I was young when I became inquisitive and that led to my experimentation with explosives. My experimentation continued off and on until my high school years. All of this activity also required creativity in developing excuses. I also became better acquainted with medical treatments. This is the story of my first adventure with explosives.
I Dropped a Rock
In 1952 my family moved into a new house the landlord built on our farm in central Iowa. I was in the third grade and my brother was in first grade. A couple of years later I moved into the inquisitive stage of young boys. I wanted to know how things worked. Sometimes I’d take things apart to see how they worked. This led to many educational experiences and I often heard my parents say; “Don’t do that again.”
There were many places to hide things in the new house. A favorite place was the closet in the spare room. The spare room had a davenport hide-a-bed and also served as my dad’s office. The closet had steps that went up to the attic. They were big steps that were good for storing all kinds of things. The first step was three foot above the floor on the pretense of preventing kids from climbing places they shouldn’t be in. Standing on a chair made it easy to get to the first step and dad’s desk chair worked just great. My brother and I were told to stay out of that closet. To an inquisitive kid that statement translated into there was something “good” to be discovered. Most parent’s think they have many secret hiding places but they are wrong. If you have kids that is something to remember.
Searching this closet for hidden treasure was fun but risky. The room had two entry doors and it was the common path to the bathroom. Watching both spare bedroom doors from inside the closet was impossible. The room was next to the kitchen and mom could walk through at any time. One door was also next to the entrance to the house. Mom or dad could come into the house from outdoors at anytime and see in the room.
Even the best plans went afoul. Leaving the closet door open was a dead giveaway. Being crafty I closed the door and pulled the string on the closet light. I dug through the spare clothes and check each coat pocket. I looked with envy at all the boxes I couldn’t reach on the top shelf. Suddenly the door burst open. Busted. I discovered the glow from the closet light could be seen at the crack at the bottom of the door. Later I tried flashlights I could snitch but they made it harder to explore and the noise from dropping the flashlight was always a risk.
Dan was a friend of my dad. Dan drove a semi-truck and traveled all over the Midwest. Occasionally he would stop by with interesting things. One day he brought a big Black and Decker drill. My dad needed one and a price was agreed on. We used and abused that drill for 40 years on the farm. That drill was indestructible and is still in use today. On another occasion Dan stopped with a load of shelled corn. Dan was overloaded and needed to get rid of some weight. Dad and Dan shoveled a bunch of corn from the semi-trailer to one of dad’s wagons. Dan got under the weight limit and the issue of the corn was resolved later.
One day in June I was helping dad grind feed for the hogs when Dan stopped by the farm in his family car. Dan leaned out the window and handed dad a brown paper sack. Dad unrolled the top of the sack and looked in. He smiled. The paper sack contained firecrackers. I didn’t know much about firecrackers but I knew you couldn’t buy them in Iowa. I also knew people in town shot fireworks on the 4th of July. Sometimes we could see them from our farm if my brother and I got to stay up past our 8 p.m. bedtime.
Dad commenced to try out a few firecrackers. I watched him as he held the little string end of the firecracker against his cigarette. The little end caught fire and hissed, and then dad threw it quickly. I was impressed with the noise, the smoke, and the smell. I liked the packets of little firecrackers; they just kept going bang, bang, bang and jumping all over the place. Mom’s chickens didn’t like them as much as I did. But the big bang of the little round red things, they called cherry bombs, really impressed me. My brother and I were told fireworks could hurt you and they were not for kids to play with. The bag was closed and dad went into the house. He came back out without the bag.
Even a kid could figure out the firecrackers were now hidden in the house. My inquisitive juices were flowing. My mind started rolling through possible hiding places. The spare bedroom closet or the towel cabinet in the basement. Sometimes dad put things on the upper shelves he didn’t want us to get into. Mom was always in the house so it was hard to look for the fireworks. By then the folks knew my brother and I needed supervision. It‘s more accurate to say close supervision. I snooped around the best I could without getting caught but I couldn’t locate them.
