Show and Tell

We moved to Fayetteville when I was fifteen. I started that fall at Fayetteville High School. I desperately wanted to take Drama, but there were no spaces left. The closest the school advisor could get was Public Speaking. It would have to do. On the first day of class I became devoted to the teacher.

He was a mountain of a man. He must have been at least six and a half feet tall. He had a barrel chest and wonderfully rich voice. He had been a bit of everything in his life before he, “Came back to the school that showed me the door and suggested I never come back.” One of the many things he had done  was work as a prison officer.
About halfway through the school year, the teacher wanted us to do a “show and tell” speech. He handed us our subjects. Mine was on how to make a Martini. I held my hand up and asked if I could do the speech on a subject I chose. He answered in the affirmative. Luckily he did not ask me what I was going to do.
When I was a lot younger I used to read a book series called The Brains Benton Mysteries.  Brains, as was suggested by his nickname, was a genius. He was like a young Sherlock Holmes. I adored the books and it was through one of them that I found the recipe for making gun powder. It was not exact, that would have been irresponsible.But it did list the main ingredients.
Charcoal, saltpetre, and sulfer. Saltpetre and sulfer I could get at the local drug store. In those days you could get your hands on loads of “cool” things. I remember getting Hydrochloric Acid and Formaldehyde over the counter. That did change very shortly when a new chemist started working there. Of course I had the other ingredient at home in the guise of charcoal briquettes.
After a lot of experimenting I made a small pile of gunpowder that could more accurately be called flash powder. I did tightly pack a bit and it did make a satisfactory bang when lit. I was inordinately pleased that I had cracked the formula. I wrote the measurement down in a notebook and never had the opportunity to make the stuff again. Well, until my Public Speech class came along.
I went home on Friday and spent the next two days making gunpowder. I managed to fill an entire coffee can with the stuff. I then wrote my speech outline and made a few index cards with the formula on them. Speech class was my first class of the morning, so on Monday I entered the room with my coffee can, index cards and my outline. The outline I gave to the teacher and I sat down with my coffee can and index cards on the desk in front of me.
When the teacher read my outline he raised his eyebrows and looked at me questioningly. I just grinned and nodded. This seemed to satisfy him and he then did a roll check and said that I would give the first speech of the morning.
I got up to the podium and using the chalk board I wrote down my recipe for making gun powder. I then explained where you could get the ingredients from. Then with a flourish I opened the coffee can asked everyone to pass it around and have a look. When the can came back to me, I opened the floor for questions.
Immediately from the back of room came the question I was hoping someone would ask. “How do we know it works, man” This was from the “druggies” in the corner. “Ah,” I said, “Now comes the demonstration part of my speech.” I took a box of matches out of my trouser pocket, opened the box and pulled a match out and lit it. With what I thought was a theatrical gesture worthy of P.T. Barnum himself, I tossed the match into the coffee can.
FOOM! In a split second a flame roughly about five feet tall shot out of the top of the can. This was followed by a huge black cloud of smoke. The teacher shouted at the class to open the windows. This action did not immediately help to disseminate the smoke which appeared to get worse. The general atmosphere in the room was one of great hilarity. There was a lot of laughter and shouting and coughing. The teacher then evacuated the class room and we all went outside to wait for the smoke to clear. Luckily no one hit the fire alarm. Although this was mainly because the smoke was confined to the speech room.
Once the smoke had cleared and we were herded back to our seats, the teacher asked me if I knew that was going to happen. I had to honestly say no. I explained that I had never made that much before and had no idea that it was going to be so spectacular. He believed me and did not send me to the Principle’s office for being a disruptive influence on the class.
He instead gave me an A+ for my ingenuity and flair. Looking back on my time spent in High School, I think it was the highest grade I ever got for anything.

Vinnie’s Bomb

My friend Vinnie had called me at home. He wanted me to see a dead buzzard he had shot from his bedroom window. This was a favourite pastime for Vinnie. Even though his parent’s house was in the city limits, he thought nothing of taking off his window screen and shooting at the “varments” that wandered into the back yard. Amazingly, no one ever complained about his shooting. I do not know if this was because he used a scoped rifle and had little chance of missing or if no one truly cared.On this particular day, it was late enough in the year for there to be a good bit of frost on the ground. When I got to Vinnie’s house the frost had mostly melted away. “You should have seen it first thing this morning,” Vinnie said, “It threw up when I shot it and the stuff was frozen on his head.” I said that I was sorry I hadn’t gotten there sooner so I could see this undeniably grotesque sight. *Yes, I do know that young teen boys can be disgusting at times*After looking at the dead bird in his back yard for a bit, Vinnie then mentioned in a very hushed tone that he had some professional explosive powder and some water-proof fuses. My jaw dropped down in total surprise. It seems that Vinnie had an uncle who was in the underwater demolition business. On his last visit he had given these items  to Vinnie with the idea of making a home made explosive. “You want to help me?” Vinnie asked. My answer was a resounding yes. Excitedly we both made our way to his dad’s garage.

While figuring out what we wanted to make with the blasting powder and how we were going make a casing for it, we decided to experiment a bit with the blasting powder. We took one of Vinnies .223 cartridges and filled it tightly with the powder, we then crimped the end of the shell around a two inch bit of fuse. Taking this miniature bomb out to his back garden, we made a hole  in the hard ground. After the hole was about six inches deep, we lit the fuse and dropped it into the hole. We scrambled quickly away  and waited.

A geyser of dirt and rock shot into the air accompanied by a most satisfying boom. Rushing back to the hole we checked to see how far down it had extended after the explosion. We found a bamboo fishing rod and shoved it in the hole. We never did get to the bottom and the rod was well over six feet in length. We were suitably impressed.

