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.
At first, a couple of the guys worried I would divulge proprietary information about bomb-building or fire-setting. Their fears were laid to rest when they saw my primitive grasp of such things. (I give away my true interests when I excitedly write down that "ordnance" means military ammunition or supplies and is spelled without an i.) So, dear reader, if you're a would-be bomber or firebug, stick to the Internet. This is not a story on the nature of C4 plastic explosives; it won't help anyone craft a package bomb that will outwit a PAN disrupter or aid those hoping to build a fire that tricks the big payout from an insurance company. It's just the view of a curious outsider, wondering what goes on inside a bomb squad. The license of a middle-aged journeywoman writer might not entitle her to much, but it does allow her to seize on professions fascinating for their sheer foreignness.
This pastime surely is foreign. For someone used to viewing the world through the safety of her high-speed Internet connection, there's substantial initial shock on being ushered into the squad's museum, a roomful of devices invented precisely to blow up people and property -- including several designed just to ruin a specific object or body part, say a foot or a testicle.
Yet they are oddly lovely if one can manage, briefly at least, to separate intent from design: Sculpture-like lines of a Japanese grenade. A concise material-culture lesson in the tiny hanging-hook on a wooden grenade from World War I, when uniforms didn't yet have pockets. The dark comedy inherent in a Claymore mine stenciled with "FRONT-TOWARD ENEMY" on its GI-green shell. The ingenuity of CO2 cartridges modified to serve as bombs is intriguing, then chilling, when Grayson remarks that these "crickets" were used at the Columbine High School bombing in 1999.
None of the men (and they are mostly men) who do the work of rendering explosive materials and devices impotent would think it strange that an outsider finds these objects appealing. They're familiar with the sensation, having themselves early on all felt attraction to the design and noise of objects that go boom -- an affinity that grows with time. What differentiates the professional bomb technician is that he comes to appreciate these contrived instruments for the damage they could do, given the chance. This is the first absolute truth of being a good bomb tech: You must have an abiding respect for every device you face down. There is nothing static about this respectfulness; it is fed by obsessive training, reading, tinkering, and shop-talking. That's where the second absolute truth comes in: You can have surgeon-steady hands and a pair of solid-brass cojones, but without a brain crammed full of the chemistry, physics, history, sociology, and weaponry specs that make up bomb-smarts, you're just a guy leaning over a pile of antsy gunpowder, hoping for a spell of good luck.
The concept of luck, good or otherwise, doesn't come up much in conversation around the squad's small office in the city of El Cajon, just off Marshall Avenue. There, in a building shared with several other Sheriff's Department Emergency Services operations, the Bomb/Arson investigators favor careful routine and facts over anything as flimsy as fortune. It's an orderly bunch. The desks are revealing: A glance shows how long a guy's been on the job (there's a world of difference between two years' and two decades' worth of personal items) or whether he's served in the military: The workspace of a onetime Navy SEAL looks as though it could be packed up in a heartbeat. A former Marine just can't resist lining things up in crisp, right-angled stacks.
Grayson's desk is a crowded still life of a career. On the bookshelves over his desk, neat rows of binders identified with labels such as "Biological Agents" and "Hezbollah" sit next to Yogi Berra's collected wisdom and The Blaster's Handbook. Towers of training videotapes and photos of fire and bomb casualties are stacked around framed family photographs of his wife, their four grown children, grandkids, and a few of the dozens of pets they've waited on over the years. There's more than a whiff of Semper Fi in this corner; Marine memorabilia fills all available space. Grayson was a 17-year-old grunt in the early Vietnam era. "The Marine Corps," he tells me when I ask about his service, "was the first family I could really count on."
These middle-aged squad members sit at their desks like kids waiting for study hall to end. They put in considerable desk time, including keeping up with a steady flow of classified information on bombs and bombers, but for the most part, out is where they want to be. Between them, Grayson, Bill Jache, Ron McCracken, Ron Cox, Robert Luke, Eric Berblinger, and John Williamson have 59 years of bomb and arson experience and more than 165 years' total time in the Sheriff's Department working in jails, on patrol, homicide, SWAT. It's fair to say that none of them got this far because they love paperwork.
