By Jeff Hodges
When we were twelve, a couple of years before we discovered girls, guitars, and psychedelics, we figured out how to make gunpowder. It took a lot of research in the local library, and the librarian was gratified to see us with our faces buried in the Encyclopedia Britannica. After we were sure of the ingredients, we went to the drugstore and pulled some saltpeter and sulfur off the shelf. “What do you want this for?” the druggist asked. “Chemistry set!” we answered, and took our booty home.
Mixed properly, saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal will generate fearsome and colorful geysers of flames and smoke. We amazed our friends and terrified our enemies with our pyrotechnic prowess, and we stampeded farm animals and traumatized family dogs, but we were sure to stay under the radar of the adult world. We had a powerful ordnance that we knew was forbidden, and understood that the punishment would be draconian and medieval.
Our only problem, initially, was that we couldn’t get the gunpowder to explode. Packed into discharged shotgun shells wrapped in adhesive tape with a fuse of twisted paper, our firecrackers would only smoke and sizzle. We approached the smartest boy in town, a chemistry major at Harvard; he told us he couldn’t divulge the solution for ethical reasons, but that he would give us a hint. “Think about baking a cake,” he said. We could make neither head nor tail of that, and resentfully considered ourselves objects of his ridicule. Was there something we weren’t including? Baking soda? We went back to the Britannica.
It was one of the older girls who gave us the answer. Peering over my shoulder in the library, she said with decisive authority, “You have to get it wet.” Get it wet? This was worse than baking a cake! “Thanks a lot,” I grumbled. She ran her finger along the edge of the relevant paragraph. “Read this,” she said, tossing her hair and strolling away.
For the millionth time I read the paragraph. It concerned something called the corning process. And suddenly, I read it with new eyes.
In the early days of manufacture, the powder was wetted and then dried in shallow flat pans. (This seemed so counter-intuitive that we must have overlooked it.) When the gunpowder dried, it became granulated, and that is what gave it explosive qualities.
It was still hard to believe. Even after we soaked and sun-dried a batch on one of my mother’s baking tins we were still skeptical. But we packed a shotgun shell and brought it to the railroad tracks. We lit a match and stepped back as the fuse burnt down.
Nothing. Of course! We should have known. We’d gotten the powder wet and ruined everything. Cursing our advisors and the Encyclopedia Britannica, we bent down to examine the latest of our failures, and it exploded our faces.
At that point Norman Rockwell would have painted a heartwarming portrait of a couple of twelve-year olds with blackened faces hooting and hollering as they danced around in a cloud of smoke, with various species of wildlife running in all directions.
We’d done it. We’d pulled ahead of the Mackey brothers and their inferior cap and match-head bombs. We were no longer at the mercy of the older boys and their over-priced cherry bombs and M-80s. We were armed with a weapon of our own creation, with which we could blow up the world if need be. But we were content to spend the rest of the summer blowing up coffee cans, milk bottles, and mailboxes.
Years later, just before we left for college, now fortified with girls, guitars, and psychedelics, we mixed up a batch of gunpowder and lit up the sky for one last time in one of the mountain meadows outside of town.
It was a great way to say goodbye.