Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Rise and Fall of the Nigerian Space Program

We had a lot of learning experiences overseas. Most of which were a heck of a lot of fun. These days, in this country, I would imagine some of the stunts we pulled would have us kids snatched by CPS, dumped in foster homes, and doped to the gills on whatever the behavior modification drug of choice is these days.

*sigh*

Ahem.

We had been badgering Mom and Dad regarding the space program for some weeks, until finally Mom ground and mixed some sulphur, sugar, charcoal, saltpetre and water into a paste, poured it into the end of a piece of bamboo and left it to dry on the back porch for about three days.

After the three days were up, Dad propped the bamboo against a stump in the front yard, stuffed two matches up into the end with the dried gunk, lit the wood end of the matches, and Voila! -- the bamboo pinwheeled down the street with a really neat blue jet coming out one end. ("Ah," said Dad, "Russian design.")

This may not have been our mothers' best idea.

Under the somewhat ... absent-minded ... guidance of Dear Old Dad, my brother and I spent the next couple of weeks on Nigeria's first (and only) Space Program. By depleting a nearby cane-brake of bamboo, and with the aid of several Noble Volunteers from the house lizard population (and generous use of gaffer tape to keep said Noble Volunteers from
un-volunteering), my brother and I set out to perfect a launch platform.

Through trial-and-error (much error), we discovered the penultimate lizard-launcher: If you tied one end of a three-foot cord to the hind leg of your astro-lizard, and the other end of the cord to your bamboo, you achieved stability and guidance, since the drag provided by the cord (and lizard) kept the nose of the rocket pointed up.

(Of course, being firmly taped to the nose of a bamboo rocket tends to lead to guidance-wrecking struggles when a Hero of the Swampland succumbs to his baser instincts. Much better for the Hero to be sitting on the ground, wondering: "Okay, what have those little bastards come up with -- what's burning -- WHOAAA-aaaaaa-aaaa!")

Anyhoo, one evening we're watching a semi-successful launch and Dad mentions just kind of off-paw, "Interesting stuff, black powder."

Up perk our ears.

"Of course, the charcoal around here is awful, so your mom is using sugar to boost the fuel value of the carbon, but basically it's the same thing that the Chinese came up with."

Chris and I looked at each other. A new day was born in the fledgling Nigerian Space Program.

ICBMs.

Having been fed a diet of H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and R. E. Howard we knew what black powder was -- we were just a bit puzzled why ours was going "ffsshhtt" instead of "boom".

The obvious answer was that ours was a solid cake instead of a powder, and after some trial runs we were delighted to discover that this was, indeed, the case.

We had arbitrarily decided that ten bamboo rockets would be a suitable deterrent arsenal, so we mixed up about a bucket-full of black powder and placed it in the garden shed to bake.

I'm not exactly sure what happened, because everyone I've spoken to confidently tells me that solid black powder does not have the consistency of year-old high-grade concrete.

Ours did.

So, there we were, sitting on the driveway, having spent 20 minutes thumping an upside-down bucket on the drive slab (oh, the sparks) and being rewarded with a perfect mould of the inside of a ten-gallon bucket cast in charcoal-grey high-test dam-building material. Not a crumb to be seen.

*sigh*

Not to be defeated, my brother and I fetched our (steel) rock hammers, and with a mighty effort from our scrawny, sub-teenage muscles managed to reduce our war materiel to a large pile of walnut-sized chunks. Totally unsuitable for our purposes, and at a considerable expenditure in sweat (and sparks, I should add - steel hammers and a concrete driveway).

Anyhoo, somewhere along in our ruminations, we remembered The Coffee Grinder.

One of Mom's friends had purchased for her a coffee grinder in Italy, and it was a doozy. 220 volt, gleaming stainless steel, two -- count 'em, two -- glass bean hoppers, each of which held about two bricks' worth of beans, hand-fitted grinding blades -- State of the Art in Coffee-Making Technology.

Mom doesn't drink coffee. She loathes the stuff.

So, there it sat, clamped on the end of the kitchen table, bean hoppers filled with some love-in-a-canoe coffee beans, plugged into the wall, and completely and totally unused.

