Note: A prologue from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
Back in the Day…
Country kids have the most fun.
I am biased, of course. I spent most of my youth in a rural setting. Most teenaged boys these days are playing video games and surfing the internet; at that tender age most of my contemporaries and I were driving tractors and dump trucks, helping with haying and detassling and, at least in my case, spending a good part of the winter running traplines twice a day in below-zero temperatures.
I wouldn’t have traded today’s kids their recreations for anything in the world.
Some of the best parts, or course, aside from the heavy equipment and outdoor opportunities, involved one of the other aspects of country life that isn’t discussed nearly as much:
Fun with Models
About the age mentioned above, I spent one winter on a model ship-building binge. I spent some trapline money on some plastic model ships, mostly World War 2 battleships and aircraft carriers, and spent a fair amount of time in the evenings carefully painting and assembling the ship models and placing them on stands on the various surfaces around the house.
I did a few airplanes, too; three, in fact, a B-25, a B-17 and a B-29, those being the three aircraft with which the Old Man had some experience during World War 2. What happened to those carefully crafted airplane models is something of a mystery at this distance in time. The ships? Not so much.
The model-building winter was an unusually harsh one even for northeast Iowa, so I was housebound more than usual. Spring came that year, and when my normal outdoor activities resumed, I lost interest in model-building and turned my attention to other things.
Specifically, to the creek that ran past our house.
Around this time my Mom was making some rather pointed comments about the dust-gathering capabilities of my various ship models. Also, around this time, I was messing around with two black-powder arms: A .45-caliber Connecticut Valley Arms “Kentucky” rifle the Old Man and I had built from a kit, and an 1851 Navy Colt replica. This meant that I had a supply of black powder around.
The next step was perhaps obvious.
I had one model I didn’t particularly care for; it was a Revell model of the USS Missouri, one of my first efforts, and not well put together. After watching a couple of old WW2 movies on late-night TV that involved ship battles (I remember Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way was one of them) I was kind of taken with the idea of big naval battles.
I was inspired. I took that model of the Missouri, pried off the turrets, filled the open body of the ship with black powder, and stuck the turrets back on. I poked a hole in the top of the aft funnel and threaded in some model rocket fuse I’d picked up somewhere along the way. On a nice spring morning, with my rather bemused folks watching, I took that ship out to the foot bridge across the creek, put it in the flowing water, lit the fuse and let it go. It drifted about twenty yards downstream, trailing a plume of smoke from the fuse, and then detonated with a very satisfactory showering of plastic parts.
The rest of my model ship fleet followed suit in short order, the primary result of which was having to nag the Old Man to taking me into town so I could re-stock my supply of black powder for the summer’s shooting. He didn’t resist overly much; I was spending my own money, after all, and I suspect he enjoyed a good explosion as much as I did. As long as certain limits were observed, of course.
I think he knew that I would find ways to explore the extent of those limits.
Ditching and Fishing
My interest in explosives was prompted further when I was about sixteen and had the opportunity to watch an explosives expert blast about a half-mile of ditch with TNT, buried at intervals and daisy-chained together with electrical wire. The setup took most of a day, but at the end, the blasting guy hooked up wires to an old WW2-style crank detonator, gave the handle a twist, and BOOM! Instant ditch.
My buddies and I thought that was one of the coolest things we’d ever seen.
Then some other ideas occurred to me and my partner in misadventure Jon. The Old Man had become concerned about carp working their way up Bear Creek from the Upper Iowa River, and indeed the big corner pool near the downstream end of his land had become infested with the big Asian immigrant fish. “Why don’t you boys spend a day catching those carp out of the corner pool?” he asked one summer afternoon as Jon and I were lounging on the front porch. “Just throw them in to the cornfield. Helps the trout and helps the corn.”
We thought that was a good idea, but serious angling time was best reserved for trout and other, more edible fish. About then, Jon hit on a better idea.
“Say,” he mused after the Old Man had left to go about his daily choring, “are there any empty oil cans around?”
“Probably,” I replied. “We just changed the oil in the tractor a few days ago.” Back in those days, it’s important to note, oil was not supplied in plastic bottles but rather in heavy, sealed metal cans. The anchor on my old canoe was an oil can with the top cut off, filled with cement, with an iron ring set in the cement; in fact, it’s still the anchor on that same canoe today. Those oil cans were stout and durable.
“I think we can get rid of those carp really quickly. Still got some of that model rocket fuse?”
I did. Some experimentation proved, somewhat to our surprise, that the fuse would indeed burn underwater.
When opening a metal oil can, the standard practice was to take a chisel or heavy screwdriver and poke two holes in the top of the can; one to pour from, and a smaller one to allow air into the can. We found a funnel and discovered it was easy to fill two discarded oil cans with black powder.
Sealing the cans was a little trickier. We had an ample supply of duct tape, but we lacked faith in the waterproof qualities of tape. Jon hit on the idea of sealing the opening around a length of rocket fuse with wax, then wrapping a generous helping of duct tape around the whole thing. That proved to work remarkably well.
We made two of the improvised explosive devices and proceeded hither to the corner pool, where we lit our improvised depth charges and tossed them into the creek.
