Diary of a Pyro

Copyright © 1988 - 2005 John H. DuBois III

Chapter Nine

That 4th of July, I didn't have much of a collection of fireworks (they all fit in a small box), but had fun taking pictures. Most of them did not turn out well, but I learned from them and steadily improved my skills. Luke stayed home again, setting off some homemade fireworks with his neighbor. Since my parents refused to drive us out there, I had to ride my bike to Carmel Beach with the box on the back. I locked the bike but it ended up being stolen. As usual, there were several thousand people. They seemed to be rowdier that year; someone was hurt by an M80 thrown by another person. We dug a pit, but it was too close to the ocean and flooded that night.

We did have some interesting items. Scott had made a miniature mortar out a piece of pipe that was about a foot (30 cm) long and just big enough for a CO2 cylinder. It had a cap on the bottom end with a hole for a fuse in it. Since the CO2 cylinders did not fit tightly he used flash powder as a propellant; it barely needs to be contained to explode. In use, he would take off the cap, pour some flash powder in it, feed a fuse through, and screw it on. Then he dropped a CO2 cylinder full of powder in the open end, with the fuse pointing down so that it came to rest in the flash powder. When the propelling charge went off, it lit the fuse of the “shell” which was made long enough that it would go off a few seconds later, hopefully at the apex of its flight. In fact it worked flawlessly. He pointed it out to sea so that the remnants of the shell would not come down on people's heads. The launch itself was quite a display. Flash powder is not normally used as a propellant because it is expensive and explodes too violently, but we didn't have any black powder or smokeless powder. When the mortar went off it produced a brilliant jet of white-hot gasses that lit up the windswept sand in a stark manner that reminded me of a lunar landscape.

I tried to get a picture of a flash powder bomb going off, but even with the camera stopped down it was too bright and ended up blank.

The night ended on a distressing note. Some people built a huge bonfire and began tearing limbs off of trees to feed it. The police, who that year were augmented by the Sheriff's department, stayed away at first since there were several hundred people gathered around the fire, but as we watched from the top of the cliff they suddenly charged down and assaulted a group. I wished I had a telephoto lens with me to record the bizarre scene lit by the flames of the bonfire… police and partiers scurrying around in confrontation like rival ant colonies. We watched the billy clubs wielded for a while before we decided it would be best to depart the area.

Later that year, I tried rigging up a scheme that would automatically trigger my camera when a rocket was launched. I bought a cable release and cut off the end that screws into the shutter release of the camera, and soldered it to the end of a solenoid with the plunger part soldered to the plunger of the solenoid. When it was screwed onto the camera, activating the solenoid would trigger the shutter. I connected it to a battery and the normally-closed contact of a relay, and connected the coil of the relay to a battery and a couple of alligator clips. I put one clip at the bottom of the launch rod and one at the top.

The launch rod is a piece of strong piano wire, usually four or five feet long, that is used to guide the rocket early in its flight until it has reached a speed where its fins can stabilize it. The rocket has a short tube called a launch lug glued near the bottom, and sometimes has one at the top as well. The lugs fit over the launch rod so that the rocket is constrained to a vertical path. The current that kept the relay activated flowed through the launch rod. When the rocket launched, the launch lugs would knock the alligator clip off of the top, which would deactivate the relay, make (connect) the normally closed contact, and send current to the solenoid. Unfortunately, the only picture I got was one where I accidently triggered the camera as I was hooking up the circuits. It showed Scott and me bending over the rocket. The mishap wasn't too surprising since all the wires made the system something of a rat's nest. When we actually launched the rocket, I had the camera set wrong and ended up with a blank slide. I resolved to eventually make a better system that would not be jury-rigged like that one had been.

Sometime that year we did our largest successful oxygen device. Luke had acquired an old aluminum beer keg that had been modified for use as a gas tank for a dune buggy. It had been sittin around at Scott's house for some time when we decided to play with it. Scott brought it to my house and we filled it in the bathtub next to my room, as we were using the water displacement technique. We brought it back to his house and sprayed some engine starter fluid (ethyl ether) in it as fuel, and then loaded it up in his car and headed out to Pebble Beach with Luke. I don't remember whether we passed through the gate with the device. We may have used one of the various backwoods routes that Scott knew of to get in. These generally involved great amounts of bouncing and bottoming out of the vehicle's shocks as we threaded our way between the trees. But, Scott's car was fairly rugged, so we used them when we had to.

We drove around a bit, trying as usual to find a turnout without anyone parked at it. Finally, we found one. After waiting until we saw no one at all on the oceanfront road, we slid the keg out of the car and brought it out to a rock formation that extended into the ocean. A sense of irreversibility of action overcame us as we put a match to the fuse and ran frantically back to the car, so we could make a quick getaway. We hid behind it and peered over the hood as the tension mounted. Then there was a stunning orange flash and the most purely subsonic thump that I have ever felt. It hit us in the chest like a hammer, accompanied only by a low barely audible boom. We leapt in the car and fled, exulting, from the site.

Luke and his brother Matt went out the next day to caddy at Cypress Point. They stopped at the turnout before work and found most of the keg washed up on the shore. A raggedly spherical portion of the bottom had been blown out; that section was nowhere to be found. They left it there, planning to pick it up after work, but when they came back it had disappeared.

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