Persistence started at an early age for me and I kept sneaking looks every chance I got. However I was unsuccessful. The 4th of July came and dad brought forth the sack and set off the firecrackers. But he saved a few of those little round red things called cherry bombs. The sack went back into the house. My persistent search continued. Opportunity arrived one day when mom went to town for groceries. Dad was in the field spraying weeds and I didn’t have to help. My brother and I made our usual promise to behave ourselves. That was a promise we didn’t take too seriously. I had time for serious searching. Dad’s desk chair went into the closet and I started digging through all the stuff on the steps. Suddenly, discovery. The sack of firecrackers was on the second step of the closet stairs, behind a box and covered up by another box. My parents were getting better at hiding things but I was persistent.
I opened the sack and looked in. The red cherry part had a green stem sticking out of it. I had seen dad hold his cigarette on the green stem before throwing it. Not yet being a student of chemistry I wondered how these things worked. I wondered if you could pull that green stem out of the cherry? What happens then? I was now faced with a quandary. I knew where the firecrackers were hidden but how to get them out of the house to see how they worked was the question. Mom would soon be back from town. I began to put everything back and cover my tracks before she got home.
I began to ponder how to accomplish my adventure. I was going to need some time. Time to get the firecrackers out of the house and time to figure out how they worked. I watched and waited. Then one day the perfect time just arrived. Dad was out in the field working. Gale was off playing somewhere and it was wash day. Mom would go to the basement, sort some clothes, load the washer, remove clothes from the dryer and fold them. It took her some time to do all that. Just the time I needed to get the firecrackers out of the house. The noise of the washer and dryer would cover any noise I made getting into the closet. I set my plan in motion.
When mom got down to the basement I snuck into the closet, climbed up the step, and got the sack of firecrackers. I put dad’s desk chair back in place and I made my escape out the back door, undetected. I went down the back steps and around to the left to hide in the corner of the house. That way mom couldn’t see me through the window when she came back up the stairs.
I opened the sack and took out a cherry bomb. I touched it and rolled it around in my hand. I shook it but it didn’t make any noise. The little green stem wiggled so I pulled it out. Interesting. I looked in the hole but it was black and I couldn’t see anything. I turned it over and granular black stuff ran out of the hole. I shook the cherry and more black stuff came out of the hole. I rubbed my fingers on the granules and they turned black. I smelled my fingers. The black stuff had an unpleasant odor. I sat there and thought about my discoveries. I looked up at the windows, no mom. I was still safe. I had seen dad light the stem with his cigarette. The stem burned, so logically, that must mean the black stuff also burns.
I was going to need some fire to see if the black stuff really did burn. I needed matches. There were stick matches in the kitchen to light the gas stove. Sneaking into the kitchen to get matches was risky. I would have to get a chair and climb over the stove to reach them. Time for Plan B. A box of stick matches was kept in the machine shed. We kept them there for lighting the burn barrel on days we burned trash. There were matches in the barn for lighting the hog water heaters in the winter. But there was a risk of animals getting out of the barn when I opened the door. So off to the machine shed I went and came back with a handful of matches.
I began to plan my experiment. Near the end of my career I was known as an expert test planner. My co-workers are either smiling or shaking their heads. I wanted to keep the black granules out of the dirt. I went looking for some of mom’s garden plants with big leaves. I broke a big leaf from a plant and took it back to my hiding corner. I laid it on the ground and smoothed it out. I pulled another cherry bomb from the sack and pulled out the green stem. I carefully poured the black granules on the leaf. I was ready to light it and see what happened.
The wind was light, it was late summer and hot. Throwing a match at the granules would be risky. My aim might be off and the match would miss. There was a risk the sulfur smell from lighting the match would drift into the house through the open window. I wanted to be back a foot or two just in case something unexpected happened. I arrived at a better plan. I would strike the match and hold it until the stick was burning. Then I would hold it about two foot high and directly above the leaf, stretch out my arm to keep a distance, and drop it straight down; a sure direct hit. At that age I had not yet discovered the value of doing a risk assessment.
