It’s been awhile since we had to worry about the multi-colored national danger spectrum, but last week, the northwestern quadrant of Harvard Square was put on high alert. It turned out, though, that the deployment of bomb-squad vehicles, flanked by police cruisers and fire engines, that rolled in and cordoned off a section of Garden Street adjacent to the Harvard Quadrangle had nothing to do with a dirty bomb or even terrorist activity, but rather (appropriate for a school so immersed in ancient history) a Civil War–era cannonball.For me, the ordeal was something of a minor inconvenience, as I happen to live in the building where the relic rested. My downstairs neighbors — an amiable middle-aged married couple — set the commotion in motion: they had kept the cannonball in their apartment for 20 years as an accent piece. They declined to go on record, as they wished to remain off the grid and un-googleable. Ironically, however, it was Google that ignited the situation.
The husband had found the metallic ball “lying around” the turn-of-the-century constructed building when they moved in, and adopted it. Recently, though, a few clicks on the Internet caused the wife to become concerned that the ball might be explosive, so she contacted a Civil War authority, who told her to contact the police, who in turn, because it was military ordnance, called in the Department of Defense Disposal Unit from the naval base in Newport, Rhode Island.
Another neighbor, who also wished to remain anonymous, described the incident as surreal. “I felt like I had just stepped into an episode of the Twilight Zone when I walked outside my apartment to find the bomb squad, DOD, and Navy in the middle of what seemed like a special-ops mission to diffuse an antique cannonball that had been used as a doorstop for 20 years.”
Clearly, such a show of strength for an item so benign for so long would hardly have been deemed necessary if the exact same sequence had unfolded before 9/11. But the shroud of secrecy still remaining over the offending materiel hardly seems necessary. I contacted the Cambridge Police to find out where the cannonball had been taken and what conclusions had been drawn from its examination, but at press time, still had not heard back from them.