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A Boom to Buzz About

We were interviewed on TV, trying to describe what the noise sounded like and postulating a cause. Each of us had our theories, but we really didn't have a clue.


Or did we have another earthquake nearby? We had a little one many years ago, right after I moved in. It was a quakette, really, in the dead of night, with an epicenter near the A.P. Hill Monument. Porch lights popped on all over the neighborhood and people stood outside in their pajamas and robes to see whose furnace had exploded.

I've never heard a furnace explode, but the booms that puzzled us recently were what I would imagine a furnace explosion might sound like about four doors away. They were muffled, not sharp, and they seemed to emanate from within the earth. They weren't shrill, like cherry bombs. They were deep and rolling, like the sound of cannon in a war just over the horizon. They were as clamorous as fireworks at The Diamond on the Fourth of July. (The first time I sat in my living room and heard The Diamond's fireworks I thought howitzers were firing down my street.) But the booms that we were cursed by this fall were dark and foreboding and nerve-jangling, and they hinted at something subterranean. They'd catch me off-guard.

The big Sunday booms 10 days ago rattled the house and made the glassware in the breakfront tinkle. But picture frames weren't knocked askew and all of the furniture stayed where it was supposed to be. My cats, who were both asleep in a patch of sunlight, freaked. Boo crouched and froze. Atticus hid under a table. But cats are like that. I'm not. I thought the mystery was … intriguing.

Out my front window, I saw two men on their porches, one of them pointing down the street. I assumed he thought that's where the boom came from. But all was quiet, and the neighbors went back inside. The spider making a web on my front porch was unfazed. In a few minutes, I got an e-mail from our civic association reminding us to telephone the city so they could map boom calls. I tried. The circuits were busy.

It was life, at its most commonplace and simultaneously most entertaining. We North Siders, united by our enigma, kept doing the quotidian things that make our lives roll along while we pondered the booms.

It was the mystery that kept us talking. Mine is an ordinary-enough suburb. Granted, there's no good bookstore and the malls are far away, but Downtown and the Bottom and the city's art and science museums are only a few minutes from here. North Side's got character — enough to have been the setting for a scene last year for the now-canceled "Line of Fire" TV series. The filmmakers thought our neighborhood looked like where an FBI special agent might live, so they spent most of a day last December crashing a car into a minivan in front of my house. Wouldn't you know, it was that day that Richmond was rocked by an earthquake -- a 4.5 in magnitude, with the epicenter in Powhatan. It was late in the afternoon and growing dark when it hit. The actors, mostly quake-jaded Southern Californians, looked up at the sky, and then went back to faking reality. I didn't hear a boom, but the quake made furniture skitter. Such as it was, that was the last intense back-fence topic in the neighborhood before the mystery booms started.

This fall's booms lent something distinct and unique to our lives. We became transient stars in Richmond conversations. Very transient, perhaps, but we had that special experience that can spark a discussion. We were interviewed on TV, trying to describe what the noise sounded like and postulating a cause. Each of us had our theories, but we really didn't have a clue. "Don lives in the boom neighborhood." A hostess at a party used that line when introducing me to somebody last month.

Our city councilmen was on the case. He held a community meeting about the booms. But that reminded me too much of Gov. Gilmore's shark committee (major finding: Sharks sometimes attack people in the ocean). I didn't go. Neighbors told me I didn't miss much that hadn't already been said.

The booms were, luckily, benign. They were only as serious as one wanted them to be. The explanation turned out to be disappointingly trashy. Police found devices "that produce more noise than anything else, but would certainly send a shock wave and loud boom down the sewer system," according to an e-mail we got from our councilman.

So now the city and the police are working hard to find the culprit, and we can stop worrying so much about the booms. But like the well-conditioned Richmonders we are, we can still talk about them, perhaps for several generations. S

Don Dale is a writer who lives in Richmond.

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