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The Blast That Ended His Dreams

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s a rare thing to be blown up by a bomb and live to remember it. John Hauser did. A mangled right hand--thrust forth in unabashed greeting--is the only visible vestige of the blast.

The device that nearly killed him was hidden in a plastic box atop a table in a university computer lab. Hauser could have ignored it but unlatched it instead. Curiosity had served him well before; this time it led him to the Unabomber’s trap.

The explosion blew off Hauser’s fingers, carved a canyon in his arm and left him blind in one eye. His vision came back but his fingers did not, which meant that the life he chose--as an Air Force fighter pilot--ended, along with his dream of one day going to work in space.

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“The surgeons did a great job,” Hauser said, “but there was only so much they could do. When a bomb blows up your arm, you’re basically left with hamburger.”

Hauser was the eighth victim of the notorious Unabomber, who killed three, wounded 23 and haunted the nation during a chilling string of attacks that began in 1978.

Maimed 12 years ago, Hauser has created a new life as an accomplished researcher and professor of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado. It’s a rich life, but it is punctuated, even now, by daily reminders of the bombing, and of what the bomber took away.

Although Hauser has learned to compensate for his diminished right hand, it is neither natural nor easy. With numb stumps for fingers, it is hard to toss a football to your teen-age son. Or grip a bicycle brake. Or change the radio station while driving your car.

And when a jet flies overhead, it is hard for a trained pilot not to pine for the feel of a cockpit or imagine what might have been.

“Do I feel cheated? Sure, sometimes,” said Hauser, who still wears a leather flight jacket with an Air Force patch. “Flying a jet seven miles a minute, 200 feet above the ground--that was a pretty great way to make a living. But you know, what I’m doing now is OK too.”

On Wednesday, the one and only suspect in the Unabomber case--Theodore Kaczynski--goes on trial in Sacramento. A Harvard-trained mathematician, Kaczynski is charged with only four of the bombings, though prosecutors will try to prove he is responsible for all 16. Kaczynski, 55, has pleaded not guilty.

For the Unabomber’s survivors, the prospect of justice in the long-running case has stirred a blaze of emotions. One has sued Kaczynski for the wounds and emotional wreckage caused by a letter bomb. Another writes that he would like to strangle Kaczynski with his bare hands--not because of his own terrible injuries but for what the bomb could have done to his boys and wife.

The mother of a third victim--killed by a bomb he discovered behind his Sacramento computer store in 1985--just misses her boy.

“When a mother loses a child, well, I think that’s about the hardest thing there is,” said Bessie Dudley, recalling her son, Hugh Scrutton, as a “soft-hearted” man. “I can’t lay my hands on him anymore. Nothing can change that.”

Hauser, 39, says he has some natural curiosity about the trial but predicts that no great catharsis lies ahead.

“I think this notion of closure is pretty oversold,” he said recently, sipping coffee as a storm turned Boulder snowy white. “There would be closure if, at the conclusion of the trial--POP!!--I had a good arm again. That would be closure. Other than that, I don’t expect much elation or relief.”

Like most of the Unabomber’s victims, Hauser was an accidental target, that unluckiest of people who merely happened upon one of the criminal’s sinister gifts. The trap was laid in a student laboratory at UC Berkeley, where Hauser--a captain in the Air Force--was pursuing a master’s degree on a military fellowship.

Kaczynski taught mathematics at Berkeley, but left years before the bombing.

Hauser’s academic detour was meant to be brief. After Berkeley, he thought he might aim for a job as a test pilot or seek a spot in the astronaut ranks. Competition for the space program is intense, but with an exemplary record and a reputation as precise and cool-headed in flight, Hauser had a shot.

“It would have been tough,” he said of his chances to fulfill a boyhood ambition to visit space, “but it wasn’t an impossibility.”

The Unabomber settled that matter rather decisively on May 15, 1985.

With final exams just over, Hauser should have been taking a break that day. But overachievers rarely take breaks, so there he was back in the lab, fiddling on the computer when he noticed the small plastic box with a three-ring binder on top. The time was 1:41 p.m.

The explosion was tremendous, blasting Hauser’s fingers across the room with such power that his Air Force ring imprinted the word “Academy” on a wall six feet away. Shrapnel--a vicious mix of nails, lead and tacks--tore through skin, nerves, muscle and bone.

First came bewilderment: “Why would they do something like this?” Then came smoke, pain and blood--geysers of blood spurting from a pair of arteries severed by the bomb.

Hauser’s screams brought help from a professor, the late Diogenes Angelakos, who used his necktie as a tourniquet. Angelakos had some experience with bombs. He had been the Unabomber’s seventh victim on the same campus three years earlier, suffering severe burns in the blast.

In the emergency room, Hauser worried most about his vision, suddenly half-gone. “I’m a pilot,” he told the crew attending him. “I need to see to fly.” It was some time before he realized his eye would not be the problem.

