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Anecdotally yours, week one — Hap Houlihan

In to the Wind

July 10, 2013
By Mike Gilchrist , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

Whenever good friends get together, the stories are sure to flow. This Fourth of July weekend, several friends gathered here at Gilly Hollow to reminisce and tell stories. It didn't take much prompting for the stories to evolve, and these friends write my column for the week. Thanks guys!

One of my oldest and dearest friends is a man named Dennis Houlihan. While Dennis has had his share of tragedy in his life, he has worked through it and maintains a positive outlook on life. Dennis is a nurturer, with a bold empathetic streak. He no doubts gets these traits from his father, who many Central Iowans will remember as Hap Houlihan, a long time Marshalltown police officer.

Harold Francis (Hap) Houlihan was born on 27 Feb 1922 in Charter Oak, IA and died on 12 Apr 1996 at age 74.

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Hap was a waist gunner on a B-24 Liberator "Star Eyes" during WWII. He made 31 bombing missions over Germany and enemy occupied territory, including high altitude precision attacks on targets in Hamburg, Tutow, Hamm, Brunswick, and Munich. Besides the Distinguished Flying Cross, Sgt. Houlihan earned the Air Medal and 3 Oak Leaf Clusters for meritorious achievement in aerial combat.

Hap was better known as the de facto liaison officer for the Marshalltown Police department. Hap applied his social skills while intervening in domestic disputes, and engaging in other law enforcement duties. Hap preferred to give lectures instead of tickets. Legend has it that upon retirement from his decades on the police force, Hap turned in his originally issued citation book.

The Houlihans were friends of my family, and one anecdote I can tell speaks of the tolerance and understanding Hap had towards youth and the community in general.

I believe the statue of limitations has come and gone on this one, so I will tell this story.

A friend of mine and I decided we were going to make our own gunpowder and make the biggest firecracker ever. A book we found at the library had the formula for black powder. My dad had a bag of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in the garage, the charcoal was easily procured, and a small bottle of sulfur was procured from Dwayne at the Hobby Shop, after overcoming suspicious looks and convincing him the device we intended to make was only being made in the furtherance of science.

My mom had a mortar and pestle we borrowed to grind and mix the ingredients. We made our own fuse by twisting together some tissue wrapping paper, coating it with glue, and rolling it in the black powder.

The powder was packed into an empty BB cylindrical container. The fuse was inserted, and we were ready to detonate the device. We took it to the curb at my dad's front yard. We carefully propped it up, and flipped a coin to determine who would have the privilege of lighting the device. I won. A kitchen match we had spirited from the catch-all drawer in my mom's kitchen was the igniter.

The fuse burned much slower than we anticipated. It sort of sparkled and glowed as the flame worked its way down to the powder. We waited in anticipation, at a safe distance for the explosion. We waited. We waited some more. We looked at each other and saw the disappointment on each other's faces. We waited some more, contemplating what our next move should be.

All at once a great shower of sparks started issuing from the top of the cylinder. Instead of a solitary boom, it was going off like a railroad flare, shooting sparks way up into the air. While not the effect we had expected, or wanted, it was really cool to see the clandestine fireworks display at the edge of the road.

One of the neighborhood moms, (yes I had several moms while growing up) came out on her front porch to see what all the excitement was about. That was when we saw the "black and white" slowly inching its way around the corner a couple blocks from the house.

Now you have to imagine the fright this image and the perceived ramifications of our actions about to befall two adolescent boys caused. In an instant we figured out we had to put it out, and quickly.

We ran to the garage and got a couple of empty pop bottles. We went to the hose bib in front of the house and filled them with water. We ran to the flaming device and attempted to douse the flames, and the sparks. We kept pouring the water on it even after the sparks disappeared and the smoke began.

Little did we know that if you poured water on a burning mass of homemade black powder, it wouldn't entirely stop the combustion, but instead would cause the thing to emit smoke, lots of it, and a great cloud of it. All we could do is step back and watch in total amazement as the opposite side of the street disappeared behind a huge thick cloud of white smoke. We just knew we would be arrested and get to see what a jail cell looked like from the inside.

Around the corner closest to the house inched the squad car. As it had been since we first spied it, it was barely moving, yes, just crawling ever so slowly towards our house, watching the antics of these two boys and what we just knew was going to be our imminent doom.

I shall leave it to you, gentle reader, to imagine the look of fear and abject horror on the faces of two boys as the officer drove his car closer to the huge cloud of smoke. It was then we saw it was Hap Houlihan. He stopped at the edge of the smoke field, looked over at us and shook his head. Then he drove the car right in to the smoke. The automobile disappeared for a couple seconds, I'm sure to intensify the effect for the horrified boys. He must have stopped in the smoke briefly, before inching his way back out of it and continuing down the road at the same "snail like" pace and around the corner and out of sight. The neighborhood mom yelled at us, "You boys are lucky it was Hap, and not some other cop!"

The stories told about Hap are legion. Dennis told a few around the table himself, including this one.

Every police officer has to qualify at the gun range. Even social worker liaison police officers like Hap. Dennis told us Hap always tried to put off having to qualify. To tell the truth, I don't even remember a sidearm on Hap, but Dennis assured us he wore one.

One time, after coming up with a series of excuses for why he couldn't qualify, the chief of police told Hap the next day was the day. He had to go to the gun range.

He showed up the next morning, in his uniform, but with his trigger finger bandaged. You have to imagine Hap didn't just put a Band-Aid on his finger, no, it was wrapped in gauze and tape-"think toilet paper size," Dennis alleged. The story goes that the chief took one look at Hap and the bandaged finger, and told him it wasn't going to work. Take off the bandage and let's go qualify he was warned.

The chief and Hap arrived at the outdoor range. Hap unholstered his sidearm and promptly pointed it straight up and discharged the weapon. He put a 38 caliber hole in the corrugated metal overhanging the shooting bench.

It doesn't take a great imagination to understand the thought processes going on inside the chief's head that day. How can I fire the most loved officer on the force? How can I dismiss one of the most effective social interfaces this force has ever seen? How can I keep Hap on the force when he won't even attempt to qualify at the range? I can only imagine, can you?

"OK, Hap, you qualify," the chief told him. The best solution, the chief had reasoned, was to sign the form that Hap had qualified and just get on with things.

I imagine for years the hole was pointed out to the rookies and the story retold, over and over again.

Hap was the kind of fellow legends were made of. RIP in peace old man.

I fully intended to relay some more anecdotes this week, Space limitations preclude that possibility. I will continue next week.

Until next time-

You can read past columns by visiting and clicking on the "Local Columns" button.

In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2005 - 2013 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342.



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