My Friend

I have a friend that I have known for 67 years. We been close, and we have drifted. In some of the most important parts of our lives we never spoke. We had families that never met, yet now we still meet periodically and have coffee.

We lived next door to each other from 1st grade through 10th grade. Volatile years, filled with close companionship and banishment. We were radically different, Jack was athletic, I was not. I had official Army gear from my brother, Jack did not. We were both interested in blowing things up.

We had heard a rumor that wooden kitchen matches could be a source of pyrotechnics. Sitting on my garage floor, we made a pile of matchheads as we clipped off the striking heads of two full boxes. The rumor suggested that we fill the space between two bottle caps.

We went scrounging the local mom&pop stores. There were three of them with bottle openers nailed to the outside walls. There were folks that even then collected various beer and soda bottle caps. In a short time we had collected a bag full. Screw caps did not yet exist, they were all the crimped kind, with a thin cork disk lightly glued to the inside to help seal. Out process was to remove the cork.

Taking two bottle caps we carefully scooped into the mountain of matchheads, lightly twisting until the space was completely filled. The rumor did not specify how the caps were secured together. We had tape, lots of types of tape.

We had Scotch tape, we had masking tape, we had electrical tape, and we had plumber’s tape. We didn’t know which was best so we made a half-dozen of each type.

We loaded our pockets with our taped experiments, not considering that any one of them could explode and set fire to our pants. Safety was rarely considered.

We got to the junior high school playground, a vast area of asphalt covering almost a square block. The rumor had it that all you needed to do was throw the bottle caps. When they landed the caps would bend and compress the matchheads. The matchheads would rub one another and combust. The entire collection of matchheads would light in an instant. What happened next was not known, but we would find out.

It turns out that the tape and type of tape was important. Too much tape would cushion the blow and the matchheads would not light. Too little tape would cause the caps to separate and scatter unlit matchheads on the asphalt.

The perfect tape wrap caused a fiery explosion! The paper based masking tape blew apart, and there was a fiery, smoky cloud filled with flaming matchheads, scattering in a circle about ten feet wide. Marvelous!

The cloth or plastic tape did not separate, but the gasses inside the bottle caps had to escape, so the caps went spinning away with a shriek, and lots of smoke.

It was a great success, with the two of us throwing a half dozen at the same time. It looked, and sounded like a WWII battlefield, with smoke, shrapnel, and flames.

That Friday we made dozens of the little bombs, in order to chuck them at the opposing crowds at our weekly football games. I think we threw two, them ran away in terror.

On July 4th we had fireworks, but for us it was little black snakes, and sparklers. The grownups had wisely banned bottle-rockets. Sparklers were approved, we could light them, wave them, stick them in the grass, and toss them lightly in the air. They lasted about a minute.

Back in the garage we hit them with hammers, and broke them off of their metal wires. Soon we had a pile of sparkler chunks, and we ground that into a fine dust. We knew that bottle caps would not set it on fire. We suspected that it would burn a lot faster as ground sparkler dust. We would find a small container and jam a sparkler in as a fuse.

We found several empty CO2 green containers. We drilled out the bottoms and filled the containers with dust and a regular sparkler jammed in opening. We could light the sparkler, stick it in the ground, and wait for the explosion. We never thought about the shrapnel.

The sparkler lit the dust, the dust burned super quick and sent the CO2 cartridge high in the air with a trail of sparkler smoke. It may have gone 500 to 600 feet in the air. It landed on the neighbors roof across the street. We tested several more, until it landed in our own yard.

We thought that if we could place it in a tube, like a bazooka, then we could aim it. And if we could fill a larger CO2 cylinder we could perhaps aim it to the junior high school asphalt yard, a few blocks away. Jack offered to be the bazooka man.

Before we fired the bigger container we thought to test it one more time. We propped it up in a garbage can but it leaned over, and it hard to light the sparkler fuse. So we nailed the tube to a 2×4 placed it acrossed the can. The tube pointed straight up. We lit the fused a stepped a few feet back, feeling that the metal garbage can provided some shrapnel protection. At the last second we additional ducked behind the corner of the backyard shed.

Seconds later there was a huge explosion and lots of smoke. When the smoke cleared we checked out the garbage can. It looked like a giant colander, peppered with hundreds of tiny holes, with larger ones here and there. We looked at the fence right next to our hiding spot an found a twistedbazook piece of metal with sharp spikes firmly embedded in the fence.

Jack was planning o hold that tube next to his head as he aimed the “bazooka”.

Somehow we survived, later I went hitchhiking around the country, Jack went to college. We both went into the Army. Jack was an MP and I was a technician. Later, I became a graphic designer, and Jack joined the Oakland police force. We both survived.

Now years later, we drink coffee and talk about our dangerous times. Not about our careers, not about our “Wartime” experience. We talk about making homemade gunpowder and sparkler dust rockets.

We also talk about watching our volcano with binoculars, waiting with several buckets of water to put out the fires. It turns out that Mt. Tamalpais is not a volcano.

When Jack retired he took up a hobby of flying ultralights. Not satisfied he bought plans to build his own airplane. It took almost two years. On the day of the first test flight, he took it on to the runway and went to the field gas pump to fill the tank, and then take off. Something happened, a spark occurred. The flames engulfed the plane and everything was consumed, but Jack was safe.

To compensate, Jack brought a Shelby Cobra sports car and refurbished it. It was beautiful. So beautiful, that he bought another in kit form and built from the ground up another Shelby. Now he was has two. Neither one has burned to the ground

Happy birthday, my friend.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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