The Tale of the Detonating Chicken Hearts

This is a chapter from a proposed collection, Buster and Bo, The Early Years.

Bo & Buster (BtnFlyGuy)

We were raised in Texas, the two sons of Troy and Lee Benham. Dad was a heavy equipment foreman, using the blades of a bulldozer or road grader like a surgeon to fashion the roads, dams and bridges in the Lone Star State. Our mother was a typical housewife, whose lot in life was to try to control my brother and me, two years different in age and polar opposites in interests and temperament. God bless our parents.

Now this really did happen…honest.

When Bo and I were nine and eleven respectively, we moved to Lake Brownwood in central Texas. This suited us both just fine since Bo dearly loved to fish and I always wanted to be a scuba diver, having watched “Sea Hunt” every weekend for as long as I could remember. Until we moved to the lake, I had satisfied that yen by cutting a two foot length of garden hose to use as a snorkel in the bathtub. Dad allowed as to how he didn’t think electrical tape would be able to hold the spray nozzle on the cut off end of the hose and my allowance would show a deficit until the replacement hose was paid off. So the move to the deeper waters of the lake was fine with me. I got to keep my makeshift snorkel. Dad even bought me diving goggles from the Army/Navy store.

The four of us lived in a fifty foot long, ten foot wide “mobile home” (back then we called them trailer houses) and it was parked on an oversized concrete slab that did double duty as porch and parking spot. My father believed that the “porch” needed something he had always wanted; a grill (BBQ) on which to cook MEAT such as chicken, pork and maybe even (dare I say it?) STEAK. Now understand, because of our own version of “the economy” we hardly ever ate steak cooked in any fashion, so grilled outdoors would be a major event and Dad knew exactly how to get this fixed up just right. These were in the days when store bought grills weren’t much more than flimsy tin hatboxes with even flimsier wire grates and rickety tubular tripod legs. Dad wanted no part of such poor contrivances.

Since our father was the foreman of the work crew, he called upon the talents of the equipment weld-repair master to cut a 55 gallon drum in half, hinge it and weld on sturdy angle-iron legs. A reclaimed diesel tractor exhaust stack and diamond perforated grills for the coals and food completed the beast. It would easily have tipped the scales at more than three hundred pounds. Dad actually paid cash money for a can of flat black high temperature paint to dress it up a bit.

Saturday came along and Dad decided to inaugurate the mighty furnace with an all-out feast for his friends on the work crew who would supply the MEAT; complete with franks, chicken, fresh-caught catfish and crappie, and STEAK! The steak was actually going to be venison from last year’s deer season brought over by the resident long-gun hunter. Mom had plans to get all the wives and girlfriends together and provide the rest of the edible goods. The only thing yet to be procured, were several cases of beer, which Dad had volunteered (as leader of the pack) to provide.

Now consider that this was Texas in the 1960’s and alcohol laws, known as “Blue Laws”, were as varied as breeds of chickens. One such dictum was that Brownwood was in a “dry county”. In other words, you could not buy alcohol of any kind in the county where we lived. This required a road trip by Mom and Dad to the next county over to harvest some Lone Star longnecks and Pearl beer. I remember clearly our father’s parting words as they climbed into his pickup (made all the more clear since he had the resonant voice of John Wayne to my ears)…”Buster, don’t let Bo mess with the BBQ.”

I’m not real sure, but I suspect that if Bo heard those words, his adventurous nature chose to ignore them because as soon as the truck was out of sight down the gravel road, he was looking for some way to take the BBQ for a test run before Dad got back. I also knew better than to try to talk him out of the idea. When a thought latched into my brother’s head it was usually pretty useless to try to dissuade him. Besides, if I played it right I could participate and we’d be all finished up by the time our folks got home an hour or so later.

Basically, we understood the notion of outdoor cooking: find cookables and combustibles, make fire and cook meat, then enjoy. Final phase, if you are a kid, is to hide all evidence of the deed. My task was to locate the charcoal, lighter fluid and matches. A thorough ransack of our own shed delivered no flammables except the gasoline for the mower and even at age eleven I knew that was a bit much to trifle with, having learned a painful lesson earlier in my life. Our neighborhood, that is to say trailer park, was pretty much open for free range foraging by anyone under the age of, say fourteen, so I didn’t feel too bad taking a bag with four or so briquettes (and associated black dust) from one carport and a nearly empty can of lighter fluid from another. The matches were easy since we had a gas stove and there was the familiar red and blue box of “One Strike” fire sticks in the kitchen drawer.

