we like explosions

Flying cans, gas bags, and other things that go BOOM (or BOMB as it were).

Ah, the Fourth of July, that most wonderful time of year when the neighbors would cower near the phone waiting to report the next flash bomb to the local Sheriff. In southern California the Fourth comes in the middle of the dry season and living right on the brush line in the foothills of La Crescenta my dad was a stickler for fire safety, at least until the Fourth rolled around. We'd spend most weekend mornings from March to October clearing grass and brush in a 400 foot fire break between the house and the thicket of Laurel Sumac, Chemise, and Scrub Oak bramble that grew on the hills. This stuff grows to a tinder box of thatch with or without rain over the years. Honestly, the Southern California scrub brush is a miracle of fecundity in what should be a parched moonscape. Fire was a perpetual threat and any whiff of smoke on the breeze would prompt a panicked search of the local news and the fire radio scanner for any word of where the fire was burning and witch way the wind was blowing, but the fires and all our work to prevent them will have to wait for another post.

Today I'm talkin' about making fire and loud bangs with wild abandon (but just enough caution to avoid death, mayhem, or bodily injury). In spite of all the work to prevent fires and all the admonitions from my dad about fire safety, when the Fourth drew near the sparks would fly. I have to give the standard warning about not trying for yourself any of the things I describe below. Really and truly this stuff can get you killed or at least badly maimed. Even in the middle of all the crazy my dad held us to a few really important rules. We could only do this stuff with supervision and things had to be arranged just so. Fuses were lit only when the explosive thing was resting on the ground and we had a clear place to run away. Keeping a safe distance for ourselves, and yes, for anything flammable was a lesson that was hammered in over and again.

We would have the standard issue big variety box of illegal small arms; the requisite sparklers that dribble scorching embers on your sleeves, some screaming whistling road flares, and plenty of showers of colored sparks shooting out of brightly colored paper cones. Then there was the real contraband; the brick of firecrackers wrapped in red tissue, and the collection of small bombs in cardboard tubes with stiff green fuses sticking out of one side. Oooh, these little devils had some punch and each of the kids on the block would get a few chances to set one down, gingerly touch a burning punk to the fuse, then run like hell as the little green cord popped and hissed. Then, BANG! Wheehaw! the thrill never wore off. The brick of firecrackers had to be savored and only a few bunches would be fired off in the rapid fire they were designed for. In case you have never witnessed a Chinese New Year celebration the standard practice for the strings of firecrackers is to hook the unwrapped bunch from a small loop at one end of the tangled fuses and hang it all in the air at the end of a long pole. This lets the individual crackers drop as the fuses burn down and they pop in a staccato tumble in the air. Ah, but we had other plans for the bulk of that big red brick. Once more folks, don't try what comes next. There are lots of things I did with dad when I was a kid that make me wonder how I survived. I would feel awful if anyone tried what I'm about to describe and got hurt. This stuff will put your eye out if you slip just once. No, really!

My dad introduced all sorts of tricks to my weird little brain, but the soda can rocket is a favorite memory. It required one empty aluminum soda can and one of those funny shaped extra tall Coor's cans. Remember those? I'd have to collect the cans here and there as we didn't have soda around the house often and the special Coor's cans could be hard to come by. The anticipation of the soda can rocket was so great that some years I would hoard Coor's cans that I stumbled on walking home from the school bus. We had some delightful neighbors with empty cans in the ice plant filled front yard. The open end of both cans would be carefully cut away below the shoulder leaving razor sharp edges to make your fingers bleed. Now the soda can would slip over the narrower Coor's can making a swell little cannon chamber for the cracker. To complete the rocket a hole of just the right size had to be punched from inside the soda can through the curved bottom that would be just big enough for a firecracker fuse. A singe cracker could be unbraided carefully from its palls, the fuse poked up through the hole in the soda can, and the soda can rocket was slipped over the Coor's can. The whole mess was set upright with the cracker fuse on top, a lit punk was touched to the fuse, and then everybody ran. The cracker would drop into the chamber and (usually) go bang, shooting the soda can way up in the air. Weeehaw! can't get enough. Lets do it again... and again.... and.... all day long, until the alarm call went out and the Sheriff would come by. We'd hide for a few hours and be back at it before sundown. Sometimes the cracker was a dud, and here one of those safety rules would kick in. Any can rocket that didn't go bang had to be left sitting for fifteen minutes before it could be rescued and reset with another cracker. You never know when one of those dud crackers could go off, and it'll always do it right when you go to pick it up. The duds all had to be disposed of in a bucket of water where they could soak until the paper turned to pulp.

Our Fourth of July celebrations usually had some kind of finale, some big bang bigger than all the rest, and that brings me to the gas bags that produced the brightest flash, the biggest chest compressing wallop, and the loudest whump I hope I will ever experience. These were delivered by my dad's favorite pyrotechnics, the big guns that he would only roll out once every few years. I witnessed the gas bag only five times or so in my life but that was enough. The photo above documents the mischief of the gas bag. By the quality of the photo, how young my dad looks, and by identifying the other engineer crazy person in the picture I know it was taken in the early 60s before I was born. The background is July grape vines and squash growing in the heat of a Tustin summer, and with what do you suppose he's filling that polyethylene bag? Yes folks, it's good ol' acetylene. Really, don't do this at home. This is one of those things I remember fondly and with some jaw dropping hindsight. These guys seemed to know what they were doing and no fire or death or maiming ever resulted from their antics, but looking back I can barely believe that I'm still in one piece after being witness to some of these bangs. Oxy-acetylene welding seems to be a dying art quickly loosing out to the newer TIG welders and their ilk, but back in the 60s and 70s a tank full of acetylene dissolved in acetone was easy to come by in any well equipped shop. If you have ever been trained in the use of the stuff you know the gas by itself has all sorts of explosive potential requiring strict handling precautions. Ah, but that didn't stop the mischief.

The gas bag would happen after all the standard illegal Fourth of July whiz bang was spent. Then dad would conspire with a neighbor or another engineer nut who happened to be around. They would find an open space clear of flammable debris and prepare a plastic bag taped to the end of a long tube. Not a huge bag, just a medium size, not to get carried away. (The photo above showing dad filling the bag directly is atypical by the way. Perhaps with age and experience he learned to make some more distance between himself and the bag.) Then the conspirators would let the acetylene flow down the tube and loosely fill the bag at the far end. All the spectators were gathered at a safe distance, the lights in the house were all turned off and everyone waited partly covering their ears in anticipation. When a source of flame was touched to the end of the tube a queer buzz sound would fly down the length of it. In an instant... FLASH! WHOMP! The air in my chest would be squeezed and the instant of brighter-than-lightning brilliance would slowly fade to red on my retinas. The hose was quickly coiled (not a trace of the bag remained) several people would rush out to check for fire and then we'd all hide in the house with the lights off waiting for the inevitable visit by the County Sheriff squad cars. They would cruise the street and scan with their search lights but seeing no fire, burst windows, or mad bombers fleeing the scene they would have to move on and ignore the pleas of the fainthearted neighbors still cowering by their rotary telephones.

Stay tuned for the next episode when I'll fess up to all the other crazy explosive things I stuck around to witness when I should have known enough to run the other way. You know, all the really dangerous stuff the kids were doing out of range of the adults. Remember those Estes model rockets? Hmm... how we can give these things a bigger kick?

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