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This is a question Darwin Awards

Bluffboy says: My mate cheated death and burned his eyebrows off looking down the barrel of a potato gun. Tell us about your brushes with the Grim Reaper through stupidity.

(, Thu 12 Feb 2009, 20:01)
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Inappropriate explosives.
I've sat on this story for a LONG time. More than 25 years. Now I live in a different country, on the other side of the world. So perhaps it's time to unburden myself of this tale. It is a story of stupidity, near-death, mayhem, soldiers and more. How I survived, I will never know. But here goes. It's a bit of a long story, with a 20-year-later twist, so apologies for length and girth, if not volume.

Back in the early 80's, I was an 11-year-old South African kid somewhat adrift in the world of English private boarding school. I'm not going to give any more detail than "the school was in the south of England". I was bright and nerdy, so they put me in the Scholarship Class. This class had only seven kids in it, and we were all quite bright. Science lessons were our favourites. They were conducted in a portakabin-type of classroom just outside the main school building, which was an old 1800's-style stately home affair.

Our science teacher decided that, since we were the "bright" kids, we were also the "responsible" kids - and stupidly gave each of us a key to the science lab, carte blanche to spend our time in there whenever we wanted, and a signed pad of requisition chits. These chits could be filled out and passed to the school secretary, and because they were already signed, we could - and did - requisition whatever we damned well liked. Can we spot a recipe for disaster yet? Read on...

A couple of the kids got into making beer and wine. I helped them and we made a still. Then we had a great trade going, selling beer, wine and moonshine to all the other kids in school (the oldest kid in our school was 13). This helped us raise some money. Another couple of kids used the science lab's darkroom to develop folks' films (for money, of course), pocketing the profits. I tired of the still once it was made, and didn't really care for the taste of the moonshine. But I did like the way it burned when you set fire to it... You will already know from my previous post to this QOTW that I'm a bit of a pyromaniac, so it was inevitable that I started experimenting with explosives.

From the boring (phosphorous in a shower head) to the exciting, I spanned the gamut of lethality. I then found a book called the Anarchist's Cookbook, which led me to my ruin. My first real achievement was to create almost a kilo of gunpowder. I used one of those huge science-lab mortars to mix the ingredients, with a large stone pestle to crush everything together. Once the mix was made, I poured a bit more than half away into a storage container, and then decided to "test" my mixture. On this occasion, I was alone in the science lab. So I lit a match, tossed it into the stone mortar (which had about half a pound of black powder in it) and legged it to the other end of the science lab.

From this "safe" distance, I watched as... nothing happened. Meh; I started walking back towards the mortar, when there was a blinding white flash and a spectacular "FOOM" sound. Yay! It worked! I was about 10 feet from it when it blew, and I still felt the shock/heat wave - cool! As I walked towards the mortar, this huge (10-15 kilo) stone mixing bowl slowly and silently cracked in half... and the pestle (itself a good 10 inches of granite) had vanished. Looking up, I noticed a perfectly round hole in the ceiling of the science lab, with powder burns all around it, and a matching hole in the roof above... Cue a chit from the pad for the school handyman to fix the roof. I explained it away as "a science experiment". Phew - got away with that, eh? Did I learn? Did I buggery.

The fascinating publication I had found then told me about nitro-glycerine. Chit for the ingredients? NO! Of course not - I'm not that stupid. I spread them out over three chits. So a little while later (wavy lines) there I am with three large beakers full of nitro, wandering about the lab showing me mates (I still shudder and get the cold sweats thinking about this). I took a pipette and squirted little drops onto the floor, where they amusingly exploded with little petard-like flashes and bangs. Cool, eh? Enough for me? Oh, no. Oh, no - not even slightly.

Turns out that you can use (unstable) nitro-glycerine to make much more stable dynamite sticks, which can then be used for wholesale destruction. And my faithful book told me what to do. Off to the woodworking shop went I, coming back with two large bin-bags full of sawdust. Then off to the kitchen for a roll of brown waxed paper. But that wasn't all. The other thing I needed was a method of ignition. Fire or impact will do it, and I couldn't get or make electric detonators. So I decided (on the advice of my book) to make fuse (or detonation) cord. Off to the school laundry, where I blagged three old threadbare sheets. Back to the science lab with my haul...

You make dynamite sticks by combining sawdust with liquid nitro-glycerine. This stabilises the nitro, so it's harder to ignite by accident. You can make them sturdy by wrapping the gooey mix up in wax paper. You make the fuse cord by taking long strips of bedsheet, coating them with glue, coating them with a fine layer of the gunpowder you made earlier and then twisting it (before the glue dries) into a long string. You then cut 12" lengths of this string and insert it into the middle of each of your dynamite sticks, before you roll it all up and sellotape it tight.

