A Simple Misunderstanding

It was the winter of 1974 and my high school architecture instructor, Mr. Belt, was teaching our class about stress points. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember anything he taught us on the subject. It involved a lot of math—not my strongest subject—to determine the location of the breaking point when a load was placed on a structure.

I’m sure he explained it correctly, but his lesson eluded me. It wasn’t just me, either. None of us really understood what he was trying to convey to us. He might as well have been speaking Swahili as he scribbled formulas on the chalk board.

Mr. Belt must have sensed our complete lack of understanding, so he decided to make it interesting. He introduced dynamite into the equation.

“Imagine you want to blow up a bridge, but you only have one stick of dynamite.” he said.

Hello. That piqued our interest. We sat up and paid attention.

He produced a small engineering drawing of Seventh Street Bridge located in downtown Port Huron. The drawing showed the bridge in the raised and lowered positions. It also displayed the hidden workings of the bridge including the motors, gears and cantilever weights.

“Where would you put it? At the weakest point on the bridge. Right? That’s what I’m asking you to find…the weakest point, or as we call it, the stress point,” he said.

Now, as far as I can recall, he only said “dynamite” once, but that was enough. After that, the assignment suddenly became very interesting. Isn’t it amazing how a different perspective can change your whole outlook?

We were told to work in teams on this assignment. With a simple knowing nod to Ed, one of my fellow classmates, we were teammates. We divided the work: I would draw up the plans; Ed would calculate the equations.

Within a week, we had completed our assignment. I had drawn orthographic views of both sides of the bridge, plus a top view of Seventh Street and the Black River. A call-out line with an arrow pointed to an “X” on the thin part of the bridge’s arch. Hand printed next to the line were the words,”Place dynamite here.” It was awesome. Really.

I made a set of blueprints of our drawings at Mueller Brass where I worked every morning in the engineering department. The plans were rolled into a tube and I took them to school—where I promptly lost them.

Of all people to find the set of blueprints was our American Literature teacher, Mr. Mitchem. Earlier that same year, Ed and I had left a shoebox on his podium that contained a fake time bomb, complete with a ticking clock, a six-volt dry cell, and bell wire connected to large radio resistors (blasting caps) and highway flares (dynamite.) It was a prop for a skit we performed, but that’s a different story. Note: see “American Lit Book Report.”

Mr. Mitchem called us out of other classes and we reported to his class room as instructed. His mood was serious as he confronted us.

“Are you guys planning to do anything illegal in the near future?” he asked us, point blank.

My mind raced. What the hell was he getting at? Cheating on tests? Smoking pot? Drinking beer? Riding trains? Taunting the mounted police at the football games?

Ed was always better on his feet.

“Nope,” he said.

I followed Ed’s lead.

“Nope,” I repeated.

Mr. Mitchem stared at us using his silent tactic, as if one of us would break down under the tremendous pressure. (No chance.) He unrolled the set of blueprints on his desk.

“Can you explain this?” he said.

Ha! He thought we were terrorists? We both laughed and relaxed.

“You think we would blow up a bridge? This is an assignment for Mr. Belt’s architecture class,” Ed said.

Mr. Mitchem simply stared at us. He wasn’t buying this incredulous explanation, but we didn’t care; we were in the clear and we knew it. We were both chuckling as he rolled up the blueprints and marched across the hall to Mr. Belt’s class. The door was locked and Mr. Belt was teaching a class, but Mr. Mitchem didn’t care; he was on a mission. He knocked on the door. Ed and I stood behind him; grinning.

Mr. Belt opened the door and saw the rolled blueprints in Mr. Mitchem’s hand. He knew the question before it was asked.

“It’s an assignment to find stress points on a structure,” he said.

With that, he extended his hand and took possession of the blueprints and returned to his class. Mr. Mitchem turned around and simply told us to return to our classes.

Neither teacher ever mentioned this incident again. And in retrospect, it wasn’t really much of an event; it was just a simple misunderstanding. It was long forgotten when our yearbooks arrived in June. Like most students, we filled our yearbooks with grand salutations, wishes of luck and simple signatures.

And that’s what I expected from Mr. Mitchem; a simple signature, but instead he wrote a poem in my yearbook. Word got around, and for the next week my fellow classmates repeatedly asked me to show them Mr. Mitchem’s poem; which I did with a smile.

And I still chuckle about it to this day.

An explosion in the night,
7th Street Bridge is gone,
It went without a fight,
In the Magic Bomber’s dawn.

— W. P. Mitchem

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