Back in the 70’s, kids were allowed to engage in all sorts of pyrotechnical activities with no supervision and with little or no repercussion. We could walk into any hobby store and buy Estes rocket engines, various flammable liquids, dynamite fuse, and Testors glue. No one asked us if we were 18 or 21. No one asked us what we were going to do with these materials. We had free reign to blow up pretty much anything that we wanted, as long as the police were not nearby to “strongly admonish” such behavior. On top of all that, any youngster could walk to the pharmacy, buy a canister of Potassium Nitrate, AKA Saltpeter. Now for the uninitiated, major uses of Potassium Nitrate include fertilizers, tree stump removal, rocket propellants and fireworks. It is also one of the major constituents of gunpowder.
Now somehow, we learned through the grapevine or possibly Abby Hoffman’s Steal This Book, that mixing Saltpeter with sugar produced a reasonable rocket fuel and/or smoke powder. We also found through experiments that spraying automobile starting fluid into the wood stove produced a hell of a nice “Whoompf” sound accompanied by a ball of flame. Our 13 year old minds boggled at the possibilities! What if we stuck 3 cans of automobile starting fluid into a large coffee can and then packed it with Saltpeter and sugar with a dynamite fuse attached? Wouldn’t that be just a wonder to behold? And so was hatched a scheme that would shake our community for years to come.
Of course before we put our new found scientific knowledge to work, we would need to perform various experiments to affirm that our scientific premise was a valid one. And so, one bright and sunny afternoon, we assembled the aforementioned weapon of mass destruction using an empty Chock full o’Nuts coffee can, three cans of Gumout Starting Fluid, a pound of Potassium Nitrate and a pound of sugar. The whole contraption was held together with Duct tape and a three foot long dynamite fuse was inserted into the Saltpeter mixture. The device was planted on a pedestal in the field behind my best buddy in the whole world, Mark’s house. In the early evening we fired up a stolen Bic lighter and the dynamite fuse was lit. Let me just say that at this point, that the only people aware of the experiment included a small brain trust of 13 year old boys working secretly in Mark’s bedroom.
It was dusk when the weapon of mass destruction ignited. There was lots of smoke and giggling when the mixture lit. At first we thought that it was all a dud and nothing would come of it. Just as we were about to give up, a gigantic fireball erupted followed by a shock wave that knocked every dish off of the shelve in Mark’s parents’ and the neighbor’s house. Our hair was blown back and a wave of heat washed over us like a strong summer gust of wind. I’m pretty sure that we felt the same as the dudes that exploded that first atomic bomb out in the desert. There was tremendous jubilation, that is until Earl, the old guy next store, came out chasing us with a pitchfork. He scared the Bejesus out of us, knocked over the pedestal, and called us all Satan worshippers.
Kinda makes ya wish that was the way the first A-Bomb experiment ended, don’t it.