Youth Used Dynamite Sticks for Firecrackers

Dale Brumfield

The newspaper clipping with the odd headline is torn and yellowed, but sealed in a layer of plastic that hopefully will preserve it forever.

It is clipped from the Waynesboro News-Virginian, dated December 27, 1937:

An eastside youth believes in celebrating Christmas in no ordinary way. Such items as cannon crackers, torpedoes and the like are for old ladies and sissies …

That eastside youth, called Mr. Broomfield [sic] by the newspaper, James Mason by his mother and dad by me, was a poor but rowdy teenager who grew up during the 1930s in a house full of acrimony. Sometimes his mother threw pots and pans at his father when they fought. Despite this, as my dad years later, he possessed an unusually quiet love for his family, for children and especially his pets.

My sister Lisa with Tiny, 1956.

In 1964 we had a hateful dog named Tiny who would only let my dad pet her. Tiny was killed by a car on our street Easter Sunday. I was only five years old, but I still see her lying by the road — for once she did not growl or bite me or my sister. My dad was in tears, kneeling beside her, patting her lifeless body. The people who hit her stopped — they were in tears also. That day we celebrated Christ’s resurrection from his grave then cried at the untimely entrance of our nasty little dog into hers. I think my Mother secretly said good riddance — to Tiny, not to Jesus. She loves Christ but did not care for that damn dog.

… Christmas eve night, residents of the east side of Waynesboro may have thought that Al Capone had returned from Alcatraz, or that Chiang Kai-Shek was giving Santa Claus a 21-gun salute when floors started shaking and windows rattling from unusually heavy detonations …

Lida, 1973.

In 1979, my parents decided the house was not big enough for them and their stupid, furious Persian cat named Lida (named for my sister, Lisa, and me, Dale — LIDA). We had acquired Lida from a relative and she was still going strong at age fifteen. With my sister and me away at college, that former eastside youth who thought cannon crackers were for sissies reluctantly wrestled that long-haired, bad-tempered 21-pound behemoth into his car and drove her 75 miles into the mountains to a farm where he knew the owners wanted a barn cat. It seemed a perfect fit.

A month or so later, my dad felt so guilty for dropping Lida up at that farm he drove back to check on her. The owner had bad news: Lida disappeared the day after he dropped her there, and he had not seen her since.

Crushed with guilt, my dad drove back home, in tears the whole way. Only a heart as big as his could break for something so vicious and ungrateful. When I heard the news I did not cry for the cat, but feared for the safety of the other wild animals living in the woods surrounding that farm.

… Police were called, but could not locate the cause of the explosions …

James with his father shortly before his death, 1938.

My dad’s father got sick and had to quit work just as his older brother left home at age seventeen to escape the poverty, yelling and flying cookware. That left my dad alone to support his mother and three sisters.

Listen to this: dad’s brother H.D. married a girl fifteen years old. They had a daughter who married at age sixteen. That woman and her husband in turn had a daughter who had a baby at age fourteen. Had she lived, that fifteen-year-old child bride of my uncle would have been a great grandmother at age 46.

Dad’s brother died of severe asthma at age 42 one month before I was born. That side of the family did everything at a young age, including dying. He is buried in the dry, asthma-friendly environment of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

James (L) with his older brother H.D. in Albuquerque, 1951.

My dad possessed a natural curiosity that led him one day in 1969 to tour an embalming lab in our small town that was owned by an elderly mortician named Frank. We kids secretly called him “Creepy,” because he was. He was a little under five feet tall and never wore socks. I cautiously asked dad what it was like in there, and he said it was unnaturally quiet, and there were a lot of buckets sitting around.

He then said he couldn’t eat lunch that day. I thought it was because the place made him sick, but that wasn’t the case — he was so fascinated with Creepy’s embalming tour he lost track of time, and was almost late for second shift at a nearby DuPont plant, where he worked for 42 years.

Down the road from the embalming lab there was a small green clapboard house that had an outhouse in the back yard. We knew a deaf man named Campbell lived there with his brother, and we also knew that house had no indoor plumbing. During the winter of 1969, snow lay on the frozen ground for six weeks. That entire time we never saw any footprints in the snow leading to that outhouse. It was a source of laughter between just my dad and me, and a small-town mystery that we never bothered to solve.

… 17-year-old James Broomfield [sic] was arrested Christmas day by officers Drumheller and Via, whom they charge set off dynamite sticks at the rear of his house. The officers said the youth admitted setting off three charges in a lead pipe, which was blown to fragments and will be used for evidence in his trial set for Trial Justice Court January 7 …

James hanging out on the railroad with guns, 1938.

There was more to this dynamite story the paper did not report: dad found the dynamite near the railroad tracks up in the mountains. He lit the fuse and dropped the stick down into a hollow steel hoe handle that had been made by his dad, a former blacksmith, and pointed it toward the sky.

At that moment his mother stormed out and shouted, “James Mason, you better let go of that hoe handle or you will lose that hand.” Dad let go of it just as it exploded out, not up like a roman candle, as he anticipated. It blew the hoe handle to smithereens, and left my dad partially deaf. Thanks to his mom, though, he still had both his hands.

Dad’s ears also took a beating during World War II, when he served aboard the USS Wisconsin as a breach loader for the 16-inch guns. He said the noise in those steel turrets was deafening. They sometimes bombarded the Japanese islands for 24 hours at a stretch, but he still found time to stop in Hawaii to get over 36 tattoos, covering both arms and both legs. He was an early tattoo novelty, and entertained several requests throughout his adult life to roll up his sleeves and pants legs to curious onlookers.

James Brumfield, around 1953.

He never mentioned if he was conflicted about bombing defenseless people and animals while he loaded those guns, and I never asked.

While Dad’s life growing up was full of loud, harsh noises, he and mom raised me, my sister and our pets in a house full of calm. He hardly ever even raised his voice. Dad’s mother commented that she liked visiting “James Mason’s family” because we “didn’t squall all the time” like his sister’s family. Even though he served in two major wars, retiring with a total of over forty years’ service in the U.S. Navy, his quiet sense of compassion impressed everyone, and one of the lasting legacies he left with me and everyone who knew him was his love and concern for those less fortunate, especially those animals.

Even though he and I shared a laugh at the Campbell brothers and their outhouse, I know he sometimes carried lunch to those men inside that little green clapboard house with no indoor plumbing.

I never heard the part of the dynamite story of him almost losing his hand until he told me, three days before he passed away of a rare blood cancer. Maybe he thought it was time to unload a bunch of life lessons about himself so I would later pass them along to others. In this case, he was very predictive, and I treasure that final day he and I shared in the University of Virginia hospital. It was the last time I saw him.

Over 500 people attended that former rowdy eastside youth’s memorial service in 1997, and if possible there would have been a line of house pets there as well, to pay their respects to a man who loved them all as his own.

… James Broomfield [sic] was placed on probation for one year after being found guilty to the charge that he did unlawfully use explosives in the town of Waynesboro in violation of the town ordinance, damaging property.

James showing off his original Sailor Jerry Tattoos, 1955

A more positive newspaper clipping from 1997 — exactly 60 years after the last one — noted that James Brumfield logged over 40,000 miles driving area cancer patients to U.Va Hospital for the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program, and that he donated over 12 gallons of blood to the Red Cross over a 30-year period. These facts were unknown to me but not a big surprise when I found out, either — he never mentioned them.

That was typical.

And they finally spelled his name right.


Read more at Also, read my new novel “Naked Savages,” released 3–1–2019.

Dale Brumfield

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I am an anti-death penalty advocate, cultural archaeologist, “American Grotesk” journalist and author of 9 books. More at

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