Memorable birthday gift prize of discovery

By Bob Huber: Local Columnist

When I was a kid, a classmate named Arnold Buckowitz gave me a special birthday gift, one that sticks in my memory bank to this day. Here’s what happened:

Arny was unofficially recognized at Harley Beers Elementary School as the class creeper. That’s not to say he was a creep, but a creeper. He crept around a lot.

Always in the background and small enough to fit in a bushel, Arnold crept all over the school, anywhere that was unexplored. Sometimes he was under bleachers in the gymnasium, sometimes in air vents in the band room, sometimes in a teacher’s closet.

His face occasionally appeared in group photos of other classes, because he had a knack of coming up for air at inappropriate moments. He looked like a gray-haired old man because of cobwebs hanging down to his shoulders.

During one of his exploratory excursions Arnold stumbled across a maze of plumbing tunnels under the school. I was the only guy who tolerated Arnold’s cobwebs, so he told me about them. Naturally, I spread the good tidings, and soon the tunnels were clogged with guys conducting cigarette research and scholarly probes of lewd magazines.

But that only made Arnold seek new explorations, because his aim in life was to discover, not colonize. He even sought areas outside our school, unknown to snooping janitors or invading friends, like buildings at the Colorado School of Mines, a cluster of 19th Century structures — a Valhalla for the dedicated creeper.

His discoveries at the School of Mines coincided with World War II when most students were away chasing French waitresses at government expense. Dozens of locked rooms contained fossils, rock specimens, and oil samples, and no one was there.

Meanwhile, back at Harley Beers Elementary, it became known through unsubstantiated rumors that my birthday was approaching, and I was worthy of elaborate gifts. It was never determined who started these rumors.

So on the eve of my birthday I walked down the hallway and heard hissing from an air vent, then Arnold’s voice. “Huber, come here. Don’t say anything. Just listen.”

The upshot was, Arnold asked me to meet him the next day after school for a birthday present, and I followed him to a large stone building on the School of Mines campus. We entered through a wandering maze of air ducts, finally emerging in a large, open room. That’s when I stood in awe.

There, in front of us was the fuselage of an early B-17 bomber, complete with controls, guns, bomb sights, and bomb bay doors. The plane, Arnold said, had been used to train the school’s ROTC students. “Happy birthday,” Arnold said proudly.

We crept into the fuselage through a bottom hatch and spent a joyful afternoon crawling from gun turret to bomb sight, trying on radio earphones and manipulating controls. Finally we emerged on top of the plane, inspecting antennae and markings.

As we walked to the rear of the craft, I pointed at two large metal doors. “What’s behind these?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” Arnold said. “Haven’t got that far yet.” He looked thoughtful.

I reached down and fingered a latch. “Let’s find out,” I said.

“Noooo!” Arnold shouted, but it was too late. When I turned the latch, both doors flew open, and Arnold and I, standing on them, were catapulted in the air.

“Wooooop!” Arnold cried as we ascended.

“Eeaaiiiiii!” I shouted back.

The sound of an explosion accompanied our levitation, and hot on our trail were large yellow life rafts, shot in the air by a powder charge, inflating while they flew.

Needless to say we weren’t killed, because we landed on the rafts, but we departed the room in haste and didn’t stop until we were a mile away. Between breaths, I said, “Arnold, that’s the best birthday present I ever had. What a blast!”

Arnold smiled, but a look of remorse also flashed across his face, and I knew what he was thinking. He’d have to find new territory to conquer. My gift had been his ultimate sacrifice, closure on the Colorado School of Mines’s hidden treasures.

Then he got a faraway look in his eye and said, “I’ve been wondering about Coors Brewery. Could be some interesting stuff down there.”

I couldn’t argue that.

Bob Huber is a retired journalist living in Portales. He can be contacted at 356-3674.