The Anarchists

In the summer of 1971, one of our friends, Steve Stroh, stole a book from the Little Professor Bookstore. The title of the book was Steal This Book, by Abbie Hoffman. He shared the book with everyone because that was the whole point of the book; everything should be free. To be honest, we found most of the book quite boring, except for the chapter titled “People’s Chemistry.” The second item in this chapter was simple instructions on how to make a smoke bomb.

Right on.

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<< Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman
This excerpt has been reprinted without permission. (I think Abbie would approve.)

Smoke Bomb
Sometimes it becomes strategically correct to confuse the opposition and provide a smoke screen to aid an escape. A real home-made smoke bomb can be made by combining four parts sugar to six parts saltpeter (available at all chemical supply stores). This mixture must then be heated over a very low flame. It will blend into a plastic substance. When this starts to gel, remove from the heat and allow the plastic to cool. Embed a few wooden match heads into the mass while it’s still pliable and attach a fuse.*
The smoke bomb itself is a non-explosive and non-flame-producing, so no extreme safety requirements are needed. About a pound of the plastic will produce smoke thick enough to fill a city block. >>
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This was too good to be true. Simple instructions, simple ingredients; what could possibly go wrong?

Saltpeter was on the shelf at SuperX Pharmacy where I worked as a stock boy. It came packaged in small four-ounce jars. I calculated how much I needed to buy: Four jars equaled one-pound; we were going to cook a five-pound batch; it took six parts of saltpeter and four parts of sugar… the hell with it… it was cheap, I took every jar on the shelf.

My boss, the pharmacist, raised his eyebrows as he rang up two-dozen jars of saltpeter, aka: potassium nitrate.

I remember he said, “Be careful, Renaker.”

Rob, Tim, Greg and I placed all of the ingredients on a table in Rob Forge’s basement. Greg had swiped hundreds of matchbooks from People’s Bank and Modern Motors, Tim produced a coil of rocket fuse, Rob brought down a five-pound bag of Pioneer Sugar from his mom’s pantry, and I emptied a grocery bag of 24 jars of saltpeter. Rob turned on the heating element of a popcorn popper; the rings glowed bright orange. We scooped out four-cups of sugar and six-cups of saltpeter into an empty coffee can. Using oven mitts, I placed the can on the electric burner and held it in place while Rob stirred the mixture. The white crystals started to clump together into brown sticky clods. These clods softened and blended into a smooth caramel soup. Greg added his match heads and Rob stirred some more.

What happened next all happened at once.

Rob stirred the mixture and some of it dripped over the edge. When that drip touched the electric burner, a flame shot straight up the side of the can and lit the entire caramel soup on fire. I dropped the can and the burning potassium nitrate spilled onto the cement floor. We couldn’t see. We couldn’t breathe. The smoke was intense.

We bolted up the stairs and slammed the door. Someone banged on the basement door. We opened it for a second and Greg stumbled into the back yard gasping for air.

Oh, did I mention that Rob’s mom was watching Another World in the living room? We hadn’t screamed or made a big commotion and she was still watching her television program. If we were smart about this, we might just get away with this.

We donned scuba masks, took deep breaths and opened all of the basement windows. Tim brought fans over from his house and we placed them in the windows. Dense smoke roiled out of the basement. Abbie Hoffman wasn’t kidding when he said one pound would fill a city block—and we made five pounds. There was smoke everywhere. Every. Where.

We cleared most the smoke out of the basement, but there was no wind. It just settled into the neighborhood as a gentle haze. I remember it was a very pleasant aroma of burnt sugar, like a cotton-candy machine at a carnival. Beams of sunlight pierced through the fog in the trees and produced God rays that speckled the ground with light. It was surreal.

We heard sirens.

Not the familiar police or ambulance sirens, but the low growl of a fire truck siren. We raised our scuba masks and stared at one another—was it coming for us?

The low wail got louder.

A fire engine rounded the corner with lights flashing and the siren blasting. It came to a stop in front of Rob’s house. Bright red lights raced along the fronts of neighboring houses. Dozens of kids on bicycles arrived right behind the fire truck. Out of all of the kids at the scene, he singled out the four of us. I’m guessing the scuba masks gave us away.

“We were making caramel apples in the basement when the sugar caught on fire,” Rob said.

Tim chimed in, “Yep, that’s what happened. We were making caramel apples.”

The rest of us jumped on board, “Yeah. Uh huh.”

The smell was convincing, but the fireman didn’t buy it. He walked into the hazy basement.

What a mess.

The wet cement floor was covered with a sticky-brown goo, a burnt coffee can laid in the middle of the floor, an empty bag of sugar was on the table next to 12 empty jars of saltpeter and a coil of rocket fuse. The fireman picked up an empty saltpeter jar.

“Caramel apples?” he said.

As I recall, I filled in the details; the book, the formula, where we got all of the ingredients… the works. The fireman scolded us and we listened intently like the frightened children we were. He said the usual fare about not playing with fire and a bit about how close we came to burning down the house. Blah, blah, and more blah. We nodded on cue and promised not to play with fire ever again.

And, they left. Unbelievable. That was it?

Then the wrath of Mrs. Forge hit kicked in. She was livid, not because we almost burned her house to the ground; she was furious because we had taken her sugar.


One thought on “The Anarchists

  1. Oh my goodness Gene you must have gotten all the honest gene’s when you were born.!!! Didn’t mom teach you how to lie? let me it explain- It was easier to tell her what she wanted to hear than to tell the truth. truth came with a punishment- a lie well nothing happened. They must not have beat you for telling the truth like they did with us other two kids.. LOL

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