Read Old Man Scanlon

Playing With Matches

29 October 2009

It's no wonder the Prometheus legend endures, when half the world, by virtue of their Y-chromosomes, are firebugs. Fireworks aficionados, backyard grill-meisters, arsonists—I've never met a man who could resist fire.

As a boy I reveled in the worlds of wonder not only in everyday sight, but in things not easily visible to the unaided human eye. I was fascinated by any optical tool that augmented my vision: magnifiers, binoculars, X-ray glasses, scanning electron microscopes, cameras. My hand lens, such a marvelous tool—so simple, elegant, symmetrical—also focused the sun. I used it to char grass, paper, wood, and Japanese beetles, but never succeeded in starting an actual fire.

However, I was clearly on a path of debauchery, and I blame my next giant step down the slippery slope on Mr. Wizard. Mr. Wizard, an ancestor of today's Mythbusters, performed science experiments on television. In the early '60s one and only one of his episodes etched itself into my mind. Mr. Wizard's kid assistant placed his hand on the workbench. Mr. Wizard covered the hand with a heap of insulation, put a penny on top of the heap, and blow-torched it to red heat. The kid, of course, escaped unscathed, and I coveted a blowtorch as if life depended on it. Later my dad used a torch to heat a tiny piece of platinum foil nearly white-hot—it didn't even tarnish, let alone melt—and my fate was sealed. I would be traveling the fiery road.

My tool arsenal soon expanded to include a BernzOmatic propane torch (the name of Otto Bernz, who, according to the company's published history, founded BernzOmatic's predecessor in 1876, I took to be a propitious case of nomen omen). I used that torch a lot in my quest to see what burned, and I melted lead, glass, copper, silver. I learned not to jab a cold iron tool into molten lead, or it would spatter violently. I learned how to solder. Amid all the flaming destruction I also learned how copper work-hardens, how copper, aluminum, and steel feel under a hacksaw blade.

Destruction, fiery or not, is an integral part of a boy's growing up. Breaking things lets a boy discover the properties of matter, and as he grows more experienced and responsible he learns to take things apart and reassemble them, to curb his destructive impulses well short of vandalism, and eventually to do constructive things. He learns what things cost in labor.

As my use of fire grew more sophisticated—can't say responsible—I began to appreciate its entertainment value. A plastic pint bottle (I had some rudimentary common sense, and never used glass) filled with isopropyl alcohol vapor produced a pleasing blue flame with a loud low whistle. A cloud of ordinary flour ignited to demonstrate the principle behind grain elevator explosions. I reasoned, correctly, as I was relieved to find, that a mouthful of propane unmixed with air spat over a lit match would produce a satisfactory ball of fire without burning my eyebrows off or exploding my head.

With my adolescent sense of immortality I could not always predict potentially dangerous outcomes. One autumn I raked the front yard and piled the leaves in the gutter, the quaint custom of the day being that we burned leaves in the street. Since the leaves were damp, I thought it would be a good idea to pour some gasoline onto the pile to ensure a successful burn. I knew never to apply gasoline to an existing fire, and I knew enough to re-close the gas can and remove it to the back yard before lighting anything, but I did not take into account that the leaves were on a storm drain and that gasoline vapor is heavier than air. The pile dispersed with a good solid whump when I tossed a match on it, delightful but unexpected.

For sheer entertainment, of course, fireworks are the answer. I grew up with my parents' stories of life in Massachusetts when fireworks were legal. Dad told us of rubber-band-powered balsa wood and tissue paper model airplanes so irreparably dilapidated that he finally had to send them on one last flight carrying a large firecracker. Mom countered with the story of the unfortunate boy in her neighborhood who one Fourth of July inadvertently ignited his trousers pocket full of fireworks.

It will be no surprise that I despise the Massachusetts fireworks ban. Even a half-century ago the state was trying to protect us from ourselves. Apart from depriving youngsters of the opportunity to learn from the consequences of their actions in a way that's a lot less dangerous than giving them driving licenses, the law seems to me unnecessary, since any nefarious use of fireworks is already illegal—arson, destruction of property, and assault, for example. Piling law upon law tends to make us all criminals. Perhaps worst of all, the law is widely flouted, eroding respect for all law.

