Genesis of Diary of a Pyro

I wrote these messages in horsepower and shades nodes of one of the multinode forae (online discussion systems) that existed at one time on, UC Santa Cruz' "open access" computer system. My recollection is that there was a discussion in horsepower node about windy roads & police or some such, which caused me to write the first message here, and it in turn inspired me to write the other two, which would eventually become the first two chapters of Diary of a Pyro. Later that year, during spring break, I spent a week continuing the story and thus produced the first version of Diary of a Pyro.

[horsepower] Message #121 : Wed, Jan 27, 1988 4:28 pm
From: 746 KW (spcecdt@ucscb)
Subject: Windy roads, police & fireworks, etc...
One of my earlier experiences... I guess I was 14 or so. My brother and
I whipped up a couple of experimental rockets. We waited until it was dark,
then brought them with a friend down to the oceanside park near our house (our
"testing grounds"...). The first one (I forget which of ours it was... I think
it was my brother's) launched correctly, while the second, apparently laden
with too heavy a payload (various small fireworks) went up, came back down, and
slammed into the ground where the payload items began to go off. Unfortunately
just as this happened a police vehicle was cruising by (we try to keep an
eye out, but hey...).
I forget how we became aware of their presence... maybe we just saw their
car there. Anyway, as soon as we realized they were coming, we all took off in
different directions. I think the friend hid in the bushes, my brother hid in
a short rain tunnel that passed under the railroad tracks that we were igniting
the 'works on, and I headed for the ocean. It is a very rocky part of the
coast; I made my way out to the furthest rock I could reach (about 150'
offshore), then got behind it and dropped into the water up to my neck. The
water was COOOOOLLLDDD, within a minute I was freezing my ****s off. I was
also scared ****less.
I was soon glad that I had hidden myself well. They apparently knew that
I was out there. Since I had been hidden by the bushes when I ran, and the
police should not have had any reason to believe that there were more people
than had been caught (I assumed at least one of the others had been caught) let
alone that one would be out in the ocean, I immediately suspected that one of
the others had told them (unfortunately a highly probable outcome of any
questioning). Anyway, they shined their big bad flashlights back and forth
across the ocean for what seemed like hours to me, but was probably more like
15 minutes. I looked out from behind my rock every once in a while when the
flashlights were pointed in a different direction, while clinging to the rock
with large waves threatening to tear me away from it.
Finally, I looked out and saw the police talking to a man with two DOGS on
leashes. It was too dark to see if he was in uniform; I don't know if they
were police dogs (I doubt it), or whether he was someone they call when they
need dogs, or what. Maybe he was just someone out walking his dogs (though it
was pretty late for that) and they enlisted his services. Regardless, the dogs
went sniffing all along the edge of the ocean. It seemed to go on forever. It
was a very strange feeling, being so numb with cold that I could barely think
while at the same time having the adrenaline pumping through me. I was sure
they would identify where I started my way out to the rock, but apparently
nothing came of it. They all eventually left. I waited quite a while longer
to make sure they were really gone, then headed back to shore and went home.
My time sense had been a bit messed up by all this; I would guess that I was in
the water for something between a half hour and an hour.
It was a nasty experience, but I figured it had been worth it since I had
outwitted the police and would not have to deal with them. But, no! When I
got home my brother told me that the police knew who I was and expected me to
call them so they could come talk to me; otherwise they would come looking for
me later. Needless to say, I was PISSED. My brother insisted that the police
had seen three people and had surmised who the third was, but I did not believe
it. My brother and friend were both younger than I and I think they would have
been so scared that they would tell the police anything they asked ("Was there
anyone else?", etc.). Anyway, I called them and they sent a cruiser by and
gave me a lecture about how the worst thing I did was try to evade the police,
etc. At least they weren't the worst jerks on that police force; others would
have tried to put me in the juvie.
Other times we have gotten away... I remember once running along the
coast, I forget why... almost certainly something to do with fireworks.
