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 imagine there is a bit of it in every person; after all the taming of fire, more than a half million years ago, was one of the key events that made civilization possible. But some of us have it more than others…
From the start I liked things that burst, popped, or made other loud noises. When I was a child, we would often go to the beach for the evening and cook hotdogs and marshmallows over a bonfire. One of our favorite things to do was to roam the beach in search of dried strands of kelp, pull the air bladders off of them, and put them in the fire. The air in each one would heat up and expand until the bladder burst. For that reason we called them “poppers”. Perhaps it was such innocuous things that put me on the path.
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. I drilled out the end of a cap gun that used them so that I could see the sparks shoot out. I also eventually discovered “party poppers”, which have a string that is pulled to set off a tiny charge that shoots out confetti. I tried carefully removing the charges and experimenting with them. I didn't understand how they worked but they piqued my curiosity about things that went off with a bang. Other things I particularly enjoyed playing with as a child were magnifying glasses and matches. While simply igniting matches and watching them burn could be fun for children, especially after we discovered the “strike-anywhere” type, we learned of more interesting things to do with them. If the head of a paper match was wrapped with a bit of foil and then lit by holding another burning match underneath it, it would jet off like a tiny rocket. I experimented with them to improve the performance, undoubtedly preparing the synapses of my brain for future explorations.
I remember early 4th of Julyes. The fireworks my father bought us seemed enough 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. My father kept a close eye on us since he had noticed our tendency to use the items in a manner other than that recommended by the manufacturer. He always made us set off the fireworks in garbage-can lids to avoid damage to the driveway. My satisfaction with ordinary, “safe and sane” 'works eventually came to an end. I recall very clearly one day when we were at the beach after the Fourth. My brothers and I would often build our own little fires so that we could play with them, and this time I built one with my youngest brother, Matthew. 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 tiny fire. Matthew 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. I later tried it at home in the fireplace with my other brother, Laurence. 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 beach. Under favorable circumstances it will actually send up a mushroom-cloud shaped fireball.
It was on one of these trips that I first tried to create an explosion with an object not intended for that purpose. I found an empty charcoal lighter fluid can lying in the sand. It was covered with warnings about keeping it away from “fire and open flame”. My father explained to me that the vapors in it would explode if they were ignited. Naturally I had to try it. I waited until we were leaving, then tossed the can in the fire and ran. I looked back as we marched away, expecting to see something spectactular, but nothing happened. Though I was disappointed, I knew that some day I would understand, and would be more successful in such pursuits.
Another time when we were at 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. The engines had electrical igniters; they were setting them off with a large dry cell. They told us that we could buy the engines at a hobby shop. Laurence and I promptly headed for the hobby shop and bought some tiny engines that came with electrical igniters. I made a crude rocket by taping four of mine onto a piece of wire from a coat hanger. Not having much knowledge of aerodynamics at this age, I draped a simple cloth parachute over the end to bring it down. I brought it with me the next time we went to the beach, along with an immense box of dry cells that I had bought at a military surplus store. I figured they would be sufficient to heat all the igniters at once. Once at the beach, I aimed the rocket and excitedly closed the contact. The ensuing lack of any response whatsoever from the rocket was rather anticlimatic. I tried again after cleaning contacts, retwisting wires, etc., but it was not to be. I don't know what I did wrong. I finally dejectedly tossed the rocket into the fire and watched the parachute burn and the engines fizzle away. My first attempt at rocketry had been 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. Once, a friend's mother left me in charge of burning some cardboard boxes in their large fireplace. Naturally I stacked up as many as I could and started them burning, then went out to help her get some wood. As soon as she saw me she realized I had left the fire untended, and no doubt having some intuition in the matter quickly headed back inside. There the spectacle of boxes burning on the floor greeted us. Fortunately nothing else had caught on fire, though the imitation brick flooring was damaged. I tried to help clean up, but when she saw her husband drive up she quickly sent me home.
Then there was the time I accidently left a little heater going in my rooftop “fort” when Matthew and I departed (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 porcelain devices that screws into a light bulb socket. I liked it because it had exposed coiled elements that glowed cherry red. I apparently forgot about it when we went to eat dinner. Later, my father came in looking very upset. He told us that he had just put out a fire on the roof. It seems the heater was a bit too close to the slab of plywood that I used for a table. I managed to place part of the blame on Matthew. 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, but at least he was also too young to know better and wasn't punished.
He had pyro tendencies too, though. The woods next to our house once caught on fire. The fire department came and put it out before it got very big. After they had left we found him hiding under a downstairs bed crying. He had been playing with matches, just like little kids are warned not to.
My grandmother once came back from Mexico with some fireworks for us. The items seemed fairly benign, but one type turned out to be dangerous when used incautiously. They were dried garbonzo beans that had been coated with some material that exploded when the bean was thrown on the ground, making a nice bang. We really liked them, and only a small part of the coating went off each time one was thrown, so they could be used many times. We were outside my grandmother's house playing with them when Laurence accidently threw one in such way that it bounced into the large park on the other side of the street. The park was really just an open area with a gully down the middle, not tended at all, and it was covered with dry grass. The loss of the bouncing bean would not have been any big deal except that in this case, by very bad luck, the portion of the coating on it that exploded lit the rest on fire. It was still burning when it landed in the grass which it proceeded to ignite. Fortunately my father was there; as soon as he saw the grass begin to smoke he jumped on it and began stomping it out. At the same time he told Laurence to run into my grandmother's house for a bucket of water. As I recall it was burning pretty well at one point, but he managed to extinguish it before Laurence returned. I don't remember whether he took the rest of the bean-works away from us.
