, and claimed it was a suicide attempt. Was this repentance?

1987 Los Angeles Times photograph of the front of Mark Hofmann’s Toyota MR-2 after the bombing.

But I had lingering doubts, too. I went to the Judge Building to retrace his steps on October 15, 1985, the morning he planted a bomb that killed Steven Christensen–purchaser of the Salamander Letter on January 6, 1984 for $40,000.

side by side of the Judge Building the day of the bombing in 1985, with police investigators marking bomb shrapnel and evidence; and the same hallway in 2012

I kept a notebook of decisions Hofmann made at every step.

Decision #1 Entering the Judge Building. Under his left arm, he cradled the booby-trapped package.

Of course, Hofmann disabled the mercury switch for his own safety, ice-picking a hole in one side and taping one wire outside, cutting off the circuit. When he delivered the package to Christensen’s door, he unstuck the outer wire, threaded it back into the hole, and completed the switch.

Decision #2 I press the call button. I am not ringing an elevator; I am ringing the doorbell to a time machine. In the preliminary hearing, witness Bruce Passey said it took 3 to 4 minutes from the time Hofmann walked in to the time the elevator dinged.

Set a timer to 4 minutes: it’s a long time to not change your mind.

Decision #3 A young law clerk slices his hand through the closing doors, as if slitting an envelope seal. At first, I feel like he is intruding on my private correspondence with Hofmann. I wanted to do this alone. Then I realize: he is my Bruce Passey. That is the difference between secrets and history: in history, there is always a witness, always corroboration; otherwise, how does it become history?

“What floor do you want?” He says.

I start to say 6, and I correct myself. Hofmann pressed 5 on that morning. Then, when everyone exited and he had the car to himself, he pressed 6.

“Five,” I say. “Thanks.”

I feel a shiver when he presses 3. That was the same floor Bruce Passey chose on October 15, 1985.

Decision #4 Law clerk out of sight, I press the call button for 6th floor.

Decision #5 The ride takes 50 seconds, during which I do not change my mind.

Decision #6 On the 6th floor, I exit the elevator and turn right, toward suite 609–or what used to be suite 609 in 1985. The doors have changed numbers now.

Decision #7  If today were October 15, 1985, and I were Mark Hofmann, I would be watching insurance agent Janet McDermott from suite 610 as she knelt and almost picked up the box labeled To: Steve Christensen in black magic marker.

“What kind of an expression was on this person’s face?” Prosecutors asked her at the preliminary hearing.

“Noncommittal expression. They weren’t angry at me; they weren’t smiling at me. There was no recognition.”

No recognition. Hofmann knew if she touched that bomb, she would be blown to bits, and he said nothing—did nothing.

Decision #8 Walk away. Leave the bomb for someone to find.

So many moments to turn back. So many times he could have spared Steven Christensen’s life.

___

And the other bomb? That one killed Kathy Sheets, unlucky wife of Hofmann’s real target, in her own driveway. It had a flaw in the mercury switch. Hofmann knew it, and he left it to fate. It didn’t even have to go off for his plot to succeed: all he needed was someone to find that bomb, throw the cops off course in the investigation of the Christensen murder.

From Hofmann’s Board of Pardons hearing:

Transcript:

Hofmann: At the time, I rather, well, as strange as it sounds, it was almost a game as far as, uh, I figured there was a 50% chance it would go off, a 50% chance that it wouldn’t.

Q: It seems to me that a man who created the kinds of documents you create, well, you have a knack for things technical. It seems to me that a man with that sort of technical know-how could ensure that detonator had not gone off, and you could have served your purpose without killing Mrs. Sheets. Was that on option?

Hofmann: It was certainly an option. At the time I don’t think I considered that. Like I said, it was almost a game as to whether it would or wouldn’t.

Hofmann: What I had hoped would happen is that nobody would die by that bomb.

Q: But you knew that it was possible that anyone might die by that bomb, that a child walking by the garage might die by that bomb.