Anyway, I managed to make my way to a large storm drain that runs under the
road that parallels the ocean in that city. I went through it; on the other
side is a park. The storm drain runoff goes through the park as a stream
before passing through the tunnel I traversed and running into the ocean. It
comes out of another large (~4') pipe at the upper end of the park. I went to
that end and started to head out into the street, but immediately saw another
cop car slowly cruising by. I couldn't tell whether they spotted me, but
wasn't going to take any chances.
I went back into the park and headed into the upper storm drain for a long
and perilous journey... I knew that there was one place that you could exit the
drain, near the Junior High about 3/4 of the way across town. It was very
unpleasant, trudging through the pipe, which kept getting smaller so I had to
hunch over more and more, with spider webs constantly hitting me in the face.
Although the pipe was round, so that if I was careful enough I could walk with
my feet up a bit on the sides and avoid the water, I inevitably slipped and
soon my feet were soaked with smelly runoff. It was also pitch black, except
for the occasional points where the street drains were close enough to the main
line to let in a bit of light. The only previous time I had been up the drain
was on an expedition with several friends, and of course all of us had had
flashlights. I was quite afraid that I would miss the exit point since it is
not at all obvious. Several times I thought of turning back, but the thought
of the police waiting at the other end kept me going. At least by that age I
had largely conquered my fear of darkness. Still, I kept hearing things...
Finally I reached the point where the pipe became an ancient square duct
less than three feet high, and I knew I was close. Soon I saw an opening above
covered with plants... was that it? Yes! I climbed out, covering myself with
mud in the process (that entrance is very will hidden by plants and debris),
and headed home.
Then there was one of the times we went out to the Fort Ord practice
range to pick up dud practice missiles. They have little warheads filled with
flash powder; we would go hunting about in the dirt for the duds so we could
get the powder out (this isn't particularly dangerous; the trigger mechanism
for the practice missles is unsophisticated and not very sensitive). But, of
course, this was Fort Ord, and there were helicopters constantly flying over
us. Every time we heard one we would hide in the bushes or the remains of one
of the old tanks that they use for practice targets, often considering the
possibility that the helicopters were coming in on a practice run for the
tanks... Anyway, once we had enough "materiel", we started to head back, but
our "ride" got stuck in the mud. While we were trying to get it out, some MPs
in a truck came along. We were very nervous since the car was full of rather
damning evidence. But, they didn't even ask us what were were doing out
there; they just hitched a cable up to the car and pulled it out!
Yet another ... (this one really belongs in this forum). This was
shortly after we recieved our order of chemicals to make our first-ever batch
of homemade flash powder, and we were going wild with it. We made up a bunch
of "devices", and headed for Pebble Beach, which by this time had become our
preferred area for testing. It is a private area; you have to pay to get in
if you are not a resident and all they have out there is their own security
patrol. Of course we did not pay. Sometimes my friend the caddy would get us
through with his card; sometimes we would call a friend who is a resident and
ask him to call the gate and tell them we were visitors; sometimes we would
call them ourselves and pretend to be residents... of couse they eventually
caught on to all of these except the second (if a resident calls they HAVE to
let visitors in). But, our "getaway driver" had discovered a way to get in
that bypassed the gates.
Anyway, we went out there one night tossing these things out of the
window. Then we saw one of the security patrol's trucks headed quickly in our
direction, so our driver slammed the pedal down (we were in a Mach One, a
breed of Mustang) and we headed in the opposite direction. Of course any of
you who have been to Pebble Beach and 17 Mile Drive know that the roads there
are among the twistiest in the world (they are supposed to be "scenic"). And,
unfortunately, this vehicle had one problem: there was a bad connection to the
high beams, so every time you went over the slightest bump they would go off
for a moment! Thus, the choice was between flying along a road full of hairpin
turns using only the low beams, or using the high beams and just praying every
time they went off.