When the dispatchers beckon, they jump into their white one-ton Ford Econoline vans (or in Grayson's case, a 2003 Explorer), each crammed with the essentials of their calling: radios, first-aid kits, bright-yellow fire gear, boots, bomb suits, helmets, heat-retardant "monkey gloves," running shoes, sleeping bags, toolboxes, shovels, cannons that shoot water, a small robotic arm to grab bombs; towels, socks, sunblock. One van carries a set of bagpipes, and another has a trash bag full of teddy bears for scared kids. There are coffee cups, a crumbling dog treat or two, scores of water bottles, fluttering calendar pages of after-school sports schedules, bags of trail mix. Racing down the freeway in one of these vans is like hurtling through space in a very small house filled to bursting with all the stuff one guy could possibly use during a workday -- and some of what he needs to stay alive to see the next one.
Bomb calls are a chase scene followed by slow-mo. The squad members get there -- wherever "there" is -- fast, with multitasking as art form. Testing for sheriff's department law-enforcement jobs is a labyrinthine process, but it seems that the brass could simplify things by putting each job seeker in a heavy vehicle on a rush-hour freeway, then demand that she or he take a radio call, noting a seven-digit street address and salient details from a dispatcher (preferably one new and nervous on the job), roger calls from a supervisor and other officers responding; call spouse to warn that Plan B for picking up the kids is now in effect, answer a question from reporter riding along, swig some water, flip on the siren and wig-wag lights. Oh, yes, and -- whoa! -- swerve around a leather armchair that just tumbled out of that truck up ahead. All in, say, seven minutes. This exercise would weed out more misfits than any department psych eval ever could.
The atmosphere changes once they arrive. "As a bomb tech, you really need to slow things down," Grayson explained as we sped to an evening call in a nearby small city. "We get there fast, we get people -- civilians -- out of the way fast, then we take it slow so we don't make mistakes."
We pull up on the residential block a few seconds before squad member Bill Jache (pronounced YAW-key) arrives and park next to the clutch of very young police officers standing watch. One greets Grayson by name, fills him in: A neighbor out on a stroll spotted a small metal pipe at the edge of the street, thought it might be a bomb, and called 911. The young cops are circled around the object, waving curious drivers past. Jache pulls a protective vest (made of Kevlar and ballistic composite material), a helmet, and gloves from the back of his van and puts them on, while Grayson politely, firmly, asks that the street be shut down to all traffic, then pulls on his own vest.
Jache, with Grayson some yards away, circles around the pipe, then crouches down on one knee, hands well away from the object. (Bomb techs often keep their hands behind them, especially their dominant one, when they aren't actually working on the worrisome object -- a reflex for those times when a small explosion could "just" take off a finger or two.) After a minute, Jache picks up the pipe, turning it over in his hand for a few seconds. When he stands, his dismissive shrug tells Grayson what he needs to know, and the sergeant calls a translation over his shoulder to me: "Not a bomb."
The un-bomb turns out to be a plumb bob -- a solid piece of metal swung from a line, used as a carpenter's level. It does look like a pipe bomb. As Jache packs up his gear, Grayson gives the cops a quick tutorial in plumb-bob history, interspersed with tactful tips on securing a bomb scene a bit faster next time. The uniformed trio nods eagerly during his rapid-fire monologue.
Grayson pauses in the middle of a sentence, glancing at one patrolman's shiny nameplate, then inquires into the health and whereabouts of several of the cop's family members. Before departing, Grayson urges his listeners to come by the bomb range to see various types of real explosive devices up close. As we climb back into the Explorer, some 13 hours since the start of his workday, Grayson radios dispatch with the all-clear. He nods at my notebook: "Write this down: 'You know you're an old fart when you meet up with a beat cop and you once worked with his grandfather.' "
Bomb calls don't follow much of a pattern, although when a day starts out nuts, it usually stays nuts. There are some predictable things: Bombers, whether amateur teens with more time than sense or hardened criminals, are almost exclusively male. Bombings in the news often spawn a run of imitators. Quiet spells never last long. "You'll be going along real quiet, then wham! The ass falls out and we're going crazy," said Grayson. Calls came in steadily whenever I shadowed the squad, but no live bombs were picked up on my watch, prompting one of the men to refer to me as the "white cloud."