Before long, I had 15 and a half sticks of dynamite, looking exactly like something you'd see on a Wile E Coyote cartoon (only without the ACME logos). I also, by this time, had an accomplice - Tim. Sorry, Tim. So what on earth do we do with this stuff now? This was a dilemma, to be sure. So Tim and I went for a walk outside to consider our options.

Outside the science lab was the stump of a massive old oak that had died many years before and had been chopped off, about 15 feet above the ground. The oak was wide enough around that we couldn't reach each other's hands if we both hugged the tree; it was a bit big, then. The stump was next to a barbed-wire fence, which was made up of wooden fence posts about 6" across, with barbed wire between them, at about 8 feet apart. Inspiration struck! Wouldn't it be awesome to use the massive, old, dense, heavy tree to absorb our explosion(s)? So - off to the woodworking lab again for a hand drill with a sufficient diameter bit to drill holes to take our sticks of dynamite.

It was exhausting, this - drilling holes in this old tree. The sticks that I'd made were about 10" long and 1" across, so each hole needed to be at least that size. However, we persevered, and over the next week or so, we went out and drilled holes until the tree was ringed with holes, about a foot from the ground. Unfortunately, we mis-counted, and the tree got 14 holes. But we had 15 and a half sticks... What to do? Well, there was that tempting fence right next to the tree... You guessed it; the post nearest the tree got a hole and so did the next one in line (toward the science lab).

So, now begins the Darwin part of the story.

I carefully inserted a stick into each hole in the tree, leaving the fuse cord sticking out. Each snicked home with a satisfying "thunk". The fence posts got, respectively, the spare full stick and the last half a stick. I then got my long roll of fuse cord and started at the side of the tree facing the science lab, tying each stick's cord to the roll and then moving clockwise around the tree to the next one. Soon enough, I had reached the fence, so I attached the full stick and then the final half stick. I ran the remaining cord to our shelter. Our shelter was, and I want to be completely clear about this, utter shite. It was a low (18 inches or so) berm of earth with grass on it, about 25 feet from the tree. Our plan was to lie on the ground behind the berm, light the fuse and watch the fun - if things got too hairy, we'd hide behind our carefully-chosen shelter.

With the inevitability of all really really stupid decisions, we lit the cord. If you've ever seen the little spark run down Wile E Coyote's fuse cord, I'm here to tell you that yes - in real life, it looked just like that. Only it moved a great deal faster than we were expecting. The spark jogged merrily along the ground to the first fence post, where the half stick was waiting. Exactly as planned, and in true Mythbusters style, the spark reached the knot, split in two and continued a) towards the next stick (a full one this time) in the second fence post, and b) into the drilled hole at the bottom of the first fence post, while we peeked over our berm like a pair of retarded Chads.

Then all sound ceased. The earth below us heaved, and the bottom of the first fence post vanished in a bright, blinding white flash and a huge cloud of splinters (tiny, tiny splinters that were also very much on fire). The shock wave knocked the wind out of us and flattened us to the ground, while the first fence post whizzed straight up, to be restrained by the barbed wire (I imagine a comedy "bwoinnnnngggg" noise).

Unfortunately, the shit train had, by now, well and truly left the station. That was, you will recall, just the first stick - and a half stick at that. It was about this time that the second one went off, followed by regular THUMP-THUMP-THUMP explosions as the remaining 14 full sticks - confined in their dense, wooden lairs, started to blow. The crushing, overwhelming force is impossible to describe. The earth beneath us was bucking and kicking. We couldn't hear a fucking thing; all hearing was gone. We couldn't breathe; there was a rapidly-expanding fireball full of wood splinters that engulfed the air around us. We were completely flattened behind our pathetic little berm and totally convinced that we were going to die.

When the concussions stopped, I risked a peek up, to see something even more horrifying, if that could be possible. The tree stump - all 15' of it - was rising majestically into the air atop a huge fireball. It was slowly corkscrewing, too (remember, the sticks went off in sequence, not all together). I will remind the gentle reader that we were not very far at all from the science lab... When you're 11, and deaf, and on fire, and you then see about eight tons of flaming tree rising into the air, your brain just kind of shuts down. I just lay there, mouth open, watching like a mong as the stump reached its apogee, and - gravity being a harsh mistress - began its inevitable return journey. My memories of the time have it going at least ten miles into the air; measuring the lateral distance later, I reckon I got it a real 200 to 300 feet up. When it began its downward journey, still burning like an Apollo rocket, I couldn't move to run out of its path. If it had landed on me, I wouldn't be here now. Luckily, it headed in the direction of the school pool, but didn't reach it. It crashed to earth (with another huge concussion) about halfway between the science lab and the pool, and began smouldering.