Needless to say, we escaped (we exited via the gate, hoping they wouldn't
be on the lookout for a blue Mach One). That is an experience I will never
[shades] Message #40: Thu, Jan 28, 1988 12:40 am
From: Holographic Imaging Panspectral (HIP) shades
Subject: this didn't seem appropriate for horsepower node, so I'm posting it h.
Diary of a Pyro
Let's see... I don't really know how it started. I have been fascinated
by fire for as long as I can remember. The earliest specific action I can
remember taking is building my own tiny fire at the beach while everyone else
gathered around the main bonfire. I would stare endlessly, watching the flames
dance. It triggered something mystical in my young mind. Fire seemed to have
such power, reducing wood and paper to ash while pouring out light, heat, and
smoke. I suppose there is a bit of it in every person; after all the taming of
fire was one of the key events that made civilization possible. But some of us
have it more than others...
I suppose the first "explosion" I ever heard was from a cap gun. I went
through untold rolls of caps. The first time I saw the "new, improved" type
that use the large plastic-encapsulated caps, I was awed. Other things I
particularly enjoyed playing with as a child were magnifying glasses and
I remember early 4th of Julyes. The fireworks my father bought us seemed
enough back then. This was back when, to me, "firecracker" was just a synonym
for "firework". We had lots of fun with things that smoked, snaked, or shot
fountains of sparks. This was all to change. I remember very clearly one day
when we were at the beach after the 4th. My youngest brother and I built our
own little fire. He came back after scouring the sands with a small
cylindrical object that looked to me sort of like a firework I had seen called
an "oriental smoke bomb". I assumed that that was what it was. It had a very
short fuse coming out. I tried lighting it while I held it, but nothing
happened, so I put it in our little fire. My brother and I sat there playing
with the fire... Suddenly, there was a terrible explosion, and the fire was
blown to bits! I was astonished; I had not known that such devices existed. I
was never the same again.
The beach was the site of many of my early discoveries. I once put a tin
of wax in the fire and was tremendously pleased to discover that once it melted
and started boiling, it would burn by itself without a wick. My brother and I
later tried this at home in the fireplace. This was a mistake. When my father
saw what we were doing he tried to blow it out, but that just made a big flame
billow up at him. He was displeased. At least he knew enough not to try
throwing water on it. The water will instantly vaporize and blast boiling,
burning wax into the air, creating an inferno. We did this for fun at the
On one of the trips to the beach, we saw some people with homemade
rockets. This was another new thing to us. They had taped model rocket
engines onto arrows and were shooting them out to sea. They told us that we
could buy the engines at a hobby shop. My brother and I promptly headed for
the hobby shop and bought some tiny electrically ingnited engines. I made a
crude rocket by taping them onto a coat hanger and brought it with me the next
time we went to the beach. I aimed it and excitedly closed the contact, but
nothing happened. I don't know what I did wrong. I dejectedly tossed the
rocket into the fire and watched the engines fizzle away. My first attempt at
rocketry was a failure; I didn't try again for several years.
I'm sometimes amazed that we didn't burn our (or someone's) house down.
We came close often enough. There was the time a friend's mother left me in
charge of burning some boxes in their large fireplace. Naturally I stacked up
as many as I could and started then burning, then went out to get help her get
some wood. When we got back inside, some of the boxes were burning on the
floor, damaging the imitation brick flooring.
Then there was the time I left a little heater going in my rooftop "fort"
when my youngest brother and I left (our house was built on a hillside so our
roof was a deck and was at street level). The heater was one of the cone-
shaped devices that you screw into a light bulb socket. I liked it because it
had exposed elements. I apparently forgot about it when we went to eat dinner.
Later, my father came in looking very angry. He told us that he had just put
out a fire on the roof. I managed to place part of the blame on my brother. I
claimed that I had left before him and instructed him to turn it off when he
left. He was too young to realize that something I said might not be true so
he didn't dispute it. I hate to think that that's the kind of brother I was...
He had pyro tendencies too though. The woods next to our house once
caught on fire. After the fire department had come and put it out, we found
him hiding under a bed crying. He had been playing with matches, just like
little kids are warned not to...