The squad statistics do not break bomb calls down into real stuff and what the men call "nothing burgers" -- duds, things mistaken for bombs, and so on. This is probably because call stats are still kept in an antique-looking ledger book, not on a computer, but this lack of statistical parsing also reflects the bomb techs' firm belief that any call is a serious call. "We learn this stuff on the job -- not out of a book," Grayson is fond of saying. "Figuring out if it's really a bomb and how it works...that's the point." No one on the squad betrays impatience over nothing-burger calls. Mistaking a harmless piece of metal for a bomb is not a bad thing; the reverse error is the real worry.
One morning in mid-October, squad member Robert Luke had a chance for an up-close-and-personal view of another typical worry: The thing he was eyeballing underneath the VW Jetta parked on an Encinitas street was indeed what civilians call a bomb and what the pros call an IED -- improvised explosive device. An IED that hadn't worked quite as planned.
The contraption under the car's gas tank featured a road flare taped to a small propane tank. Luke put on his helmet with face shield and ProTech bomb suit. (The suit only protects the wearer from smaller blasts, at some distance. Usually, if a tech is standing or kneeling over a bomb that blows, "It's just gonna take you out," Grayson said.) Luke slid under the car, first checking to be sure the device was not booby-trapped. Within a few minutes he'd seen what he needed to see: The fuse had not ignited from the nearby book of matches as the bomber planned, probably because of the day's dampness. He slid out from under the car, device in hand.
The 49-year-old Luke, after 25 years in the department, nearly 8 of them on this squad, is no shrinking violet when it comes to trading zingers with his fellow bomb techs, but he has a minimal need for postgame chit-chat on the scene. He'd done his talking on the front end, telling firefighters and other deputies on hand where to find the keys to his van, and reminding them -- if the bomb did go off -- to stay clear until after his back-up tech checked the scene. "We want them to stay in place until we know it is safe to approach the injured bomb tech," Luke explained.
Once Luke pulled off his gear, he hit the road. Job done, wave goodbye, no sweat, no problem.
A good breakfast together at an eatery in Santee is the usual start to the squad's workday: Out of deference to diners potentially alarmed by a group of serious-faced men wearing BOMB & ARSON T-shirts, the group is seated alone in a back room. Every meal is subject to sudden interruption, so one learns to make quick work of food. Breakfast disappears in the blink of an eye, yet no one appears to gobble. Every morning I watch to see how this table-manners magic trick is accomplished but never quite catch it.
Grayson orders big: chicken-fried steak, eggs, bacon, toast; nibbles off the overflowing plates, then slips his food to whoever sits next to him. Raised by strict orphanage nuns for some of his formative years, Grayson is constitutionally incapable of talking with his mouth full. He chooses talking over eating; as a weight-management strategy, this proves effective.
His fellow grunts called Grayson "Peanuts" back in the Marine Corps, a moniker another man might have left buried in his past. But when you're the sort of guy who, at 17, chooses to tearlessly slam your M-1 rifle bolt shut with your nose (breaking it, splattering blood all over the astonished range master yelling at you for leaving the bolt open), you don't grow up to sweat a diminutive nickname. You might even like it; a reminder that a runt in a tough spot must employ innovation in place of mass.
A former marathon runner and martial-arts instructor, Grayson is five foot five, about 150 pounds, down an inch and up 15 pounds from his fighting trim. He's gone gray and wears glasses all the time. Every ten seconds or so the bifocals get pushed up on his damaged nose, broken at least seven more times since the boot-camp episode. He skips lunch to power-walk two miles. Constantly shifting from one booted foot to the other burns enough calories to make his usual afternoon latte and pastry a wash. The energy level remains more Peanuts than Grandpa. When the inevitable movie rights get sold, I'm thinking Dennis Hopper on lots and lots of coffee plays Coni Grayson.
There are some excellent reasons to stay in shape on this job: When a squad member uses the heavy-duty bomb suit, it takes only about 15 minutes for the 112-pound suit to become too hot and heavy for most to tolerate. Even the lighter bomb gear (used more often and weighing just over 30 pounds) and the regular fireproof clothing are hot enough to invite swift dehydration.
