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Dumb and Dangerous


Frank Spillers` Blog

“Dumb and Dangerous”


I grew up in Freeport and was fortunate to have parents that didn’t seem to worry much about my recreation; they could not care less. As a kid, my “job” was to play. Theirs was to earn a living and take care of the home. We did not have any organized playtime like Little League, soccer, etc. How fortunate could a young kid be to use his imagination, build things, have pickup ballgames, do dangerous experiments!? Tell me what a young guy today learns, outside of school, compared to what I learned. They learn how to hit, kick, and catch a ball. I learned how to build rockets, develop a chemical concoction to treat the mange on my dog, build a fort, build a real boat, work on cars, get acid out of my dad`s car battery to burn off warts, build a device to transmit sound over a flashlight beam to a receiver, how to catch snakes to scare the girls, and build an extremely bright carbon-arc light. Now, don`t get me wrong, my life was not all fun and games! My father really believed in WORK, and that principle was not far removed from my daily existence.


One of my many science projects was to investigate the burning of magnesium powder. I don`t know where I got it, but I remember having maybe a quarter pound of powder. I was probably about twelve years old at the time. My mother thought I was a child genius since I went to the Freeport City Library about once a week.  I was actually going to see what interesting stuff I could find to build or blowup! This is where I first found out about mag powder and the very similar chemical mixture called thermite. You should keep in mind that a twelve year old boy`s brain is not totally wired and has very little thought about the consequences of his actions! I remember the day of ignition like it was yesterday! I was with my good friend Gene Beck when we decided to run our first magnesium ignition experiment. We were at Gene`s home so I ran home (only two blocks away) and got the magnesium powder. Gene`s mother was not home, so we were ready to go with the burn. I had a few of those big kitchen matches to use to light the mag. There was just one big problem – which one of us was going to have the great honor to light the pile of powder we had stacked on the sidewalk? Being boys, there was only one way to decide and that was to have a wrestling match. I was so upset that Gene won the match and had the most wonderful honor to fire off a pile of magnesium powder with a kitchen match! For all of the chemists reading, you know that what was to follow was not a great honor for Gene!  I can still see Gene squatting down over the top of the pile of powder. He struck the match, touched it to the powder and there was an immediate blinding white-hot flash and mushroom cloud of smoke! Gene jumped up screaming his head off! He had a totally black face and much of the front portion of his hair burned off. He started running around in circles, falling down and running into the side of the house several times. I had never seen anyone act like this! I thought he had actually gone crazy! After I determined he was sane, I took him in the house and put him to bed at 2 in the afternoon and covered his head up with a sheet. His mother returned home and asked why Gene was in bed. I told hear he was taking a nap. Needless to say things went downhill with Gene`s mother and I left. Let’s just say that Gene recovered without permanent blindness and his hair grew back. Even though this experiment only narrowly avoided becoming a crisis, it was more of a speed bump than a stop sign on my road of experiments.

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