One day my other brother and I got hold of some .22's; I forget how we
managed to acquire them. I took the bullet off of one of mine, crimped the
casing over, and held it in some pliers over a candle to see what would happen.
I got quite a welt in my leg from the casing when it went off. Meanwhile
upstairs my brother hit one with a hammer. It sliced through his shoulder.
All of the above happened during grade school. Greater things awaited
us. (more if anyone wants it).
[shades] Message #44: Fri, Jan 29, 1988 1:21 am
From: Holographic Imaging Panspectral (HIP) shades (spcecdt@ucscb)
Subject: The Making of a Pyro, Ch. 2
A new chapter opened in my life when I entered 7th grade. The reason is
that I left the public school system at that point, and (with my brother) began
attending a boarding school in Watsonville named St. Francis. This school
certainly had its flaws. For example, there were only boys there; the only
women we saw were the day student's mothers when they came to pick them up and
the nuns peeking out into the dining hall to see how we were enjoying the food.
However, it had one redeeming virtue: given the size of the student body (105
total day and boarding students) it had an amazing proportion of pyros. Also,
it had one pyromaniac science instructor.
My first clue as to the environment there occurred when one of the Fathers
told us that another student was going to give us a demonstration of rocketry.
We went out into one of the large fields, where the student, Tim, had set up
his equipment. It was a type of rocket I had never seen before; it actually
had fins and was launched from a launch rod (to guide it in its early moments
of flight). He pressed a button and it went up with a loud FWOOSH,
disappearing into the sky. It was fantastic. Finally we saw the parachute
open and it came drifting down. I soon made the acquaintance of Tim.
He told us that hobby shops not only sold rocket engines, but model
rockets to put them in as well! This was something I had never realized. The
next weekend when my brother and I went home, we picked up engines and rockets.
In my eagerness to get my rocket flying I put it in front of the heater to
speed the drying of the glue. This proved to be a mistake. When I launched
the rocket, the parachute did not deploy correctly. I recovered the remains
and found that the parachute was melted. At first I thought that the ejection
charge had melted it, so when I repaired the rocket I did the exact same thing
again but increased the amount of parachute wadding (which is supposed to
protect it). When I ended up with the same result, I finally realized what I
was doing wrong. My third launch was a success; I was on my way.
Rocket launches were soon almost a daily feature at St. Francis. Others
with such inclinations came out of the woodwork. I remember John, John,
Francis, Tim, my brother and myself as being among the more active. For a
while we were content to launch the standard models. Soon, however, we began
to implement our own designs. These often were not so stable. My attempts at
building a three stage rocket quickly became infamous; they tended to turn 90
degrees as soon as they were off the launch rod and start chasing people around
the quad. Sometimes the unusual behavior was intentional; I made a two stage
rocket which had a long delay before the ignition of the upper stage so that it
was pointing toward the ground from on high when it went off. It impacted near
the pool.
The school authorities generally approved of our rocketry since they
realized we were learning of it. But, we eventually began to delve into other
areas. One day I realized the implications of the fact that the engines we
bought were filled with gunpowder. I proceeded to pound the solid core out
of an engine with a hammer and grind it up. I then poured it into the casing
of an expended engine, hammered a marble into the end to seal it, and put a
fuse in it. My first homemade "device"! I brought it with me when I returned
to school. We went down by the lake and lit it, and it exploded thunderously.
Though tedious to construct (pounding and grinding the powder was a pain), and
rather expensive since the powder came from rocket engines, this type of device
served us well for some time.
Since they were made from expended engine casings, they fit perfectly into
rockets. I soon mounted one in a rocket in such a way that it was ignited by
the rocket's ejection charge (which normally popped the 'chute). It worked
beautifully. This gave me an idea. Since one of the Johns was particularly
mellow, I decided to play a little joke on him. I slipped into his cubicle in
the dorm and put one of these things into his rocket which he had all loaded
and ready to go. Later that day, he brought it out and launched it. While he
waited for the parachute to deploy, I waited for it to explode, and indeed it
did. Little bits of rocket tubing came drifting down. I told him what I had
done and apologized, but he thought it was rather funny.