Now came the aftermath. Neither Tim nor I could hear ANYTHING. We looked at each other, and we could both tell we were talking (screaming?) because our mouths were moving, but neither of us could hear our own voices, let alone each other's. Tim was on fire, with burning sawdust and splinters on his back, so I quickly batted the flames out, and then he did the same for me. Then we thought to look around; take stock, if you will. Behind us, the science lab...

The wall facing us was scorched black and peppered with chunks of wood and splinters. Every single window was gone, and all the desks and tables inside the lab had been swept clear. Beyond the lab, the old school building was also in a bad way. Every window facing the science lab had been blown out, and - what was this? There was a flood of kids and teachers leaving the building very quickly indeed. I imagine they were screaming, as many mouths seemed to be wiiiiide open. The music teacher (male) was running like a girl, all flappy hands and arms and such, mouth wide open, trampling kids in his haste to leave. So Tim and I looked at each other; we stripped off our (burned) school jumpers, flung them into the science lab, and joined the screaming exodus. Just merged with them.

Then the police came, along with the fire engines, and the Army, too. We were all interviewed - every one of us - and the school was closed for two weeks. Once Tim and I could hear, we agreed on our story (we were in the science lab, doing homework, when - BOOM - and that's all we knew) and swore that neither of us would breathe a word for at least 20 years AND only if we'd emigrated. We were both absolutely shitting ourselves that we'd be caught. I mean; blowing up your school? That's Borstal for sure, right? The thing that bothered me the most was the incriminating trail of ingredient requests...

The Army posted a guard on the school for the next six months; we had nice squaddies with Landies and guns looking after us and the girls' school next door. The bomb squad came out, and they analysed the residue. They concluded that the IRA had targeted the school, blaming them for the home-made explosive and for trying to kill the poor widdle kiddies. It turned out that the chits went in the bin as soon as the stuff was ordered, and the overall bill for "stuff" drowned out my ingredients; nobody put two and two together at all. Impossibly, we got away with it.

To this day, I have a small glass vial with some of that gunpowder in it. I keep it to remind myself to NEVER BE THAT FUCKING STUPID again. Doesn't always work though.

Still with me? Thanks! So there is a final chapter in this story. A couple of years ago, my wife and I were living in California, next to a really nice American family. They invited us around for Thanksgiving dinner, and after a lovely feed, the cigars, brandy and stories came out. So I told this one, to general acclaim, horror and so on.

A week or so later, my Mum came to live with us (different story, don't ask), and the same family invited us all to Christmas dinner. At that same dinner, the family's son-in-law also attended. He's a fantastic sort; a practical joker, and exactly the sort of person with whom I should DEFINITELY NOT associate. So he started telling HIS stories. Then his father-in-law uttered the fateful words... "Lustfish! Tell Zak the story about blowing up your sch...." But it was too late. Me, standing behind my mother, making throat-cutting motions and mouthing "Ix-nay on the ool-skay"... My mum turned around, and with a look of pure frost, said "yes, why DON'T you tell us that story...?".

All those years, and I never told her. Never breathed a word. She had had to come and take me out of school because of the nasty old IRA, and she never knew it was me... She didn't speak to me for weeks (WIN) and still hasn't quite come to terms with the whole thing. Mouth like a cat's bum or what!

This whole episode made the front pages of all the rags in England that year, until the government put a media blackout on it. They didn't want the IRA getting the publicity, apparently.

How I'm still alive today is a complete mystery, to be honest.

Apologies once again for length!
(, Fri 13 Feb 2009, 21:17, 20 replies)

Good story!

It's interesting to read the authors' comments regarding The Anarchists Cookbook.
(, Fri 13 Feb 2009, 21:39, closed)
You're right!
That IS interesting. Mind you, as an impressionable young 11-year-old, I wasn't interested in the political aspects at all. In combination with a 50's-era science textbook (with all the good recipes still included) it was like my dream book; a "Dangerous Book for Boys" of its time, if you will, before all this namby-pamby politically correct nonsense...

(, Fri 13 Feb 2009, 21:43, closed)
Even more interesting
Are the DoD booklets that get recommended on the same page -
Unconventional Warfare Devices and Techniques: Incendiaries and The Improvised Munitions Handbook, amongst others.

