The Invasion That Fizzled
John Pritchard sat in his living room waiting impatiently for his buddies to arrive so they could start watching the Giants football game. He had laid out the snacks, put the hors d’oevres in the oven and stocked the freezer with plenty of beer.
Then, all of a sudden, someone rang his doorbell--and it wasn’t one of the gang John expected. In fact, he didn’t see anyone. As he opened the door and looked down, a gift-wrapped package lay at his feet on the porch. After the bell rang he looked through his blinds and around the neighborhood and found no sign of who had left the package.
Even though the Christmas season lurked just a few short weeks away, John hadn’t mail-ordered anything. He didn’t have a strong trust in delivery services and, with the pandemic finally appearing to ease, he had become a strong believer in going in person to pick up anything he wanted or needed.
“Honey,” he yelled to his wife, Jill, “did you order anything online or through a mail order house? Don’t worry, if you wanted to surprise me with an early Christmas gift, I wouldn’t open it.”
“Knowing your overly-nosy nature I wouldn’t send anything where you could get your hands on it before I could stash it,” she yelled back.
John then called his immediate neighbors to see if they had ordered anything that could have landed in front of his door by accident.
John’s neighbors either felt as he did about shopping in person now that their pandemic-enforced imprisonment had ended or had deep suspicions about transmission of the remaining “Covid bug” from delivery service warehouses.
What to do? If he left the package on his porch and it contained a surprise gift from another family member or friend he risked losing something valuable to a “porch bandit.”
On the other hand, if he brought the package into his house he risked contaminating himself, his wife and all his football buddies with any virus germs lurking on the mysterious box.
As John stared blankly down at the package, suddenly it began to vibrate.
“Oh no,” he yelled frightfully, “could someone have delivered a bomb or a container of poisonous gas to me?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Jill replied. “Who would want to blow up or poison a certified public accountant or his wife, the local head librarian?”
The package stopped vibrating after about two minutes that crawled along for what seemed like a half hour.
He attempted to get in touch with UPS and Fedex, but no one in their skeleton crews on this quiet Sunday afternoon had any record of a package delivery ordered for his address. The local post office seldom made deliveries on Sundays and, of course, no one picked up the phone to answer any of his questions.
John decided he couldn’t just leave the box sitting on his porch so close to his home. He then began unwrapping the “gift” on his porch, but thought twice about continuing. What if the vibrating only signalled the first stage of a multi-stage explosive device or a warning device protecting some type of deadly substance?
Breaking into his best running back sprint, John grabbed the box and threw open the door to his garage, where he placed it on his workbench and began to gingerly unwrap it.
Turned out that the package, a rather large box, contained a smaller box, that contained a still smaller box. An inscription on the smallest box looked like some type of ancient hieroglyphic script. The odd looking device contained in the box certainly didn’t resemble anything John had encountered in his limited travels around Metuchen, NJ.
As he struggled trying to figure out the mysterious delivery John remembered that the guests at his halftime party probably had begun arriving for the afternoon’s festivities.
He rushed over to greet his buddies and told them about the calamity unfolding in the garage.
They all came over to look at the strange device and, of course, made a number of apparently useless suggestions about how to solve the dilemma.
However, one suggestion did make sense. John’s longtime neighbor Harry Stine had an uncle who specialized in foreign languages at nearby Rutgers University. Harry’s uncle lived only two blocks away, so Harry texted him and he rushed right over.
Uncle Jarod Anderson looked at the strange writing on the package and said it resembled Russian codes for top secret projects the Soviet Union had worked on during the Cold War.
Although it took another hour, Jarod contacted a fellow Rutgers professor who soon joined the informal inquiry in John’s garage.
The professor said, “This code originated with the Soviet military about 60 years ago, but I have friends at the State Department who told me portions of it have again surfaced. They believe the Putin government may have used it to hide plans about its spy network in the Ukraine. I have a friend at State who may give us some help. He’s probably available this afternoon.”
Jarod’s friend, Sergei Ubokov, excitedly entered the garage within 20 minutes. After carefully examining the device for about an hour, he began peeling back more layers of wrapping surrounding it.
John and his friends stood by and watched, fearful that the package still would explode, send forth a plume of gas that would kill them all or result in their arrest by US or Russian operatives.
After another half hour of tedious poking and prodding at the “gift” by Sergei and a number of phone calls to State Department colleagues angry at having their Sunday football watching disturbed, Sergei burst into laughter.
“My friends,” he said, “you have nothing to worry about. One of my acquiantances at State lives on an adjacent street. His house number on that street is the same as John’s on this street. His son is a real “geek” about Russian history. The father had one of his friends who had worked in the Ukraine for a number of years design this fake device to resemble a real one formerly used by the Russians that they haven’t used for 20 years. The father’s friend, unfamiliar with this area, had it delivered here by mistake.”
So a potential Russian espionage mystery in the heart of central New Jersey turned out to be nothing more than a misdelivered holiday gift.