Sunday, January 02, 2005

An explosive memory


And then ...


The noises were sudden, and very loud in the lunchtime sleepy village. I don't remember exactly where it was, but I was maybe thirteen and was with my dad on a drive to somewhere.

He'd just stopped the car engine, and the plan was to see if the nearby pub sold soup and sandwiches for lunch.

Bang! Again.

It didn't sound like a shotgun. Besides, people didn't use shotguns in the middle of villages. And fireworks were illegal and only heard at Hallow E'en, and then mostly black-market crackers sold by Moore Street traders in Dublin. I looked at my dad.

'Carbide bombs,' he said with a grin.

'Carbide bombs?'

He told me that carbide came in small chunks, and if a small amount of water was poured on it, a flammable gas came off. The stuff was originally used to power bicycle and carriage lamps, and even early car lamps before automotive electrical systems were developed.

Now, in the late fifties, carbide had long since been supplanted by cheap dry batteries for bicycle lamps. But apparently it could still be acquired.

Carbide 'bombs' required one more piece of technology. An empty Andrews Liver Salts tin, which had one of those push-down lids that were totally airtight and had to be prised open again with the tops of the fingers, or initially with the end of a spoon.

There was no problem acquiring the tins. Every home used Andrews, supposed to ensure bowel regularity, clean livers and it also was also useful in settling the stomach after a night of too-heavy drinking.

But where to get the carbide?

'Some old hardware shop, maybe?' Dad suggested.

First stop was my uncle's hardware, but while it still stocked rabbit snares and clay pipes from the same era, there was no carbide.

At the time I was going to school in Newbridge, in another town about five miles away. One of my best pals at the time was Christy. I'd talked to him before about the 'bombs'.

'We need to find some carbide, Christy.'

He thought for a while.

'Old man McCabe. He'll have it, I bet.'

McCabe's was an old-fashioned hardware and petrol station on the main street near Christy's home. A couple of the lads in the family were also at school with us, so we were both known to the old man.

'OK. Let's go see.'

Mr McCabe was a man of few words and many mutters and grunts. And he had a funny way of smacking his lips when he was thinking. He did that for a little while after Christy and me made our request.

'Try down the end of the shop, top shelf,' he muttered eventually.

So we did. And indeed, there was an old carboard tube, dusty and with a long-faded label. Christy took it down and I blew away a cobweb. In faint pencil there was a price. 1s/3d. A shilling and three pennies.

I fished out the money onto the counter in front of the old man. He smacked his lips again, probably wondering if we were up to no good. We hadn't said to him why we wanted the carbide, but if my father knew what do do with it, it was probable that Mr McCabe did too.

Eventually he took the money, and the deal was sealed.

We knew that Christy's mother, who had a penchant for plying me with buttermilk whenever I came to their house, wouldn't approve of the 'experiments' we were planning to undertake. Besides, they didn't have a large garden in a very much smaller town, like we did at home.

And anyway, I hated buttermilk.

The construction of the device wasn't rocket science. The Andrews tin by its construction is tough, because its contents have to be kept absolutely dry as it effervesces when added to water.

So you take an empty tin. Make sure it is dry inside. Then punch a hole in the bottom with a nail.

The tin has to be wedged into something, or you could lose a hand or maybe just fingers ... a window of the sash kind is good. But parents don't look kindly on explosive devices in bedrooms.

We had an old garden shed, which had various places in its windows to wedge a tin. It became the site for the experiments, just as variously at different times of my childhood it had been a cowboy's cabin ringed with shrieking indians, a sailing ship fending off pirates, or a space ship searching out and destroying aliens (there was no Prime Directive in my time).

The system was to put a small amount of carbide in the tin. Spit onto it and then tamp the top on tight. Then the tin is wedged, and — making sure that there was nobody in front of the lid end — touch off the gas formed by spit and carbide with a match to the hole in the end of the tin.

The result was a loud bang, and the firing of the lid several tens of yards. It was fortunate that we had a big garden. And lots of Andrews tins.

We played the games for the best part of a week before we got tired of it. Or before my parents did. We established records for how far the tin lids went.

We had almost-calamities when the tins hadn't been wedged well enough and we learned the principle that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

On one occasion, one of the tins exploded. From which we learned that repeated explosive stresses will have a cumulative effect on the strength of a metal vessel. Or something like that.

Fortunately, for that bit of that summer, none of us got injured, nor did we injure anybody else.

Then it was innocence, today it would be a health and safety issue. And certainly I never showed my kids how to make carbide bombs, or anything else explosive. It wasn't something that I'd like to be famous for. Besides, Andrews Liver Salts comes in a safe plastic container now, useless for 'bombs'.

Christy later did become famous, though, in the world of music.

D'you remember the carbide bombs, Christy?

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