The Cast: Myself (a future pyrotechnician).
First, let me apologize. I had planned for this week a completely different story but my son decided to do something on Monday that made me change my mind. I apologize because usually, I will write my story, let it marinate for a few days—so I can check dates, names, whatever—and then come back to it fresh, and have a better tale to tell. This, however, is a little rushed, and so may not be as well written as I would like, but it appears my son needs a reminder.
There is a saying that I have taught my children, and some have learned its lesson better than others. It goes like this: If you’re going to do something stupid, do it safely. It is one of the codes I live by. It has kept me alive all this time and all of my original body parts attached. This philosophy simply means to take reasonable precautions to help minimize potential unforeseen “Well, I didn’t know it was gonna do that…” moments. For example, if you want to see what would happen if you held a firecracker in your fingers, light it, and let it explode, don’t do it in your fingers! Put on a thick leather glove, put the firecracker in a set of pliers, wear safety goggles and then light it. Do it safely.
On Monday night (just two days ago), my wife and I left the house to get our family’s pizza-pie dinner, leaving my two younger children at home (one almost 17 and the other almost 14), we were only gone about 20 minutes. Upon our return, and opening the door, we could taste the nasty Axe body spray (that stuff is vial-nasty!) and knew our almost 17-year-old son had done something (that’s why the younger child is left in charge). After some coaxing, we got out of him that he was attempting to light the spray on fire (in the house). I almost lost it, completely. My wife couldn’t understand why I was so angry. I was so lividly-angry because I have told the story I am about to tell you to my son more than once in an attempt to reinforce the ‘If you’re going to do something stupid, do it safely’ montra as well as to point out that YOU DON’T PLAY WITH FIRE IN THE HOUSE!!! You do it outside—with appropriate fire extinguishing equipment.
So, son. Dear, sweet son. This is for you.
Because my home was an old pioneer home the basement was added on after the original house was built and under the back extension. It wasn’t large, it was just big enough to house the furnace, a path to another section where the hot water heater could be placed directly under the bathroom, the coal room (later known as The Sewer) and a little bit of storage space (almost none). The drain hole in the floor (what is it with drain holes?) was just a 10-inch deep square hole about 5-inches per side. You could see the rocks that formed the ‘pipe’ down to the dirt. It worked great, so long as there wasn’t a flood. Like when we had to drain our old hot water heater because it was broken, the dirt at the bottom of the drain became saturated because we let out a lot of water too quickly and it began to rise and pool a little.
Anyway, because of the coolness (temperature, not ambiance, even though I thought it was cool—both ambiance & temperature), little insect critters would settle into the nooks and crannies of the rocks of the drain. I, on occasion, would pour a little rubbing alcohol around the edges and light it. The critters would die and there was no chance of accidental fire because everything nearby was non-burnable. The floor was cement, the furnace—about two feet away—was metal and nothing burnable was nearby—because I moved it all out of range (see above code regarding safety). The narrowness of the hole would quickly choke the fire out and not everything would die. This was not satisfactory. I needed something better. Something stronger.
My Uncle Sam is a great guy. He has brought me to all sorts of schools that have allowed me to develop some pretty decent explosive ordnance skills. As well as a few ‘after class’ special trainings on “Look what you can do if you combine…” I love him. After all, it’s not every uncle that’ll give you some TNT, time fuse, point in a direction then say, “Go blow that up.” To which I would just smile and respond with a hearty, “Yes, sir!” And then go and blow it up. Do you have any idea what the euphoria is like when you use explosives to blow a perfectly shaped 30-foot deep, 10-inch diameter hole through solid rock?!? Mhmm, you probably don’t. Well, IT’S AWESOME!!! And C-4, oh, don’t even get me started on C-4.
I was the nut-job in my unit that liked to play with all the ‘boomy’ stuff in ways that you shouldn’t. Like the one time my unit was training in a range filled with spent, and unexploded ordnance and we were all given strict orders by the officer on duty to, “…NOT touch anything that is not a plant or a rock or dirt! Am I clear?” Later I was found kicking most anything metal, and half-buried, and asking whichever Marine was near me, “What do think this is?” To which they would respond, “Only Bagnall would kick the ‘Don’t touch that’s.” Now, I know this may contradict my code but I had training.
And since then, I have had several jobs that have only added to my knowledge of flammable, dissolvable, combustible material database. I once worked with an adhesive that was so flammable during its curing process that if you just thought the word ‘fire’ it would burst into flame (that stuff was awesome). Anyway, I’m off-topic, umm, right, right, right… I know and understand how certain things work. Almost intuitively. It seems like I always have. So when I found that canister of spray adhesive I knew exactly how to use it.
