This story is based somewhat on fact. Much of it is true. The names have been changed to protect the guilty. As far as I know from the newspaper article, nobody was seriously injured or killed.
We were bad back then. The only thing that saved our town from constant mayhem was our lack of transportation. We’d considered it morally reprehensible that thirteen-year-olds were not allowed to drive. Living in the suburbs, we had to make do with our mothers’ weekly jaunts to one of the several megalithic malls that blossomed in the baby boomer era. The May Company was our favorite target. We could slip through the sprawling four stories of the department store unnoticed, as if we were ordinary shoppers. In the electronics department, we’d use the rows of TVs and monstrous speakers to guard our backs while we covertly connected homebuilt wireless receivers to the most powerful stereos. Then, lounging on leather sofas in home furnishing, we’d spew out toilet humor that boomed throughout the floor. Not even the woman’s wear department was safe. We made high voltage zappers out of scavenged transformers and capacitors that with a well placed covert swipe could turn big brown cash registers into electronic jelly. Maroon bloused, yellow panted clerks would weep in desperation as serpentine lines of pissed off customers began acting like cornered vipers.
One Saturday I was cruising the May Co. with my two partners in pandemonium. Mike could design electronic circuits in his head; Jeff was expert at explosives (he’d once taken out a large chunk of side-walk in front of his house with a thousand match-heads and a roll of tin-foil). We happened on a back hallway off the main sales floor. A metal door, propped open with a wooden block, attracted our attention. Wide concrete stairs, illuminated with low wattage bulbs headed down into an obscure gloom. Jeff began leaping the steps two and three at a time. We felt the whole staircase resonate through our feet with each of his landings. Mike and I looked at each other, shrugged in unison and followed.
The rough concrete walls had large black patches of mildew that must have accounted for the musty odor filling our nostrils. Three flights down, we found Jeff peering up at us, his face bisected with a grin from ear to ear. The staircase ended in a square concrete pit fifteen feet on a side with two doors on opposite walls and one was half open. White light streamed through the door cutting the shadows like a knife.
“Hurry up slackers,” Jeff called out, “you won’t believe this.” His voice reverberated through the vertical shaft of stairs and even he cringed at the volume.
We all moved to the lighted doorway and gazed at the largest potential for trouble that any of us had ever seen in one place. The room, more like a large closet, had two walls covered with circuit breaker panels. We crept into the room, the spinal cord of the May Company, like deadly neurologic pathogens, about to strike.
But we didn’t strike. Even at thirteen we had some potential for delayed gratification. We talked it over and fled without so much as flicking a switch.
* * * * *
Two weekends later we left our mothers standing in front of JC Penny’s and headed for our showdown with ‘The Man’. We felt a gentle tug as we passed Radio Shack, but resisted the urge. I had an old blue airline bag with red lettering proclaiming: ‘Western Airlines, The Only Way To Fly’. Its thin vinyl strap was digging into my shoulder with the weight of what we’d been working on in Mike’s garage for the past ten days. Jeff led the way into the May Company wearing black jeans, black tennis shoes, dark sunglasses and a navy tee-shirt, apparently, he didn’t have a black one. We split up on entering the store. Mike was going to scout out the electronics department while Jeff and I headed for the basement. We made use of the natural cover, slinking up against clothing racks and into aisles. It was amazing that half the store’s plain clothes guys hadn’t followed us.
We made it to the circuit breaker room and began duct taping our switch-kickers (little mini bow-and-arrows held cocked by a thread) to the proper breakers. Mike showed up twenty minutes later and after studying the labels on each switch, peeled off one of the switch-kickers. “I’m pretty sure this is right one,” he said.
We crimped a bit of steel wool like wire, harvested from old camera flash bulbs, to the threads holding back the stretched rubber bands of the switch-kickers. A wire went from all twenty-two switches that we’d selected to a modified kitchen timer and a large six-volt battery. Jeff set the timer for fifteen minutes and said: “now”. I pushed a button on my Casio. The door to the breaker room had a lock. We locked it and I pulled soggy bubble gum from my mouth and stuffed the keyhole.
Back in electronics on the second floor, Jeff distracted a sales clerk by barraging him with questions about the new RCA 24” color console while Mike slipped a cassette tape into the largest Sony on display. When my watch hit one minute I whispered: “mark.” He pushed the button and cranked up the volume. We felt rather than heard a subtle hum from the five foot tall Advent speakers to either side. The first minute of the tape was blank. The three of us settled on our favorite black leather sofa, in furnishings, just as the first rumbling notes of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries began to shake the store.
“Shoot, something’s wrong,” I said, looking at my watch. But then it happened. It seemed to occur in slow motion. Took about three seconds. Every light, every noise generated by electricity, except Wagner (Mike had picked the right breaker) went black and silent. The entire floor was as dark as the inside of a coal sack. “Yes yes yes,” we mouthed in the silence that overtook the floor. We reveled in our accomplishment, we were done. Our mistake was not to realize that the rest of the world continued to exist around us.
There was a scream, high pitched and wallowing, then another and another. We heard glass breaking. People began running, tripping over everything, over each other. Babies started screaming and crying. The shouts and screams and mayhem and Wagner blended together into a keening that seemed to oscillate as if it were an entity in and of itself. I pulled my feet onto the couch, huddled in fetal position. Raw herd-like panic was something I’d never seen, never dreamed of. I looked over at Jeff, his expression visible in the greenish glow of his digital watch mirrored the desperation in the air.
“We Gotta get out of here,” I said.
“Yah,” Jeff said. Mike must have nodded, but I couldn’t see him. “If they find out we did this they’ll lock us up forever.”
I grabbed my ever-present Mini-mag-light from my pocket and we weaved our way through the heaving crowd. We heard a voice say: “hey, stop those kids!” We ran, guided by the narrow beam of my light, down a nonfunctioning escalator and into the light of the first floor. We kept running until we were out of the mall. Our clothes soaked with sweat, we made a pact, never to tell anyone what we’d done. We never set foot in the May Company again.