It's a beautiful Monday morning in mid-August, somewhere in the dusty hills of East County. Sun beams through the window of this small building, glinting off a smooth metal object cradled in Conrad Grayson's outstretched hand. "Now this one," he begins, "is called a 'little brown jug.' " With all the aplomb of a proud curator Grayson adds, "It's a French hand grenade." Grayson is in his element inside this metal trailer housing dozens of now-inert bombs, grenades, and shells largely found during his 28-year watch on the San Diego Sheriff's Department Bomb/Arson squad. On any given day, the 64-year-old sergeant and squad commander might well be the most contented man in the county. There's an infinite supply of his chosen work — outwitting dangerous devices and sifting answers from ashes of arson fires.
More frequently, though, he teaches. Relocate the wiry, voluble Grayson to a podium, substitute tweeds for camouflage pants and black T-shirt, its back emblazoned with SHERIFF'S BOMB & ARSON SQUAD, and he'd fit into a college lecture hall. Teaching cops, firefighters, and worried citizens the difference between a piece of harmless plumbing hardware and a homemade pipe bomb, and the gruesome hazards of the latter, is Grayson's calling. This homely little bomb museum, which squats on the edge of the Sheriff's Department bomb range, is only one of his classrooms.
Grayson can also hold forth, at length and with unflagging intensity, in e-mail, a medium usually lacking in emotional affect. When I contacted him some months ago, expressing interest in his work, Grayson responded with compositions con brio, a tempo not often found in missives from law-enforcement officers. He quickly conveyed the demanding nature of bomb and arson work, seamlessly overlapping as it does on squad-members' home lives, each call pulling them into another unpredictable scenario.
The seven-member squad's mission is a full one. They essentially serve all the county except the city proper of San Diego, including 17 cities and the county's huge swath of unincorporated area. The idea of terrorist bombings here is becoming sharply real to civilians, but the bomb squad and other agencies have been training with that in mind for some time, playing out complex scenarios at San Diego's potential targets -- military bases, large public attractions, and mass-transit stations.
Day-to-day, these are the men who go when a teenage boy blows his hand off with a pipe or bottle stuffed with a recipe involving gunpowder, CO2, dry ice, or hydrochloric acid. This happens more often than you'd think, and wreaks more havoc. A pipe bomb can travel faster than a bullet: "If you hear it, you've already been hit," one of the squad members told me.
Two or more of the squad members respond when a suspicious package must be carefully retrieved with a robotic device, then disarmed or transported to a safe place to be blown up. Or a bundle of dynamite is found under a vehicle. They get rid of ammunition left behind in a garage by a firearms enthusiast. Bomb scare at a school? They're in. Bombs and arson fires traded between rival motorcycle gangs took up a lot of squad time in the 1960s and '70s, and similar nogoodniks haunt the meth-lab business, which came to East County long before it was the drug-worry du jour for the rest of us.
If a fire's source is not immediately evident, they cover that too, whether it's from smoking and nodding off in bed (horrifyingly common) or wildfire racing through thousands of acres. The squad also issues blasting permits and checks gun stores to ensure federally regulated gunpowder sales are logged properly. In return for this, a senior detective/deputy sheriff earns just under $32 an hour and as a member of Bomb/Arson can claim another $4.40 an hour when working on explosives.
The squad gets upwards of 400-500 calls a year, about 80 concerning bombs or explosives of some kind. If he had to guess, Grayson would say a garden-variety bomb call takes about 90 minutes. I checked in occasionally over the past months to ask about the call level. A weekday in early November was typical. The previous four days were "pretty busy," Grayson said. Meaning 10 call-outs, 5 coming in a single day, including a gunshot-suicide in a house where six sticks of dynamite and a live grenade were found.
Suicides are not rare. My first night shadowing the squad, a call came in when a young Mexican man, reportedly pining for a girlfriend, lit himself on fire. He thought better of it, but the change of heart came too late; most of his body was burned. He died within two days. Grayson, descended from French-Spanish grandparents and whose family name was Garcia a generation ago, speaks some Spanish. He sorted out what details he could with distraught family members who gathered at the hospital.
Grayson and the squad may be better known among the network of 457 other bomb squads across the country than to most people here at home. Apparently, the on-the-job experience gained from handling piles of potentially explosive flotsam left behind by a large military population, and San Diego County's huge rural land mass (so well suited to antisocial pipe-bomb makers), combine to make the squad something of a designer label among peers.
The fact that many locals are only vaguely aware of the county squad suits its members just fine. While big-city counterparts, including the San Diego Fire Department's bomb squad, seem to enjoy being featured on nightly news whenever they roll on a call, the county squad prefers to lie low. The remote locations of many county emergency calls help with this, discouraging TV crews who prefer to film SDFD bomb techs blowing up fireworks in a nearby yard to foraging for iffy sound bites somewhere out in the sticks.
Grayson hoped, in vain as it turns out, that by letting me shadow the squad during late last summer and again in early fall, I would focus on the unit and allow him to recede into the background. No such luck. By dint of his longevity and a remarkable memory for detail, Grayson's career just doesn't play as background music. People remember him; everywhere we went some cop or citizen greeted him with a variation of "Coni, you old son-of-a-bitch, how are you?" Wait two minutes: They'll recall an adventure involving the chase of a wild-ass perp, raging wildfire, would-be bridge-jumper, or other near disaster attended by Grayson. "Careerwise, I've always been at the wrong place at the right time," he says.