In the early part of my career in civil disobedience I concentrated on the ear-pleasing side of fireworks. Pete Blaisdell, my brother Dave, and I all had cap pistols, and caps were our raw material for making firecrackers. We'd trim the excess paper from dozens of caps—nerve-racking fidgety work since we often snipped too close and exploded the cap—and stuff them as tight as we dared into short lengths of paper drinking straws. For a fuse we cut the heads off several safety matches and crushed them in on top of the caps. We had some impressively loud results with these firecrackers, but they took forever to make and there was always the danger of premature detonation. One of Dave's blew up during manufacture, spraying flaming match-heads around our bedroom-cum-fireworks-factory and burning holes in the curtains. That could have turned out very badly.

It was inevitable that I gravitated to gunpowder, especially after Dad demonstrated some commercial stuff. Even decades before Google the composition of gunpowder was well known, and decades before the Big Brother twins OSHA and Homeland Security the ingredients were widely available. I rode my bike down to the drugstore and asked the man behind the counter for potassium nitrate and sulfur; charcoal wasn't going to be a problem. When he asked "You're not going to make gunpowder, are you?" I coolly lied through my teeth. He knew damn well I was going to make gunpowder—there is only one possible reason why a teenage boy wants potassium nitrate and sulfur—but he didn't press the issue, and sold it to me. I wonder what he would have done if I'd honored him with the truth.

I made gunpowder, and it worked, though never anywhere near as energetically as Dad's Dupont black powder. This was to be expected, since I always measured by eye, never weighing the ingredients (the same approach I take to soup-making), and my manufacturing standards were pathetically low and inconsistent to boot. Each small batch was a new adventure.

Over time fireworks became a social endeavor. My friends and I spent our days making fireworks. Occasionally we'd launch an Estes model rocket or set off a firecracker made from a 35mm film can or a small plastic squeeze bottle to tide us over until dark, when we demonstrated what we'd made. I liked the visual effect of fountains, and experimented with the sparkle and color caused by metal filings and salts. My friend Flash, perhaps the most pyrotechnically obsessed of us, specialized in firecrackers—big honking firecrackers, stick-of-dynamite-sized firecrackers. The small goods we set off at home to amuse and impress our friends and siblings and horrify our mothers. We drove to remote country roads to light Flash's firecrackers. His usual work pretty much dominated a road with a blinding sphere of intense white light accompanied by a very gratifying concussive blast. The roads were usually vacant, but once a police cruiser turned up in the distance just as we lit the fuse. The cop declined to pursue. Today we'd be terrorism suspects rotting in jail.

Now and then I'd conceive a pyrotechnic project that needed gunpowder with a little more oomph than mine had. So I'd purloin a pinch of Dad's Dupont, hoping that he wouldn't notice the can's gradual weight loss. These projects nearly always ended up with results different from, that is to say, worse than, what I had planned. My Roman candle was typical. I made a small cylindrical cardboard shell with magnesium and a fuse. I would light its fuse, drop it mortar-style down a discarded trombone slide onto a lifting charge of Dupont powder, there would be a soft chuff and a flare of actinic light would loft into the sky. That was the plan. I set the apparatus up in the front yard, lit the fuse on the shell, dropped it into the tube, and the whole thing blew up in my face with an astonishing report. Evidently our neighbor Mrs. Burns—there's that name again—reported the explosion to the police. As I was dazedly wandering around looking for the shrapnel, a cruiser pulled up and the cop asked me if I'd been lighting cherry bombs. No, I replied, but I had just performed a chemistry experiment that backfired. Though not entirely candid, that was close to the truth.

The experiences my friends and I had with pyrotechnics show starkly that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It's occurred to me more than once that if I'd been able to make decent black powder the chances are good I wouldn't be sitting here today, smugly advocating that fools be allowed to feel the effects of their folly. I shudder and break into a cold sweat when I recall how clueless we were about safety. We usually knew not to get up close and personal with a dud, but how we made things, how we handled them, and the compounds we used were disasters waiting to happen. Flash's favorite firecracker formula presents a danger of self-ignition; a twenty-foot fireball in the back seat of the car would have been distracting at best. We did learn, albeit years too late, how severely we could have damaged ourselves.

So my emotions churn a little when I observe my twelve-year-old grandson testing the capabilities of a butane utility lighter on plastic BBs. Yes, he has a BB gun, and a jackknife too; I'm glad I wasn't the one who had to make those decisions. I hope he matures fast enough to stay ahead of the dangers, but when they inevitably catch him now and again I hope he'll cause himself only enough pain to drive home effectively the hard lessons he needs to learn. And I hope that he'll be able one day to look back and marvel how lucky he is, for so many reasons, to be alive.