In 1977 I was a teenager in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was a relatively small town back then; probably around 40,000 people, not including the students at Colorado State University. I could bicycle across town to the new city library in a little over ten minutes if I pedaled like a demon and hit the traffic lights just right. I had a “bookstore tour” that I did on most Saturday mornings. Bicycles were freedom.
One morning, bicycling into school, I saw a building explode.
It was a particularly clear and calm day, and I was headed down a hill which had a great view of downtown. I happened to look up at exactly the right moment. A couple miles away, quite visible in the morning air, I saw a puff of smoke and a fountain of debris. A few seconds later there was a sharp and bassy “KaBOOM!”. People heard it in the city of Loveland, ten or fifteen miles away. Overnight, a building downtown had filled up with natural gas, and it detonated around 7 in the morning. Nobody was hurt, though it blew out windows for several blocks.
Also, the CSU chemistry department (which would sell bulk supplies to anyone, no questions) was quietly asked by the Fort Collins Police Department not to sell nitrates to, say, impressed and over-curious teenagers.
I don’t know what it is about “stinks and bangs” (as Oliver Sacks, author of the wonder Uncle Tungsten puts it) that attracts teenage boys, but we were certainly impressionable. We never successfully nitrated anything, but we had other uses for the chemicals we bought. Dissolving things in acid was fun. So was filling various objects and making our own rockets, smoke bombs and (in some cases) real bombs. Fort Collins was not taken over by subdivisions then, and still had plenty of open cornfields for our experiments. I nearly made cyanide gas in the basement once.
My friend Jim had a car, and one summer we drove up to Wyoming to buy fireworks. We drove around all one night, setting off firecrackers and shooting pop-bottle rockets out of the windows (in one memorable instance, I ignited a rocket but found that someone had rolled up the window when I wasn’t looking; the rocket zoomed around inside the car, threatening to light the rest of our substantial stash. It would have been quite a sight).
Electronics was an easier hobby, though, and once I had a working computer, writing software was the most fun of all.