Hofmann: My thoughts at the time when I made that bomb, my thoughts were it didn’t matter if it was Mr. Sheets, a child, a dog, you know, whoever.

A child, a dog, you know, whoever.

___

My friend knows I am writing this book. Maybe he thinks: Here is someone who can understand a bomber. Here is someone I can make my witness, corroboration to make my story true.

___

 

Later, after my friend drives home from our Pho date, I try to console him. I remind him how 1991 got dubbed the year of the pipe bomb.

Cedar Rapids Gazette headline & story: State finds ‘alarming’ increase in Iowa incidents involving bombs. DES MOINES: An ‘alarming’ trend in the 1990 statewide fire report is a steady rise in the number of incidents involving explosive devices, particularly teenagers experimenting with pipe bombs, State Fire Marshall Roy Marshall said. That trend seems to be continuing into 1991 …

“Maybe that kid from Regis was inspired by those bombers,” I text him. “Not the library, not you.”

I won’t realize it until later, but I am chipping away at his sense of grandiosity. I will not be glamored by you, I want to say, but I don’t.

Or maybe that kid from Regis was just a bomber in the making already, a tinkerer, as his parents described him:

April 1991 Cedar Rapids Gazette photo of Kay McWhinney leaning her head on John McWhinney’s shoulder as they look down in anguish. Headline reads: Bomb victim’s dad says son a ‘tinkerer’

My friend texts back. “There were … test runs.”

And on those test runs: He was present; no dates. He helped plant bombs that anyone could have touched–a child, a dog, whoever.

March 10, 1991 headline: Pipe Bomb Explodes
The blast damaged a US West pay phone in the parking lot at Carma Lou’s House of Music, 42nd Street and Center Point Road NE. he said.
Two people who witnessed the explosion while driving past the scene told police they saw a compact car pulling away from the parking lot about the same time, Police Lt. Mark Corrigan said.

 

I remember those bombings–not as phone booths, but as bus stops. I was terrified. Epileptic girl who couldn’t drive blown up by pipe bomb at NE Cedar Rapids bus stop. 

How did my brain replace phone booths with bus stops?

As Felipe De Brigard writes in Synthese:

“In particular, I argue that many ordinary cases of misremembering should not be seen as instances of memory’s malfunction, but rather as the normal result of a larger cognitive system that performs a different function, and for which remembering is just one operation. Building upon extant psychological and neuroscientific evidence, I offer a picture of memory as an integral part of a larger system that supports not only thinking of what was the case and what potentially could be the case, but also what could have been the case. More precisely, I claim that remembering is a particular operation of a cognitive system that permits the flexible recombination of different components of encoded traces into representations of possible past events that might or might not have occurred, in the service of constructing mental simulations of possible future events.”

Like Hofmann, I’m forging a history of what could have been true, what was actually sort of true.

Ever since I left Iowa, I lived in cities where I could have an active social life: Portland, Oregon; Salt Lake City. We got apartments in or near downtown so I could be part of the world, even though they cost too much. I had a life.

But lurking in the back of my mind: the threat of living in a city like Cedar Rapids again. We got priced out of Portland fast. Almost priced out of Salt Lake City, but we left before it happened.

I turned phone booths into bus stops as mental simulations of future events.

___

In 2015, I talked to my brother’s best friend and Airborne buddy. By then, my brother had been dead seven years.

“Your brother wrote you letters all the time,” he said. He meant during his Airborne days in the 1970s–and later, into the 1980s, when I was a kid.

“He mailed you presents. He made a big deal out of it, buying little presents for his baby sister.”

I thought of the Valentines and birthday cards I had forged in my brother’s handwriting and mailed to myself.

Valentine card with four panels: How to keep busy when you’re alone and miss me → over; How to keep busy when you’re alone and miss me, with illustration of two children facing each other on an orange background → “you liked it like a big girl” written in Greg’s handwriting and signed, Greg, then one more panel of How to keep busy when you’re alone and miss me →

My forgeries really had been true. There were real cards, real letters. What did they say? Where are they now? My parents must have intercepted them and tossed them in the trash, where they got carried off in trucks to Mt. Trashmore.

