My mother used to say that whenever my two oldest brothers, Bill and Frank, got together it wasn’t one plus one equals two, it was one plus one equals “... more trouble than the Good Lord should put on the shoulders of a poor hard-working widow.”
She never said that about her two younger angels —which would be me and Charlie. Of course that may be because Charlie lived away from home from age 4 to age 16.
And when we finally got together ... I still don’t know why Mom didn’t just kill off the two of us. No court in the country would have convicted her.
I could have warned her about what was going to happen when Charlie and I got together. I spent a summer in upstate New York where Charlie lived for 12 years, and we got into more stuff in a few weeks than most kids get into in a lifetime.
I suppose I better explain why Charlie lived away from home. He was hit by a truck on the New York City streets when he was 4. It hit him so hard it sent him flying 50 feet through a picket fence. Incredibly, all he ended up with was some scrapes and a wide bandage around his head, out of which poked a crop of beautiful blond curls. After his run in with that truck, however, he was understandably skittish about the city streets, and a doctor strongly recommended he live in the country for a while.
A “while” started out to be six weeks, but the folks he was placed with upstate kept begging for extension after extension because they fell in love with a little 4-year-old angel with golden curls who looked for all the world like he belonged in one of Leonardo da Vinci’s magnificent paintings of heavenly cherubs.
You know what I’m going to say next. Right? Yes. Appearances can be deceiving. Oh, yeah!
Anyway, when I was 11 and Charlie was 15 I spent a summer upstate with him. My! My! They say that little town up there has never quite been the same.
Now it’s true that Bill and Frank were “trouble” when they were together, but their penchant for mischief fell fairly low on the “I’m going to have to murder those kids” scale.
One day before dinner, for example, I watched Frankie fill the sugar bowl with salt. Then, during supper, I watched as Billy put his usual two teaspoons of “sugar” in his coffee.
My brother Billy was one cool customer. He took a big swig of his coffee.
It must have tasted awful, but his face never revealed a thing. He drank, swallowed, quietly put his cup down, reached for his desert spoon, put it into his chocolate pudding, and launched a spoonful across the table, hitting Frankie on the left side of his head, completely filling his ear, and continuing on to the wall behind him.
Mom started to say something about the pudding on the wall, but Frankie launched a retaliatory strike which missed Billy by two feet, taking poor Mom directly between the eyes.
So I suppose you can see why Mom considered Bill and Frank to be a bit of a trial, but compared to her two angelic younger sons, Bill and Frank were rank amateurs.
Take the time Charlie and I made nitroglycerine.
Charlie had a little book. You could get little books in those days. Cheap things barely a quarter-inch thick and not much bigger than your open hand, but chock-full of everything kids thirst to know, and society does its best to keep from them.
This particular little book told how to make a whole lot of things that two kids should definitely not make.
“Nitroglycerine,” it stated rather pointedly, “can be made from ingredients sold in any drugstore.”
Oh? How interesting ...
Off to the Court Drug, next to the Garde Theater at the top of State Street, in New London, Conn. I went. I bought the stuff we needed from a druggist named Clifford, who never so much as batted an eyelash when a 14-year-old kid wandered in and asked for the ingredients to make nitroglycerine. He measured the three liquids into flat-sided medicine bottles with black plastic screw-on caps, labeled them, put them in a bag, smiled, took my money, and never even mentioned that either of the two acids I had just purchased would eat my hand off if it spilled on me.
Oh, for the good old days when kids could be kids!
Charlie and I went out in the back yard, scratched a shallow hole at the edge of the garden where the soil was soft, stood an 8-ounce slope-sided whiskey glass in it, and arranged things so that the garden hose, turned on way back at the spigot by the back door, would deliver the trickle of water needed to keep the stuff cool as we made it.
That was because Charlie’s book said the nitroglycerin would explode if it got hot. Didn’t really worry us though. We’d bought enough stuff to make a whole glass of nitro, but we were only going to make a couple of ounces.
Nothing to worry about.
Charlie had read the instructions, but not word for word, so I measured, and mixed, and stirred as he read them again out loud.
“The nitroglycerin forms as a thin layer, which increases as the reaction proceeds. You must keep stirring for the ...”
Charlie came to the end of a page and flipped over.
“... next twenty-four hours. Be sure to stir gently and keep the mixture cool or it will detonate.”
We both said it at the same time. “TWENTY-FOUR HOURS!”
Charlie began flipping pages like someone in a speed reading contest. Every 10 seconds he looked down at me. “Keep stirring!”
“I am! I am!”
I have to quit here because of space, but I don’t want to keep you hanging, so I will answer the critical question.
Yes, it went off.
But since I’m writing this you know we didn’t get killed.
See you next week.