June 26, 2007

The Biggest Bottle Rocket Ever Made

Growing up in Minnesota, where fireworks were—quite unfairly, in this columnist’s opinion—deemed illegal for the better part of my existence, the July 4th holiday was an annual impetus for pretty much every male kid in my town to settle in for, at least, a month of crime.

You see, for kids, a ban on fireworks is the equivalent of Prohibition for adults, and we all know how that turned out, don’t we? So long as Minnesota was flanked by South Dakota to the West, Wisconsin to the East and Canada to the North, stopping the flow of illegal fireworks into Minnesota was like trying to stop water from seeping through a pillow case.

All the kids in town had their own preferred firework suppliers, and in my neighborhood the Al Capone of choice was a young man named LuVerne. I’ve written about LuVerne before, a reliable dealer who always had a stash of fireworks and was always willing to sell his fireworks, at a substantially marked up rate.

For several years, LuVerne was my go-to guy when it came to firework procurement, but it was almost inevitable that at some point I would tire of the relatively tame pops and bangs of firecrackers and bottle rockets, and yearn for something more substantial.

The problem was that more substantial fireworks just weren’t available at the time, so I and a couple of my friends decided one year that we’d try to make our own fireworks. Now, it should be underscored we had only a very rudimentary understanding of how fireworks actually worked, but through trial and error—mostly error—we figured out how to loosely pack darker gunpowder if we wanted to make a bottle rocket that could actually lift off, and how to tightly pack gunpowder if we wanted a large explosion.

You may be wondering: how did we procure gunpowder? Simple! We carefully cut open roughly 10,000 firecrackers and bottle rockets in order to retrieve less than a gram of boom-boom dust each. Once you’ve dissected enough firecrackers and bottle rockets, you can build up a substantial amount of gunpowder.

Equipped with enough gunpowder to obliterate a large garden shed, my friends and I decided to construct the largest bottle rocket we could imagine, and we could imagine a fairly big one. For the rocket stick, we used a half-inch thick wooden dowel we found in the garage, which was about three feet long.

As for the business end of the rocket, we used vast quantities of cardboard, masking tape, duct tape and, most important of all, gunpowder. Once we had completed the mother of all bottle rockets, the thing looked like a torch specially made to be wielded by the Jolly Green Giant. Perched atop the wooden dowel was an explosive head as thick as a pop can and twice as long. We estimated the rocket would enter near-earth orbit before the tightly packed explosive tip—consisting of about 200 firecrackers worth of gunpowder—would ever detonate.

We marveled at our bottle rocket creation for about two days, decorating it with colored markers, with terms like “Moon Slayer,” scrawled along the side. After two days of talking about how awesome our bottle rocket was and regaling each other with bets about how high it would travel and how loud it would be—high as the clouds and loud as a nuclear explosion, by some estimates—the temptation had become too much. It was time to launch the “Moon Slayer.”

Now, because fireworks were illegal, we had cleared a section of a nearby wooded area where we could light fireworks largely hidden from view. It was in this secluded area where we set up our Cape Canaveral. Standing in the direct center of our makeshift clearing, the bottle rocket was an imposing sight. No sane adult would have looked at that monstrosity and thought “I should light that!” But, that’s exactly what we did.

As I said, our understanding of the physics behind fireworks was spotty at best, and one thing we didn’t take into account was how much that wooden dowel weighed, in addition to all that cardboard, tape and gunpowder fuel.

To our credit, the bottle rocket did actually lift off; to our detriment, it didn’t quite reach near-earth orbit. It did, however, make quite a noisy show for about four seconds as it ascended to the lofty height of about six feet, at which point the explosive tip detonated. . . which. . .

In tales told afterwards—once our ears stopped ringing and the shock of seeing a wooden dowel impaled a foot deep into the ground finally wore off—we generally agreed, even though we had never actually heard a nuclear explosion, our bottle rocket must have been pretty close to that loud.

And we pretty much stuck to regular firecrackers and bottle rockets after that, until I was 21 and blew up a grenade in my parents’ backyard, which I don’t feel like writing about again just now, thank you very much.

Posted by Ryan at June 26, 2007 01:53 PM | TrackBack

aaahhhh yes. Youth and fireworks. good times. good times. When I remember those days I still marvel at how I still have 10 fingers.

Posted by: MojoMark at June 26, 2007 04:02 PM

You know, when you told me the grenade story-I thought you were nuts. You didn't tell me that you pre-empted it by this! Now, I really think your crazy!

Posted by: Autumn at June 27, 2007 08:05 AM

I mean "you're" crazy!

Posted by: Autumn at June 27, 2007 08:06 AM

Hey Autumn! Did you get Mel's invite to the July 3rd party?

Posted by: Ryan at June 27, 2007 08:28 AM

Okay, First:

That was pretty damned funny. Then I went and read the grenade story... and couldn't stop laughing. To think the crazies thing I ever did was the Tarzan swing we built in the back yard....

Second: What's with the name change? "Rambling Rhodes" was distinctive and evocative. "Incoherent Nonsense" sounds like any of a million I'm-trying-to-be-clever-but-can't-think-of-anything-better blogs out there.

Posted by: Stephen Rider at July 2, 2007 12:44 PM

Stephen, as I said, I was getting a lot of people I didn't know, and some I did know, telling me they read my blog regularly. It used to be I was fine with that, but when I get pinged via instant messenger at work from somebody telling me I have "fans" in his department at the company I work for, I started to get a little nuttered out about having my last name so prominently displayed up there. Although I'm proud of my body of blog work since 2002, I'm not sure it's something I want to be so easily Google-able by current and possible future employers.

"Incoherent Nonsense," is my placeholder title until such time as I conjure something better.

Posted by: Ryan at July 2, 2007 01:24 PM

Yes-I got it. Sorry, I usually check email for messages, not your blog. I'll adjust though. Maybe I'll see tomorrow night; only if you promise a home-made fireworks show though!

Posted by: Autumn at July 2, 2007 05:47 PM

Heh.. We small town Minnesota boy sure knew how to make our own fun, yes? I grew up in Houston, and my Dad ran a scrap yard. I once built a Zepplin out of large balloons and propane.. It ended about as well as you might suspect:


We loaded model rockets with black powder, built pipe cannons to shoot croquet balls, and made gasoline and liquid soap filled light bulb bombs..

It's a miracle I lived through my childhood..

Posted by: Larry Anderson at July 3, 2007 10:13 AM
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