A puff of smoke

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.

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5 Responses to A puff of smoke

  1. Sometimes, when little ICs go fizz-pop and no-one’s looking I still say “cool” in a quiet, impressed voice.

  2. Tom Taylor says:

    I had similar experiences as a youth on a bike, with nitrates, and firecrackers. It’s interesting how the range that kids are allowed to wander dramatically shrinks with each generation. My dad explored nearby mountains with his friends when they were just kids. These days, we barely allow kids to play in their own yards unsupervised. What’ll the size be of their kids’ stomping grounds?

  3. James says:

    Set my right arm on fire when I was 15, boiling methylated spirits in a bean can (don’t ask). There was a brief moment when I said “cool!”, then “arrgh!”.

    A number of years later (say ten or twelve) I repeated this ill-fated experiment trying to build my own beer-can based alcohol stove. The design was good, I just lacked meths. Had plenty of lamp oil though which is surprisingly hard to set on fire.

    … unless you boil it up first.

    It was impressive, in the way large rocket-like flames are 🙂

    I’ve since bought a properly made alcohol stove and it is somewhat safer to use.

  4. Oisín says:

    The increasing parental paranoia and restriction of children’s movement is indeed significant – I remember getting the 53A bus to school with my younger sister when I was 7 or so, walking about a kilometre through the city centre each way.

    We had some fun and hairy moments with fireworks too, years later – at 15 we were quite the disreputable rogues; at one point myself and a friend lit and threw a loud firecracker outside the window of an expensive jazz restaurant, then as we sprinted away in slow motion, heard plates/glasses smashing and the music stopping as people started in fright. And some local kid taking one of the remaining bangers and tossing it through the door of a busy pub before shutting the door and running. Tut tut tut… reprehensible, but it was worth it to choke with laughter for half the night 🙂

  5. Not Me says:

    >Tom Taylor says:
    >March 11, 2009 at 2:16 pm
    >
    >I had similar experiences as a youth on a bike, with nitrates, and
    >firecrackers. It’s interesting how the range that kids are allowed to
    >wander dramatically shrinks with each generation. My dad explored
    >nearby mountains with his friends when they were just kids. These days,
    >we barely allow kids to play in their own yards unsupervised. What’ll the
    >size be of their kids’ stomping grounds?

    Our grandchildren will be strapped into little bondage pods.
    Somehow a way will be found to blame them for the side effects,
    such as a lack of physical coordination and the various sorts of
    mistreatment to which their physical vulnerability will make them
    victims.

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