Diary of a Pyro

Copyright © 1988 - 2005 John H. DuBois III

Chapter Three

In the summer after our year at St. Francis, I found out that another item Laurence had acquired from the school lab was a pair of sticks of yellow phosphorus (impure white phosphorus). They were kept submerged under kerosene, because if exposed to air the phosphorus was liable to spontaneously ignite. Laurence wanted to change it into a different allotrope, red phosphorus, because in this form it could be used to make friction-sensitive igniters (as used in the tips of matches). He had read that he could do this by heating it under water, so he borrowed a test tube and a test tube holder from me and prepared to carry out an experiment. He put a bit of his phosphorus in the test tube and covered it with water. He popped open a military surplus ration heater (a metal can containing paper or fabric disks impregnated with wood alcohol) and set it in the bottom of a one gallon paint can, using the paint can as a wind break. Then he sat in the patio and held the tube over the ration heater flame. I stood about 10 feet away with a friend, Graham. It appeared to Laurence that the process was working. But suddenly the tiny sliver of phosphorus exploded with amazing force, blasting bits of test tube glass through the side of the paint can and into us. Most of the pieces were small, but I was hit in the neck by a piece big enough to cause bleeding, though fortunately it didn't penetrate far. Laurence was also hit by quite a few pieces of glass in the arms and face, most of them having passed through the can. Even so, the accident would surely have been much worse were it not for the paint can, which had been used only because it was a bit windy out. The clamp part of the metal test tube holder was completely folded back on itself, and the paper in the ration heater was shredded. I don't know what it was that went wrong, but Laurence didn't try the experiment again.

Tim came down and visited us that summer. He timed the visit to coincide with my town's annual festival, which included a decent fireworks display near the ocean. The fireworks were launched from an area next to the railroad tracks, and people were allowed to gather fairly close by. Tim and I tried to think of some sort of show we could put on ourselves, but couldn't think of any way of avoiding being identified as the culprits. Finally we came up with a scheme of setting off some fireworks by remote control. I had learned years before that the railroad signal sensed the approach of a train by isolating a section of track with insulators, and detecting the connection between tracks created by the train when it crossed them. Lacking any radio control equipment, we decided to use a similar method. We would hide a pack of firecrackers next to the tracks, before the section used by the signal, and connect an electrical igniter wrapped around its fuse to the tracks. Some ways down the line, we would wait until an appropriate moment and send current throuh the rails.

On the night before the festival, I gathered the necessary equipment to prepare the system and we headed down to the tracks. I had found the track insulators some time before. We suceeded in connecting the firecrackers without any mishap, which relieved me since we had to do it out in the open. We were working on connecting a cable to the tracks on a partially overgrown section a few hundred feet away, where the cable could be hidden, when we were startled by a flashlight being shined on us. It was, of course, a police officer. I don't know how he noticed us, since we were not in view of the road there. He was very suspicious and questioned us extensively. I told him I was doing an experiment to tell when a train was passing by. I'm not sure whether he believed me; in any case he took down our names, which disturbed Tim since he was on probation at the time. However, we never heard anything about it, and were of course back at the tracks the next day with a battery. I waited until there were lots of people nearby to appreciate my creation, and then continued to wait until I could connect my battery without anyone seeing me. The silence when I made the connection was deafening. No amount of further work could get it to work. I decided that despite all my work filing clean spots on the rails, I wasn't getting a good connection, and gave up. At least, I thought, it had been a nice idea. We had a good time watching the normal fireworks display.

During the next year I got to know Ken, who lived nearby, and met Alec and Charles in Junior High. They all had tendencies like mine, though not as strong. We tried quite a variety of things. One day I was playing with baking soda and vinegar, watching the foam as they were mixed and carbon dioxide was produced. I suddenly had the idea of filling a test tube with baking soda and then dropping it into a glass bottle half filled with vinegar. After firmly screwing on the cap, we could take it somewhere where the glass would not cause any problems, shake it vigorously to break the test tube, and then quickly throw it. We did this, and it worked fairly well as a cheap substitute for a true pyrotechnic device. Of course, as would be expected, one day I held on to a bottle too long as I shook it trying to break a tough test tube. Naturally as I shook it the materials were already mixing and pressurizing the container. It exploded in my hands, filling them with glass shrapnel coated with vinegar, which made it particularly painful. One large piece managed to penetrate my jacket and enter my chest, though fortunately not to any great depth. We went back to Ken's house where he attempted to put a bandaid on every wound. My hands ended up looking like a collage.