Chris and I forthwith requisitioned this technology for the War Effort.

In between the two hoppers was an open chute directly into the feed screw, to allow the addition of various and sundry stuff to your coffee mixture, so we promptly dropped one of our smaller chunks of black powder into the chute.

Much coughing and grinding, and Voila! Finely-ground black powder -- and no sweat. Perfect.

We promptly snatched one hopper, tossed the beans contained therein into the yard, filled it full of chunks, re-attached it to the grinder and began to process our powder.

We were about ten or so minutes into the task (now, pay attention here, 'cause this is kind of important), and being slightly impatient, were hand-feeding chunks into the open chute to speed up the process some, when we began noticing that the grinder was making a funny noise.

Not a grinding sound, not even the squeal of blades designed for comparatively soft coffee beans masticating chunks the consistency of granite, but a weird kind of "ffsst...fsstttt...ffsstttsstt" noise.

And there was an odd glow. Kind of a pinkly-orange glow, a bit like an old mercury-vapour lamp in shade, but more flickery.

"fsst...fffftthh...fzzsstt"

And smoke. Did I mention the smoke?

"fzzsstt...fsshhhzztt"

Chris and I, not being altogether gormless, had just come to the conclusion that Bad Things were About To Happen, when Dad chose that moment to walk through the swinging doors into the kitchen.

"Hey, boys. Staying our of tr ... what the hell?"

Now, Dad was absent-minded. And Dad would frequently fail to observe minor details while his mind was else-where. Like pythons and wives. Waist-deep water in his office. Rioting natives. With machetes. You know -- the small things.

I'm here to tell you, though, given the proper motivation Dad could flat
move.

Next thing I knew, Dad had each of us under one arm, pivoted, hit the door, button-hooked the end of the dining room, swept Mom off the couch, and hit the deck behind The Chest.

"I say, old boy,
really," commented Dad's friend Tom.

"Um, I'm sorry, are we interrupting something?" inquired Tom's girlfriend, Whazzername.

"
Dear," hissed Mom, in that peculiar tone women get sometimes.

"FOOMF," declared the kitchen. Tom dropped his drink.

chh-BLAM!

Ahem.

Trans-sonic coffee beans
everywhere. Ceiling. Walls. Dining room walls. Living room walls. Living room ceiling. Heck, we managed to put some of the little beggars into the front yard. It was wonderful.

Mom didn't see it quite that way, of course.

LawDog

8 comments:

sm said...

Sounds like a very healthy upbringing to me. Uncle,now passed, moved pretty quick to my surprise. All I was doing was using a magnifying glass to burn a hole in that container of black powder. I really got tired of being hunkered down behind that shed...and I didn't even get to come out when he took the garden hose to my learning about magnifying glasses and the sun.

We turned out all right LawDog.

Now these kids attending tree huggings, not hunting, and never shot a gun, well these are the ones to be worried about.

Steve

Owen said...

I think half the problem with kids today is that they never really geta chance to play with dangerous stuff.

When I have kids, I'm going to make sure there is a barn for them to play in.

Anonymous said...

Funniest thing I've ready in a long time. Thanks!

ereyck said...

Try making nitro by pour nitric acid over suet. Hook up a battery and it's a wonder my childhood survived. We did the sulfur, saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and powdered charcoal too. You could do other things back then with the "old" Gilbert Chemistry Sets. Great story. Thanks.

phlegmfatale said...

"The Rise and Fall of the Nigerian Space Program" was a delight to read. Thanks.

AmbulanceDriver said...

"trans-sonic coffee beans"....

I swear, it doesn't matter how many times I've read this story. Every time I get to that point, I start laughing... Not giggling, not chuckling, but full on, scare my coworkers laughing....

Thanks LawDog....

mack505 said...

Somehow I had missed this one until AD linked it this week. My coworkers now think I'm nuts. I haven't truly laughed out loud like that in ages!

"FOOMF declared the kitchen. . ." Priceless.

Jamie in London said...

I was searching for info on the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich... then noticed this little gem and was beautifully distracted. This is much more interesting.