I saw a notice in our neighborhood blog about a noise, and a bright light at 12:00 am. The neighbor wanted to know if anyone else had seen it. Dozens of people responded that they had, and suggested that it was fireworks.
Sixty years ago, my close friend said that he had discovered the formula for gunpowder, he didn’t do this by trial and error, he found the proportions listed in some old textbook. He then told me that it was some common chemicals, that were easily obtainable. The hardest to find could actually be purchased at the local drugstore. We enlisted a friend to buy some, and we bought the rest.
What trouble could three teenagers get into with a pound of homemade gunpowder? Our first idea was to buy a pound of caramel chews, melt them in a pan, replacing the sugar in the formula. We could then pour the liquid it into a tube, let it cool to a solid, then we would have a solid fuel rocket… if we added wings.
One of us, with more safety consciousness, said that it probably wasn’t safe to have gunpowder around a flame. We agreed to mix the ingredients dry. All we had was the large coffee can, from my father’s morning brew, Folgers.
It was all about proportions, one half of this, one third of that, etc. by some miracle we added every thing and it filled the can to the brim. We put the lid on it, taped it shut, grabbed some matches, some sparklers, and waited till dark.
The sun was down but we had a problem, at first we thought we would set it off in the alley behind our houses. But we weren’t sure about the end result. It could be a flare, it could be an explosion. We didn’t want to blow up our neighborhood, plus we would certainly be found to have been the ones buying chemicals from the drugstore.
There was the asphalt field at the junior high, but it was ringed by houses, so that was out. We didn’t want to use our bikes to go out into the country. We were lazy, and didn’t want to start a fire. We settled on the local high school football field, 50 yard line, on the school logo.
We had been there before, so we knew it was surrounded by a high chain link fence. I mean very high, three times the height near the stands, and twice the height near the end zones. We quietly climbed the three story fence near the stands.
We managed to carry over the coffee can, the matches, and a few sparklers we had from July 4th to act as a fuse. It was very dark, which was good for us, but we had to take a few moments to find centerfield. We placed the can on the logo, took the lid off, and prepared to light the sparklers.
We first thought to light the sparklers, then toss them into the can from several yards away. We didn’t get remotely close enough. Then we thought about dropping it in as we ran fast beside it. We didn’t even try that. We ended up lighting the sparkler near the can, dropping it in, then running to a safe distance.
I don’t know how we knew a safe distance for one pound of gunpowder. Was it ten yards, fifteen yards? I think we opted for twenty yards. We looked back into the darkness and we could barely see the faint flicker of the sparkler inside the can. It hadn’t ignited. We waited a full five minutes until the sparkler was nearly out, then there was a whoosh!
It wasn’t a bang, it didn’t explode. If it had, I probably wouldn’t be able to write about it sixty years later. The whoosh came from gases being thrown out of the can into the dark sky. From my memory it was as if a moon rocket had buried it self into the earth, with flames going thirty to forty feet into the air. It was so amazing that it didn’t explode, and that we were safe and watching this wonderful light. I could see the laughter of my friends, I could see every freckle on their faces. It was so bright!
We were at least 60 yards from the closest fence, it was like daylight everywhere on the football field. We stood out so plainly that everyone could see what color of clothes we were wearing.
It wasn’t going to be long before neighbors were going to ask questions. It wasn’t going to be long before the police would be looking for us.
It took so long to get to the fence that I thought we would be caught coming down the other side. It was quiet here and some trees had hid the light so that neighbors were not standing it the street wondering.
We hid in some bushes to formulate a plan. Something that we hadn’t conceived earlier. We thought about splitting up and going three different ways on the five block run to our homes.
We didn’t like that, the odds were that at least one of us would be caught and tortured. So we kept together, sending one person out to find the next hiding spot. We took at least two hours leap frogging from one spot into the next. We got home safe.
The following day we heard about a bright light on the football field. They said it was fireworks.