___

Mt. Trashmore, The Pile of Trash that Could. 

These days, an epilepsy charity sponsors a fun run up that fake mountain: Dash to Bash Epilepsy.

Some people even call it the Trash Dash to Bash Epilepsy.

Cedar Rapids Gazette cover in 2014, with headline: Turning trash into treasure; Plan for reclaiming Mount Trashmore calls for trails, decks, greenhouses, composting, and observation decks, with an aerial photo of Mt. Trashmore and the Cedar River

A treasure for whom?

bash
transitive verb
1 : to strike violently : hit; also : to injure or damage by striking
2 : to attack physically or verbally

Somewhere, deep down in the strata, lies my banana seated bicycle, long since taken to the dump after I finally destroyed it with my BMX tricks (I could do that back then). I like to think of it there as I picture the runners dashing up our fake Midwestern mountain: stomping on the skeleton of my childhood self, that little girl who would never get to drive.

How many of them give their epileptic friends and family rides? How many treat them like confession booths?

After the floodwaters retreated in 2008, Mt. Trashmore – capped since 2006 – was unsealed to entomb 430,000 tons of debris. Trash dashers are running atop detritus from the flood they wrought with their own cars. Car People are bombs, not me. tick tick tick They want to bash epilepsy, but they don’t want sidewalks or buses or to shut down the polluting ADM plant that burns coal to make their ethanol to make them feel oh-so-clean while driving in Car World. They want me cured bashed out of existence.

___

In the end, I cut My Friend the Teenage Pipe Bomber off for good. Not because he dropped a pipe bomb in a phone booth — he seems repentant — but because he doesn’t understand he is still planting metaphorical bombs, still hurting people. Isolating disabled people kills us. The body responds to isolation the same way it does a wound.

days marked alone on my calendar in the months after my friend’s confession; one visit in March from an out-of-town friend

tick tick tick

Seven months after my friend’s confession: I get blood clots.

I am forced to crawl into the ER, where they refuse to do an ultrasound. “You’re 5’8″, 115 pounds, don’t smoke, don’t take the pill, aren’t pregnant. There’s no way you have a blood clot.”

I hold my ground, refuse to leave until they test me. They do a d-dimer, it comes back elevated, and I finally get my ultrasound–plus a prescription for a $400 bottle of Xarelto. They don’t put me on coumadin – even though it’s much cheaper – because it requires weekly blood monitoring, and I will never get a ride.

When they release me, I worry about whether I can crawl back home because: I can’t count on abled friends. “Call an Uber!” They will say, like they always do. They don’t understand: Uber drivers abandon me at the curb when they spot my cane or rollator or get freaked out by my ataxia.

I don’t have options like they do–and that, right there, is my biggest risk factor for the clots.

In socially isolated people like me — denied the benefits of civic life, as the DOJ would say –fibrinogen levels are so high we might as well chain smoke.

Fibrinogen: glycoprotein circulating in the blood, ready and waiting for a blunt force trauma, a cut, a fall. At the moment of injury, it springs into action, transformed by thrombin into fibrin to form clots.

When I call my friend out on his abuse, he says, “I’ve never done anything evil to you as far as I know.”

Isolation is evil, though. Isolation is abuse. Isolation is a wound, and my body responded the only way it knows how: to clot.

How many decisions did my friend make in the time I’ve lived here? Not to offer a ride, not to come visit, not to choose an accessible restaurant for a party. Do I really believe he never wanted to hurt anybody?

I saw you walking in the street. I should have offered you a ride. 

I didn’t make time for you–the excuse my friend gives via email, after I block him on social media. You had plenty of time for abled friends, I reply.

Here, let me confess to a crime because who will you tell?

Is it possible to be traumatized by a place–a city?

 

calendar with days alone/isolated marked through August 2018; September has some days with a friend visiting from out of town

tick tick tick