Henrietta, Texas, Easter Sunday, 1958: I have Easter finery, and it is a white sport coat. At age twelve, this seems especially neato to me, because the Marty Robbins song about the Pink Carnation is still on the radio.
Usually, on school days, like my friends, I wear Levis or Lee Riders with a sport shirt. Because it is so cool to do so, I wear black loafers with white socks. Bobby M. has explained this to me, and he is a great fashion plate.
Bobby, Eddy Frank, Billy Ray, and several others are studying rocketry, and building rockets from aluminum tubes, hacksaws, wood, and gunpowder. Most of these rockets do not work, but we’re not giving up!
Today, however, I’m wearing Easter finery and sitting in my room, bored, because I’m dressed and ready for church, and the rest of my family is still getting dressed.
So that’s why I was fiddling with the rocket fuel.
I’d looked up this formula in the Britannica at school. The Britannica is great, because you can copy the articles to make a report for English class. You can find information on anything. For example, the formula for gunpower.
This particular formula was Roger Bacon’s original formula, consisting of equal parts of sulphur, saltpetre, and charcoal. Sulphur you could buy from the drugstore; we used it to powder our socks to keep chiggers off when wading through tall grasses in the fields. Saltpetre (potassium nitrate) is used in explosives and fertilizer, but you could buy it in the drugstore, too. I don’t know why. For charcoal, I just ground up some charcoal briquettes.
Having nothing to do for a few minutes, I thought I’d burn some of the gunpowder. I had plenty to spare. I had a tall coffee can more than half full of the mixture, sitting right there on the desk in my room. Roger Bacon’s formula was very smoky and had a deep and pungent smell, which I rather liked.
I only wanted to burn a little bit, so I tore a long strip of paper and creased it longwise, so that it made a long v-shaped trough. Sitting at my desk in my white sport coat, I held one end of the paper, and placed about a teaspoon of the mixture into the paper trough.
Then I lit it with a match.
Of course, my error was in holding the burning paper above the can of gunpowder. For of course the paper burned through, dropping the flaming, smoking ball of fire into the coffee can full of gunpowder …
Oh, the billowing clouds of pungent black smoke!
The marvellous hissing sound as the coffee can rocked and clattered upon my desk, the metal can heating to red hot, and burning its way into the desk’s surface. Holy cow!
You should have seen the expression on my parents’ faces, as they rushed into the room. You can imagine how, choking, we had to clear the house, and then turn away the fire department. You should have felt the whipping I got later.
Oh, well. These things happen.