Sitting at my father’s feet, he reading and I gazing into the fire, a thought occurred to me, and I asked him:
‘Father, how do you make gunpowder?’
Now, you might think that most fathers would change the subject with alacrity, or deny any knowledge of the recipe and tell the errant child to go and help with the washing up. But my father had more than a little of the eccentric about him, and though a learned man he sometimes deviated just a bit from the path of conventional wisdom that says at all costs to keep your child safe. And so he replied:
‘Fetch a pencil and some paper and I’ll tell you.’
I did. And he told me.
‘Sulphur I can get from the greenhouse,’ I noted. ‘Charcoal from where we have the bonfires at the bottom of the garden. But where can I get saltpetre?’
‘Well, you can ask the chemist in town to sell you a couple of ounces. Only thing is, he’ll probably ask you what you want it for.’
I nodded and saw at once that this might present a problem. ‘I wonder what I should say?’ I murmured, half to myself.
Some might think it shocking that a parent should not only encourage such hazardous experimentation as I proposed, but fibbing as well, as he did indeed encourage:
‘Tell him you want to use it to clean the front doorstep.’
But he was anything but a bad man. He was in fact ever generous and kind, and as a doctor admired and loved by his patients, and respected by those he taught and unfailing in his support of them. But that aside, I hadn’t the least idea that front doorsteps could be cleaned by such a means. In any event, I did not doubt him and duly made my way to the chemist the next day.
As anticipated, he leaned over the counter in a way most certainly calculated to intimidate a small boy, and asked me not a little severely:
‘And what would you be wanting saltpetre for, young man?’
I am sure that I looked as if butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth as, picture of innocence as I must have been, I repeated what my papa had told me. He hesitated and regarded me unsmilingly. But I was duly handed the chemical, weighed out into a small brown paper bag. I concluded that the correct way to clean front doorsteps was a piece of knowledge to which adults in general were privy.
And that afternoon my best friend and I had our eureka moment behind the garden shed. And we suffered no worse effects than mildly singed eyebrows.
Determined to repeat the experiment – this time perhaps to manufacture a rocket that would actually take off – I returned to the chemist’s. Only this time I made the mistake of taking my elder brother with me.
The chemist asked the same question again. Again, I replied that I wanted to clean the front doorstep.
‘Oh no he doesn’t!’ interrupted my brother, ‘he wants it to make gunpowder!’
The chemist’s reaction was predictable and I will not detail it. At least he did not summons the local policeman. We were, indeed, sent empty away.
The time came, of course, when I sourced my supplies elsewhere. And this time I did not go with my brother. My father was delighted when my first rocket rose about six feet from the ground before detonating violently. Sadly, my next pyrotechnical escapade resulted in the blowing of a two foot crater in my father’s asparagus bed. This was not at all well received and in fact signalled the end of my firework manufacturing. And while I have no recollection of the penalty exacted upon me, it was not a severe or in any sense cruel one, he being, as I said, a kind man. It was the sight of my father’s anguish at witnessing the destruction of his pride and joy that did for me, and caused me more pain than any chastisement could have done.