Holding the match between my right thumb and index finger I struck it on the block wall of the house’s foundation. It lit. I tilted the head slightly downward and got the stick to burn. Still holding the burning match between my thumb and index finger with my other fingers held outward, I stretched out my arm and I positioned the match directly above the leaf. I turned my hand 90 degrees and pointed the burning head of the match straight down. I let go of the match. It dropped straight and it was a perfect hit. The granules flashed with a big orange flame and an even bigger puff of smoke but the bang was missing. When the smoke cleared I noticed an obvious problem. My right hand had turned orange and I was mystified by what had just happened.
At that age I didn’t know what adrenaline was but 20-20 hindsight says I had lots of it. My orange hand hurt really bad but I wasn’t crying. My brain was in high gear thinking of excuses. I was a strong kid for my age. I was usually trying to lift things that I shouldn’t just to see if I could. My whirling brain came up with a really good excuse.
I marched into the house, opening the back door with my left hand, and started down the basement stairs. I stopped halfway down and sat down on a step. Mom had her back to me and was loading the washing machine. I hollered at her and said “Mom I hurt my hand really bad. It’s turned orange.” I held out my hand so she could see it.
“What did you do?” she asked.
I boldly stated “I dropped a rock on it.”
“Let me see that hand” she said and I held out my hand
Looking at me she said, “Looks like a burn.”
“No mom I dropped a rock on it” I firmly replied.
Mom said to go up stairs and sit at the kitchen table. Mom got a pan of water and put it on the table. “Put your hand in the water” she said and I did. Boy did that feel good. Mom’s sure know what to do. I sat there for a while and she said “Now lift your hand out of the water.” I did and it hurt really bad again. I grimaced and whined that it really hurt. She said that was a sign of a burn. I said “No mom, I dropped a rock on it”. She said “Sit there with your hand in the water.” She put a few ice cubes in the pan of water and went back to doing the laundry.
I snuck my hand out of the water every once in a while and it hurt as soon as it got out of the water. Mom came back up from the laundry and I had to pull my hand out of the water again. Mom says “I think that’s a burn. “No” I said, “It hurts too much” and I put my hand back in the water.
To my surprise the back door came open. It was dad coming into the house. He looked at me sitting at the table with my hand in a pan of water. He asked mom what was going on. She said, “Gary says he dropped a rock on his hand.” Not being one to waste words, dad said, “Baloney, he burned it playing with firecrackers”.
The pain made me forget the evidence left behind; right where dad could see it as he entered the house. The brown paper bag. The first cherry bomb, the two green stems, the leaves, the matches. Busted. Time for confession.
So I had to tell the whole sad story of a master plan gone bad. I had to pull my hand out of the water and show them what it looked like. I’m whining and crying about how bad it hurt. Dad gave his usual response. “Quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
Mom and dad decided the burn was not that serious and a trip to the doctor was not necessary. The hand got covered with butter, the common treatment for burns in the early ‘50s. It hurt to have it applied but it did block the air and the pain reduced. The butter was also thought to help keep the skin soft. Anyway the hand healed up and I was ok. My right hand is still sensitive to hot water and I think that relates back to an inquisitive kid trying to find out how a cherry bomb worked.
This was not the end of my inquisitive activities. In junior high I got a chemistry set for Christmas and I did almost every experiment in the manual. Except for learning the hydrogen sulfide experiment in the basement really did stink like rotten eggs I never got into significant trouble. The high school library had books on chemistry and I read them. I did some self directed advanced studies in the creation and application of explosives. The raw materials could be purchased at the local hardware store and the local pharmacies. With some creative signatures, some materials could be ordered from ads in the back of magazines.
I could only get my hands on small quantities of raw materials so small jars and cans were modified to create the “boom” of an explosion. Snow drifts were blown up. Big clods of dirt were turned into dust. Piles of percussion powder were shot with a 22 rifle which produced a big flash and lots of smoke but no boom. All of it was fun.
As the advanced studies continued, some friends decided to participate in these experiments. One Sunday a friend of a friend ended up in the hospital with serious but non-life threatening injuries. I wasn’t present for that experiment. Seems dad considered planting corn before a predicted rain to be a priority that day. That little episode resulted in a “Don’t you ever do that again” from dad in his “you’re in big trouble voice.” All of our supplies were confiscated and destroyed by our dads. After that I turned my attention to physics and mathematics and pursued a career in engineering.