Friday, March 29, 2013

L. W. Abernathy...

It all came back to me in a flash. Like the lightening of a  mental storm.
Just yesterday I became FaceBook friends with an actual old friend. His name showed up in a FaceBook "you might know this person"- pop up. In this case I did absolutely know the person; I clicked on the button and he quickly accepted my electronic friendship. There I was looking at this picture on the right.

I had a very hard time making the distinguished Texas gentleman (read old man) in the lovely FaceBook profile portrait look like my childhood conspirator.  I still remembered him as a neighborhood buddy, a 10 year old kid, the only child of my first grade teacher who lived five doors down from me.  I certainly didn't expect to be looking at my playmate's grandfather. He is probably experiencing the same dilemma over my picture at this very moment.  There has been no exchange between us other than this FaceBook procedure for more than half a Century, but at the thought of him a childhood memory flashed before my eyes.
Neither of us is the same person today that we were then. I thought he might not like the idea of me publishing his picture and telling an old story about two kids,  but I couldn't resist remembering it in writing.
So I censored his photograph and  for now we'll just call him L.W. That is not his real name but it sounds like a good Texas name. This subterfuge is not intended to be a puzzle or mystery...It is only a ploy for plausible denial.
I have no idea if he will ever read this, nor would he necessarily remember it as I do, if he recalls it at all. But it is my story and I'm sticking to it. Although I have always been accused of not letting the truth stand in the way of a good story, in this particular case I claim poetic license.  
Jay and LW
At the time LW was 12 and I was 9 years old.  LW was a curious energetic gaget loving (read nerdy) kid just like me.  He was older so I was definitely his minion. We loved to play together. I was always ready to participate in any scheme he came up with.  As I remember, no scheme was too advanced nor too complicated for LW to attempt.
I'm not sure when he got the deluxe double sided Gilbert Chemistry set, but it instantly became our personal laboratory.  This is a picture of the front of the metal Gilbert Chemistry set box which held all the experiments.  It also happens to be exactly the way I remember the two of us at the time. There is no doubt in my mind, even now,  that we were the two kids in that picture, we even had the same hair coloring.
It wasn't long before we had gone through all the experiments outlined in the instruction book. We ultimately thought they were lame and looked for more exciting chemistry experiments to perform. We turned liquids different colors. We mixed gooey compounds together, and made CO2. But the experiments that burned, flashed, smoked or exploded were our favorites. That's when LW found the formula for making black gun powder in the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was simple. Just mix charcoal, sulphur and potassium nitrate together throughly,  and ignite carefully. It became a mission, a scientific necessity, our crowning accomplishment as laboratory geniuses, to make gun powder.
We had the sulphur and charcoal quickly. They were not hard to come by,  and we had the mortar and pistel to mix them in. Potassium nitrate was not something either of us had around the house.
Without all the ingredients we got distracted constructing a backyard dug out, a bunker of sorts that all the neighborhood kids could hide in.
One day LW showed up with a bottle of Saltpetre he had acquired. We made the appropriate juvenile jokes about the name, but in fact the white crystal like chemical was actually potassium nitrate by another name. We now have everything we needed to make gun powder, which we immediately proceeded to do. The goal is to make enough gun powder to power a large, loud home-made fire cracker.
Not actual size
Every boy in the neighbor hood was experienced at handeling fire works, it was a holiday tradition and right of passage.  We mixed and powdered sulphur, charcoal and saltpetre until we completely filled an empty Desenex Athlete's foot powder can. I can not recall how long it took until the project was complete. Several afternoons of summer I would suspect. 
D-Day...(Desenex Day) finally arrived.
As we had seen it done many times in Cowboy Movies we drew a line of our home made gun powder in the dirt to act as a fuse. LW counted to three and lit the fuse. The gunpowder ignited hissing and sparking its way to our fire cracker canister.
The fact that we are both alive today is proof that neither one of us was cut out to be a chemist.  The ingredients were correct but we had mixed them in the wrong proportions.  The gun powder did not explode. Instead of sending Desenex tin can shrapnel flying in every direction for 50 feet, the can shot 100 feet straight into the air like a pail yellow missile. The top of the can proved to be an excellent rocket engine nozzle. We stood in shock watching it spit fire until it was almost out of site.  It was the most impressive display of aerodynamics  I would see until I watched NASA blast Alan Shepard into subspace on television years later.  The can was eventually found in Dr. Wilson's back yard several houses away. It was the memento from our greatest Gilbert Chemistry Set experiment.
To paraphrase a line from the movie "Stand by Me" - Are friendships ever as good as they are when you're 10?
As you were,


Kenny Croes said...

Hilarious! Great story.

P. Grecian said...

Wonderful! You had me on tenterhooks all the way through. I was sure you were gonna die! Oh. Wait.
I had the same chemistry set. Still have the little booklet somewhere. Lots of compounds that made a bad smell and a few that looked like blood. One puzzling "chemical" seemed to be pencil shavings.
Thanks once again, Jay. Thanks for the wonderful story.