Amazon & the Pentagon: Helping the terrorists win since 1991.
(, Sat 14 Feb 2009, 9:38, closed)

Some great work and beautifully told.
(, Fri 13 Feb 2009, 22:19, closed)
longest and best qotw answer i've ever read

(, Fri 13 Feb 2009, 22:59, closed)
Mine is longer
(, Thu 19 Feb 2009, 0:32, closed)
Don't often reply to these things
but fuck me that's brilliant.
(, Fri 13 Feb 2009, 23:10, closed)
As I type I am, however, searching the net for any independant verification ;)
(, Fri 13 Feb 2009, 23:18, closed)
you would think a supposed IRA attack on a mainland UK school would have been news

here's the news - the story is (wood) pulp fiction
(, Sat 14 Feb 2009, 11:49, closed)
That is the conclusion to which I came, sadly - the only hit I found was this page :P
(, Sat 14 Feb 2009, 13:03, closed)
I stopped halfway through
To savor the story before continuing. Excellent. Though I've a sneaking suspicion that this will end up being deleted before the compo ends.

I suggest the b3ta admins start shredding the IP logs immediately.
(, Sat 14 Feb 2009, 2:37, closed)
and made entirely of WIN.
(, Sat 14 Feb 2009, 9:31, closed)
this is indeed a wonderful yarn
for that is all it is

explosions like all forces of nature follow the path of least resistance

there are a fair few here who are far more capable in the maths and physics department (you might even get the odd equation lobbed at you) but they will reiterate the following...

there is no chance of this wonderful woody tale being true.

an 8 ton tree stump would still have a fairly hefty root system

so even if you had severed the roots, put all the dynamite under it and ignited it simultaneously as opposed to your sequential 'firecracker' approach it would still merely have blown the wood apart at its weakest points. to launch the stump '300 foot high' you would not only need a lot more explosive power than schoolboy cobbled together TNT (even if you could order the controlled ingredients to be delivered to a school!) but in addition some form of 'barrel' device to contain the explosive power and focus it upwards as opposed to outwards would be required - yes just like a rocket

interestingly teh web has not one story of an IRA bomb attack on a school in the UK where i also grew up in the 80's - which would have been news at ten, front page major news that i would have remembered.

your 'Personal Hygiene' tale is also highly questionable - gangrene is caused by an infection to a serious wound or a lack of blood supply causing tissue to be come necrotic (die) - not by merely being a soap dodger with flappy tits and flexible morals

still - we're all here to read interesting stories - you spin a great yarn but its all bullshit.

i still clicked.
(, Sat 14 Feb 2009, 11:28, closed)
Let's face it Spimf
Probably half of the truly entertaining stories on here are bullshit. You know it, I know it, we all know it. It's the elephant in the room - everyone knows it, but no-one talks about it. It's just part of QOTW
(, Sun 15 Feb 2009, 23:55, closed)
but don't try and tell me it was all over the news to validate it - its either funny/entertaining whatever or its not. pretending its been on news at 10 or on the front page of the sun doesn't improve the tale it just proves its a porkie
(, Mon 16 Feb 2009, 6:37, closed)
Not sure it's that far beyond the possible....
... Wikipedia reckons 1 stick of commercial dynamite liberates 2.1 MJ. In round numbers, that's enough to lift 10 metric tonnes 20 metres (60+ feet) into the air.

If a schoolboy could actually handle nitroglycerine and make 14 sticks which together had the force of a single commercial stick then it's close enough to be in the realms of the possible; 60 feet would look like 200 to me, if I was "11 and deaf and on fire"!

In any case, a damn fine tale.
(, Mon 16 Feb 2009, 19:16, closed)
From someone who has spent a LOT of time around
explosives, his words, whether or not they are true, are relatively accurate. As a geologist working in the mines as my first job out of college I learned firsthand about the concussion that explosives (dynamite) create and they are remarkably like what is described in this thread. I have also used a lot of explosives in geophysics (kim-packs that are equivalent to about 1/3 of a stick of dynamite) and it is amazing what they will lift into the air. Twelve or thirteen sticks of dynamite placed correctly could easily pick up 13 or 14 feet of old oak tree stump. I am less convinced about one half sending a fence post into the air but it certainly could happen.

All of that said, I am glad today was a holiday as I could not stop laughing out loud as I read this. It is fairly accurate and really FUNNY.
(, Mon 16 Feb 2009, 23:12, closed)
Lies, damned lies, and QoTW entries
I also call 'bullshit' but I enjoyed it far too much to care about silly little things like veracity.

That was a brilliantly written and incredibly funny story, richly deserving of the *click* you're getting from me. Well done sir.
(, Mon 16 Feb 2009, 12:04, closed)
Great tale but complete ackamarackus
Best QotW entry every aside from being obvious fiction.

The recipes in the The Anarchist's Cookbook are flawed in dangerous, blow yer nuts off ways. Never follow them.
(, Mon 16 Feb 2009, 12:20, closed)
Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, giggling my little arse off all the while.
Well told, and true or not, a cracking good read.
(, Tue 17 Feb 2009, 2:29, closed)

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