Yet another asinine “zero tolerance” story caught my eye this morning: A kid in Georgia was suspended for bringing a Nerf gun to school. Fucking hell. Some of the stuff I did when I was a kid back in the day would earn a kid a first class ticket to Guantánamo these days. For example, my projects for Latin class two years in a row back in junior high school.
First, there was the catapult. A lot of the kids in Latin class built catapults that year (all male, shockingly), and many of them looked pretty good — similar to what you see in the picture there. Mine didn’t look like that; mine looked like shit. But by God, it was functional and could (and did) take a chunk out of a wall. The arm of my catapult was make from an old broom handle, and to power it I used not one but two rubber tubes from old slingshots. I was rather proud of the handsome basket I built out of wood to hold the projectile. For a projectile, I used a large (half inch or so) ball bearing.
I don’t think my Latin teacher really thought things through when she decided it would be fun to have a competition of all the catapults. The idea was to see which catapult delivered it’s payload the furthest. I also didn’t really understand how she planned to accomplish this goal indoors — inside the classroom. But okey dokey … I went along with it. But as the other kids, in turn, demonstrated their weenie little catapults, I began to understand. One threw it’s dinky little package ten feet or so. Another launched its payload clear across to the other side of the room. The teacher had these catapults in mind when she decided to have an in-class demonstration! Tsk, tsk.
I was last. I set my catapult up against one wall of the classroom, aimed it at the far wall, cocked it back, and inserted the ball bearing. In retrospect, I should probably have substituted that for something smaller and less lethal, but I was young and stupid and so I didn’t. I let fly.
I have no idea how many times that ball bearing crossed the room as it ricocheted back and forth between the walls, but it was a lot! Each time it struck the wall it made a glorious crack! The kids all dived for cover, the teacher turned white, and I prayed it wouldn’t strike somebody in the forehead. It must have ricocheted around at least ten times before finally settling down. Miraculously, nobody was hit. When it was all over, a three-inch long chunk from the cinder block wall lay on the floor. I won the competition. 😀
For my Latin class project the following year, I built a model of Mount Vesuvius. There were another two Mount Vesuvius projects that year as I recall, and one of those actually looked a lot like the real Mount Vesuvius. Both of them used vinegar and baking soda to simulate an eruption. My model didn’t look like the real Mount Vesuvius. Mine looked like shit. I also didn’t use any pussy-ass vinegar & baking soda to simulate an eruption: I used homemade gunpowder.
My model was huge — about three feet tall — and built from aluminum foil wrapped over chicken wire on top of a plywood base. I used aluminum foil because when you crinkle it up a bit it takes on a natural, rocky-looking appearance. I spray-painted it brown and for the crater, to contain my homemade gunpowder, I used a coffee can. The can was about two quarts (liters) in size.
I don’t recall who suggested I demonstrate the thing at school. Maybe it was me? It was probably me — I was a dick. I also have no recollection of how the demonstration was given the green light, but it was, and so I showed up one day at the school with about a gallon of homemade gunpowder.
Regarding the homemade gunpowder: I’m talking about the traditional mix of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulfur here. It’s the same thing that Kirk makes in the Star Trek episode Arena. The exact ratio of the ingredients can vary a little, depending on the desired effect. The stuff I made for the volcano was a little starved of oxidant (potassium nitrate) and a little rich in sulfur, and so it burned a little on the slow side and stank like hell. Sulfur and potassium nitrate are easy enough to buy in relatively finely powdered form, but the charcoal I had to beat the hell out of with a hammer to really pulverize it. It’s a bit messier than Kirk makes it appear, and most of us don’t find piles of sulfur and potassium nitrate just laying conveniently on the ground for us.
So anyway, back to my demonstration. I showed up one day at school with a gallon of gunpowder. I’m not sure why I brought so much. Maybe I was thinking they would want an encore? Anyway, at some point we pulled my crappy-looking aluminum foil Mount Vesuvius outside and set it up between the school and one of those shitty trailer classrooms that are always on schools campuses because they never have enough classrooms for some reason. My Latin class was all outside and the kids in the trailer classroom saw the activity outside and so they all had their faces glued to the windows. There was also a very nervous-looking Principal out there as well, and when he saw me filling up the two-liter crater of the volcano with my homemade gunpowder, he kind of turned a little white.
As I said before, the stuff I used here was a little starved for potassium nitrate and tended to burn a bit on the slow side. It also had a pretty steep activation energy and could often be a pain to get going. To overcome that, I used match heads as an initiator, and I broke off several (maybe four or five) heads from wooden matches and packed them neatly into the surface of the gunpowder. As I was doing this, the ashen-faced Principal came over to me and leaned down. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” he asked. “Yeah man! No sweat!” I responded.
Match heads in place, I waited for the Principal to back up a bit, then I lit the match heads and backed up myself. The really cool thing about using homemade gunpowder for this is that, as the gunpowder burns down into the coffee can, it leaves glowing blackened globules on the surface and these get expelled periodically: Some are thrown up into the air, and some just get bumped over the rim of the crater and then roll down the side of the volcano like flaming boulders. It looks great!
Two liters of sulfur-rich gunpowder, as it turns out, produces a shitload of smoke. I mean a shitload. Huge clouds of the stuff wafted across campus as the volcano burned. And as it turned out, not everyone at school that day was privy to the fact that a volcano was being demonstrated. It also turned out that, sometimes when people see huge clouds of smoke rolling across the campus of a junior high school, they tend to do things like call the fire department. But of course, by the time the fire trucks came, the demonstration was over.
It’s not as if I didn’t know what I was doing. I did survive into adulthood without losing any body parts, after all. Still, it’s a little surprising when I look back that more concern wasn’t raised over that volcano demonstration, or over my catapult demonstration from the previous year. But given the choice between the two extremities, which world is better: The world I grew up in where a kid can take a gallon of homemade gunpowder to school to demonstrate a volcano for Latin class, or the current world where a kid gets suspended over a Nerf toy? I would have to say my world. The world I grew up in was more dangerous perhaps, but it was also more encouraging of inquiry and expression. 🙂