Up to this point, I had never produced any combustible powders of my own. However, around this time, someone told me that a mixture of saltpeter and ordinary sugar could provide interesting effects when ignited. I headed off to the drugstore and bought a small container of saltpeter. The mix did indeed burn quite impressively, with plenty of smoke and flame, leaving behind a gooey black residue. It was far from being gunpowder, but we had lots of fun with it. Trips to the drugstore soon became a routine. They eventually stopped selling it at the local drugstore so we would pile into a car or catch a bus and head out to the Seaside Rexall Drugs. We usually each bought about five of the small cans with the idea, which in restrospect seems less than well founded, that this would seem less strange than one person buying a dozen or two cans by himself. The saltpeter was kept behind the counter at the drugstore, but no prescription was necessary to purchase it. If the druggist asked what it was for we were ready with one or two things we had heard it was used in (as a diuretic, making corned beef, etc.), but usually there were no questions.

The saltpeter was mixed with sugar in my workshop, and various experiments performed with it. I had plenty of empty one-ounce chemical bottles around, so I filled some with the stuff and puts fuses in them. Ken and I then went down to the ocean with his wristrocket (a type of powerful slingshot.) He put one in his wristrocket, I lit the fuse, and he launched it up and out over the sea. It shot a steadily increasing shower of flame and sparks from the fuse hole as it sailed out, then burst in a ball of flame. We were pleased. I tried filling up an empty rocket engine cartridge with the powder, but it didn't burn fast enough to explode, or even to produce enough thrust to propel a rocket. It did make a nice smoke bomb, though. The smoke smelled like burned sugar, as one might expect.

Of course all this was bound to get us in trouble eventually. One day Laurence and I whipped up a couple of experimental rockets. We waited until it was dark, then went with Ken down to the railroad tracks near the ocean to try them. The first one (I forget which it was; perhaps 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 its cargo began to go off. Unfortunately just as this happened a police vehicle was cruising by.

I don't remember 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 Ken hid in the bushes, my brother hid in a short culvert that passed under the railroad tracks, and I headed for the ocean. I jumped along the rock formations that dominate that area of coast until I was at the furthest one I could reach, about 150 feet offshore, then got behind it and dropped into the water up to my neck. The water was arctic cold, and within a few minutes I was beginning to feel numb, besides being extremely scared.

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 was in their custody) let alone that one would be out in the ocean, I reluctantly came to the conclusion that one of the others had told them. Anyway, they shined their big flashlights back and forth across the ocean for what seemed like hours to me, but was probably more like 15 minutes. I snuck a look from behind my rock every once in a while when the flashlights were pointed in a different direction, while clinging desparately with large waves threatening to tear me away.

Finally, I peered out and saw the police talking to a man with two dogs on leashes. I don't know what the deal was; perhaps he was 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 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.

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. Unfortunately this was not the case. When I got home Laurence 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 rather irritated. He insisted that the police had seen three people and had surmised who the third was, but I did not believe it. He and Ken 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 them, and so on. At least they weren't the worst jerks on that police force; others would have tried to put me in the juvie for this minor offense.

I made a considerable improvement in the tennis ball cannon. I built a base for it by hammering four nails into a piece of wood so that a cannon could be inserted between them in such a way that they would hold it upright. This eliminated its tendency to tip over, which was sometimes a problem. However, more significantly, I brought an end to the tedious and unreliable procedure of setting matches or lighters at the ignition hole until it went off. I happened to be passing through a Thrifty's store when I saw an odd sparking device made to ignite camping stoves. It had a flint like a lighter, and a tiny handle to twist to make it shoot sparks. I bought it and mounted it on the base so that the sparks would be directed into the ignition hole of the cannon. Of course, one had to be sure to set the cannon in the base with the ignition hole aligned correctly. The system worked very well, and the convenience made using the cannon even more fun.

