Diary of a Pyro

Copyright © 1988 - 2005 John H. DuBois III

Chapter Eight

Later that summer, we considerably improved our powder. We ordered some pyrotechnical literature from a company called Pioneer Industries. They had formulas for blasting powder. One of them had as its main ingredients potassium chlorate, sulphur, and sugar. I was rather surprised; this was almost identical to the formula I had come up with on my own. It used potassium chlorate instead of sodium chlorate, and sugar (which decomposes in the explosion into carbon and water vapor) instead of charcoal (also carbon.) I had never thought of using sugar but it made sense; sugar is cheap and readily available and the water vapor adds force to the explosion. Once I realized this I decided to simplify the formula; I worked out the ratio to use for a composition consisting only of sodium chlorate and sugar. It worked even better than green powder, and we used it for several years.

We also went out to Fort Ord again. This time I went with them, and we went in Scott's car. We roamed about the dry ranges picking up dud practice missiles, removing the plastic warhead caps, and dumping the flash powder out into cans. Every time a helicopter passed overhead (rather often at Fort Ord) we jumped into the bushes and communed with the lizards until it had passed. Once I hid in a burned-out tank hulk. As the helicopter passed, it occurred to me that it might be coming in for a practice run on the tank. Not very likely, but I didn't use it for cover again. My best find was a dud practice missile that still had the arming wire attached. The engine was empty of fuel, so either it was never fueled (as a manufacturing defect) and was tossed on the ground when it didn't launch, or it was somehow fired without arming the warhead. On the way out, Scott's car got stuck in the mud. We were putting pieces of wood under the wheels to try to free it when some MPs in a large military truck saw us and came over. Naturally we were very nervous, almost certain that we were in some sort of trouble, but they didn't even ask us what we were doing in a car out on the range; they just offered us a tow which we gladly accepted. When we got home I removed the flash powder from the unarmed missile I had found and set in on a shelf as a display. The powder we collected was nice; it would go off in cardboard tubes so we didn't have to use metal which we certainly wanted to do away with. We mixed it 50-50 with our new blasting powder to stretch it and it still worked well. We also found that we could buy it at Zuchinni's Trick Shop, though it was a bit steep at $11 for two ounces. A few years later the fire department made them stop selling it.

Another thing we tried, just for fun, was a tiny ¼″ (½cm) pipe full of powder. Scott had bought it at the hardware store to see how it would work. We put it under a large plastic wastebasket in my workshop, lit the fuse, and went outside. After it went off, we entered and found that the trash can was shredded; it had been more powerful than we expected. We were quite a bit more surprised when we found the pipe, completely intact, lying on the floor! The explosion hadn't even blown the ends off; all of the force had exited through the miniscule fuse hole, yet had still been sufficient to destroy the wastebasket. It was one of the stranger things we had seen.

We didn't do another propane can until New Year's. We filled it with powder on New Year's Eve and gave it a nice long fuse. I was a bit leery of doing such a thing in the city, even on New Year's when the police don't pay much attention to loud noises. My friends didn't seem to be bothered by the idea at all, so I left it up to them. They were to bring it to the rocks next to the beach and set it off at exactly midnight. We went to a social gathering at a house nearby where people were watching TV and stayed for a while to establish our presences. I couldn't pay attention to the TV; I was keeping an eye on my watch with mounting anticipation. Finally, a bit before the turn of the year, we surreptitiously left. The device had been stashed in Matt's car. I stayed in the street near the house, two or three blocks from the beach, while Luke, Matt, Luke's younger brother, and my brothers headed down. a half dozen of them headed down. A couple of other people I had clued in were waiting nearby to see something happen.

At the prescribed moment, Luke put a match to the fuse and they all started running back. Of course, they were far beyond the area I could see, so I didn't know exactly when it was going to go off. I just gazed off into the distance down the road, not really expecting to see anything, just to hear a nice loud explosion. Thus, I was rather surprised when the sky suddenly flickered bright from horizon to horizon, searing my eyes with an image of pyrotechnically lit clouds. Moments later the sound hit, rolling through me and rattling the windows along the street. It was incredible. After savoring the echoes, I returned to the house where I found that the others there had enjoyed our brisant splendor. This began amongst us a tradition of unusual New Year's pyrotechnics that would continue unbroken for many years.

Around June, Matthew ordered some fireworks with Scott and some others from a company in Colorado. When the UPS delivery man knocked on the front door, nobody heard him although there was certainly someone home. He left the package with our neighbors. Unfortunately one of them was rather nosy and, seeing the EXPLOSIVES CLASS C label on the side, called one of their other neighbors who was a police officer.

