Those who have followed this blog know that I live amongst horses. This story doesn’t involve horses, but cows.
When I was about 18 years old, I had been working at a television station in Fresno for roughly a year. During one summer the station’s owner, a well-known cattle and cotton baron in the San Joaquin Valley, sent his grandson to the station to get some work experience. The kid was about my age, and we connected immediately. Since we were both unpredictable (even though I was dedicated to being responsible), we decided that the TV station’s elaborate chemistry set was way underutilized. I have no idea why a TV station had such a thing as a chemistry set, but that’s irrelevant. We read up on rockets, and decided to make one. We wrapped several layers of newspaper around a broomstick and secured it with masking tape. That made a sturdy and lightweight rocket body. We slipped the tube off and attached an aluminum foil nose cone.
The chemistry set provided all the necessary ingredients to make, essentially, gunpowder. We packed the paper tube with our mix, went out behind the studio to its manure pile (remember, the owner of the place had plenty of manure for gardening around the station), then carved a groove in the pile, placed a broken fluorescent light tube in the groove, put our rocket in the tube, and made a fuse out of a long string of crumpled newspaper.
It was early afternoon when we set a match to the fuse and were thrilled to see our rocket shoot out across the empty fields surrounding the TV station. It must have gone a thousand feet! Cool!
We made more rockets that afternoon and adjusted our manure-pile-fluorescent-tube groove to get more elevation. More successful launches only fed our desire to achieve more-spectacular results. As evening approached, we weren’t sure we would be able to see where our rockets were going, so I had the idea that we needed a tracer, something that would illuminate our rocket in flight when it was dark. Aha! Add some powdered magnesium to the mix. Magnesium burns hot and very bright. So our last rocket of the day had its usual gunpowder mix plus magnesium.
It was probably 7 or 8 o’clock when we launched it. Actually, it didn’t launch—it exploded! Turns out that magnesium powder burns really quick, and instead of the steady burn of our gunpowder mix, we had made a bomb. A really loud bomb. The manure pile, our faithful launch pad, was blown to oblivion and within an hour the sheriff was at the TV station, asking if we knew anything about the huge explosion that had the neighborhood in turmoil.
Denial was rampant. The on-duty director of programming pleaded ignorance of even hearing the explosion. The owner’s grandson had driven off in his expensive car, and I was only a low-level kid, obviously innocent.
A few days later the manure pile was replenished by the owner’s ranch hands.