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Bob O’Connor: Visit to Falls air base was a real eye-opener

A friend recently asked me to tour the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station with his retirees group. I’m not really fond of visiting places where people carry guns and wear combat fatigues, but I agreed. I think I have authority issues. Growing up in South Buffalo, I have an innate aversion to people in uniforms; even the UPS guy makes me uncomfortable.

Our first stop was the firing range. Incredibly, we were offered the opportunity to fire semi-automatic weapons. Most of my fellow travelers volunteered, even a few “senior” ladies. These gals looked like Ma Barker firing off their 10-round clips. As a pacifist and dedicated coward, I declined to exercise my Second Amendment rights. My companion tried to urge me on, but I said: “I’ve reached this age without ever firing so much as a BB gun. I’ll pass.”

After lunch we toured a C-130 airplane and I must admit I was bored. It was like touring a big tractor-trailer with wings. Then came the bomb squad demonstration, where I would learn a few things about guts and bravery.

An unassuming airman with black glasses and a baby face operated one of those remote gizmos that they send out to examine suspected bombs. He was with the Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad and he worked this little erector set on wheels by holding what looked like a Game Boy. I was not impressed. After the demonstration, I struck up a conversation. “So,” I asked, ever the wise guy, “have you ever actually defused a live bomb?”

“Yes, sir,” he answered politely. “Several hundred in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve been doing this for 16 years and I did nine tours over there.”

I was impressed and a little ashamed that I had assumed this fellow was a weekend warrior.

“You’ve defused hundreds of explosive devices and now you’re back in Buffalo giving demonstrations to goofballs like me? Aren’t you bored?” I asked.

“Boring can be a good thing, sir,” he replied.

I pressed him. “C’mon,” I said. “It must be like being a rock star and then working as a clerk in a record store. How did you adjust to normal life?”

He lowered his voice and leveled with me. “To be honest, sir – over there you are considered a bad ass. Even the Marines say we EOD guys are crazy. It is a huge adrenalin rush when you do your job right. But I also had to conduct post-blast investigations. Searching through body parts is no fun. Even though I am a nobody back here, that’s OK with me.”

Beside us was an 85-pound bomb disposal outfit that was flame- and fragment-resistant. I asked him if the suit would protect him if something went wrong.

“No, sir,” he said. “It isn’t the fire or the shrapnel that gets you; it is the blast that kills you. Even with this suit on, a good blast will turn your insides to jelly.” He patted the suit like it was an old friend. “All this does is ensures you’ll leave a good-looking corpse.”

The tour was ready to move on. I shook his hand and thanked him. “You’re welcome, sir,” he said. He assumed I was thanking him for the demonstration, but it was more than that – a lot more.