I left off last week at the point where my brother Charlie and I had just discovered that the six ounces of nitroglycerine we were making in the back yard had to be constantly stirred and kept cool for 24 hours to prevent it from detonating. When Charlie read that in his little book he began flipping pages like mad. And a few minutes later — without warning — he just took off.
I kept stirring the stuff in the whiskey glass, hoping he hadn’t run away from the explosion that was coming. A long time went by. A VERY long time.
Then he showed up with a roll of camera film. “We can change it to nitrocellulose by adding celluloid.”
“Nitrocellulose doesn’t explode?”
“Yeah, but it’s not as touchy,” he said, ripping film and tossing it in like mad as the back door slammed.
“Uh-oh,” Charlie said, waving a hand. “C’mon!”
We jumped up and scurried across the yard so that whoever had come out wouldn’t see what we were up to.
The kid from downstairs showed up. “Hi, guys. What’s up?”
“Nothing,” Charlie told him with a remarkably straight face.
“Nothing?” the kid asked, looking around.
Charlie somehow managed to keep that straight face. “Nope.”
“C’mon. You gotta be doing something.”
“Uh-uh. Not a thing.”
“Oh, yeah? Well what’s that orange smoke over there? And by the way, did you guys leave the hose on? I turned it off.”
Turned the hose off! The hose was what was keeping the stuff from blowing up. Charlie and I whipped around. Rising from the glass was a tiny innocent-looking wisp of orange-brown smoke.
And as we watched, too dumb to run ...
The next day everyone in town was talking about the geyser of orange-brown smoke that rocketed into the air somewhere over by Huntington Street. Some people claimed it was 70 or 80 feet high. They were wrong. It was closer to 120.
All out of one little whiskey glass that didn’t even crack.
My! My! Nitroglycerine forms very slowly, a thin layer on top. Very little of it had formed by then, imagine what might have happened if we’d gotten beyond a razor thin layer of the stuff.
New London joins the space age!
“Look! Up in the air! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Well I’ll be hanged! It’s that nice house over on Huntington Street!”
After that, Charlie’s main interest switched from chemistry to physics. In fact, some years later he became a physicist. I guess I didn’t learn as much as he did that day. I became a chemist.
Never did make nitroglycerine again though, but I did ... nope, don’t think I’ll mention that. Nobody ever found out who it was and I think I’ll just leave it that way.
I will say, however, that some parts of college were fun.
Anyway, the thrust of this thing I’m writing is what poor Mom went through anytime Charlie and I were in the same place at the same time, so I better get on with it.
I think the worst of Mom’s trials came during one very cold winter when Charlie and I came down with a severe case of cabin fever. Charlie, you see, had the patience of a saint, but even a saint could be forgiven for wanting to choke the seeds out a kid brother’s Adam’s apple once in a while.
If he deserved it.
Which I did.
One problem was the workbench we shared up in the attic. I was — how shall I put it? — Oh yeah, a slob. On top of that, I kept making gunpowder for my improvised pipe cannons and making the house rock a bit now and then, which attracted Mom’s attention.
Poor Charlie! Every time Mom came upstairs and saw my stuff on the workbench she took it out on Charlie. “You’re older than he is. Can’t you control him? He’s going to blow up the house!”
Unfortunately, Bill and Frank, our older brothers, couldn’t help; they were busy doing something easier — fighting World War II. So Charlie built another bench, hauled me over to it, and pointed back at the old one. “That’s your bench. This’s mine. Get it?”
I got it — and resented it, leading to the Great Blanket War.
That frosty New England winter we shared a bed in the unheated attic.
Naturally, there was a good deal of the “roll over and pull the blankets with you” routine going on during the night. Now waking up totally uncovered in a 35-degree room at four in the morning is no fun. You’re so cold you almost can’t grip the covers to haul them back over your frozen bod.
Or so Charlie kept telling me. :-)
As a result, Charlie invented the Bed Separator, a two-by-two notched at each end to fit the uprights in the head and foot of our old-fashioned brass bed. He snapped it in place and pressed it down tight on the blankets, creating a rollover-proof separator between himself and one highly choke-worthy kid brother.
But he failed to take into account the devious mind of a 14-year-old.
Little by little each day — while Charlie was elsewhere of course — I slowly slid the mattress, and accompanying covers, over toward my side of the bed. It didn’t take much; just three inches made all the difference.
I knew, you see, that when it came time to get into bed on a cold night, there was no time for a close inspection of the covers. You charged up the stairs, tossed clothes everywhere, did a swan dive under the blankets, and prayed you had enough body heat left to bring the temperature of them up to something life-supporting.
As a result, I slept in spacious comfort while poor Charlie barely had enough room to lie like a mummy in a case.
Then one day he went upstairs and discovered my handiwork. For a while after that I had to keep showing Mom the finger marks on my throat to keep him under control. My! My! Talk about mad!
Eventually though, I forget why, Charlie and I joined forces again in the never-ending search for forbidden knowledge, and the only thing that saved poor Mom was that Charlie got drafted.
I’ve always wondered if she had a buddy on that draft board.
I know she smiled a lot after that.