We discovered that ordinary fireworks could have interesting effects too. One day when he was 7 or 8 years old, Laurence was at a fireworks stand pondering the selection before him, though he had no money. An old man came up to the stand and asked for a pack of firecrackers. Of course, the operator told him that firecrackers are illegal in California. The old fellow was disappointed by that, and turned to Laurence and asked what the “good stuff” among the available 'works was. Laurence gave him his advice, and out of gratitude the man bought Laurence a fountain cone. When he returned home, he found that my father was gone. We were not supposed to set off fireworks with him around, and for that matter cones should be used at night, but he couldn't wait to play with it so he put it in a hole in a bare hillside and ignited it. Unfortunately for him, at just this time my father came driving down the street. When Laurence saw him, he took a large handful of dirt and packed it in over the cone to try to conceal it. The cone didn't stop burning, however; instead the increased pressure made it explode. I remember Laurence's face black with soot and dirt, just like characters in cartoons who have been blown up.
I think it was sometime in fifth grade that I got my first pack of firecrackers. Actually I got three packs. As I recall it happened through some connections of Laurence's. I was very excited, and went about igniting them one my one. One of them, however, was a dud. I couldn't bear to waste it, so I lit a sparkler on the roof deck and used it as a torch to try to start the bit of fuse left at the top. Once it lit, though, I didn't drop it fast enough and it went off in my hands. I went running through the house sure that my fingers and hearing would never recover. My mother dealt with me calmly. Little did she know that this was a taste of things to come.
One day Laurence and I got hold of some .22 rounds; I think we bought them from a kid down the street. 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 Laurence hit one with a hammer. It exploded and sliced through his shoulder. My parents weren't home at the time so our sister had to deal with his wound. We were both pleased to have considerably increased the scale of the power we dealt with.
I don't recall exactly how old I was when I got my first chemistry set, but I certainly had a lot of fun with it. It was one of the ones with lots of little racks of chemicals and a pack of cards detailing various experiments you could perform. I think my father got it at a second-hand store. He had another house where he spent a lot of his time and I played with it there. Naturally at first I ignored the cards and instead mixed up various combinations of chemicals like sulfur and charcoal to see what would burn in an interesting manner. I eventually realized that they were not going to put any chemicals in the set that would do anything really spectacular, and started playing with the alcohol lamp that came with it. I liked heating things up until they glowed or melted, and was surprised by the ease with which glass could be formed. The cards explained the proper procedure for melting and bending the glass tubing that was also included in the set. The alcohol lamp had an attachment that was a piece of tubing that one blew air through at the flame to make it hotter.
Of course, the little lamp wasn't very stable. This was a dangerous characteristic since it didn't have a top that was stuck onto it; instead the piece of metal that held the wick was simply set on top of the bottle holding the alcohol. The design was really poor; in conjunction with the air tube an accident was almost inevitable. One day I was in the basement trying to bend a piece of glass. Since my hands were occupied with the glass, I couldn't hold the tube while I blew through it. At some point I accidently pulled on it, and the lamp fell over and spilled a fair quantity of burning alcohol on my pants. I tried rolling on the floor like they tell you to in grade school, but it didn't do any good. I finally swatted the flames out with a towel. The accident didn't really bother me, though it had slightly charred my pants, but my sister happened to be there. I asked her not to tell my father what had happened but she did anyway and after that he kept a closer eye on me. It's interesting that this simple accident at an early age is the closest I've come to cremating myself.
During the summer after I was in fifth grade, we moved across town to a house near the ocean. The close oceanfront turned out to be useful later as a site for our experiments. It was a year or so before our new neighbors got an idea of what they now had in their midst. The summer after we moved, I was given an interesting bit of information about a type of firework being sold for that 4th of July called a “Witch Whistle”. It was a short yellow plastic tube about ¼ inch (½ cm) in diameter with a fuse coming out of the open end, stuck in a small cardboard box with the fuse end up. Normally the top of the box was opened and the fuse was lit; when the powder in the tube started up the firework would scream for a while like a Piccolo Pete or other similar items. However, someone told me that if the tube was removed from the box and laid on the ground it would fly about when it was lit. I didn't attach too much credence to the report, but was not about to take a chance on missing something so interesting so I went and bought a few to test. I was quite pleased to discover that the behavior was exactly as described. I purchased several more to play with.
Once I had them I looked about for an inclined surface to launch them from so that they'd fly up into the air. The first thing I noticed was the roof of our house. Instead of a roof deck, the new house had a typical roof that was at about a 30° angle with the ground. I climbed up on it, set one of the tubes so that it aimed up and away, and lit the fuse. It screamed off and flew about in a satisfying manner. I did this a few more times before, inevitably, the gyrations of one of them made it impact the ground before it was done burning. Regrettably it picked a poor patch of ground to hit; it was my neighbor's front yard. There happened to be a drought that year in Monterey County and, like everyone else's, his yard was covered with dry grass which quickly started to go up in flames.
However, luck was in fact on my side; in the moment while I was trying to decide what to do about the situation Brett, the son of the owner, somehow noticed the flames (he may have been working in his garage) and came out and stomped out the fire before it grew. He must have heard the screaming devices I was lighting and probably realized they were what had lit his yard, but he didn't do anything about it. He just headed back inside after the fire was out. I later found that he liked fireworks, and he was witness to some of the interesting things we did in future years. I also later discovered that the little plastic tubes were the same type used in whistling bottle rockets and Saturn Missile Batteries, both of which send screaming things into the sky. “Witch Whistles” were apparently an attempt at making a screamer from the same tubes that could be sold in California (where anything that flies through the air is illegal), but they were off the market by the next year, perhaps because many other people had used them in the manner I did.
All of the above happened during grade school. Greater things awaited us.