It was that last summer before heading off to college. I spent much of it drinking down by the New River, shooting with a little breakdown AR-7, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken, and playing more Dungeons and Dragons than I would now freely admit in mixed company.
That 18th summer is a strange liminal state. You're possessed of most of your adult mental powers, and yet are still treated like a child by your parents. You can drive and vote, and yet I had no job and responsibilities. I had worked at Hardee's briefly, but just stopped showing up after I realized how much it sucked. I made enough money mowing lawns to keep gas in the car - my buddy D at the Rose's kept me in .22 Long Rifle ammo, and my buddy C, a fry boy at KFC, would always fuck up his the last batch of chicken on his shift, so we'd have chow for our marathon D&D sessions.
Then there was my buddy R. He didn't really hang out with the rest of my friends. He was, undoubtedly, a strange guy. He was my "science fiction friend," the only other truly avid reader of SF I knew. His collection was extensive, cataloged in a 3-ring binder, the spine of each book dipped in this Elmer's glue laminate he had invented himself. On my 17th birthday, R gave me the collected works of H. Beam Piper. He already owned a complete set - he just collected a spare set and then gave them to me, my having never read a word of Piper's stuff. But we knew each other's tastes well enough that it was dead on target. I read them all cover to cover. If we ever hit a lag in conversation, we would trash Piers Anthony, arguably the worst science fiction writer ever. But we loved to hate him, rereading the truly bad books over and over - our love/hate was so intense that we had invented our own role playing system around Anthony's "Chthon" universe. With R., I never felt like I had to inhabit the psychopathic role I had (partially) constructed for myself to avoid getting my ass kicked in. I could be a total geek. We could speculate on intelligent tanks, building a dome over New York City, what we would do with a stolen nuclear weapon.
Our particular delight was in improvised engines of destruction. I don't know why exactly. We both suffered under domineering fathers. My dad has evolved into someone I truly admire, love and respect. R's dad was, and remains to this day, an unalloyed, unregenerate asshole of the first water, an abusive fuck. I think the air rifles, pipe bombs, model rockets, and carbide bombs were a kind of ecstatic release. That it was all so inexpensive, accessible, and within our power made it a kind of DIY empowerment, however pathological it may have been. It made me feel smart, sneaky, a turnkey terrorist with an Eagle Scout veneer. In truth, it was about 50% Columbine and 50% retrotech fun. As with all technology, we always wanted more: a bigger bang, a more powerful rocket, a more consuming conflagration.
That bigger bang presented itself to us one day as we poked through R's garage in search of parts. There, in its all-metal glory, was the relic of a manufacturing ethic from another era - a high-pressure, hand-pumped insecticide sprayer. It was the variety that looks like a pony keg. A large metal cylinder was mounted onto a wooden rucksack frame, so that you could wear the rig on your back while you sprayed down the local watershed with DDT. A center mounted integral pump pressurized the system. The spray wand was attached to the pressure tank with a metal-sheathed hose, and sported an adjustable nozzle. I knew R's dad specialized in dealing with hazardous materials, and this had the look of some serious shit. I gave the pump a few strokes. No hissing. I gave the spray wand a squeeze and was rewarded with the sound of hissing air. The seals were still good.
R. and I arrived at the idea almost immediately. As an experiment, we cleaned out the inside of the tank with some Lysol (why we did this I'm still not sure), loaded it to the fill line with water, and pumped it up. The unit would spray water almost 50 feet. An all-metal liquid delivery system that could spray a heavy stream 50 feet? We looked at each other in delight.
"We could worm-clamp off an angle bracket to the spray wand" I said.
"That's where we could mount the screen, to keep the flames from coming back" R. said.
"We extend the arm and wrap it in cheesecloth, soak it down with kerosene, like a torch at scout camp!"
The ideas were there, the materials were there. This wouldn't be some can of Right-guard with a lighter held in front of it. This would be a real flamethrower! A set German tanks on fire, burn out NVA bunkers flamethrower.
R's house was even further into the sticks than mine. He was way out in a hollow off Ellett Valley. The private road up to the house was really just an unpaved jeep trail. At the top was a giant gravel parking area. You could have parked a dozen cars there with ease. It never made any sense, as the R's folks never entertained. Friends were discouraged from visiting (his father's doing). The giant, flameproof area of the gravel driveway was perfect for our test. I got out the hose and sprayed down the yard and trees around the area. I kept the water cut on in case of an "emergency." We made certain we were only wearing cotton. A friend of ours had melted his nylon windbreaker onto himself, screwing around with wood alcohol. This didn't deter us, it only made us deliberate, scientific. At least that's what we told ourselves.
We mounted the arm, with the safety screen and igniter, onto the spray wand. We drove down to the store and bought some bottles of ivory liquid, and 5 gallons of cheap-ass unleaded gasoline. Back at the ranch, we mixed the ivory, the gas and hunks of Styrofoam in a metal bucket, then pored it into the unit. Stroke after stroke, we got the tank up to pressure, then R's strapped it on. I put my Bic to the igniter and stepped away.
About 30 feet away, we had propped up a 6 x 3 foot piece of scrap plywood we pulled out of the backyard. We set it up tallways, a suggestively bipedal silhouette. Rob squared himself to the target and opened the valve. There was a bloom of fire, a quick puffball of volatilized flame around the igniter, and then a long sticky stream of fire arced out to splatter against the plywood. Brightess, as the sloshing, vaporizing gas mixed in with the air, flying in all directions burning - burning the plywood. Then as quickly as it arrived it was gone. A streak of fire clung to the wood, guttering.
"Holy shit! Holy shit! Holy Shit!" R. had cut the valve.
"It works! It works like a motherfucker! Do it again! Do it!" It had worked, spectacularly, just like every movie I had ever seen, but in petroleum-stinking, oozing burning plastic, the heat of instant flame on my face 3D! I wanted to see it again, and again, and again.
R. had a shocked expression that melted into laughter, then a hard little smile. The flame reached out again. The flame painted over the entire surface of the target. Fire pooled around its base, flaring up through the gravel. R began to yell. It was a howl of something being released, something screaming out of his guts, under pressure, and burning as it carbureted with the daylight. R. played the flame out over the rest of the driveway, long ropy streamers of burning goop, expanding in ever widening circles. R was swinging from left to right, wider and wire. The entire world before him was burning.
I didn't even ask, I just started spraying down everything with the hose, shooting at the base of the flames like my dad had always said to do. There was so much flame that I couldn't get any part extinguished without another area re igniting it. I worked from the edges in, containing it, and after what seemed like a summer of afternoons, the fire was out.
R. had been working with a shovel, shoveling fuel-laden gravel back into the middle of the fire. When it was all over we collapsed in laughter, not because what had happened, but more for what we had gotten away with. With a couple of rakes, we put the driveway back into shape, disposed of the burnt remains of the target, and washed out the sprayer.
Who knows what he was thinking. I still don't know. In his mind's eye, was he soaking his Father down in flaming gasoline? Was it just the feeling of power, of release?
Was it just because it was so beautiful? The temporary beauty of those long stems of fire that splashed into more burning, changing everything into heat and light, fried chicken and elves and invisible labyrinths and the future all glossed over with a new coat of fire that annihilates the possibility of revenge, escape, and failure?