We tried launching other projectiles than tennis balls with it. Only items that gave a fit tightly would work. After tennis balls, beer bottles seemed to work best, and never seemed to break even after falling on the grass from a height of a couple hundred feet. For a while, we would drop lit firecrackers into a bottle and send it up, trying to time it so that the firecracker would go off and send a jet of smoke out the mouth of the bottle at its apogee. We stopped doing this after a bottle exploded, bringing glass raining down on our heads. After that, I found a can that just fit in the cannon and used it to lob firecrackers and other interesting payloads. They generally didn't achieve much altitude due to being light and unaerodynamic.

I thought about using it to send up mortar shells. The problem with this was that the cannon just wasn't reliable enough to fire off a pyrotechnic payload more dangerous (and valuable) than a pack of firecrackers. Once the payload fuse was lit, we needed a lot better than 90% probability that the cannon would work without some more fueling and shaking out. My first thought was to have a fuse sticking out the bottom of the shell, which I hoped would be lit by the launch blast. This turned out to not work at all. The flame was too brief to ignite the fuse. I spent a while designing mortar shells with time fuses that would be triggered by the accelleration of launch, but eventually decided that it was an unproductive line of pursuit.

Only once did I damage anything with it. Tim had come down to visit us for a weekend, and I was eager to show him the improvements. I picked up the cannon in my room, and flicked the sparker to show him how it worked. Unfortunately there was still some lighter fluid in it from the last time I had used it, quite thoroughly vaporized by this time. Usually I didn't worry about that since after a while any vapors will leak out of the cannon, but in this case there must have been a lot of fuel sitting in it. The cannon went off explosively, giving us both an extreme start. The ball bounced off a wall and ricocheted around the room a bit. An inspection showed that a tennis-ball size circle of plaster on the wall had been crushed. I initially thought that it was fortunate that the cannon happened to be horizontal, since the ceiling panels might have been more seriously damaged. However, the crushed plaster eventually fell out, and as tends to occur with unpatched plaster, the hole grew and merged with some others; a few years later the plaster on the entire wall had to be replaced.

I had great fun with it for a year or so. One day when I was using it at the park, however, I noticed a forestry officer parked nearby eyeing me. I didn't think he had any jurisdiction in the city park, but I decided to play it safe. The cannon I had was near the end of its useful life, so I crushed it and tossed it with the base in the trash, with the idea of recovering the base later. But, the forestry officer stopped me when I tried to leave and made me get the parts and give them to him. I did it without questioning his authority to avoid further trouble, since I could always make another base. I suspect he had been called by a tenant in the retirement condos that bordered the park. I had accidently sent a ball their way on more than one occasion, generally when I was shooting at Ken or someone. On occasion we played what might be called “capture the cannon”, trying to acquire control of it and shoot each other, though at close range it could raise a welt.

One problem with all of the cannons was that it was difficult to exchange the air in them. After each use, as much air as possible needed to be exchanged to get oxygen into the cannon. All the waving about was a bit tiresome and not completely effective. My first attempt to remedy this was mounting a cannon sideways on a board, with a cheap bicycle pump mounted on the other side. I planned to also mount a spark coil and batteries on the board so that I could trigger it with a switch. However, it took too many pump strokes to air out the cannon, so this scheme never got beyond the prototype stage.

