Thursday, November 05, 2009


This is a tale about two boys, who if they had been any smarter would have had enough brains to blow themselves "to smithereens" with gunpowder.

When I was thirteen years old, my family moved to a newer, nicer neighborhood. The reasons we moved there are multiple and mysterious, none of which I will go into, but let's just say that we had moved into what I would call a "ritzy" part of town. The houses were lovely, the two car garages were detached with a spare room and a workshop, and the cars in them were nice and new.

A boy across the street was named Johnny. I won't use his last name because I don't have permission, and if he knew what I was writing about he wouldn't even want me to call him by his first name, so I'll change his name to Larry.

Larry was what I'd call spoiled. He liked to munch on dog biscuits, so his parents provided them to him. Near the back door were two bags of dog treats: one for their dachsund and one for Larry. It was his favorite flavor, and he would grab one every now and then and chomp down on it. Larry also lost a couple of fingers using his Dad's table saw, which would have been off limits to me if my Dad owned one, but not Larry. He had full use of the contraption, and it cost him a couple of fingers. Larry got to choose his lunch and dinner menu. To me that was the top of the top, the proof of the pudding, so to speak, that Larry was spoiled.

Larry was also given most anything he asked for as long as it was reasonable. Now remember, Larry's parents let him snack on dog biscuits, use the table saw, and decide his own menu. So one time Larry and I are in his driveway and he says, "I found out that gunpowder is made from sulphur, charcoal, and saltpeter."


"Yeah. And I asked my Dad where I could buy that stuff and he said Curtin Scientific. He's gonna take me there next Saturday."

"What for?"

"To buy some sulphur, charcoal, and saltpeter."

"You gotta be kidding me."

"Nah. I'm serious. I'm gonna buy a pound of each one and grind it up with a mortar and pestle."

"You are joking with me, right?"

"Nah. I'm serious."

"Your dad is going to let you make three pounds of gunpowder?"

"Yeah. He'll let me. Do you wanna come with me to Curtin Scientific to buy the chemicals?"

"Sure. That sounds cool, but how are you going to buy gunpowder material?"

"I'm just gonna go buy it."

"I don't know, Larry. I think if two kids go into a chemical shop and ask for the ingredients to make three pounds of gunpowder, somebody's gonna get suspicious. I don't think they're gonna sell you the chemicals to make three pounds of gunpowder. I've opened up firecrackers and there's not much gunpowder in them. I think three pounds is a huge amount of gunpowder. I think it's enough to blow us up. They're not gonna sell it to you."

"Yeah, you're right. We gotta play it cool when we buy this stuff so they won't get suspicious."

"OK then, I'll go with you."

I asked my parents if I could go with Larry to a chemical shop with his father to learn about chemicals and stuff. They said sure. Mr. Larry, Larry's dad, was a well-paid, highly respected man of some sort, so they assumed everything was on the up and up.

When we arrived at Curtin Scientific, Larry's dad stayed in the car, which I thought was unusual. Larry and I went in by ourselves, went up to a counter, and Larry asked the man if they sold chemicals. Larry did all the talking, of course.

"Yes we do. What are you looking for?"

"Well, we need some sulphur. Do you have any sulphur?"

"Sure. We have some sulphur. How much do you want?"

"Oh I don't know. How about a pound?"

"Sure. Is there anything else you need?"

"Hmm. Let me think. Do you have any charcoal?"

"Sure. How much do you want?"

"Oh I don't know. How about a pound?"

"Alright. Is there anything else?"

"Oh, let me see. How about some......I don't know. How about some magnesium. Do you have any magnesium?" This was a ruse, intended to distract the chemist from our real intentions. Johnny was a genius.

"Sure. How much do you need?"

"I don't know. Like an ounce."

"O......K. Anything else?"

"I think that'll do it."

"I'll be back in a few minutes with your order."

"OK. Wait a minute! I almost forgot. We also need a pound of saltpeter."

"You mean potassium nitrate?"

"No, we want saltpeter."

"That's the chemical name for saltpeter. I'll get you a pound of saltpeter, or potassium nitrate. Anything else?"

"No sir. That'll do it."

The man went into the back to get our gunpowder ingredients and we grinned at each other in disbelief. This was working! Suddenly I thought of something.

"Wait a minute Johnny, I mean Larry. What if this guy is suspicious? What if he comes back with the cops?"

Larry didn't say anything. We just stood there and waited and sweated in silence. Sure enough, that chemist came back with three pounds one ounce of chemicals. Larry paid the man, and we left. Furtive is a good word, and I don't use it often. That's how we left Curtin Scientific. Furtively.

We returned to Larry's house, ground up suphur and charcoal and saltpeter for hours, mixed it all up, then poured a little bit in a coffee can.

"I'm gonna light it now."

"Wait a minute, Larry. If that stuff blows up, it could hurt you. Why don't you make a trail of it from the can down the driveway and we could stand way away from it and light the trail of gunpowder like they do in the movies. Then when it hits the big pile in the can and blows up, we won't be killed."

"That sounds good. Let's do that."

Three pounds of gunpowder is a lot of gunpowder, so we had plenty, and we made a little five foot trail of it to the can, which we laid on its side, stood back, and lit the trail. It made a lot of smoke, moved much more slowly than I expected, and when the fire got to the pile of gunpowder in the can, it made a huge smoke bomb of fire impressively gushing out of the can, but no explosion.

We figured that the stuff wasn't ground up enough. More mortar and pestle work, but that didn't help much. We changed the proportions slightly. No improvement. As it turned out, we weren't smart enough to make gunpowder explode. I'm no scientist, but I think we failed to put it under pressure. In other words, if we had been a tad smarter, we'd both be dead.

I can tell you this, that last coffee can half filled with gunpowder with an ounce of magnesium thrown in was a beautiful sight to see when it went off.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It wasn't lack of knowledge, it was lack of manufacturing tools. When "Larry" Rodel (clever anagram for "El---") failed to blow up the driveway, we figured out it needed pressure right away. We built mega-"firecrackers" wrapped tightly with tape (blew flames out the fuse end), piled rocks in the coffee can (spewed flames upwards around the rock) and various devices attempting to blow something sky high. Fortunately, none of us were munitions experts. I remember hiding behind the corner of the garage during the lighting in case it worked. (My body would have been found under the rubble.)