The police were excited by this event in our rather dull town. They didn't want to wait to get a warrant to open the box, so they decided to bring it by and try to convince Matthew to open it for them. They told him that they just wanted to go after the company that had sent it to him; they said that if he opened it for them he would not be charged. Matthew, still not having learned their ways, told them they could go ahead. He was crying, not because of the trouble he was in but because he had lost his fireworks. They gathered around and one of them eagerly slit the box open with his penknife. Our stereotypical small-town police almost drooled when they saw the brightly colored items, and promptly charged Matthew with the unlawful possession of dangerous fireworks. The judge, though, seemed to understand what was going on and found Matthew guilty only of the “attempted possession” of illegal fireworks, since he had never actually recieved them. He ended up having to do some community labor. This pissed the police and fire chief off no end, and they had it in for us all after that.

My 4th of July was pretty bland that year. Everything I had fit into a backpack. It was the first year I had flash powder filled devices, which was nice since their cardboard containers made them safe enough to toss around. I put some in a couple of rockets, one of which went wild and landed on the beach where it spewed out its payload items onto the sand, where they exploded. That one got more cheers than the one that worked correctly.

Luke stayed at home for that Fourth. He had made an order of his own, using $60 that he had made caddying. He had almost given up on getting it before the Fourth, but a huge truck rolled up in front of his house on July 3rd and dropped off a crate from Pyro Spectacular. His father wasn't particularly concerned about his pyrotechnic tendencies at this time, so he and a friend lit it off in front of his house the next day. Somehow it escaped the notice of the police, though it included mortar shells and other flying things.

Later that summer we filled a propane can with blasting powder and brought it down to the “testing pool”. This was one of the best shorefront pools we had. It was enclosed on three sides by boulder-size rocks, so the force of explosions was concentrated locally, and we were more likely to be able to find the shreds left behind. After setting the fuse burning and tossing it in, we ran 'way up into the park to observe the result. Scott had brought a camera which he prepared to trigger. We felt a sharp jolt through the earth, and an enormous geyser rose majestically from the pool. Scott panned up and up with his camera; he was able to capture only the tip of the depth charge-like plume as it rose to at least a hundred feet before arcing over. It was by far the most impressive waterspout we ever created. Eventually, we dared to venture back and examine the testing pool. We found that the immense granite boulder that had formed one of its sides had been split by the shock along some sort of natural grains (perhaps of decomposed granite) into several multi-ton slaps, each about a foot (30 cm) thick. It looked like the end of a loaf of sliced bread, toppled over into what had been the pool.

In December I bought a 35mm camera and began taking pictures of everything. It was only a matter of time before I began recording our exploits on film. Early the next year we went down to the beach to make some plumes. One of my favorite pictures resulted from trying to get a closeup of this process. I took the picture from just a few feet away from the pool we were using. Of course I ended up drenched, but fortunately my camera wasn't harmed. The picture didn't come out at all like I expected; all of the water appears to be contained in a well-formed crown shape as it is ejected.

I began trying to take pictures of rockets launching like the one Bill had taken at St. Francis. Most of my rockets at that time were made from the thin cardboard tubes inside rolls of paper towels, wrapping paper, etc. I also made some from orange juice cans, both the small ones and the large ones. I cut the metal off of both ends of four or five cans and glued them together. They looked ridiculous since I didn't bother painting them, but when launched with large D engines they were quite impressive. My early attempts at snapping shots as they left the pad tended to show just the smoke plume left behind. I finally improved my reflexes until I could usually get a good picture. At least I didn't have to watch a fuse burn away, not having any good idea of when the engine would fire; instead we used electrical igniters.

I had designed and built a number of ignition systems. They were made so that power for an electronic timer flowed through the igniter itself. There was no need for an on-off switch since the electronics would not get power until the connection to the igniter was made. That made it easy to tell whether the circuit was good, since the timer would not start unless it was. After hooking up the igniter, a press of a button would start the timer. It beeped eight times over sixteen seconds and then triggered an SCR to switch on the current. They timer could be reset by pressing the button at any time, and the SCR turned off as soon as the nichrome wire in the igniter burned through.

The rocket usually launched just a moment after the last beep, which made it easier to take pictures. I made four different models; the smallest used a nine-volt battery and fit in a shirt pocket. It occurred to me that a glitch as the system was powering up (as the connection to the igniter was made) might cause the SCR to trigger at what would certainly be an inopportune moment, but I tested it dozens of times without a failure. Despite that I always tried to remember to clip the leads of the ignition cable onto the wires dangling from the igniter before plugging the other end of the cable into the ignition system. That way if there was an accident, the engine would not shoot a flame onto my hands.

Once I had my camera, I wanted to take a picture of a huge plume like the one Scott had taken. Instead of filling a propane can, we filled a Dust-Off can. It was only a third of the size of a propane can, so we didn't expect too much. However, we seem to have been fortunate in the underwater geometry of the site we selected. The Dust-Off sent up an enormous amount of water. I remember snapping a picture of it at its peak, and then standing and watching the water rain down. At some point it occurred to me that I could take a picture of that too, so I wound the camera and took one that showed it coming down and cascading off of the rocks. We tried many Dust-Offs after that, but never got one to work anywhere near as well.

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