Vinnie then showed me an aerosol can that he had taken the top off of without blowing himself up. This he decided was going to be the explosive’s casing mould. He just needed some lead to melt and pour into the can. That was where I became useful. My dad was a house builder. One thing he had lots of was lead. In those days when the plumbers made a base for a shower stall, the base was lined with lead. They invariably left tons of “off-cuts” laying around the site that was anyone’s for the taking. Since lead was cheap, we used it to make fishing weights. My dad had a “shed-load” of the stuff.  I asked and got permission to use as much of it as we needed.

For weeks Vinnie and I melted lead and poured it into the can. This was a slow and boring process. When we finally got the whole can filled with lead, we then cut the can off to leave us with our bomb casing. This left us with a cylindrical object that was roughly three inches in diameter and seven inches long. There was no “hole” in the middle to put the powder in. But we knew just what to do.

Vinnie got out his dad’s heavy duty drill and fastened a one and a half inch drill bit to it. We then took turns drilling out a hole. This was also a long and boring task. We were about halfway through when a female friend from school dropped by. She wandered out to the garage and asked us what we were doing. We explained about the bomb and having to drill the hole. We also moaned a bit about the amount of time it was taking.

Looking at the half drilled cylinder she said, “Since you guys melted the lead to make it, why didn’t you put something in the middle and pour the lead around it so you didn’t have to drill one?” We both reacted the same way. “Huh! What do you know?” “That never would have worked!” She gave us both a disdainful look, tossed her red hair from her face and left. It was only after she left that we both had a face palm moment. Now why didn’t we think of that?

We finally finished the bomb and tried to set up a time for it to be set off. Vinnie’s dad had some land beyond the city limits and we both agreed that would be the best place to blow it up. All that was left to do was organise a time to get together. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to come up with a time that was mutually beneficial. Plus, while we were building the thing, my family had decided to move.

Although we only moved a few towns away,  I did not get a chance to hunt down my friend for a couple of years. I finally bumped into him while visiting my grandparents. The first thing I asked about, of course, was the bomb. “Oh yeah! Dad and me took it out to the farm. We dug a hole, put about a mile of fuse on it, planted it, then we lit it and ran like hell!”How big was the hole after the blast I asked. “HUGE!” Vinnie said with a grin. ” It left a crater about six feet across and about four feet deepIt was also so loud, I think they heard it in town!”

I think back to those days and wonder how in the world did we not blow ourselves up! I also marvel at the simplicity and naivety of the both of us. We never at any point thought that this was too dangerous a pastime.  We also never realized that what we were doing might just be illegal. When anyone complains to me about today’s youth and how they spend too much time playing video games, I always think back on my childhood activities.

Sure video games can be time consuming and expensive, but at least they aren’t making bombs.

The NHS…American style?

I have just returned from my latest appointment at the hospital. After weeks of waiting for confirmation of a MRI, I finally got to see a lady who set the wheels properly in motion. As much as I  (and just about everyone come to think of it) like to complain about the NHS, they do a great job considering their inherent shortfalls.

I have had a love/hate relationship with the NHS since I started to use it. When I became a full-time resident of the United Kingdom, I was issued a National Insurance number. This meant that as I was now paying into the system via taxation that I was eligible for the English health care program. I did not feel any sort of elation at this development. I rarely go to the doctor for anything other than maladies that do not seem to want to move on.

I first entered into a more serious usage of the heath system in the mid to late nineties. I had a back problem that had made life difficult since the early eighties. After a long drawn out procedure of getting referrals to specialists (that’s spelt surgeons by the way) and multiple MRI’s, xrays, et al, I finally got an operation that fixed me right up. I have gone pain and restriction free from my back problems since the fourteenth of September 1999,  well free until the thirteenth of February.

But I am wandering off topic.  The point I wanted to make was that apart from my contribution to the National Health Service (NHS) and having to pay for my prescriptions, the cost for my utilizing the service has been nil. Yes, it is a long laborious matter to use the NHS for anything “serious” but again the operative word in the above sentence is nil. No expenditure for anything apart from the prescriptions.

I am only writing about all this because I know that the United States is now working on setting up a National Health Service of their own. From what I have seen on the internet, newspapers, and international news programs Americans are fighting this tooth and nail. I don’t really understand what their problem is.

Let me explain.

In 1979 my first wife gave birth to our son. It was not an easy delivery.The baby she was carrying kicked loose the placenta with the end result of the both of them basically bleeding to death. An emergency caesarian operation was required. I am happy to say that our son and his mother both came through fine, although he did make his entrance into the world about a month and a half too early. Neither my first wife nor I had medical insurance.

Time has made this memory a little hazy, but, I think our bill for all this exciting early entry by our son came to over two thousand five hundred dollars. That was a lot of dough-ray-me in the seventies. I had to take out a loan to pay it all. Of course the running joke for years was, “If we don’t pay it off, will they come and repossess our boy?” You had to laugh.

I look back on that episode and think how much simpler (and less expensive) it would have been if we had the NHS to utilize. I know that most if not all Americans do have a form of medical insurance, they need it. I just don’t understand the mentality of fighting a program that would help everyone to get adequate medical care.

In the United Kingdom, we have the option to be see private doctors. In reality they are usually the same folks you would see if you went through the NHS. But by opting out of the program, you pay and get the added bonus of being seen more quickly. But the operative word in the sentence is pay. So that you have the option, if you can afford it, to opt out of the Health Service system. Surely this is something that Americans could use.

I guess the point I am trying to make is this. Setting up a program that would benefit everyone is a good thing. Stop fighting it folks and figure out how to make the system better. In the UK the system has become a lumbering beast. Management heavy and slow, the system is in drastic need of an overhaul. But, it is still better than having to rely on medical insurance that most of the lower income folks cannot afford.