Monday, April 25, 2011

Gunpowder Awakening

There comes a time in every child's life when you realise your parents are not always right about how the world works. This marks the first step you take toward adulthood. My father was the smartest man I knew, and he's still sharp. But in the year that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, I learned that Dad was fallible.
I once found a live rifle cartridge. I often found empty cartridges on the beach, fired from the yacht club rifle to start the races. But this was the first time I’d found a cartridge that hadn’t been used. Someone had dropped the little red plastic capsule with its golden tip for me to find. I took the cartridge home and showed it to Dad, who admired it.
'Let me show you something scientific,' he said.
Dad left the cartridge out in the sun, so that the gunpowder it contained would dry. Gunpowder, Dad explained, was a mixture of charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre or potassium nitrate. (I've always remembered that recipe.) Dad was good with science. He said that with science problems there were only ever two answers - the right one or the wrong one. Dad cut open the red cartridge and showed me the black gunpowder packed inside. It was now dry. We laid out some tarpaper on the veranda and emptied the gunpowder onto it, so that it formed a very thin line just under a metre long. Then Dad took out a box of matches.
‘Dad, are you sure you should do that?’ I asked.
‘Yes, if you’re interested in science.'
'I am. I'm just worried that the gunpowder might explode and blow us up.'
'That won't happen,' Dad said. 'That's the scientific thing. When gunpowder burns, it creates a gas. What makes the explosion is the gas blowing apart whatever is containing it. Like with a hand-grenade. But lit gunpowder alone won't explode. When the Chinese invented it, they didn't even know it could be used as a weapon.’
(I'm not sure if he said that last bit. It was a long time ago.)
'So it definitely won't explode?' I said.
'It will burn like a fuse. That's all.'
Dad set light to the gunpowder and it immediately exploded. I thought I’d been blinded. But as the smoke cleared I found I could see okay. There was the acrid smell of burned human hair. Dad looked different without eyebrows or his grey fringe. His face was bright red. No doubt mine was too.
‘Bloody hell!’ Dad said.
‘It exploded!’ I said.
‘Yes, it did.’
‘That wasn’t supposed to happen, was it?’
'No, it wasn't.'
'How did it happen?'
'It was probably faulty gunpowder.'
When we realised we hadn't been injured we laughed ourselves silly. My eyebrows never really grew. They remain two narrow lines of pale hair. I'm not sure if that was the fault of the explosion. Dad's eyebrows, on the other hand, went berserk. They grew big and bushy. To this day, one of them points up and the other down. He refuses to trim them, and we are glad of the fact.

That's how I took my first step toward adulthood. The trouble is, I don't think I've taken many of the others yet.


Anonymous said...

Excellent story. I suppose it explains the photo on your website with the ambiguous caption.

Dan Verkys said...

Wonderful story Doug, made me laugh... us Dads to silly things sometimes, perhaps I'll share with you one day my dreaded 'Slip 'n Slide' story, where I showed my daughters "how WE used to do it"... and ended up laying winded, face down in the grass with 20 feet of wet slippery plastic gathered up under my chest unable to speak... unpleasant... but amusing now.

DougMacLeod said...

Hey Dan, they do say that comedy is tragedy plus time. On that very same beach, I remember seeing my Dad ride his bike up the sand, then he became bogged and went right over the handlebars in a somersault. It looked truly acrobatic, and my father is not a small man, much less an acrobatic one. I have just submitted to a publisher a manuscript that uses this gunpowder story as part of the larger narrative, so wish me luck.
Families are understandably sensitive about memories of childhood. One of my sisters read the post, and she was annoyed because it didn't tally with what she remembered. She swears that she was there with Dad and me, and that Dad told us that the gunpowder would burn like the fuse from the opening titles of Mission Impossible. (Before your time, Dan.) But I honestly don't remember that.
What I've written is pretty much what I remember.