One of the best things about Bolivia was the holidays. We got time off school everytime there was a riot, or a change of government, or on days of the week ending in ‘es’. The best Bolivian holiday of all though, was San Juan. I’ll state the obvious and guess Saint John was the day’s namesake, but I have no idea who he was or what he did. Maybe he was the Pope. Maybe one of these days I’ll actually do some research for this site. BUT San Juan did mean firecrackers. It was a whole holiday devoted to exploding things. Australia has been devoid of firecrackers since the ’80s sometime when some kid lost an eye or something and ruined it for the rest of us. It would take someone losing a tourist bus full of nuns for them to ban fireworks in Bolivia. And even when we did have fireworks in Australia, they were the useless, pretty/sparkly kind, for little girls, old ladies and Elton John. Nothing that could really do some damage. Bolivia had no such qualms: awesome destructive firecrackers you fed your mother-in-law. Seriously. One was literally called Mother-In-Law Killer. Sure, they were a 3rd world country, but men there felt the associated pains of marriage just like the rest of us. Only, they were allowed to do something about it. We played with explosives basically every day while we were there, so it’s amazing any of us are still alive today since…
…there were these great rockets made of packed mud and loud stuff wrapped in tin from powdered milk cans, with a bamboo stick thrown on for guidance. I’m not sure who thought up wrapping explosives in metal, but they were a genius. The rockets were powerful enough to punch a hole through the bottom of a paint can on their way up, and unreliable enough to keep things interesting. They could explode after flying far into the stratosphere, or sometimes, while still in close proximity to your personal important body parts and assorted dangly bits. You could take the bamboo off and let them fly around aimlessly, risking a lung puncture before your heart got blown out your back. It was the tin shrapnel that hurt the most. You could ignore the bits of dried mud embedded in your abdomen. You got wounds like that just from wrestling on an average day. I shot one of said rockets from Walter’s Dad’s apartment balcony once, and it exploded just above our heads. It blew the paint off 3 levels of gutters, creating our own little dusk-red snow storm, raining down on all the residents poking their heads out, peering upward into the onset of dementia that comes with ingesting dozens of tiny flecks of lead-based paint.
…the instant gratification that comes from exploding things is a hunger that stays with you your whole life. If you’re a guy at least. It’s what army rangers and navy seals are made of. And the occasional malnourished nerd in my case. Girls never seemed to care and thought we were idiots. But amongst the wanton destruction there was a place too for diversionary tactics and subterfuge, which is where smoke bombs came in. These were cooked on the kitchen stove without mum’s help, and depending on recipe, could fill a girls’ bathroom, teachers’ staff room or some poor soul’s sweatpants with thick, acrid smoke for several minutes. The trick with smoke bombs was slow preparation. You had to melt the secret ingredients together on a low heat, so they mixed properly. But slow preparation and teenagers with ADHD was the relational equivalent of Tom Cruise and his revolving wife-door: It never lasted and soon enough the heat gets turned up. I maintain it was Chris who got impatient and turned the gas up on mum’s kitchen stove. Laying the blame aside momentarily, the short of it is: impatience won, the gas did get turned up, and the mixture promptly exploded brightly on the stove, covering the entire kitchen in ash and filling 10 city blocks with smoke. I took it upon myself to inhale as much as I could. Desperately trying to save mum’s $2 linoleum floor, I used my bulging physique to block the barrage of fire now descending from above. Bits of molten something-or-other burned down on my arms as I crept in the turn the gas off, ’cause, you know, gas left untended can be dangerous. Chris retreated to an American neighbours’ house around the corner to get medical attention and I hit the shower, hoping that whatever was sinking into my arms would eventually come off and wasn’t radioactive. I also wretched up about 3 litres of black stuff which crawled away down the drain. To his credit, by the time I’d showered, Chris had returned and done an amazing job of cleaning the kitchen, which now looked spotless, and had employed 2 fans to clear the house of the remaining smoke that I hadn’t already inhaled. Bill Clinton would have been useless in that situation. Chris’ mum arrived 30 seconds later to pick us up for our choir recital at school, sans eyebrows. The skin on my arms have have still been smouldering a little. I think the choir was our only saving grace. Singing like we’d just seen heaven certainly helped. And it meant mum used the suede belt instead of the one with the spikes once we returned home.
…sometimes the intent in the beginning is the biggest bang you can come up with. James and Jeremy found about a kilo of gunpowder once so we drilled a hole in the handle of a homemade mallet (a steel pipe welded onto a mallet head) and filled the pipe full of the gunpowder and packed it in hard. We used a sparkler for a wick, since that was all they were good for, and bolted for cover. The pipe obliterated itself and flung shrapnel all over the place. A twisted shard cut Jeremy in the face on it’s way past; a fact he rejoiced in, since it’s unhindered momentum certainly would have meant death for his parent’s new bedroom windows, which in turn, probably meant death for him too. Thankfully, it’s modified trajectory meant everyone survived. But 1 inch to the right and Jeremy would still be getting stuck at customs x-rays each and every trip.
…explosives are loud. Louder in 40 gallon drums. Louder still if your head is in there with them. Note to budding anarchists: give it a while before you stick your head in to see why it didn’t go off. To this day, maybe once a month, one of my ears goes quiet and the other one rings in the key of F-sharp for a minute or so and then everything goes back to normal. For the first few years I held out hope that it was some kind of supersonic hearing ability, but no such luck. The dog never talked back at me. On the day in question I actually thought I’d blown my eardrums out of my skull and couldn’t hear a thing for ages. Nowadays, I get seasick lying down and when I exhale sometimes a wisp of smoke comes out. Is that bad?