I managed to considerably reduce the cost of making rockets by not using the spiral tubing and balsa fins and nosecones they sold at the hobby shop. Instead I rolled body tubes out of construction paper, cut fins from posterboard, and made nose cones by gluing corks from the hardware store together and cutting them into the correct shape. This made the rockets pretty much expendable, so I could put exotic payloads in them and aim them out to sea. Actually, I usually lost even the ones that I tried to aim so that they would come back to the park, since it was rather small and they seem to inevitably come down far in the city or in the ocean. I missed the huge fields at St. Francis. I remember putting a light bulb size flash bulb on top of one rocket. The bulb was of the old type that were so large they screwed into ordinary lamp sockets. I punctured the base, put a fuse in, and sealed it again to keep the oxygen in. The fuse was to be lit by the rocket's ejection charge. I lit the bizarre-looking contraption off one night, but don't recall it working. I once tried taping a rocket engine onto a model car. But, instead of racing along the ground it shot off into the sky and lodged in a tree down the block. I was sure it would catch the tree on fire, and was extremely nervous for the next couple of hours before I finally decided that it was OK.

Another time, I thought I'd try firing a rocket stuck to the pad to see what effect it would have on the base. I didn't have a functional rocket handy (this may actually be what put the idea in my head in the first place), but I did have the remains of a rocket that I had somehow mutilated; it had only one wobbly fin and no nose cone. I put a “C” engine in it, put it over the launch rod, and taped it on. The launch rod was firmly wedged into its wood base; it took a real effort to remove. I brought the assembly down to the testing grounds and set it off. I was astonished when the remains of the rocket, with launch rod projecting out the front, shot off into the sky on one of the most perfect trajectories I had ever achieved. It had not even occurred to me that the little engine, with only a bit over 6 Newtons of peak thrust, would be able to extract the rod from the pad. The performance of the absurdly unaerodynamic and unbalanced mass made it all the more incredible. My awe was tempered by worries about the danger the lancelike object would pose falling from on high, since it seemed to be headed over the city, but nothing came of it. I went home and added a launch rod to my shopping list.

Among the ways me made noise was with the CO2 (carbon dioxide) cylinders that are sold for pressurizing seltzer bottles. We put them in containers and covered them with gobs of dope, which is a gooey highly flammable substance. We brought the assembly down to the oceanside, where we lit the dope and let it burn until the pressure in the cylinder built up to the point where it exploded. We expended quite a few cylinders in this manner… always trying to find yet another way to create a bang with household items.

We had a fairly reliable supply of firecrackers by this time. I bought mine from Laurence; when I asked him where he got them he mumbled something about someone on “the Row” (Cannery Row) selling them. One fun thing to do was the well-known “flying can”. This is done by filling a can with water and setting it on the ground. A firecracker-size hole is punched in the bottom of another can that fits inside the first one. A firecracker is pushed into the hole so that just the top sticks out of the bottom of the can. The can is then set, bottom-up, in the first can and the fuse is lit. When the firecracker goes off the explosion is contained between the two cans, and sealed by the water. The can the firecracker is in is blasted out, high into the sky. It has the advantage that the explosion is so well contained that very little noise is made, so we were able to get away with doing it in the park.

One day when we were near the ocean playing with 'crackers, Laurence came up with the idea of waterproofing them so that we could set them off underwater. He put a piece of black electrical tape lengthwise around a firecracker, sealing it around both firecracker and fuse so that only the tip of the fuse stuck out. The first attempts did not work because they floated. He solved this by taping a lead bullet into each one. He had a jar of bullets around that he had gathered from ranges or gotten while disassembling .22 rounds. With this modification, the devices worked perfectly. We liked doing them at night so we could see the flash underwater.

Around this time, he also acquired a box of blasting caps and a roll of fuse, which he had noticed sitting under the steps of a friend's house. They had probably been there for a long time. Both the caps and fuse looked quite old. The fuse was formed from a ¼″ (½cm) diameter tube of fabric coated with something like heavy tar or bitumen. It was so old that it no longer worked properly; it was difficult to ignite and would only burn a few inches at a time before going out. It was too bad, because when it did burn it did so quite spectacularly, with much smoke and flame, like something from the movies. The blasting caps had withstood the years in much better condition. They were aluminum tubes, about 2″ (5cm) long and ¼″ (½cm) in diameter (to match the fuse), sealed at one end and filled most of the way with a compound containing a primary explosive, probably mercuric fulminate. The smaller fuse we used (less than half the diameter of the old stuff) did not fit snugly in the end, so Laurence taped fuse pieces into the blasting caps to retain the fuse and waterproof the assembled devices. He brought them down to the ocean and set them off underwater. The explosions were quite impressive for such small devices, sending up a nice plume of water. One time just after one went off, a tiny eel, obviously stunned by the explosion, went skipping about over the water and finally flopped out onto a rock. Laurence tossed it back in. In later years we regretted wasting the blasting caps by using them as simple explosives.

