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Blast from the past

June 20, 2008
By Bob Seidenstein,
It started out a enough conversation, with me, Whispering Tom Dudones and his long-suffering wife Jen talking about games of our childhood.

We discussed the usual assortment from that long-gone, pre-electronic era: Chinese checkers, yo-yos, tiddly winks, pick-up sticks, Old Maid and so on.

From there we moved to real adolescent guy amusements — Red Rover, Boston Bulldog, Mossay — all of which consisted of nothing but lunatic tackling, with the promise of getting kicked in the head with a stray sneaker or two.

And finally, we somehow got to talking about chemistry sets.

The raw material

Ah yes, the Gilbert chemistry set. They came in different models and sizes but each in a baby-blue metal case. Inside, in racks, were all the equipment, raw materials and instructions to turn the average chuckleheaded kid into a pint-size Lavoisier — and in the privacy of his bedroom, no less.

At least that was the theory. But as sub-prime lending has proven, the relationship between theory and reality can be tenuous, if not non-existent. And so it was the with chemistry sets.

There was only one thing wrong with the chemistry sets’ experiments — they were boring. Oh sure, a boy with a true scientific bent would’ve been enthralled by them, breathlessly checking out color and Ph changes and all various bubblings, boilings and fizzings. But those fellows never represented more than one percent of adolescent boys and an insipid, anemic one percent at that.

No Real Boy, no true-blue, red-blooded Juvenilis Macho Americanus would’ve given half a hoot for such an arcane and sissified activity as authentic scientific experiments. And why would he, since they were the same ones done in school, under close observation by a teacher?

There was only one reason a RB wanted a chemistry set — to make explosives.

Of course, Mr. Gilbert, once was a boy himself, keenly anticipated this, and so there was as much information on bomb making in his instructions as there was in a Betty Crocker cookbook.

This was an obstacle, for sure, but not an insurmountable one: All the RB’s of my youth were little Ted Koszinskis minus the political rhetoric. So once it was established that Gilbert chemistry sets couldn’t provide any bang for the bucks, they were ignored like a bastard at a family reunion.

Instead, the quest was on for greener, and more volatile, pastures, which could only be accessed with help from the darlings of nerd-dom — the Science Geeks. They were a creepy, duplicitous lot — pencil-necked freaks, with pocket protectors and high-water pants who shamelessly sucked up to the science teachers. But never let it be said they were purposeless: Clearly, their sucking up was for high grades…and high explosives. And they always achieved both.

It was all quite simple, really. The SG’s knew far more than the rest of us about science (which given our state of ignorance was no great feat). So showing off that knowledge, along with effusive brown-nosing, made for a hideous magic no science teacher could resist. Thus they won their way into the science teacher’s heart…as well as into his unguarded and non-inventoried stock of chemicals.

Then, since they actually knew what they were doing with chemicals, turning them into explosives was as hard as making brownies from a packaged mix.

The end product

Every technology has its own built-in purpose. If you have a phone, you talk on it. If you have a camera, you take pictures with it. And if you have explosives, you blow them up. Which is just what the SG’s did.

But giving them their due, they did it away from other people: While they were a smarmy, larcenous bunch, they weren’t sociopaths or sadists, so I can’t recall one incident of them hurting or even bothering anyone.

However, the same cannot be said for some of their “consumers.”

When I say “consumer,” I don’t mean it in a strict sense — the SG’s didn’t’ sell their wares. But they did give some away to lads who can be generously labeled “impulse-control-challenged.” Or, to put it less generously and more succinctly, fearless anti-social eejits — especially when it came to explosives. They weren’t scared of losing either organs or appendages, and they couldn’t lose their good standing in the community, because they had none. So they were the guys who set off the explosives within the confines of My Home Town.

I don’t recall them hurting anyone either, but that may’ve been only due to poor planning on their part. One focal incident is a perfect example.

The weapon of choice was a twelve-gauge shotgun shell packed with a high-powered goody, dubbed by the SG’s “Mt. Baker Shaker.” The sapper himself was a surly, know-it-all thug manqué whose specialty was wearing a vile sneer and wraparound shades at all hours of the day and night.

He dropped the lighted firecracker in a hall wastebasket on the third floor of Petrova School when classes were passing. And thank the Lord for the old wastebaskets: They were made of steel as thick as the deck plates on the USS Missouri. As a result, the explosion detonated with a mighty “Kah-rump!” but was completely contained.

Of course, since there were at least 150 witnesses, the kid was immediately busted by the administration. As I recall, he received a week’s suspension, during which he wasn’t allowed to be even near the school grounds. To his twisted mind it was a reward for a job well done.

Luckily, Pyrotechomania didn’t last very long among the adolescents of my day. It started around age 12 and ended by age 16, when the boys discovered either cars or girls.

Or when they discovered their much more explosive combination — cars and girls.


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