Monday, July 15, 2013

I Was A Pre-Teen Terrorist

OK, I confess.  I was a pre-teen terrorist!  Well not really. However, what I used to do as a kid would today get me arrested and possibly charges with federal crimes.  How our world has changed, and not for the better.

After hearing a story of a busload of kids being surrounded by a SWAT team and frisked, because one of them had a cap-gun, it became evident that childhood is a dangerous place today, if you're a kid.

As a child, I was inquisitive and it has led me not to a life of crime, but to a life-long intellectual curiosity.  That should be considered a good thing and it sould be encouraged in our kids and in the adult population as well.  A nation without any intellectual curiosity becomes just a country full of human sheep, being led from one crisis to another, willing to give up their freeom and critical thinking in the name of security.

Here is my story or confession if you will.  I was eleven or twelve when I really became fascinated with fireworks.  Like most kids my age (this is back in the dark ages of the 1950's and 1960's when fireworks were still legal) I enjoyed my share of firecrackers and bottle rockets, and unlike the horror stories, neither me nor any of my friends ever lit our house on fire or blew a finger off.  We were taught by our parents how to light and respect fireworks.

My fascination went far beyond the noise of firecrackers. I liked the sparkly stuff, the fountains and rockets that exploded with showers of star and sparks.  I wondered exactly how they worked and what went on inside them, so I did what any curious kid would do. I went to the library.  For those who don't remember, a library is one of those places with lots of books...made of paper.

There I found a British publication from the 1930's titled "A Chemical Formulary" and within it's pages was a whole chapter on fireworks.  It detailed the construction and more importantly the formulas for the showers of sparks and the stars the shot out of everything from Roman Candles to Professional mortars that shot hundreds of feet into the sky.  I was fascinated and I decided I needed to try my had at making them.

My dad was a scientist, and working in a major institution he had access to lots of chemicals, so I made a list of what I needed and asked him to buy them for me.  He was delighted with my interest in things scientific, so he agreed, not knowing the end results of my experimentation.  It was for "A Science Fair Project" was the standard answer.  (In reality it did turn into a science fair project and I won a blue ribbon for it!)

Soon I had jars of the same chemicals from the book and I began to combine them in very small quantities.  I was not an idiot.  I had see how powerful fireworks could be so I erred on the side of caution.  Any work I did was done outside the house, far enough away that any accidents wouldn't result in burning the place down.

I learned how to make pyrotechnics that burned different colors.  For red I used strontium, for green I used barium chloride, blue was copper chloride and silver was aluminum powder and so on.  These were mixed with oxidizers like potassium chloride and perchlorates and the like.

What I achieved was pretty impressive.  Brightly colored flares from the burning compounds that rivaled the colors of the commercial fireworks I bought at the stores.  I never got to the point of building shells, since these took much more chemicals than I had and lots of time and something called "gum arabic" which I had yet to find. 

The whole thing ended when I was testing a version of a fountain.  It was filled with a mixture of various chemicals and aluminum power and was supposed to spray bright white sparks into the air in a delightful fountain.  I had rolled the paper tube myself, packed the ingreedients and sealed it with the proper material that held the fuse. 

I mounted it on a sturdy wooden base and the lit the fuse and got safely away.  The fuse sputtered and vanished into the tube.  As I watched the sparks began to shoot out the end.  My joy was quickly interrupted by what I can only assume was a very loud explosion.  I saw the flash and felt a slight shock wave and then nothing.  I was temporarily deaf from what must have been a really loud bang.  I tried to talk and heard nothing.  my lips moved but no sound.  I was scared and panicky.  I quickly rounded up all the chemicals and tucked them away fearing the wrath of my parents.  Luckily neither of them was home. 

Soon I heard a slight ringing, and then dogs barking and then a whole ocean of sound as my hearing returned.  I sat down and waited until my heart rate returned to a semblance of normal.  Then, I assessed the situation.  I must have packed the mixture too tightly into the tube, or made the opening too small and the result was a big explosion instead of a shower of pretty sparks.  Such a small difference in construction and such a big and unexpected result. 

Later I decided to keep my research to theoretical and not empirical.  Also, no one except me apparently knew what happened.  No police showed up, no neighbors complained.  I guess they thought it was one of the sonic booms we heard regularly from the nearby Naval Air Station jets.

Today, there would have been lots of notice, and the resulting investigation would have found I possessed bomb making material and had conducted tests of explosives.  I wold have ended up in juvenile detention or worse and my dad would have lost his position as professor. 

So what changed between then and now?  Well, we could point to 9/11 and be assured it would be the stock answer that justified any kind of over the top reaction by authorities.  In reality it is the media, and specifically what passes as news that has brought us to where we are today.  IN the name of keeping us informed they have numbed us with endless images of terrorist events that burn them indelibly into your memory, and more than that they replay them over and over ad-infinitum to make sure we remain scared.  A frightened audience will stay glued to the TV and that means money to cable news.  It also means money to politicians who take legalized bribes from defense contractors and security firms.  They use the fear to keep us pliable and ready to sacrifice our freedoms for the assurance that we are safe.  That safety means the strange ability to buy a gun without a background check but the inability to buy a sparkler legally in our city and chemistry sets?  Well they don't include the "dangerous stuff" anymore.

We have got it backwards in the country.  We arm everyone (88 guns per 100 people at last count) and then we keep them stupid and uneducated. 

Granted, I was a bit reckless, and I could have lost my hearing or worse.  What I learned was very valuable.  Don't mess around with things that might be too powerful for you to control!  I never injured myself permanently from my experiments again, and I learned caution.  So being what today would be considered a "junior terrorist" was in 1961 creating an award winning science fair project.

I still miss having the right to shoot fireworks safely and sanely, guess I will have to be content to shooting guns?  Go figure?

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