I also played a joke on the other John. I had a decrepit rocket which
wasn't really capable of another launch. Therefore, I mounted one of my
repacked casings in it where the engine normally goes, put an electrical
igniter in it, and brought it out to "launch". I then asked if anyone would
like to have the privilege of pressing the button. John spoke up, so I let him
do it. I backed away and plugged my ears. John got quite a start when the
rocket was reduced to shreds about ten feet away from him. Father Al, one of
the stricter ones, came over to investigate since we weren't supposed to be
playing with explosives, but I explained that it had been a defective engine...
The pyro-inclined instructor was named Bill. He once mixed up a several
pounds of sulfur-zinc rocket propellant in the school lab. However, he decided
that it would be too much trouble to make a rocket with it, so he dumped it in
a pile in the quad and lit it. It burned quite spectacularly. I remember that
afterward the ground where it had been was actually glowing. When he
demonstrated burning magnesium, he just pulled some off of a roll and lit it,
unraveling more from the roll as he lectured. My brother so liked this that he
filched the roll from the lab. He brought it into the bathroom and lit it as
we watched. He unrolled it just as Bill had, and in fact burned the entire
lot. We were so mesmerized by the brilliant flame that we didn't realize that
the bathroom was filling with smoke...
One week, Tim returned from home with an M80. It was the first one I had
ever seen. He wanted to put it on a rocket, but couldn't figure out how to get
the engine to ignite it. Instead, he just fit it into the tube at the top of
the rocket, with the fuse sticking out the side. One of us would light it,
then Tim would press the button. Somehow Bill became aware of our plans, but
he didn't put a stop to it. He just insisted on lighting the M80 himself. We
gathered out in the quad and Tim set the rocket up. Unfortunately the cable on
his ignition system was only a few feet long meaning that he was rather close,
but he wasn't worried. Bill lit the fuse, quickly moved away, and Tim pressed
the button. Nothing happened. The fuse burned closer and closer, and still
nothing happened. Bill, realizing that he had aided and abetted us, yelled for
Tim to get away, but Tim doggedly held the button down. At the last moment,
just as would happen in a movie, the rocket launched. It didn't get a chance
to climb to 1000 feet; instead it exploded when it was no more than 30 feet
overhead. The engine, still burning, shot around wildly. We thought it was
great fun.
A favorite pastime at this school was match wars. We would all stock up
with many packs of paper matches, then go about flicking burning matches at
each other, striking them as we sent them on their way. This sounds rather
stupid, and undoubtedly was, but it was a way for boys locked away from the
rest of the world to pass the time. The only times we were burned were when
the matchheads would stick to our fingers instead of heading off toward the
Another thing we played with were rubber-band powered airplanes. This
naturally induced various experiments. I tried to boost one with a RATO unit
by gluing a rocket engine on, but the wings ripped of in the first moment of
flight. We sometimes taped firecrackers on, wound up the rubber band, lit them,
and let them go. They disintegrated impressively in midflight.
It was at St. Francis that I saw my first tennis ball cannon. It was
made from three soda cans (they were steel back then) taped together end to
end. The can ends which would block the interior had holes punched in them
with a can opener. One of the ends of the tube was left blocked; the other was
cut off. A small hole was also made in the side near the blocked end. In
operation, lighter fluid was squirted in the open end; then a tennis ball, which
happened to fit perfectly, was inserted. The contraption was then set on the
ground and a match was put near the small hole at the bottom. The naptha fumes
ignited explosively, sending the ball high into the air. I was delighted by
its elegant simplicity. I had soon made dozens of them, varying such
parameters as the size of the internal holes and the number of cans to get
optimum performance. In later years I considerably improved the design.
I spent only one year at St. Francis. After I left, I missed the
community of pyros there, but eventually found local friends who enjoyed
similar pursuits.
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