Diary of a Pyro

Copyright © 1988 - 2005 John H. DuBois III

Chapter Seven

That summer, Scott and my brothers went out to the Fort Ord ranges to look for any dud rounds that might be lying around. Many years before, Laurence and I had been out there with my grandfather and had happened across a large number of them that seemed to have been spilled. We put them in a bag and took them home, but were too young to have any idea what to do with them. I think my parents must have found them eventually and disposed of them. Of course, Scott, Laurence and Matthew now had very clear ideas about what they would do with the powder in any rounds they might find. They asked my mother and grandmother to drive them out there so they could roam about, naturally not telling them what they would be looking for.

As it happened, they did not find any rounds, but stumbled upon a bonanza of a different sort. They saw an old decrepit tank, more holes than intact metal, that had obviously been used for target practice. Lying about it were thousands of expended practice missiles. They were made to be launched out of normal 35 millimeter tubes, but had only a tiny flash powder warhead; the explosive could hardly damage a tank but would show whether it had been hit or not. After searching for a while they found some duds with intact warheads. They also found some devices that used a primer to ignite a fuse when a ring was pulled. All of this they brought home.

They removed the flash powder from the missiles and put it in a rocket for the 4th of July; it was far more flash powder than they had ever had since before that the only way we had of getting it was unraveling firecrackers. We reactivated the fuse igniters by putting new primers (intended for reloading shotgun shells) in them and then putting new fuses in. I traded them stuff for about fifteen of the fuse things. We found that the shotgun primers were too powerful for the devices and tended to blow the ends off, so one had to be careful when pulling the ring, and they could usually only be used once. We taped most of them onto cobs to make a handy sort of thing that could easily be set off without needing to light anything with matches, and saved them for the Fourth too.

Sometime in June we made our first mortar. We didn't have any decent propelling powder; only green powder which had to be tightly contained to detonate. This meant that we couldn't have a shell that would slide freely in a tube. We used a mortar tube that Laurence had acquired at a local celebration years before. Scott and I poured powder into it, inserted a fuse through the side, and then pounded an empty 14 oz. propane cylinder into the end. We had wrapped it with electrical tape so that it didn't really fit, and had to really hammer it in. We tried to be careful toward the end of the insertion, when the cylinder would actually be compressing the powder, though we had to apply so much force to it that it was hard to tell when that point was reached. When it was done, we brought it down to the beach, aimed it out to sea, and fired it. It worked perfectly; the propane cylinder disappeared into the sky.

We brought the mortar tube back and did the same thing again, except this time we filled the propane cylinder with some stuff that resulted from one of my attempts at making black powder. The powder hadn't worked very well, but I hoped that the large quantity of it in the cylinder would explode. We had some means of insuring that the fuses of the shell and propellant were lit simultaneously; we may have just twisted them together. Pounding in the shell was a bit riskier this time since it was full, and it fit so tightly that by the time we were done the top end of the cylinder was completely smashed in. We took turns hammering on the piece of wood that we used to ram the shell in, so that we would share the risk. Fortunately we had no accident. Our neighbor Brett and some of his friends saw us heading down to the beach to set it off and followed us to watch. It worked again, and they were quite impressed, but the shock of launch or something had put the shell fuse out. If fell into the ocean far away without exploding. The tube had also exploded even as it launched the shell, but we acquired more tubes before the fourth from carpet store dumpsters.

I tried filling some small cardboard tubes that Scott and Laurence had found with green powder. I didn't really expect them to work but I thought it was worth a try. I set the tubes on wax paper and poured some white glue in each to block the bottom end. After it dried, I filled the tubes with powder, and poured glue on top to block the other end. The Fourth was approaching and I wanted it to dry fast, so I put them in a heated seed germinator I had made. Of course I realized that this was slightly dangerous so I stayed near my workshop. I was talking to my father when we heard popping sounds outside. We went out and saw smoke billowing from my workshop; a look inside showed that one by one the devices were going off and shooting flames at the roof. Obviously one of them had ignited and started a chain reaction. I was going to just go in and pour some water on them, but my father was displeased and sprayed the whole inside of my workshop with water. Aside from the water damage, the only harm done was charring of the fiberglass roof. I managed to salvage a few of them for the Fourth.

