The apartment my mother grew up in Paris was in the 10e arrondissement. It was large. My grandfather was a médecin, a doctor, and the apartment included his office. My memory of the space is limited because I was young when I was there, but I do remember the long hallway that led from the living room past my grandfather’s office and on past all the other rooms.
During World War I, my grandfather served as a doctor and, like so many veterans, he brought home a souvenir. His choice was a big artillery shell, about eighteen inches tall with a twelve-inch diameter—a bomb. Proudly he displayed it in his office.
My mother and my brothers have fond memories of playing with this large artillery shell. Its size and girth made it perfect to roll down the long hallway. Of course, there was never any question that the bomb was safe—it had been disarmed, we were assured.
We learned the unfortunate reality of live artillery shells and landmines during my childhood summers in the South of France, when occasionally we would hear a distant explosion, only to discover that someone had either been killed or injured by stepping on an explosive device. They were still buried just below the ground’s surface, left over from the two world wars. It just wasn’t safe to wander through the hills; the only real way to avoid triggering a landmine was to stay on the paths.
Years later, after my grandparents passed away and my mother was clearing out their apartment, she got to the infamous artillery shell: what to do? She decided to contact a collector of WWI memorabilia. When he arrived and saw the shell, he was delighted. Despite the abuse it received over the years, it was still in great shape. There was just one formality: an artillery expert needed to inspect the bomb to make certain it was really disarmed before anyone could remove it.
“No problem,” my mother said, certain this was just a formality.
When the expert arrived to examine the shell, my mother was busy with movers, packing and loading the awaiting trucks. So she showed him to my grandfather’s office and returned to the chaos in the other rooms.
A few minutes later, the expert reappeared. “Madame, Madame!” he exclaimed. “Everyone must leave the apartment immediately!”
Uncertain what his alarm was about, my mother just stared at him in confusion. “What is the problem?” she asked.
“The bomb, Madame, maybe live! We must evacuate the building. Now!”
“No, no, Monsieur,” replied my startled mother. “The bomb is disarmed! We have been playing with it for years. I assure you!” However at that point he was no longer listening but on the phone giving the bomb squad the address and ordering the immediate evacuation of the building.
In the end they evacuated more than just that one building. My mother watched as they carried the bomb as if any small movement would cause it to explode. This was the same object that had been rolled, bumped, and totally mistreated for years.
“What if it really was live?” she thought, horrified, standing among the crowd as the bomb squad placed the now scary object in the containment vehicle and drove off.
We were never told if the bomb was live or not, but the possibility is either terrifying or funny. It is hard to know which.
What about you?
Have you ever been surprised to find out that something you believed to be one thing turned out to be another?
Do you have funny/scary stories that are part of your family lore?
Let us know I'd love to hear.
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