Trailing after the guys in my borrowed jacket, helmet, fire boots, and gloves, I got a taste of it: Standing alongside the shell of a just-burned Poway house one relatively mild 85-degree afternoon seemed like being at the gates of hell. It may be coincidence, but fire scenes and suspicious packages never seem to end up being in nice, shady spots -- at least around here. It bears reminding that a lovely, breezy summer day on San Diego's waterfront can feel considerably hotter and a whole lot dustier in East County.
A good portion of the squad members' fitness regimens are built into the job. When people decide to toss out the "souvenir" artillery shells or other UXO (unexploded ordnance) they smuggled off a base or inherited from a veteran in the family, they tend to throw it into places that take some hustle to reach: the bottom of steep ravines, alongside a busy freeway. A surprising amount of the regular squad work is flat-out manual labor, in particular maintaining the two-acre range in the East County's unpopulated hills where bombs, confiscated fireworks, and ordnance picked up all over the region can be safely blown up.
The present squad carved out this dusty range over the past eight years and has maintained it since. All the men, some with more enthusiasm than others, do regular shovel duty to keep the place working. They routinely regrade the topography to mimic different bomb situations and comb through the sandy soil to remove bits of metal, wood, or plastic that could become dangerous projectiles in an explosion. When they aren't moving earth around, they load and catalog crates and canisters into small, heavily fenced sheds (called magazines) used as holding areas for ammunition, fireworks, and explosives awaiting destruction.
The range actually does grow on a visitor, even with its persistent grit, ugly oat-colored hills, and the need to keep a sharp eye out for rattlesnakes inside the humid portable toilet. It is possible to become indifferent to burnt-powder smells and thunderous booms. One morning, as squad members blew up 200 pounds of confiscated Mexican fireworks, I noticed a large squirrel nearby, picking peanuts from a small pile of trail mix. It twitched barely so much as a small, gray ear at the teeth-rattling explosions.
There is something satisfying about seeing dangerous materials reduced to rubble, maybe. Or perhaps visitors' keen interest reflects how rare it is to see people work so hard at mastering a craft, particularly one as unpredictable as this. Fascinated, I spent enough time at the bomb range during my visits that Grayson gave me an explanatory letter to show TSA security guards at the airport, given the likelihood that explosive residue on my clothes and hair would set off their detectors. (Alarmingly, my manicure scissors proved to be a bigger worry.)
If the metal trailer housing the bomb museum is one of Grayson's favorite classrooms, the bleachers shaded by a sloped roof is Bill Jache's stage. The day I observe Jache's training, the students are two dozen or so Navy men, mostly in their 20s and graduates of the Navy's year-long explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) school, here to fine-tune their skills. I'm told that they're heading for Iraq but given no other details of the deployment. EOD training is a "perishable skill," requiring ongoing education. "The only way to cut the odds of blowing it when you're dealing with a real bomb is to have practiced every scenario you can think of before you get to that point," explained Jache.
The never-ending learning curve is what appeals to him. "A good EOD tech gets really excited when something doesn't work," said Jache. "I try all the things I can to mess up a training exercise so when I have the one real chance, it goes right." This is the third absolute truth for bomb experts: Practice until you drop while you have the chance. Because, as the bomb-tech motto puts it, "Initial success or total failure" is the rule when the call is for real.
The young men listen to the man they call "Gunner" with a raptness that would surely surprise the high school teachers they sat in front of not long ago. He speaks their language, a patois of technical jargon sprinkled with wry observations about asswipes and jerkoffs, the murderous extremists and irritating bureaucratic red-tape specialists who complicate a productive day's work. They recognize Jache, who is 54, as the Real Deal, a Vietnam-era vet who has since toured the world's hellholes, learning the ins and outs of foiling explosives, those used in official wars as well as actions remaining below the radar of CNN. Loaded down with their coolers of food, personal hydration packs, and superior-wicking microfiber, khaki-camo tactical clothing, the young men look respectfully at the lanky guy who still wears the same kind of cotton T-shirt, probably in the same size, that he's always worn; who is now old enough to be their father and who's going strong after a long day in the sun, fueled by a can of tuna and two diet Dr Peppers.
