The Backpack

Two ladies jogging in front of me noticed it first. One was tall, the other considerably less so. Both were moving a lot faster than one might expect for a couple of middle-aged women, neither of whom seemed to be in great condition. Either that, or my dog and I were moving much more slowly than either of our egos wanted to admit.

The taller of the two stopped suddenly. Her companion ran a couple of extra steps, then turned back and pulled her friend sharply away.

“Oh, my.”

“What should we do? It’s just sitting there.”

“Should we call the police?”

By then, the dog and I had caught up to them, and we could see the “it” that was causing the commotion. It was a backpack, the type kids use to carry their books, calculators and computers to school. This one was nearly new, Kelly green, with the zipper to the main pouch slightly open. It appeared to be full.

I looked at the women. The women looked at me. The dog looked at the backpack. He strained at his leash to get a closer sniff.

At this point, it’s important to understand a couple of things. First, this event took place only a few weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing. And this mysterious backpack was sitting by itself, no one except us around it.

Second, my rather shaggy dog of uncertain parentage is insatiably curious. He needed to know what was in that bag.

Finally, all four of us we were running in a park in a suburb where nothing ever happens. A river winds through our city and the towns that surround it. Forty years ago, the local, state and federal governments pooled resources to buy up land on the river before it could be developed. As a result, the river has a necklace of these parks set aside for walking, running, beach volleyball, food trucks, whatever.

It’s beautiful, safe and boring. There couldn’t be any more pointless a place to leave a backpack, let alone a backpack with a bomb in it. And yet, there was this backpack, mysteriously sitting there, all by itself.

I pulled my dog back. The shorter woman pulled out an iPhone and called 911. Two police cruisers arrived within minutes. Apparently, it wasn’t just us joggers who worried about the untold dangers of unchaperoned bags.

Two cops came over. One walked over to the bag. The other started pushing us back. The dog wanted to play with the female officer. She did not want to play with the dog. I tugged the dog to safety and watched from a distance as the cops yelled back and forth to each other.

“What does it look like?”

A shrug. “It looks like a backpack. Expensive.”

“No, that’s not what I meant. What’s inside it?”

“How would I know? I can’t see inside it. What do you think I’ve got – x-ray vision?”

Other people had started to gather, wondering what was going on. There were maybe 20 or 30 people milling about by now.

“Well, what do we do? Is it a bomb? Geez – it might be a bomb.”

That was the first time anyone had used the “b” word. We’d all been thinking it, but the cop had said it. Now it hung there, adding to the tension. The small crowd started to back away. After a moment, so did the cops.

Word must have gone out that something was happening down at the park, because our group was rapidly growing into a crowd that was bordering on becoming a mob. A murmur started at the back, and the people who couldn’t see began to push forward, forcing those of us at the front closer to the cops, and the cops closer to the backpack. The male cop spread his arms and tried to restrain the surge.

“Please – we don’t know what’s in the bag. We need you to retreat to a safe distance. Don’t push. We need you to back away. Please – back away.”

After much shouting by the cops and the arrival of three more police cruisers, we’d all been relocated about 30 feet from the backpack. We stared at the cops, who stared back at us while stealing nervous glances at the bag. The backpack itself remained defiantly silent.

Three local news broadcast trucks arrived. The reporters and cameramen took pictures of the backpack and interviewed random people in the crowd. The backpack declined to speak.

Our town is too small to have its own bomb squad, so we were all surprised when three large black vans appeared, two with SWAT teams and one with a bomb disposal unit. Two fire trucks also arrived. Clearly, the cops had called in reinforcements. To all appearances, the backpack was unimpressed.

One of the SWAT officers charged over to the local cops and started yelling at them. Our current definition of a safe distance wasn’t enough, and everyone grudgingly started to pull back yet again. One of the local cops, the firemen, a SWAT officer and the apparent leader of the bomb squad huddled off to the side, discussing what to do.

I looked at the backpack. A squirrel had wandered over to it. It reached up to the top and pulled at the zipper. After a few minutes, there was a squirrel-sized gap in the top, and the bushy-tailed burglar climbed in. It emerged a moment later with a potato chip in its mouth.

Two other squirrels immediately converged on the one with the potato chip. After much running around, the biggest squirrel chased away the other two. He immediately dove into the backpack, surfacing with a plastic bag filled with a sandwich.

The crowd and the sirens had been difficult for my dog. Watching the squirrels was torture. Seeing the squirrel with the sandwich was more than he could bear. He pulled the leash from my hand and made a dash for the backpack.

There was an audible gasp from the crowd. One of the bomb squad officers dove unsuccessfully for the dog. My dog grabbed the sandwich, and the squirrel jumped up a tree. After eating the sandwich in two gulps, the dog stuck his nose into the backpack and came up with more potato chips. Another investigation produced an apple.

A gunshot rang out.

One of the cops had fired his gun into the air. My dog startled, yelped and dropped the apple. Then he picked it up again and ran back to where another cop was holding me back.

“Sir, you need to leave. Now.”

I wasn’t about to argue. As it was, I had to figure out how to explain to my family that my dog had nearly blown up 50 or 60 people, plus a bunch of cops and firemen, while snarfing a sandwich and stealing an apple from a backpack.

One of the reporters wanted to interview me, or possibly my dog. The whole mess apparently was going to appear on that evening’s news. I ran past her to my car and drove home, shaking and hyperventilating.

I learned later that, right after the dog and I left, the back of the bomb squad van opened, a robot emerged, made its way over to the backpack, picked up the backpack and placed it inside a container. The robot and the container disappeared back into the back of the van, which then drove off. It was very anticlimactic.

For some reason, the fire department hosed down the area where the backpack had been. The SWAT team left. The firemen left. The reporters left. The cops left. The crowd left. As far as anyone knows, the squirrels stayed put.

News reports that night said the bomb squad detonated the backpack at an undisclosed facility. We watched from the safety of our living room. The family cheered when the dog dashed for the sandwich, and booed when the cops chased him away. The dog, thoroughly uninterested in his celebrity, ate his dinner and slept flatulently at the foot of the sofa.

No one found out what was in the backpack. It might have been a bomb. It might not. No one ever admitted to owning it or placing it there. However, I can’t help but wonder. Is there a mad bomber on the loose out there, extra angry because my dog ate his lunch?

~ by jld0077 on January 22, 2015.

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