“Maybe we’d better take a few steps back,” Jon said in an uncharacteristic display of youthful wisdom. We backed away a few yards into the cornfield just in time for two large, muffled BLOOMPS and a shower of water and fish parts to rise from the pool.
We stepped back up to the bank for a look. Dead carp were still floating to the surface, along with a leavening of creek chubs (also a trash fish) and, to our chagrin, a couple of smallmouth bass. We waded in and retrieved the bass for eating purposes and came ashore just in time for the arrival of the Old Man, who demanded to know what we thought we were up to.
He was satisfied with the removal of the carp but somewhat less than pleased with our method. After a considerable lecture there on the creek bank, he went back to his choring, and we returned to our lounging on the front porch.
“Well,” Jon observed, “that worked like a charm.”
“It did,” I agreed. The Old Man’s lecture was water off a duck’s back. Our interest in explosives was unchanged.
And Then This Happened
A few years later:
Across the creek from the house there was a fair amount of flat creek-bottom land, and on that land had been a grove of enormous elm trees. Now folks of a certain age will remember the Dutch Elm disease that killed most of the North American native elms from the early years of the 20th century up through the Seventies; the elms on our land had succumbed, sadly, to this blight. So now these big, once-beautiful trees had to come down for firewood.
The issue was this: Some of those trees were huge, as much as four feet through at the base. That in itself was no trouble; the Old Man had a huge, gear-driven Black & Decker logging chainsaw with a 36” blade, and my Uncle George, who loved messing with a good chainsaw, had a near-identical machine, and he happily showed up to help. In a couple of weeks, Dad, Uncle George, my brother, and I had the three biggest trees down, cut up, split, and stacked for burning wood.
What remained, of course, was three enormous stumps that had to go. Dad thought about piling slashings (small branches unsuited for fireplace wood) around the stumps, soaking the whole mess in kerosene and burning them, but George had a case of dynamite and a better idea.
It was the work of a few minutes for Dad and George to instruct my brother in the techniques involved in affixing a blasting cap, connecting the detonating wires, and the use of the crank detonator. Then Dad and George left to take the last wagonload of wood back to the woodpile by the shed.
Now my brother Bob is thirteen years older than me, which is why he, presumably the more responsible one, was given the task of blowing the three stumps. At the time he would have been in his early thirties, and supposedly more thoughtful than I was at eighteen.
But we had both overlooked one thing, one essential detail, and Dad and George had likewise neglected that detail. The object of the exercise was, after all, just to knock each stump loose enough to be able to wrap a chain around it from the tractor so it could be hauled off into a pile and burned along with the aforementioned slashings.
But we weren’t sure as to how much explosive was required to accomplish that.
“Say,” Bob asked me, “did Dad say how much dynamite we should use on each stump?”
“He didn’t. Want me to walk over and ask?”
“Nah,” Bob said. “That would take took long. Let’s just wire up, oh, three sticks. That first stump is pretty big.”
The first stump on the agenda was indeed a big one; a four-food diameter monster, with probably three feet of trunk left above ground. As we had been instructed, we dug down among the roots, wired up three sticks of dynamite, stuck them down in the hole, filled the hole back in and backed off maybe fifty yards.
As Bob was connecting the detonator, I had a flash of insight. “Maybe we’d better lie down behind that down log,” I said, pointing to a downed box-elder a few steps away.
“Good idea,” Bob agreed.
Once behind the log, hopefully sheltered, Bob gave the detonator handle a vigorous twist, as we’d been instructed.
The concussion bounced us up and down on the ground and took the breath right out of our lungs. Our ears were ringing; a shower of wood chips rained down on us for three or four seconds.
“Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?” my brother said. He sounded like he was underwater.
“What?” I demanded. “Who’s Butch?”
“What?” Bob shouted back.
We stood up, both of us more than a little unsteady, and staggered over to find a six-foot wide crater, maybe three feet deep, surrounded by wood chips, where the stump used to be. We were still shaking our heads and trying to pop our ears when the Old Man and Uncle George arrived at a dead run.
“What happened?” the Old Man demanded.
We told the story. Uncle George collapsed in helpless laughter. “You’re supposed to use HALF A STICK,” the Old Man roared, one of the two or three times our normally soft-spoken father had ever been known to raise his voice.
Bob and I were banished back to the house to finish stacking firewood while the Old Man and George finished the stump-blasting.
“Well,” Bob said to me as he tossed me a piece of cordwood to stack, “I sure learned something from that.”
“What?” I demanded. “I already have a hat! Why would you ask?”
“What?” Bob shouted back. “I don’t have any cash. Why the hell would you ask me about that now?”
I think it was a good three or four days before my ears stopped ringing, by which time the folks were good and tired of having to shout at me to get my attention.
Nowadays I’m a bit more cautious. I enjoy a good firework display as much as ever (I’ve seen some amazing ones in Japan!) but I rarely indulge in the temptation to make my own, improvised explosions.
On the other hand, it’s legal in Colorado to build and use your own flamethrower. I have this set of plans, and loyal sidekick Rat is on board to assist in the construction and testing…
What could possibly go wrong?