"You need to understand bombs, completely, in order to defeat them," Jache tells me when I ask why this work holds so much appeal. He wears this understand-then-defeat philosophy like a layer of skin. An enlisted man who worked his way to warrant officer 4 and became an EOD tech, now with three decades in the Navy Reserves, Jache is a raw-fact carnivore, perpetually on the hunt for elusive things: tricky declensions of Latin nouns; recordings by doo-woppers Norman Fox and the Rob Roys; small-college sports standings that he tabulates with manic precision. He joined the Sheriff's Department 25 years ago and has been with Bomb/Arson for 8. "This is the work I always wanted to do," he says.
The fact that explosives' protean traits take up so much of Jache's brain space has benefits extending far beyond San Diego County. Hundreds of military personnel, like these Navy men, cycle through Jache's training at the bomb range every year. His level of expertise is rare, and the county's range is the only one within reasonable driving distance of some California military bases. (Many of which no longer have expansive bomb ranges of their own, an arguably loony outgrowth of environmental protections.)
There's not (yet) a cable show called This Old Bomb, but Jache could be the technical advisor when the inevitable reality series surfaces. Standing in front of the Navy group, he takes their standard-issue bomb-tech kit apart to show how small adjustments and odds and ends from the hardware store can help in tight spots.
In keeping with his aversion to things going too smoothly, Jache prepared for the class by making up 100 pipe bombs, shooting each with a water cannon called a PAN disrupter. PAN stands for percussion-actuated non-electric, and the tool fires water at 200 miles per hour, a nifty way to reduce a bomb to countless minuscule bits, so that it doesn't detonate as originally planned. (The "non-electric" aspect means the cannon won't accidentally set off a bomb with radio-frequency energy.) With every shot at one of his 100 bombs, Jache asked himself more questions: Was the device disabled more readily when hit at the elbow of the pipe? What happens with this slight change of shot angle? He tells the men about these earlier findings, then sends them off around the range for their hands-on time.
Next, the men gather around several mock bombs that have been prepared for their use, hidden inside suitcases, gas cans, and other containers. Using portable X-ray machines, they scan containers with mock bombs inside. One by one they set up, then shoot the PAN disrupter. Things turn immediately competitive. It's possible to forget what all this training is really about; we could all be playing darts in a sports bar. When a hit of high-pressure water hits its mark well, they cheer; when one misses, those responsible are reminded, in no uncertain terms, that they'll be buying the beer later. Jache lets them get their hoots, then recaps what worked, what did not, and why, with no wasted words.
Until now I'd bought the cheesy movie image of bomb experts spending a lot of time untangling colored wires. Not so. The idea is to clear the area, ascertain the nature of the beast with portable X-ray machines and other careful means of scrutiny, then stay as far away as technology will allow with robotics, water cannons, and other devices that shield and relocate a bomb for safer probing. When I comment that it seems odd that a jet of water can trump a pile of explosives, Jache nods with a small smile, saying, "It's always a case of out-thinking, not out-muscling."
A Bomb/Arson expert develops the ability to out-think potentially explosive situations through myriad experiences, sometimes in formal training, more often through field and life experience. Today a typical newcomer has at least a dozen years with the Sheriff's Department, already having done time on the street, worked in the jail and at least one other specialty unit. Working the jail, especially, is valuable. "You learn to see the con" is how the men put it. "We want that maturity, the fact that they've already proved themselves," said Grayson. Over the years, many members of the Bomb/Arson team have come from SWAT, as did Grayson.
The ideal personality often comes out of a SWAT background, Grayson says, because those deputies are tactically minded, good at using equipment under stress, a lone operator yet able to contribute to a team effort. "These are not the spit-and-shine folks, they're front-line people," he says. Years ago, the unit wore suits and ties, then moved to more casual clothing. The switch to tactical gear (the camo cargo pants, boots, and T-shirts) came about five years ago. "That was a good move," declared Grayson. "It's more practical, it's who we are, and it means guys who like to worry about hair and clothes aren't here."
Sometimes a bomb tech works out fine for a few years, then "goes spook" -- loses his edge. "It can happen that a tech gets a real bad bomb and handles it okay at the time," says Grayson. "Anyone might tend to lie there at night thinking about what might have gone wrong." But when that doubting escalates too high, things go spook. The tech may start to second-guess basic decisions, wear unusually heavy body armor, and, generally, become too cautious -- behavior that sets off an alarm for a squad commander. Then, Grayson says, it's up to him to reassign the tech in a way that doesn't humiliate the individual or damage the squad's tight-knit fabric.
