Friday, January 15, 2010

Conflagration (Conflagrazione)

A recent post concerning fire from Molly Potter made me remember a fun filled fire story of my own.

When I was fourteen years old living in Dallas, my father commuted to a town out west of Fort Worth to help my granddad with the family oil exploration business. When not in school, my seven year old brother and I would stay home with mom and be bored, typically finding some sort of trouble to get into.

That particular autumn weekend of the 'conflagration', I remember very clearly it was two weeks before we were to pack up the house and move to a desolate town closer to where the current land leases on which the drilling was located. Mom had gone on an errand, and we were home alone and thinking of playing around with model rockets on account of it was too cold to swim.

By this point in my adolescence, I was no stranger to model rocketry. I had built and successfully fired multistage rockets using both solid and liquid fuel, some of which had gone a mile or so high (the altitude being inversely proportional to the likelihood of finding the rocket as demonstrated in the chart below).

So in effect, I was overly familiar with rocket engines and had unfortunately lost some of the respect for safety that most normal people might have for devices that create literally tens of pounds of thrust spewing out a firey wake of destruction.

On this day and true to form for being a particularly lazy teenager, I didn't want to go to all the hassle of firing an actual rocket, or even using a remotely controlled electrical igniter as was the fashion in those days. No, of course I did the expedient thing and reasoned out that a well placed lit match in the clay cone nozzle of the engine would do the trick. But I worked out that the thrust had to be controlled (no jokes OWO) so it would be an even burn, much like a NASA test firing of an engine.

So, I logically found the nearest knothole in the wooden fence separating our yard from the neighbor's yard. Behind this knothole was a fencepost that would absorb most of the thrust and prevent the engine from shooting through to the other side. Matches were at the ready and my little brother stood there watching wide eyed...

I have to mention that next to us lived a family with a mean and mischievous little girl. She was always the sort that threw rocks at cars parked outside and was caught by her parents playing with matches on the side of her house a few weeks earlier. I had never heard her parents yelling at her as loud as when that happened.

Anyway, after striking the match and deftly placing it right in the nozzle while simultaneously jerking back my hand in one fluid catlike motion, the engine was lit. And for those of you 'in the know' about model rocket engines, it happened to be an Estes model D-12-3, which is a long burning and high newton thrust engine with a three second pause before an ejection charge designed to clear out a parachute from the model rocket. My brother and I gleefully watched the engine shooting
out a trail of fire over our pool deck, and then it happened.

Something went horribly wrong six seconds into the burn. I had not anticipated lateral motion against the fence post, so the engine (with rocket-like speed) shot through the hole to the other side of the fence. Of course, the first thing I do is look through the knothole and see the sickening sight of the engine spinning around in a circle shooting fire everywhere over dry leaves that had accumulated in the neighbors' yard. My brother asked 'What's wrong?', to which I responded 'We have a problem.'

I had the presence of mind to immediately grab a bucket. I quickly dunked it in the pool, then scrambled around the gates to the neighbors' yard quickly throwing water down and stamping and stamping it out, even while the engine was shooting out it's last ejection charge. I ran back and dumped four more buckets of water on it all just to be sure everything was out. Then I was left with the minor problem of an eight foot diameter circle of charred earth that someone was going to find out about before too long. So I did the dishonorable thing and pushed adjacent leaves over the blackened area.

For the following week my brother and I said nothing. The next weekend as we were packing up the moving van to leave, I could hear the little girl's mother yelling at her and managed to witness some of the ensuing punishment.

Quando giovane, ho iniziato un motore di razzo con un fiammifero. Non è stato controllato!


  1. Good God, I hope I have girls.

  2. That's far more dramatic and impressive than my little joss stick in a paper bin trick! The point of ignition put cartoon pictures in my head!

  3. In a way I wish we had grown up in the same neighbourhood. Of course, you're a smidgen older than me (just a damn smidgen) but that aside...

    I used to love filling a plastic bottle half full of water. Placing it at a 45 degree angle and slowly pumping it full of air with a foot pump.


    It would sail into one of the neighbour's gardens. I wouldn't even wait to hear it land, I was too busy loading up another one.

  4. Sneaky, but very clever. That poor girl. Oh well, that are the side effects of being mean and mischievous :)

  5. When I was a preteen (because everything is paintfully embarrassing at that age), my stepdad built a canon out of the handle of an old jack. His favorite pastime was to load it up with match heads and a smidge of black powder, then drop an old D-battery in and shoot across the lake behind our house into the abandoned bank on the other side.

    My stepbrother thought he would try his hand at something similar when he was home alone, but ended up setting fire to the whole backyard. Luckily, our neighbor was home and helped put the blaze out with his garden hose before the fire department arrived.

    Silly boys and their toys.

  6. What is it with boys and destruction?!!!

    You know, that made you sound rather intelligent ... or maybe just a bit nerdy :P Whichever it was, I am impressed with your sound knowledge (or not, as the case seems to be) of all things rockety.

    As for the little girl ... bravo! I would've done the same thing. Self preservation rules at all times.

    Hope you're enjoying your weekend :)

  7. How lucky that you were moving away right after that! (Not quite so lucky for the girl next door, though)

  8. Nikki,
    I would worry so much more if I had a girl child (I'd give new meaning to 'overprotective').

    I don't know, burning down part of the house is kind of a big deal.

    I'm sure we would have been best of friends. You might have had better ideas than I did about
    launching the rockets horizontally.

    Dutch Donut Girl,
    Yes, I still feel guilty about it though.

    Hah! I've never accidently made a fire that big. Um, I mean on purpose either.

    Girl Interrupted,
    Yes, if it is loud or fiery, or maybe uses lots of hydraulics and machinery, we are soooo there.
    And thanks, yes I was a rockety little boy.
    Have a nice weekend and don't let anything bring you down.

    Yes, very very lucky. I told my parents a month later and they were already mad at the girl next door, so they had a good laugh.
    Of course, morally, I don't know if that was a good example for them to set for me.