Wednesday, December 28, 2011

An Explosive Christmas

I love Christmas. I always have. I love it even more now that I have children of my own. Earlier this month, as I eagerly anticipated Christmas Day and envisioned all the wonderful activities and experiences I would share with my kids, one thing, above all else, never entered my mind. Bomb disposal. But, that’s exactly what I ended up doing on Christmas morning this year. Go figure.

My boys love flashlights. They love to pretend to be deep-sea divers and cave explores and police officers, and anything else you might do with a flashlight. Thank goodness they don’t know what a proctologist is! Anyway, as with any other toy or object found in our house, when they decide to stop playing with a flashlight, they simply abandon it wherever they happen to be. There is never a thought of returning it to its designated storage spot and certainly never a thought about turning it off. That’s why they never get to play with my flashlights. I like to know where mine are, and I like them to work when I pick them up.

Since I am the cold-hearted father figure, I am content with simply telling them, “No, you may not play with my flashlight.” Their grandma, however, is a softy, and wants them to be cave explorers or deep-sea divers or doctors with a strange specialty someday, so she buys them flashlights. As a result, we have approximately twenty to thirty small, cheap, plastic or aluminum flashlights hidden throughout the house, all with dead batteries. She buys them on sale at clothing stores, or at the dollar stores, so they are never a brand that can be found at any reputable hardware store or home improvement warehouse. What I’m trying to say is that they’re cheap. Inexpensive, and also cheaply made. That used to seem like a good idea, given the boys’ propensity for mistreating them. Not anymore.

This Christmas morning, lo and behold amidst the ripping and shredding of wrapping paper and boxes, all three boys received new cheap plastic flashlights from Grandma. We like to keep approximately half of our family’s total net worth in the form of batteries stored in our laundry room, so we had those babies powered up in no time. Son Number One, being the oldest of the three, got the biggest flashlight. His was the jumbo model that took two D-size batteries. (Insert your own proctology joke here). All three flashlights were the new blindingly bright LED models, and our house was suddenly lit up like an auto mall on Memorial Day weekend. Three minutes later, we were knee-deep in Legos, and all three flashlights were abandoned under couches or behind desks, all still turned on, draining the batteries. I miss having spending money.

After all the gifts had been unwrapped, the boys set about to playing with all their newfound treasures. Son Number One retrieved his new flashlight from under the couch and ended up playing with it for quite some time. He brought it to me after a while, complaining that it was coming apart. It was a twist on/off model, and he had been twisting the lens end enough that he had accidentally screwed it all the way off. I gathered up all the parts and screwed it all back together. Since it took me longer than two and a half seconds to fix, he had lost interest during the repair process and had moved on to something else by the time I had it back in one piece. Not bothering to call him back into the room, I just set the flashlight on the kitchen counter and got back to my duties as official Christmas cookie tester.

I was still in the kitchen five minutes later when Number One came back in to get his flashlight. He reached up to grab it, and immediately dropped it back onto the counter. “Ouch!” he said, “my flashlight is really hot!”
I set my plate of cookies down and picked up the flashlight. I, too, had to drop it back onto the counter. He wasn’t kidding. The plastic case was too hot to hold onto. Hmmm. That can’t be good.

I very calmly screamed for everyone to hit the floor and roll or crawl out of the kitchen, or as I am told I referred to it at the time, “the blast radius.” I dove across the counter and retrieved the barbeque tongs from one of the drawers, and gingerly picking up the incendiary device, made my way as smoothly and quickly as possible to the “bomb containment bunker,” or as we normally refer to it, the garage.

So there I am: Christmas morning, in my pajama pants and slippers, wearing my brand new Cal Poly sweatshirt I just received from Santa, stylishly accessorizing it with wrap-around safety glasses and boar hide gauntlet-style welding gloves, standing at my garage workbench diffusing a bomb made out of cheap foreign circuit boards and two large Duracell® batteries going supernova. You just never know what life’s going to throw at you.

I was able to get the impromptu pipe bomb apart and shake the D-cells out in time, but it was close. They were so hot they had started to expand, and they almost didn’t slide out of the plastic tube. Thankfully, getting the batteries out diffused the short-circuited flashlight and avoided a really ugly, smelly, and strange Christmas Day incident.

With a regular flashlight that has a standard bulb, there isn’t too much that can go wrong. Apparently, however, with the new LED flashlights, since they require internal circuit boards to work, if those circuit boards and assembly techniques get cheap enough, and just the right circuit board parts fail, they can create a situation where the flashlight becomes a space heater instead. A really inconvenient, unpredictable, flaming space heater.

This time of year, many people tend to get wrapped up in looking for the true meaning of Christmas, getting mired down with the inequities of life around the country or around the world, feeling guilty for their own good fortune or envious of others.

I say, don’t overthink it. Keep it simple, and always be thankful for what you have. Sometimes, the Christmas miracle is simply that the cheap LED flashlight didn’t burn your house to the ground.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2011 Marc Schmatjen

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  1. Quite the Christmas story! Good thing no one was harmed during your bomb disposal training exercise.
    Keep the stories coming...

  2. Thanks, Steve. Will do! We got very lucky that it didn't decide to short-circuit under a bed somewhere in the middle of the night!!! We're counting our blessings, for sure!