Managing the squad can be like "keeping six lightning bolts in a barrel," says Grayson. "You've got to have these get-in-your-face, take-charge personalities. They don't -- pardon my language -- take shit from anybody. It's inevitable they'll clash with each other, but they know they have to settle whatever's going on because they could be standing over a bomb together later that day."
Deputies must commit themselves to a minimum of five years with the squad; it costs the department about $6000 to send each through the initial six-week training (and the required recertification every few years) at the Hazardous Devices School at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. The feds reportedly spend close to $80,000 per participant for instructors, equipment, and other costs at Redstone. (The San Diego Sheriff's Department has had its bomb squad for 41 years, and training was done in-house and by the military until 1981, when the FBI took over certification.)
Before formal interviewing starts, San Diego Sheriff's Department Bomb/Arson applicants go through a test developed by the FBI. For starters, the applicant puts on 100-plus pounds of protective gear, walks a few hundred feet carrying a portable X-ray machine and PAN disrupter (another 60 pounds), then sets up an X-ray and disposal shot. The applicant must also lie down, roll over, and get up without help -- a set of tasks difficult for many men and most women. Strength is not the only thing being tested at this early stage: "We lose about half of the applicants at that point, because of bomb-suit claustrophobia," says Grayson.
Applicants today usually show up with more formal education behind them than their supervisors dreamed of having when they started out. Grayson's rise from a high school drop-out to squad commander is not the way it happens anymore. After things fell apart for their schoolteacher mother and truck-driver father in East Los Angeles, six-year-old Conrad and two older brothers were sent to a Catholic orphanage, the Santa Cruz Boys and Girls Home in Tucson, Arizona. ("It was October 31, 1947 -- Halloween night," he recalls.)
The home was across the street from a dump, and other kids walking by held handkerchiefs over their noses. The orphans didn't get it; they were used to the smell. The painfully apt metaphor stayed with Grayson. "A lot of orphans grow up thinking there is something wrong with them because they have been dumped off like a piece of trash." The Grayson boys fared better, he says. "We had each other."
Three years later, relatives sprung the boys. Young Conrad ended up back in Southern California, couch-surfing, then sharing a brother's apartment. He had to switch from parochial to public high school, but after years in a single-sex classroom, the sound of nylons twitching when girls walked by was wholly distracting music to his ears. He went from a B-plus average to almost flunking out. Thoughts of being a priest gave way to a plan to enlist. Grayson needed a parent's permission to join the USMC at 17, which meant searching for his father in downtown San Diego's shoe stores. "I'd heard he was selling shoes, so there I was, wandering around with $1.47 in my pocket. When I found him, I said, 'Sam Grayson?' and he said, 'Conrad?' We hadn't seen each other for ten years." Sam signed, and his son went off to boot camp.
After leaving the service, Grayson worked with big animals at the San Diego Zoo, a job he loved, but the pay didn't feed his young family, so he moved to police work by the end of the 1960s, joining the Sheriff's Department in 1972. He'd gone back to get his high school diploma and eventually earned two associate degrees, in law enforcement and supervision. But it was the earlier time in parochial schools that made him into somebody and saved him from the streets, he says now. The Catholic teachers get credit for all manner of good-boy behaviors to which he still clings: "I'm not a horn-honking kind of guy," he explained to me once as we idled silently behind an annoyingly indecisive driver at a green light. "Blame the nuns."
His occasional asides on training-by-sisters notwithstanding, Grayson generally steers clear of talking religion and politics. "You need to be a nondenominational bomb tech" is how he puts it. "A good bomb tech has no political views." What does he say when someone wants to know if he's a Democrat or a Republican? "I say it is none of their damn business," he says, managing to sound perfectly polite.
Grayson likes to emphasize this overall point by recalling one of the first live bombs he disarmed. It was planted on a car owned by a member of the notorious Mongol motorcycle gang. "In a sense, he was my enemy," said Grayson. "Here was a real criminal, a guy making his living selling drugs. But that's what's special about what we do. It's our job to protect everyone. It's not about picking and choosing, protecting just the people who believe what you believe."