Putting Hauser’s arm and hand back together was a messy, tricky business, requiring a surgery six hours long. The first two were spent simply cleaning junk from the wounds--scraps of wood, plastic, wire and metal from the bomb. Then doctors created one good artery from the two that had lived in his arm before.

The most delicate job involved reconnecting a crucial nerve that, in Hauser’s words, “helps the hand see.” It is this nerve that enables you to distinguish a quarter from a dime, or find a key in a crowded pocket. The doctors were hopeful; the results didn’t measure up.

Hauser’s hospital stay was most memorable for the pain, which he likens to “hitting your funny bone and multiplying the sensation by a million.” A few episodes stand out, such as the time a substitute nurse decided Hauser might be getting too dependent on Demerol and made an executive decision to cut his dosage in half: “I wasn’t too fond of that nurse.”

Once home, the pain persisted. The tips of his fingers, now small stubs, were open, skinless wounds, and felt like giant paper cuts that wouldn’t heal. On his arm, bandages concealed a gaping hole covered with a patch of skin taken from his hip.

Haunted by nightmares, unable to pick up his confused toddler, unable to work or write or eat or dress himself, Hauser tried mightily to keep his spirits up.

Then he received a letter inviting him to apply to the space program. “It sort of added insult to injury,” he recalled.

Although a career in space was clearly out, Hauser still had hopes of returning to the cockpit. So, after some rehabilitation and more surgery to help his thumb behave like a thumb again, he went to a nearby naval air station, climbed in a simulator and tried to fly an A-7 attack jet. The results were disappointing.

“I could fly it OK, but it was pretty clear I just didn’t have what it would take,” Hauser said. “The feeling in my hand just wasn’t coming back.”

The Air Force asked him to stay on in an administrative job, but Hauser declined. Being unable to fly in the Air Force, “where the mission is to fly and fight, might cause somebody to generate a pretty bad attitude,” he surmised.

So he returned to academics, completing his master’s degree and pushing onward for a Ph.D. A lucrative offer lured him to USC, but after two years there, the traffic wore him down and he took a position in Boulder.

Now a tenured professor, Hauser works on electronic controls--for military aircraft and other systems. In 1991, he won the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Young Investigator Award.

In the years since the explosion, the bearded, blue-eyed researcher has learned to be a one-handed man in a two-handed world.

When he skis, he tapes a pole to his right wrist. When he bicycles, it’s on a bike with the controls customized for his left hand. When he goes to a picnic, he can’t compete at volleyball or softball like other men his age.

And when he writes, it is with his left hand and takes effort.

“When you write with your dominant hand it flows, it’s a subconscious thing,” Hauser said. “For me it’s not natural at all anymore. . . . Sometimes I want to jump up and down and say, ‘Wait! I need more time or less work!’ ”

They say time heals all wounds. But in a sense, Hauser has found that promise a hollow one. The physical pain in his arm has dulled, but he has come to realize that his limitations won’t be going away. “At some point you figure out that things just aren’t going to get better.”

All of this makes Hauser sound like a gloomy guy, a wallower. But he isn’t, not at all. Ebullient and witty, he exhibits a contagious zest for life. He sings in a community choir, enjoys fine wine and keeps the works of Henry David Thoreau within easy reach on his desk.

After a long post-bomb hiatus, he recently began riding a motorcycle again.

And he is forever planning new adventures to share with his son, 13, and daughter, 11.

“I am quite impressed by John and the way he perceives the world after such a terrible experience,” said Andrzej Banaszuk, a fellow engineer who taught Hauser how to rock-climb and calls him “a natural talent” at the sport.

“He gets annoyed in small ways at being excluded from certain things--like flying jets--and you can sense that scar. But he’s not filled with self-pity, he’s not bitter, as many people would be.”

Indeed, when asked about Kaczynski, Hauser says he feels no hate, calling it an emotion that “can eat you alive from the inside out.” He also believes that if Kaczynski is convicted, it could be tough for a jury to sentence him to death, knowing that it was his brother, David, who turned him in to the FBI.

“What David Kaczynski did would just be heart-wrenching for any of us,” Hauser said. “So, for us to sort of turn around and say, ‘Aha, gotcha! Now off with his head,’ well, that sort of ignores what it must have taken for his brother to come forward.”

That said, Hauser misses the sense of freedom the Unabomber took away. Although he isn’t one to look over his shoulder all the time, the professor has learned to suppress the inquisitive streak that entwined his fate with the bomber’s a dozen years ago.

“The other night I was leaving the university and saw that someone had left a backpack in the parking lot,” Hauser said. “Now, a good Samaritan would have picked it up and turned it in to security. Could I do that? No way. It might have been a bomb. It has been before.”


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