During the 1950s and early 1960s, there was a huge push to get kids interested in science. We were in a technological space race with what was then the Soviet Union and no stone was left unturned in the effort to produce the next great American brainiac, even if this meant turning over those stones between the generic borders of the suburbs. Fortunately, this expanding love of science and technology involved the sort of hands-on creativity that was tailor made for a Cold War era American kid, and I was right there with my hands out to receive it.
Truthfully, there wasn’t exactly a headfirst lunge to get me into the sciences. The waters had to be tested first, and it started out simply enough with Lincoln Logs to see if I was worthy of something greater.
These were first-step creative toys for boys back then, and most of us at one point or another would find a set of these under the Christmas tree. I remember unscrewing the galvanized cap on the thick cardboard barrel, taking that virgin sniff of milled cedar and then dumping out a bunch of miniature logs that looked like notched Tootsie Rolls. The next thing that slid out of the container was a stack of bright green slats, followed by a pair of gables and finally, the directions. Directions? Did Abe Lincoln need directions when he made his first eponymous log cabin? Within minutes, I had made a reasonably proper cabin, complete with a green roof, a door, some window openings and a porch. Then I stared at it. This was it? What do I do next?
I disassembled it, and began to make other log structures, including a log raft, a log bridge, a log porte-cochère, and ultimately, a bunch of log dog chew toys. The upgrade to the bigger set yielded parts for a log windmill and various log accessories that included a split rail fence and a cannon, which I suppose was mandatory if one lived in a log cabin. These new features extended the log medium to absurd levels, as if we were suddenly in a weird alternate universe where everything was made out of timber.
Once my parents saw that I had a grasp of all things log related, they gave me an Erector Set for my next birthday. This was promptly dumped out in much the same fashion as the Lincoln Logs, except when I did that, thousands of tiny screws, nuts, bolts, washers and metal braces clanked across the table, off onto the floor and went rolling out into the street. This was amazing. There was even a little motor that, when connected to a “D” cell battery, would do—I don’t know—something. I had visions of being on the cover or Popular Mechanics as the first boy ever to make an Erector Set Corvair.
Each razor sharp piece had to be attached to another razor sharp piece with teeny little bolts to make, in the case of the kit I had, not a Corvair but a rocket launcher. Once the bloodletting and the assembly ended, I had what can best be described as a motorized guardrail. Mechanical engineering wasn’t going to be my strong suit, but I did try to use the Erector Set braces to build more complex log structures.
All of this led up to the holy grail of Christmas gifts and no, not a BB gun. I had one of those already and had shot up more than one log cabin with it. No, I’m talking about a chemistry set and its highly sought after companion piece—the microscope. Yes, back in 1966, I was armed, my lab was set up, and I was a certified builder of miniature split-level log cabins. I’m surprised MIT didn’t call my mother right then and there and offer me a scholarship. I was definitely NASA material.
I ran through most of experiments that came with the kit in no time at all, and was decidedly unimpressed. Two chemicals together changed color, one chemical and a penny fizzed a little, but the thing that fascinated me the most—and mind you, this came in a box that was freely handed to twelve-year old kids—was potassium nitrate. Before the Internet and before anybody gave this sort of thing a second thought, there was an innocently named local toy store called Wynken, Blynken, & Nod that had sold my mother a kit that held the main ingredients for a homemade bomb.
“There’s a man who leads a life of danger…”
Johnny Rivers. 1966
Naturally, the gunpowder experiment urged caution, but not in any sort of “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING” manner. There was simply a polite reminder to take our homemade gunpowder outside before we threw a lit match at it, lest we set fire to the davenport.
“Remember, as a responsible junior scientist, you must exercise caution before you ignite your gunpowder,” the warning sternly cautioned.
Duly noted, sir. So let’s get busy making explosives.
The recipe was laid out simply, as if the plan was to bake a batch of brownies:
- One part sulfur powder
- One part powdered charcoal
- Two parts potassium nitrate.
- Mix well.
- Add fire.
It was all right there in the kit, just enough for one experiment. Mix it all on a cookie sheet, form a little mound, toss on a lit match and step back. No goggles, no latex gloves, no anything. God, I loved the 60s. Now, here’s the thing—given the natural curiosity in all boys that also goes hand-in-hand with wanting to blow stuff up, the resulting fizzle only meant that this had to be taken a step further. It was time to go shopping.
In the back corner of Wynken, Blynken, & Nod, past the stuffed toys and the board games, and past the plastic model kits and the hallucinogenic airplane glue, there was a glass case. Inside that glass case was an assortment of destructive chemicals that would have made Oppenheimer blush, and I had my grocery list.
“I’d like a jar of sulfur, some powdered charcoal, two jars of potassium nitrate, a roll of detonator fuse and a pack of medium cardboard tubes. Oh, and while you have the case open, can I get some oil for a slot car? Thanks.”
The clerk selected the chemicals out of the case without a second thought, and then asked if that would be all. They had a display of various creatures that had been preserved in formaldehyde and wedged into glass jars, like dill pickles, but that would have to wait a few weeks. “No thanks. That’ll do it,” I said. There were no questions of intent asked of me, no identification was required and no parents were needed to authorize the transaction. The stuff was put in a bag, which was then zippered into my jacket pocket so it wouldn’t fall out and accidentally detonate as I rode my bike home.
Once I had everything I needed, I was able to put it all together. The powder was packed into the tubes, the fuse was cut long enough to give me plenty of time to get out of the way, and a dollop of wax from a birthday candle sealed the top.
I had enough material to make four and to say that these were firecrackers would be misleading. They were much bigger.
Keep in mind now; I’m only twelve years old and probably not that unique in the countrywide quest for worldwide scientific dominance.
I kind of figured this would be loud but what fun is an explosion if nothing blows up? My mom had a coffee can full of saved grease in the refrigerator, which was the perfect medium for four homemade firecrackers. I twisted the fuses together, shoved the tubes into the congealed grease and set it on a sawhorse behind our wooden shed. I then lit the fuse and ran like hell.
It took a little longer to burn down than your standard issue firecracker fuse, but when the spark finally touched home, that thing went off in a mushroom cloud of bacon grease and Maxwell House coffee can. Shards of metal can went flying in all directions, some of which stuck into the shed, and there was grease absolutely everywhere. The sound was deafening.
It didn’t take long for my mom to come running out of the house, no doubt trying to escape the hot water tank that she thought had exploded and was now on a rendezvous course with the Gemini space mission. It was then that she saw the charred mess and the shrapnel imbedded in the back of the shed and figured out what I had done. Shortly after that, the chemistry set went in the garbage can.
I did get to keep the microscope though, which was harmless enough, so I spent my time looking at salt crystals and the squiggly little things that lived in pond water until I grew bored with that. I eventually got a telescope, which was even more benign than a microscope, but I did spend a few warm summer nights looking at the Big Dipper and lunar craters before something else took its place. I could see a trend developing as I was slowly being weaned away from the sciences, but that was OK. This little foray sparked enough casual interest, and that has stuck with me for a lifetime.
Those were some wild times. In hindsight, it was probably not the best idea in the world to give children access to volatile chemicals and fire, and I wish I hadn’t left that dissected rat in the lasagna pan on my dresser for my mom to find while she was making my bed, but hey—give a kid a gateway toy like Lincoln Logs and you never know where that may lead.
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