One day I was playing with pure oxygen, generated by mixing manganese dioxide (dug out of old batteries) and hydrogen peroxide (from the grocery store.) If a burning item is put in pure oxygen, it will burn much more fiercely. I thought about propane camping lamps, and decided to see if a mixture of propane and pure oxygen would produce a flash when ignited. I didn't know then that a camp lantern produces light because of the material in the mantle. Anyway, I filled up a one-gallon plastic (fortunately!) milk jug with oxygen, using the water-displacement method, and then replaced part of the oxygen with propane. I took the jug out beside the house, knelt down over it, and blithely stuck a match in the top. It exploded at my fingertips, and the flame produced badly singed my eyebrows and hair.

I was thrilled with the discovery, and immediately filled another jug with the same mixture. This time I put the cap on it and stuck a fuse in it through a rough hole. I brought it down to the park, set it on the railroad tracks, lit the fuse and started running. I had only gotten a few steps before it exploded and knocked me down. I later figured out that some of the combustible gas was leaking out around the hole and was prematurely ignited by the burning fuse. In later experiments we used glass containers to get a more powerful though more dangerous effect, and always sealed the fuse hole with some silicone or other similar material. The most interesting result came from tossing a large peanut butter jar device out into the ocean. Naturally it floated until it went off. The explosion seemed to produce a bowl-shaped opening in the water, which immediately collapsed and sent up a plume.

The oxypropane explosion was only one of many incidents in which I lost various amounts of hair. The worst I got it was when I was playing with a refillable butane lighter. Having just filled it from a can of butane, I decided to see if the lighter would produce a larger flame if I flicked it while it was still on top of the can. It didn't seem like it should, since the vapor pressure of butane is the same regardless of whether it is in a can or lighter, but I never shied off from a potential experiment. I set the can right side up, pressed the lighter down on it, and triggered it. As I had expected, the flame was no larger than normal. Unfortunately, as I held it, my hand tilted slightly, breaking the seal between the stem of the butane can nozzle and the bottom of the lighter. A jet of butane shot out, was instantly ignited by the lighter, and slammed directly into my face. Flame billowed about my head for the moment before I pulled up on the lighter to close the valve in the can. Smoke that had once been my hair drifted toward the cieling, and the air was filled with the stench of burned protien. The jet of gas had not lasted long enough to toast my skin, but it was with some trepidation that I walked over to look in the mirror on my wall. I found that I had lost a good portion of my eyebrows, had singed my eyelashes to half their length, and had succeeded in significantly pushing back my hairline. Each eyelash and strand of hair ended in a little glob, giving it a particularly nasty appearance. I got out the scissors and snipped enough off to remove the globular display, though at the cost of even more hair. My friends didn't need to ask what had happened; they had seen similar accidental changes in appearance before and would see them again.

Yet another fun thing we did was fill large balloons with hydrogen, made by reacting lye with aluminum. This reaction produces heat, and the hotter the mixture is the more vigorously it reacts. Thus, it has a very strong tendency to spawn a self-increasing reaction and go overboard, but we usually managed to control it by setting the generating container in a bowl of cold water. We taped a piece of fuse onto the balloons and then put a piece of delay wick on the end of the fuse. This stuff is used for certain types of model airplanes, and burns slowly like a cigarette. We would ignite the delay fuse and then let the balloons go so that they drifted up and out over the ocean. Five or ten minutes later they would explode at great height.

