The noise and clouds of rising smoke have left this year’s 4th of July celebration in their wake but every Independence Day I’m reminded of my endless fascination with blowing up shit when I was a kid. I was a pyrotechnic terror just wondering, mind you, what would happen if this or that blew up.
I had an elevated opinion of my interests in explosives as something much more high-minded than the annoying, jackass kid screwing around with fireworks that I was. No, I appeared to myself more like a Mr. Wizard (popular TV science kid’s show of the ’50’s and early ’60’s) or the latter day Mythbusters, conducting experiments in the impermanence of matter. I would always say: “What would happen if we…” and then go blow it up.
My two favorite weapons of crass destruction were those deadly old standbys, M-80’s and Cherry Bombs. After all my teen years acquiring those items illegally from Ohio, you’d think I’d be minus a finger or two, or been tagged ‘Stumpy’ by the neighborhood kids but all my limbs and digits remained intact because I also had a healthy fear of their power. Fascination and fear go hand in hand if you have any sense of self preservation.
M-80’s were the acknowledged powerhouse but Cherry Bombs were waterproof (fuse and all) and having that extra special trait opened up a host of possibilities around the water theme. For instance, I liked to put water in various metal containers to see what sort of blast might displace the water to such an extent that it came apart.
Let me be clear. This is a stupid thing for a kid to do. There is a lot of powder in those little things and blowing up metal objects is like sitting around in the back yard playing with hand grenades. And yet, I did it, and repeatedly, sometimes doubling the charge. The idea was to dream up a scenario (decide on what to blow up, figure the necessary size of the blast), light the fuse, drop the Cherry Bomb(s) and run fast and hard. I had a big backyard so there was plenty of room to run and still witness the results.
Initially, I blew apart a few metal wastebaskets, spewing water everywhere and ripping them apart at the seams. Then I found an old teapot, small but just big enough to get a Cherry Bomb taped to a small rock (so it sank to the bottom) through its opening. This would be a very confined space so, we theorized, the blast would have a lot of compression and the water nowhere to go; meaning that if we were to stumble on the ‘run away’ part of the experiment, there was a decent chance we could make a trip to the ER.
It exploded with unbelievable force and actually tore apart the metal crimping that adhered the bottom of the pot to the top, leaving a trail of water beads and shooting the dismembered top more than 200 feet in the air. Try as we might, we never found the top half of the pot even though we watched its descent into the vacant field next door. Imagining a Cape Canaveral scenario, we decided that it must have burned up upon re-entry.
Obviously, all of this had nothing to do with celebrating the birth of our nation. Not only that, but the nation, as I knew it on our block, was not feeling kindly toward my experiments. My next door neighbor, Mr. King, was a really good guy but, unfortunately for him, he was surrounded by a houseful of boys on his right, a houseful of girls across the street and Wernher von Braun on his left. The guy had nowhere to go but down into the bomb shelter and there were several occasions where he expressed his displeasure over my July bombing run.
All these years later, I can sympathize with his shell-shocked plight and wonder why he never played the ultimate trump card and called the police to stop my illegal blasts but, as angry as he would sometimes get, he refrained from sending me into a life of juvenile incarceration. He was a good neighbor and I was a myopic, disrespectful dumb shit. I thought I was entitled to set off nerve-destroying fireworks in my backyard. Isn’t that what we fought for in the revolutionary war…fireworks displays?
While I was constantly fascinated with water explosions (I even tried the lake), I also made forays into buried charges beneath a battalion of plastic army men and machines, and eventually took to the air in a stunning exhibition of the frailty of cheap wood.
My friend, Bobby, and I decided (actually I decided and he assisted) to strap an M-80 onto one of those inexpensive balsa gliders and let the splinters fall where they may. First we rigged the glider, Scotch taping the bomb in place and then I shimmied up the tree around 25 feet or so. From there I would light the fuse and toss the plane into the air while Bobby watched from below. Making a couple of dry test runs (sans lit fuse) we quickly realized that the smaller gliders we were using suffered from the weight of the M-80 so we went back over to the dime store (a couple of blocks away) and got one of the big gliders, not only with a larger wing span and fuselage but a wind-up rubber band propeller to help sustain the flight.
The tree was about ten feet from the house but I’d be sending it out towards the backyard where there was plenty of room for its eventual destruction. Everything was set and the test run was a complete success so I went back up in the tree, farther up this time, wound the propeller, lit the fuse and let it go. At first, it sailed beautifully out of the tree, sparks flying from the fuse, both of us in delightful anticipation of the great blast.
And then, it turned.
Balsa gliders are notoriously fickle. There was a slight breeze and the plane began to bank and turn back toward the house, right where Bobby was standing. There was a moment where I flashed upon a life behind bars, having killed my boyhood friend with a weapon I devised and delivered from a tree top. Bobby still had those young legs to rely on and took off running but the maniacal suicide plane turned every time he did and the way it followed his every move started to make me giggle because it looked so Buster Keatonish. I know, I know, amuse yourself with a predicament like this and you’re flirting with a trip to hell, but I couldn’t help it. I was both appalled and entertained at the same time.
Finally, Bobby dove out of harm’s way and the glider exploded with a deafening thunderclap and there it was…50 cents well spent. Bobby was a bit shaken but unharmed, declaring that next time he would be the one in the tree and I could run around the yard in fear of the balsa-blaster. But testing was temporarily suspended after Mr. King came out in his back yard to tell me, in more gentile wordage, what a crazy fuck I was and why didn’t I go do something useful.
I’m not an authority on children but, if I’m not mistaken, flirting with danger is pretty routine for a kid, and flaunting authority is a close second. I wouldn’t have been doing my kidley duty if I weren’t tempting fate. Even though he had no children, it’s likely that Mr. King understood that, but I’m sure that tidbit of knowledge didn’t make the noise any more palatable. In his place, I’m calling the police and shutting the ammunition dump down.
I liked Mr. King’s style when he’d finally blow a gasket and had to tell me about it. He was like a cranky Wally Cox and it would just all come spurting out in a stream of frustration which was both instructive and entertaining. As I’ve gotten older and looked into the crystal ball of my future I’ve been practicing some of Mr. King’s classic old style rants and figure I can use them when I’m finally confined to the front porch with nothing to do but bitch at the neighbor kids.