Due to the cooler temperatures in my basement, the gases expelled from the propellant, as well as the solvents used to help keep the glue wet for a time, were heavier than normal and helped keep the flammable particulate in the drain hole. Just a light spray. Enough to make the gases swirl about in the hole, but not too much to cause a fire. Just a flash, with a short burn afterward. No insect critters escaped. So, every once in awhile I would spray the drain, drop in a lit match, watch the stuff die, and feel better about the population decrease of spiders in my home. No worries. For added safety, I would usually poor water around the sides of the hole to ensure the fire was out. Remember the gopher? Safety first!
This particular day the basement was cooler than usual and the hole was filled with more webs than usual. I suddenly feel like I need to clarify that I didn’t go down into my basement with the sole intent of setting fire to insects in a dirty hole. I would only lay waste to the horrible hole inhabitants if I was passing by, and noticed them, on my way to The Sewer or just getting something out of the basement. I maybe did this once a month. If that. Alright, back to the cool basement.
I retrieved the canister of spray glue from the craft supplies and collected my matches from The Sewer—see I kept the two items separate because I wasn’t a pyro-freak that needed his flammable fix—and prepared to eradicate the unsuspecting insects.
As per the custom, I crouched near the drain opening—don’t lean over the fire zone, that’s stupid, fire goes upward—lightly sprayed the glue into the hole and watched as the vapors swirled and created patterns with the little dust it had kicked up. All still in the drain hole. Once the mist had cleared I realized I had not ignited the gases, so I lit a match and watched as it dropped uselessly to the bottom of the hole. The flammable stuff had evaporated quicker than I remembered it would (SEE! It had been so long since the last time, I had forgotten some of the details of how my system worked). So I sprayed again. Watched. Sprayed. Watched. Sprayed. Coo-l. Well, I got stuff to do so I better light this next one. And that was when it all went belly up. Including me.
There was enough wet glue, with enough flammable gasses, lining the drain walls that they wouldn’t ignite on their own, but would add to whatever was going to burn near/on them. This was an early pyrotechnic lesson on flammable gases at the cost of my home.
I sprayed one last time and quickly dropped a lit match. Before the match breached the mouth of the drain—usually the gases would ignite once the match passed the mouth of the drain—all of the gases ignited, and shot a 10-foot pillar of fire upward toward the 8-foot high ceiling.
As the fire rocketed skyward I was thrown onto my back as much from my own reflexive desire to stay alive, as from the force of the controlled explosion—because that is what I had accidentally created, a controlled explosion. My back and head struck the concrete floor with enough force to knock the wind out of me as well as render me unconscious. The last thing I witnessed, as my eyes slowly rolled back into my skull, and my eyelids closing to shield me from the horror of my house going up in flames and crashing down around me—both of which I was certain was going to occur, was the fire column hitting the ceiling and spreading out, for two feet, in all directions along the wood that was the floor of the level above me.
As I slipped into unconsciousness, I heard the bone-chilling sound that would herald my demise. The all too familiar ‘FW-woosh’ sound that indicated a substance, that was meant to burn, had just ignited. Hm. So, this is how I’m gonna die?
That was what I thought was going to be my last thought. It was oddly comforting to know what my last thought was even though I was about to be burned alive. I mean, think about it. How would you like your last thought to be, “Man, I can’t believe my pants zipper was open during my presentation?” or “Do goldfish swear?” And then you get hit by a bus and die. Stupid.
Consciousness slowly came back to me. I hurt in the weirdest places. I could smell singed flesh and hair (I knew what that smelled like, thank you, Mr. Gopher). I opened my eyes. No fire. I heard an odd humming noise. Are my ears ringing? Is this a concussion? They weren’t ringing. And I didn’t get a concussion (that I know of, I never told my parents about this and you shouldn’t tell them either). That humming noise was the furnace. It had turned on at the exact moment of my being knocked out. That ‘fwoosh’ noise was the natural gas being lit by the pilot light.
The house was not on fire. There were no scorch marks on the wood above my head—I splashed gallons of water all over the area just to be sure. I gathered my wits about me and went upstairs to see if any fire damage had been inflicted upon me—and to find out if anyone was home and had heard, ‘cause there was a bit of a ‘BOOM’ when the fire column shot upward (I saw the wooden planks shudder when the flames hit them, scary but cool). The tips of my eyelashes and bangs were singed and yellowed, as well as my teenage-pathetic beard stubble. Also, my face was a little reddened—and not from embarrassment. That fire column was closer and hotter than I thought it could’ve been. I trimmed the evidence away and quickly showered to wash away the unexplainable ‘campfire’ odor I had obtained. And never did that again.
The series of specific circumstances that occurred to terrorize me into more responsibility is why the ‘If you’re going to do something stupid, do it safely’ came to be a hard rule I would adhere to for the rest of my life. I was lucky, but I know many people who weren’t when they played around with fire, and now bear the physical, and mental, scars of their moments of foolishness. Fire is a tool, not a toy. Don’t play with fire. It’s all too easy to become reckless and then lose control and get hurt or hurt someone else.