That 4th of July was pretty wild. We went to Carmel Beach again, of course. Laurence and Scott had large chests that they filled with fireworks. I didn't have a chest around so I made one out of plywood and painted it flat black. Matthew just used an old suitcase. They made an order again, but I didn't have enough money to buy much, so I had mostly homemade stuff. Luke was there too. We dug a wide pit to set up camp in and put our chests in it. Some of my concoctions worked and some didn't. My rockets full of ladyfingers went wild, the little cardboard tubes full of green powder went puff, etc. Laurence and Scott had some huge skyrockets that they had made by taping giant F-100 engines onto bamboo sticks. They lifted off with a roar, but had no payload because the engines had no ejection charge. They didn't want to risk drilling through the forward bulkhead to put a fuse in because the fuel was some extremely powerful rubbery stuff, perhaps polybutadiene. We didn't play with any more engines of that type for several years. There were some bikers nearby getting drunk who laughed their heads off whenever we pulled out yet another bizarre item. They liked the primer-lit CO2 devices, since pulling the ring and throwing them made them seem sort of like hand grenades. We dug a hole to set them off in for safety, and fired them one by one. Many of them failed and had to be lit with matches.

The highlight of the day was a device that was made at the last minute. When I was done making other things, I had a lot of powder left. I noticed an empty 14 oz. propane cylinder (of the type used for propane torches) on my workshop table. We had joked about filling one up but not seriously considered it. I decided what the hell, drilled out the end to make a ″ (cm) hole, and poured the rest of the powder in through a funnel. I had never made anything that large before and had no idea how powerful it would be. The bikers almost died laughing when they saw it. We went down near the ocean, about 50 feet from our pit, and dug a hole to water level 1′ (m) or so deep. I pushed the can into the watery sand at the bottom so that only its neck stuck out. Some of the bikers helped us clear everyone out of the area. We lit the long fuse and ran, but stayed near enough that we could stop anyone from getting too close.

However, one person came walking down the beach with his girlfriend and ignored our warnings. Perhaps he was trying to impress her, and thought that it was just a smoke bomb in the hole though actually it was just the smoke from the fuse he saw. We kept shouting at him and finally his girlfriend made him stop. I made my way back to our camp and jumped in the pit. Then the beach opened up in thunderous explosion. An immense cloud of sand rose into the sky; it rained down on us for what seemed like ages. We were stunned; we had seriously misjudged it power. A group of volleyball players close enough to be in the sandfall stared in disbelief. I gazed out with wide eyes at the crater, several feet wide, that stood smoking near the waves. The entire beach had gone silent in the moment after the explosion, but shortly after a great cheer rang out, and dozens of people from across the beach leapt up and charged down to peer into it. They stood about, awed, and we lost ourselves in the crowd.

The person who had been walking with his girlfriend was not pleased in the least. He demanded to know who was responsible, and I finally said that it was us. He started lecturing us about how stupid it was, though we had already realized that. He was shouted down by the rest of the crowd anyway, who were saying things like “Hey, let the kids have their fun!” We finally went back to the pit, somewhat subdued, and tried not to draw any attention. My father eventually came over and told me I was really out of hand and should not do anything more like that. That was the last Fourth that my parents came with us to the beach. We expected the police to come down to investigate, but despite the commotion they just peered down from the cliff.

That night I set up my mortars. I had three loaded tubes and one extra shell. The shells were filled with a bursting charge and various items that I thought would look neat in the air, like firecrackers and bottle rocket cartridges. I buried them in the sand, which necessitated a long fuse to reach up from the base. I didn't have any quickmatch, just blasting fuse, so it took a couple of minutes to burn though as we waited for it to go off it seemed like years. It was something of an anticlimax when the mortar went fupp and ejected the shell a few feet into the air, so that it burst weakly on the sand where it fizzled away. The shells were more delicate than the propane cans had been, so I hadn't hammered them in as tightly; the containment was not enough for the green powder I used to try to propel them. The other two performed similarly. I forget whether I bothered loading the extra shell.

We had a few Ground Illumination flares and someone launched one. A GI flare hangs from a parachute, and is sent a thousand feet or so up by a rocket. It comes in a long sealed metal can that is opened like a can of SPAM. Inside is yet another tubular can that the rocket resides in. The can is held and hit on a hard surface to trigger it. The base has a pin that hits a primer that sets off a small charge to eject the flare and then ignite the rocket engine. The moment it pops out of the can, small metal fins are deployed by spring metal to guide it. This was the first time we launched one, and the person carrying out the act decided to hit it on his knee to fire it, partly for lack of any other suitable surface, but also to get the full effect. It lit up the beach bright enough to see from end to end for several minutes. It was one of the more unusual displays of the evening, and the partiers there were quite impressed. I launched one myself later, and it also worked well. However, though I had aimed it out over the ocean, there was a strong wind blowing in. I began to get nervous when the burned-out flare, gliding down under its 'chute, passed over the beach as it neared the ground. Finally I saw that it was going to come down in the road that winds along the top of the low cliffs that front the beach. I practically closed my eyes at the last moment since the road was jammed with cars and I was sure it was going to scratch up someone's paint job. However, miraculously, it landed on bare road and the problem of an irate vehicle owner was averted.

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