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Where there's smoke, there's firepower

A Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie story by Greg Swann

It was the plume of smoke that drew me, of course. A great black finger of despair pointing blame at an indifferent god.

Oh, sure...

And it's fate alone that makes me the man unlucky enough to be everlastingly there at the time.


Well, I may be doomed, but at least I'm not dead. Not yet, anyway...

The smoke was rising from the ruins of a shack across the street from a high school way out in the 'burbs. I was on foot, of course, and as I came near I saw that the house was too dilapidated even to be used as a crack house, which is saying something.

And it was done for by then, a smoking hulk with vast holes blasted through the walls. It had been a wood-frame cracker-box a long time ago, a modest little American Dream. We live in different America, now, and the house had been appropriately transformed into a nightmare.

Dancing around on the sidewalk in front of the house was the Class Clown, a too-small boy in too-large clothing. He was taunting the on-lookers in a sing-song voice: "Take that hill, bomb that bridge, kill those folks on Ruby Ridge! Take that hill, bomb that bridge, kill those folks on Ruby Ridge!"

The Guidance Counselor turned and glared at him. She was a vague little woman, indefinite in every dimension. She had reddish hair in a cut too masculine for a man, with little swatches of grey at the temples. She hid milky little eyes behind Coke-bottle specs. Even her voice was ambiguous, a cross between the sound of your sweet old grandma and the corrupt ex-cop who's stuck selling Karmelkorn down at the mall.

She and the Dean of Students were stumbling through the rubble, simultaneously gloating and averting their eyes. The Dean looked like the Assistant Pastor from the Middlebrow Baptist Church, over-groomed and under-informed. A big, boxy man in a big, boxy suit with big, boxy gray hair. He was a bastard son of the South, and he combined a Yankee's lofty attitude with a Razorback's diction.

"Dang!" he said. "Them ol' rocket launchers really do the job, don't they?"

Milling around with them were members of the school's ROTC contingent in full battle regalia. The gangly teenagers--racially and sexually integrated, I must add--were carrying bazookas and rocket launchers and grenade launchers. Two of them were pushing around a miniature assault vehicle that looked like it had been reincarnated from its former life as a soapbox racer by the kids in Metal Shop.

"Waco, Waco, Waco!" taunted the Class Clown. "Save 'em 'til they bake-o!"

"Shhh!" said the Suck Up, the pimply geek trailing behind the Dean and the Guidance Counselor. To them he said, "Some people just have to make trouble!"

"Ain't that the truth!" said the Dean.

I am doomed, of course, but it's just because I can't keep my nose pointed at my destination. I elbowed my way through the small crowd and drew near to the Dean and the Guidance Counselor.

They were looking down at a boy. A dead boy. A charred and smoking corpse that an hour before had been a boy. Carefree. Probably careless. And undoubtedly with careworn parents who were in for a very bad night.

I looked around and there were more. More dead children. A dozen spindly teenagers, charred and smoking.

"Waco, Waco, Waco!" called the Class Clown. "Save 'em 'til they bake-o!"

The Guidance Counselor glared back at him.

"They were asking for it!" said the Dean. "I told 'em to quit it!"

"Asking for what?" I asked. I knew I was asking for it.

"We had to take them out," said the Guidance Counselor. "It's all their fault!"

"...You killed these children...?"

"They did it to themselves!" blustered the Dean. "They left us no choice!"

I've seen that show on TV, so I just let it go. "What was it, some kind of violent street gang?"

"Oh, worse than that," said the Dean.

"Much worse than that," intoned the Guidance Counselor. "What they were doing was even worse than unprotected sex!" She said it solemnly, and, I have to believe, seriously.

"What, drug dealers...?"

"They were smoking," the Dean confided.

I look around at all the dead bodies. "Smoking what? Crack? Pot? What could justify killing these kids?"

"They were smoking cigarettes!" The Guidance Counselor spat, as if she had explained something.

"Yeah," said the Dean, "and last week they had a nine-year-old in there with 'em. Can you imagine that? A nine-year-old..."

"Waco, Waco, Waco!" chanted the Class Clown. "Save 'em 'til they bake-o!" His voice hung in the air like the pall of smoke.

I talk to crazy people all the time. It's my job, I guess. But I draw a line between crazy people and psychopaths. I went back to talk to the Class Clown instead. "Tell me what happened here," I said.

"It's the nose of the camel, man," the Class Clown said. "It's the thin edge of the wedge. If they outlawed smoking all at once, they'd be caught in the crosshairs of thirty million rifle scopes. So they ban it for kids, first. Who can argue with that? Then maybe airline pilots. Then long-haul truck drivers or licensed gun dealers or auto mechanics. Who knows? Who cares? So long as it's one minority at a time, too small for anyone to get worked up about. When they come for you, it'll be too late!"

I rubbed at my chin. "Where are you getting all this stuff, kid?"

He pulled a Walkman out of his pocket. "The last neighborhood in town, man. Talk radio."

The Dean turned and glared. "I knew it!"

The Principal had come out to join them in the ruins. She was a thick little woman with shortish hair that wasn't quite credibly blonde. She reminded me of a nurse I was once lucky enough to escape from. The Dean was giving the Suck Up an object lesson in how to suck up as a way of life. He said, "I told you we'd take care of this, ma'am. I couldn't get the PTA to go along with your master plan, but there's more than one way to flush a quail. Ain't there?"

"There sure is, sir," said the Suck Up.

The Class Clown called, "Resist! Resist! Smoke the flag!"

"Button it up, sonny boy," said the Guidance Counselor, her eyes ablaze with malice. "It could happen to you, too..."

They were looking down at a little girl whose hair was even less convincingly blonde than the Principal's. She'd gotten in the way of a tear gas cannister. It was embedded in her chest.

The Principal said, "They're dead?"

"They were asking for it!" said the Dean. "I told 'em to quit it!"

The Principal said, "They're dead?"

"It's all their fault!" said the Guidance Counselor.

The Principal said, "They're dead...?"

"They're all dead, ma'am," said the Dean. "We snuffed their butts out." He chuckled.

"I take full responsibility," said the Guidance Counselor.

"She takes full responsibility," said the Dean.

The air was thick with the smell of burnt wood and burnt paper and burnt flesh. The Principal scowled and said, "Well, at least they're not smoking..."

"Uh, ma'am?" said the Suck Up. "Uh, technically, they are."

"Oh, whatever!" said the Dean.

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