I began to wonder -- What does it take to discourage a rabid bomb tech? Something on a near-apocalyptic scale, as it turns out.
"We pulled four bodies out of here in the Cedar fire back in 2003," the sergeant says as we approach the Muth Valley. "It was a war zone." He's quiet for a mile or so, until I ask him to say more about what it was like to be in the worst firestorm in California history. He recalls backing out of this very stretch of road when the air was so thick with smoke he thought the truck's engine would conk out.
This is the first and last time in hours and days of driving with Grayson that I've heard him talk about experiencing real fear. He'd described being shot at several times and being "beaten down to the ground" by a prison inmate swinging a piece of chain. He'd told me about unstrapping a live bomb off a dead man's chest. When I asked about his own injuries, he'd told of being peppered with shrapnel and about the time he crushed his hand, eventually losing a finger. Yet none of those accounts sounded this distinct tone. "When you're out in a little truck by yourself in a wilderness on fire...Well, that's where I take my hat off to firefighters. We law-enforcement guys have our dangers, but this...." His voice trails off. "You don't want to die that way," he says slowly. "Nobody wants to die that way."
The wild ferocity of the Cedar fire killed 14 people and Lord knows how many animals unable to outrun it. Fire Engineer Steven Rucker lost his life after traveling 400 miles from his Novato, California, firehouse to help. There's a built-in moment of silence whenever Grayson or his men recall those events. Finger-pointing about how this fire was fought and whether lives could have been saved left real wounds throughout the county. But the quiet that descends when any of the men finish recalling the fire is about things that go deeper and live longer than second-guessing chain-of-command decisions. The fire's images are the sort that do not fade.
Grayson has a hefty mental album of disaster scenes, and his way to cope is to page through it occasionally, then move on. Long ago he tried erasing the scenes completely, but one day the cache got too full, too fast. The overload came shortly after September 25, 1978, when a Pacific Southwest Airlines 727 jetliner and a small Cessna collided over San Diego, then crashed in North Park, killing 144 people. Grayson, living alone due to the demise of his first marriage, was in the first wave of emergency workers on the scene. He'd seen his share of carnage by then, six years into his Sheriff's Department career, following on the heels of Vietnam and time as a city cop. This was different.
"It was a horrendous scene," he recalls. "A lot of bodies, or, rather, body parts. There were very few intact bodies." Of the dozen or so others who arrived in the first few minutes, he's the only one left working in law enforcement, Grayson says. He blames the horrible images they saw that day for more than one early retirement or soured career.
For weeks afterward, Grayson couldn't sleep. He cried in his car while driving to and from work. ("Embarrassing for a macho guy like me.") Then Grayson and some of the other emergency workers saw a psychologist who specialized in critical-incident stress management. "The doc listened to me go on for a while, then pulled out a piece of paper, drew this grid of boxes, and started crossing them out, saying, 'Now, this one is a body part' and 'This one is another body you saw,' and he kept filling them in. When all the squares were filled, he said, 'See, this is how your mind works, and it's just overloaded.' " The simple graphic device stopped Grayson in his tracks: "His manner of explaining it was excellent. I understood it. I was okay." After a good night's sleep, he reported for work. "I went right in to a double-bagger fire -- a husband and wife killed from smoking in bed. I was back in the saddle."
Grayson's ability to compartmentalize ugly scenes seems to have held up pretty well all these years since the PSA crash. There have been challenges; the Cedar fire was one, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was another. Grayson was one of the experts brought in after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which injured 800 people and killed 168, including 19 children.
He learned, or rather, relearned an important lesson in the rubble of the Murrah Building: Four days, then get out. Experts in post-traumatic stress disorder figure that is how long a trained emergency worker can typically function knee-deep in horror without long-term damage. (An untrained civilian at a disaster scene is advised to get out after 20 minutes.) "I spent eight days on the Oklahoma City site, from April 27 to May 4, 1995," Grayson says. "It screwed me up for a couple of years." This time, at least, he knew the value of venting the pressure and anger he felt. "After seven days, I went off where no one could see me and cried myself out." He'd spent the week clearing out the second-floor day-care center where the 19 murdered infants were found.