Bo was in charge of MEAT. Compared to mine, his chore was a bit more difficult. Since Mom had known we were going to be supplied by others with a good deal of food, she had forgone the usual trip to the Piggly Wiggly with the unpleasant result that there was not even one shriveled weenie in the Frigidaire. Bo improvised. Remember I mentioned he loved to fish? No, we didn’t have any fish left over, but his favorite bait for catfish was chicken hearts and he kept a box in the freezer for his piscatorial predations. Not exactly T-bone or sirloin, but it was, nevertheless, MEAT!

While we may have understood the concept, the actual technique of building a fire had been learned from our father who was of the “pile it high, wet it down real good with lighter fluid, stand back and toss a match on it” school of pyro-culinary art. Dad had never been wrong before, so we followed his lead. We put the four black stone-looking bricks in on top of some dry tinder twigs with a few live oak leaves “for that oak-smoked flavor” tossed on top and gave the prospective pyre a couple of healthy squirts of fluid. Then, with utter confidence, I struck the first match and tossed it on top.

The resultant pillar of orange red flame with accompanying “wooosh!” would have earned high marks as an understudy for the burning bush which appeared before Moses. The excitement was short-lived, however as it shrank with the same enthusiasm as it was born. Texans don’t give up, not even pre-teen Texans. So, more fluid, another match and another mini mushroom cloud. After a little head scratching and contemplation we decided to give it another go. Trouble was just around the curve at the bottom of the hill, though.

Our father’s truck was mostly mechanically sound, but it did have a particularly throaty exhaust rumble, much like its owner, and the unmistakable rolling belch of a Ford with a hole in the exhaust manifold alerted the two of us to our imminent demise or at least a good whompin’. (In truth, our father never threatened our lives and seldom raised a hand. His demeanor alone was good enough.) In keeping with the aforementioned technique of fire handling, paying particularly close attention to the “hide the evidence” part, we tossed the now depleted lighter can, the matches, the empty charcoal-dusty briquette bag and the half-thawed chicken hearts in the BBQ and shut the grill cover.

The pickup pulled up in front of the house and Mom went inside to get her purse, which they discovered she had forgotten when they were almost all the way to the package store. Dad came around back to see what us boys were up to. I was studiously watching a trail of red ants carry a bug to their nest and Bo was rearranging the fishhooks, sinkers and bobbers in his tackle box. Neither one of us noticed the barely discernable wisp of white smoke rising from the grill’s stack.

Dad had.

“Buster, you boys been messin’ with the BBQ?”

“No Sir! Bo and I were just…

That sentence never received a proper ending. The “…now depleted lighter can, the matches, the empty charcoal-dusty briquette bag and the half-thawed chicken hearts…” put the end to that. The cumulative ingredients, a tiny ember and the immutable laws of combustion won out hands down over my feeble attempt at denial.

All I really remember, and this is imprinted forever in my recollections, is that one moment my father was standing in front of us with his arms crossed in front of his chest, a Pall Mall in his lips and  his back to what was about to transform itself into a belching thing of ultimate terror.

I noticed the smoke then.

With an almighty clang that would have rendered Vulcan deaf at the strike of his own hammer to the forge, the grill detonated. Dad, who had been in the army and participated in many a hand-grenade drill stood his ground and was silhouetted by a miniature fireball as flames, charcoal, twigs, leaves, billowing smoke and now fully-thawed chicken hearts pelted and engulfed him. The vapors from the fuel can, the dust from the bag, a slight breeze to draw a draft through the vessel and that one tiny glowing ember had combined to create a science-fair example of pure combustive detonation.

After a singular interminable portion of a second Bo and I both pointed at each other, mouths in the silent rictus of a sobbing wail which won’t come out.  Bo actually made about three steps in his getaway before Dad snagged him by his t-shirt. I knew better than to run, I’d have to come home sometime.

I could tell you about the terrible punishment meted out to my brother and me, but Dad just made us stay home over the weekend with no fishing or swimming. I guess he figured real life had taught us a more valuable lesson than he could with a belt or one of Mom’s infamous rubber flip-flop floggins’.

And yes, we got STEAK.


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One Response to “The Tale of the Detonating Chicken Hearts”

  1. Emmitt Coney Says:

    We are heading cook outdoors on tuesday, my family have to be crazy. Completely not my idea of enjoyable.

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