My 11th grade American Literature teacher, Mr. Mitchem, used an unusual method to make oral book reports more interesting. He encouraged our class to team up and perform skits on the theme of the book we had read. We were given a reading list of the usual American authors such as Hemingway, Twain, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, plus many others, and we were required to read four books per semester. (Thank God for Cliff Notes.) In addition, we were allowed to read a book of our choice, provided it was written by an American author and Mr. Mitchem approved the book first. And that’s where this story begins.
William Powell, an American author, wrote a subversive book, The Anarchist Cookbook, in 1971. It was not a novel, but rather an instruction manual for destroying our country. His reasoning for writing a book that not only condoned terrorism, but provided step-by-step instructions, was the continuation of the Vietnam War, corporations that polluted our natural resources, and the corrupt Nixon administration. The book centered on drugs, sabotage, surveillance, weapons, explosives, booby traps, and even included a poem that Ho Chi Minh wrote while he was imprisoned—perfect reading material for two small-town teenagers. I’m assuming Powell was under surveillance by the FBI.
My friend and class cohort, Eddie, showed me a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook and suggested we perform a skit book report on the theme of this book. I flipped to the table of contents. A few of the chapters were: “How to make Mercury Fulminate,” “How to make Tear Gas in your Basement,” and “Formulas for Blasting Gelatin.” Cool! I was hooked and I agreed without a second thought. My previous theme book reports were for The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath and The Old Man and the Sea. I was ready for something different. Something wild. And this book sure as hell fit the bill.
Mr. Mitchem abhorred censorship and was very open minded when it came to approving our books of choice—hell, he even let one student give a book report on the telephone book—but our book of choice gave him pause. He agreed, reluctantly, with a reminder that our book report must be about the theme.
Theme was king. He was known to interrupt any student’s presentation if the book report even hinted about the plot. He wanted to know what we got out of a book, not a recount of the storyline. I always struggled with theme. As a student with decent grades, I had learned over the past 11 years how to read, remember and repeat whatever any teacher wanted me to know for a test. So, after years of regurgitating the plot of a book for previous teachers, it took me a while to figure out what Mr. Mitchem wanted to hear. He actually wanted—no, demanded—that we think about what we had read.
“Usually, what you learn from a book IS the theme of the book,” he said.
Eddie and I read the book from beginning to end. Devoured, would actually be a better word. We learned “How to Drill Pistol Barrels to Silence a Gun Shot,” “How to Prime a Homemade Stick of Dynamite” and “How to Build a Pressure-sensitive Release Detonator.” Powell justified the contents of his book with his own personal political commentary. He was a wannabe revolutionary that was convinced that the only way to save America, was to destroy it and then rebuild it. I didn’t agree with his radical political views, but I knew theme when it stared me in the face. Revolution. That was the theme of the book. And we would use selected quotes from the book to state the theme. Our book report would practically write itself.
Eddie and I went to work on our skit.
We built a working time bomb using instructions from several chapters of the book. Other than using real dynamite and blasting caps, (we used highway flares and large radio resistors,) the bomb was functional. We wired a dry cell battery to an alarm clock that would send six volts of current to the blasting cap which would ignite the three sticks of dynamite causing it to explode. We housed the entire device inside an ordinary shoebox. Again, to be clear, it was fake, albeit, a very convincing fake.
On the day we were to present our book report, we walked into our classroom wearing long trench coats and sunglasses. We didn’t speak to anyone. We stayed in character from the moment we walked in the room until Mr. Mitchem called on us to present our book report.
We could hear snickers and giggles from fellow classmates as we stood at the podium. Eddie placed the shoebox on the podium. Mr. Mitchem stood at the back of the room leaning against the wall with his arms crossed; no doubt waiting for us to recount the plot. Ha. No chance. This book report would be over in 30 seconds.
I stepped forward and said, “We read The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell.”
“The only laws a man can truly respect are the ones he makes for himself. Allow your love of freedom to overcome the false values placed on human life, for the only method to communicate with the enemy is to speak to him on his own level, using his own terms,” I said.
Eddie stepped forward.
With conviction in his voice he said, “Freedom is based on respect, and respect must be earned by the spilling of blood.”
We left the shoebox on the podium and exited the classroom into the hallway.
Our classmates told us what happened next. Mr. Mitchem walked up to the podium, opened the shoebox and his eyes went wide. He picked it up with both hands, walked briskly to an open window and threw the shoebox into the courtyard. He found us in the hall and he was pissed. We quickly assured him that the prop was a fake, so he sent me to the courtyard to retrieve it. We weren’t allowed to keep it. That was probably a wise decision on his part. Who knows what Eddie and I might have done with our fake time bomb.
Now imagine the world of hurt Eddie and I would have been in if we had pulled this stunt today. Our school would have been locked down. The S.W.A.T. team and bomb squad would have evacuated the entire building. We would have been permanently expelled from school and probably faced criminal charges — and rightfully so. Hell, we would have been on CNN within the hour.
But 1972 was a long time before Columbine, so instead of being taken into custody, we both got an “A” for our book report.