In my early e-mail correspondence with Grayson, I asked how he dealt with all the disaster and death he saw. Why hasn't it gotten to you? I asked. He responded this way:
"For the past 28 years on the job I've averaged bagging 15 to 20 blown-up or burned bodies a year...I've worked through post-traumatic stress syndrome twice, and I am still here. I guess I'm just not sensitive enough to fall apart."
He went on to give a more serious answer:
"I think the answer goes back to joining the Marines at 17 at the beginning of the Vietnam War. The Marines and 14 months in the big green as a squad leader made me grow up too fast. By the time I came back home and received my discharge in the mid-'60s, I was already an old man."
Memories bind people together, and it might be the bad ones that weave the tightest bonds, particularly among those who fight the same fight, take the same risks. We all incorporate others' experiences into our own mythology, but there's a strangely literal sharing between one soldier, firefighter, or cop and another. Veterans' most detailed stories often relate what happened to the other guy. The men who work for Grayson know his stories as well as their own. They know the stories of guys who live thousands of miles away.
Squad member John Williamson, 48, who joined the Bomb/Arson team last year, has been shot twice in his 21 previous years with the Sheriff's Department. His utterly harrowing account of looking up from the driver's seat of a parked squad car to see a criminal's gun barrel is a story he'll tell if asked, but he's more likely to dwell on the risks faced by a buddy, a NYC firefighter, survivor of 9/11, whose on-the-job exposure to toxic chemicals led to cancer this year. Over the years, the lifers in this work carry a lot more than their own baggage; all this collective-memory stuff is pretty damn heavy too.
Each of the squad members has his own way to temporarily exorcise ghosts or escape from work pressures. Five of the seven are presently married (five have been divorced), all but one have children, one is preparing to adopt a child. They all work through the infinite to-do lists of the middle-class Southern Californian: yard work, remodeling, carpooling, stealing time for occasional surfing or the like. They all spend more money than they want to for stuff their fathers never dreamed of buying. To a man, they say their wives and girlfriends have made peace with their choice of careers.
Grayson's own household bubbles over with people and pets, presided over by Teresa, his wife of nearly 26 years, who is a retired sergeant in the San Diego Sheriff's Department. ("She's the boss," he says serenely.) His escapism of choice is to watch a good movie (meaning John Wayne is in it) or to chew the fat with his in-laws, a Marine veteran of World War II and his energetic wife. Both are devoted to RV road trips when they're not in their own digs, downstairs in the house. On weekends, Grayson usually can't resist driving out to the bomb range to make sure all is well.
Increasingly Grayson's "free time" is spent teaching, a pastime he may ramp up when he gets around to retiring. Most months he can be found in front of a range of groups: college students, service clubs, lawmakers, other emergency-services and law-enforcement types.
I sat in as he spoke to a community emergency response team (CERT) in Coronado one late-summer evening. It was a potentially tough room, a tricky mix of ages and political-cause lapel buttons. Grayson broke the ice by sharing that his 40-year-old son was, at that moment, stationed in Iraq. He asked other veterans in the audience to raise their hands. "We all fought so you could keep the right to burn the American flag," he said, adding sotto voce with a grin, "Not that we recommend you do that in front of us, mind you." He assured his listeners that civilians like them are vital to efforts at a post-disaster scene.
Grayson showed a film built around graphic disaster-scene footage, meant to acquaint civilians with the demands they could face as first-responders. Driving to the event he'd predicted the first question with perfect accuracy. What's the likelihood of terrorist bombings on local soil? His answer was intentionally blunt: "It will happen. The only real question is: 'How strong will we be when it does?' " The room became very quiet.
On the drive back to El Cajon, Grayson checks his office voice mail. Some TV reporter needs a sound bite. New hires in the Sheriff's Department want to come see the bomb museum at the range. Then he checks in with squad members: A stash of pipe bombs was recovered without incident. Good. That big arson case has a court date. Excellent. Grayson pushes his glasses up on his nose, twice. He's tap-tapping his left foot as he drives. I imagine he'd just as soon dispense with the wasted hours about to be spent sleeping and get right back at it. I scribble in my notebook the fourth absolute truth for a good bomb tech: There is always going to be more work to do tomorrow.