One time when filling up a really large balloon we used a one-gallon jug with quite a bit of lye and aluminum in it, set in a large pan of cold water. This proved to be an insufficient precaution, however. We watched with mounting apprehension as the lye mixture started boiling and frothing in the jug while the balloon filled with steam instead of hydrogen. We added some ice to the cooling water but it was too late. The steam from the boiling reactants condensed into water in the balloon which tilted it over, threatening to topple the jug, so we pulled it off and retreated from the workshop. With visions of nuclear meltdowns passing through our heads, we watched from the door as the corrosive mixture finally foamed up out of the jug and sprayed over the floor of my workshop. Fortunately it was just plywood and wasn't seriously damaged.

While hydrogen had the advantage that it was lighter than air and thus would lift the balloon, we found that we could get a more powerful explosion from acetylene. At St. Francis, one of the students (a John I believe) had demonstrated a toy cannon that was charged with acetylene and set off with a fuse. The fuel for it was a calcium carbide paste that came in a tube and was sold in hobby shops. It reacted with water to produce acetylene gas. I bought a few tubes, put some in a bottle with water, and put a balloon on top. When the balloon was half full I took it off, blew air into it so that the acetylene would have oxygen to burn with, and tied it. I didn't have any fuse handy so I just set it on the ground and lit the tied-off part. The flame eventually reached the body of the balloon, played briefly against the surface, and made its way through. It exploded with a force that put a hydrogen-oxygen mixture to shame.

However, we found something even more interesting to do with calcium carbide. Laurence read somewhere that acetylene and chlorine gasses would ignite spontaneously on contact. We thought of ways to test this bit of knowledge, and then hit upon an interesting idea. We knew how to make acetylene (with calcium carbide and water), and how to make chlorine. I had discovered a simple way of making chlorine some time before when I noticed that a warning label on a can of toilet bowl cleaner said “CAUTION: Never use with chlorine products. May react to give chlorine gas.” I immediately tried mixing some of the bowl cleaner with bleach (which is a sodium hypochlorite solution) and was pleased when I saw chlorine bubbles forming. Actually, many things will cause bleach to liberate chlorine, but back then all I knew of was bowl cleaner, which worked well enough. The idea we came up with was to mix all of these chemicals together in a container, rather than generating the gasses and then mixing them. We poured some bleach into a jar and added the bowl cleaner. The green chlorine gas bubbled up, formed a haze over the water, and drifted away. With a bit of apprehension, Laurence dropped some calcium carbide in. There was no need to add water since it is the main component of bleach. Bubbles of acetylene formed on the carbide, enlongated, detached themselves from the solid, and glided up toward the surface. They reached the top, burst… and then combusted with an orange, smokey flame, rewarding us with a nice POP! Occasionally a bubble of acetylene would merge with one of chlorine under the surface, creating an underwater burst. Though it was fascinating in its way, it wasn't loud or dangerous, so it didn't hold our interest for long.

On the 4th of July of that year, we went to Carmel Beach to celebrate for the first time. I forget why we decided to go there, but it was stunning. It seemed that every person in all of Monterey County, and perhaps beyond, who had illegal fireworks to set off came there. Presumably it had built up year by year, with people realizing that the tiny Carmel police department could hardly arrest them all. It was really incredible, thousands of people lighting every pyrotechnic device know to mankind while one or two Carmel police officers patrolled along the cliff above the beach and looked down on the revelry. The firecrackers and M80s were a constant rumble in the background, blending with the sound of the surf, the scream of untold Whistling Petes, and the hiss of rockets streaking overhead, lacing the sky with fire. It was just as well that there was plenty of stuff to watch, since I didn't have much of my own. The most fun things I had were some of the tape-waterproofed, lead-weighted firecrackers that I had made. There was a thin lagoon stretching down part of the length of the beach, created when the Carmel River had been backed up by a sand bar. I walked along it, taking in the scene and occasionally tossing one of the 'crackers into the lagoon to create a little geyser of water. I knew that I would spend many more Fourths at Carmel Beach.

«last   Chapter   next»
intro [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15]
This web page maintained by John DuBois