Hexamine 50 gr
9 Mol Nitric Acid 550 ml
Lesson 1: You are going to learn the hard way.
We're not talking nuclear, here. In nuclear, the high explosive charge compacts the concentric plutonium shells, which fission and ignite the lithium hydroxide that starts the fusion burn. You have a coordinated sequence of events that takes a big part of a second. Polonium initiator giving off slow neutrons. Moderators. Fission. Then hydrogen fusing to helium. The casing holds it together as long as it can, the longer, the better. And then when it gives, it takes the atmosphere minutes to absorb the energy. If you want to count the wave front and the mushroom cloud created by the initial pop, you've got something going long enough to write a book about.
Smaller is different. Most people can't remember the explosion. Imagine trying to remember a single frame of a movie you sat through a few hours ago. It's too fast. The human body wasn't designed to absorb that much chaos.
The light travels faster than the sound. In the movie that is your life, when you're close enough to the quarter kilogram of burning compound, the sensations overwhelm the senses. The trauma scrambles the mind. It's like when the film stops moving through the projector and the xenon burns through. Except, all you have is a couple milliseconds. Much shorter than a frame of video. Pop. That part of your life is gone.
There is only what happens after. If anything.
1000 ml beaker
glass stirring rod
funnel and filter paper
ice and container
Probably, Nealie never got that a reaction was the same thing as rolling downhill. You're pumping things up with fire and electricity. Lots of energy for a long time, and you store all that in chemical bonds. Sometimes the energy is coming from the past, like dinosaur bones crushed to oil, or the light from the sun integrated over a couple million years. It's in there from the beginning and you don't have to do anything. Like a house of cards standing there. The trick is to keep it from falling while you're building it. We all learn that one the hard way.
1) With the beaker in container of ice and salt, pour 550 ml of 9 mol nitric acid into the beaker.
2) Cool the acid to below 20 degrees centigrade, add powdered hexamine. The reaction is exothermic and will make the temperature rise. It must be kept below 30 degrees centigrade. Temperature control is crucial. The mixture will become unstable above 30 degrees. Stir.
Lesson 2: Never make a mistake.
My mom used to say she wished summer would never happen because of all the stuff we'd pull when we got bored. Some of it was dangerous. We were lucky to be alive, she said. But all of us are lucky. The ones who aren't are dead.
It happened for me the way it does for most twelve-year olds. We were kicking a baseball around the garage in that streak of mid-summer boredom between the end of day camp and the start of school. It was one of those blisteringly humid days when the sky is white and the cars on the road at the end of the block shimmer like they're not really there. Dad was at work. Mom had gone grocery shopping.
Charlie had the idea to build a go-cart out of my sister's old doll stroller and my dad's broken riding lawnmower when something simpler came to me. My father had been working on some outdoor wiring the prior weekend and left a lot of materials around. So we capped one end of a four-inch section of aluminum conduit, clamped in a table vise, and filled it full of match heads we got tearing off the tops of an entire box my dad kept in the garage to relight the water heater pilot.
Nealie found a pipe wrench, and I was using it to screw on the front end of our pipe bomb.
I was twisting it slowly and Nealie said, "Come on. Crank it harder. It's going to take..."
And then, something else was happening. My ears were ringing. The pipe wrench wasn't in my hand. Charlie and Nealie had their arms up over their faces.
"What the hell?" I tried to say, but it didn't seem there were any words coming out of my mouth. My body was full of vibration. Pins and needles. Right before everything goes numb.
Nealie and Charlie started looking worried, but everyone seemed ok until I realized Mr. Constantine was running toward us from across the street. His eyes seemed as black as his wild hair. The charm on the chain around his neck had swung around to his shoulder.
He came into the garage screaming in Italian. We all backed away. The other two managed to run into the house but he grabbed me by the arm and I began to hear him saying, "Where you mama and papa?"
And I told him they were gone, barely hearing myself. Now terrified.
That's when he started dragging me across the street to his house. I'd never seen him that close before. Never realized how big he was.
My arm was killing me where he twisted it, and I was happy for it. Maybe the pain of it would begin to settle the score of what had made him angry.
"Stupido. Marron. Minsa-ga. You almost kill me, and now whosa gonna pay for that?" he shouted, pointed. His picture window was traced in neat cracks. A quarter of it had fallen in, onto his living room sofa.
"I'm sorry..." I said. And I don't think that right then I realized I had broken his window. It wasn't until they pried the aluminum end cap out of the opposite wall of his living room that I realized what I had done.
My parents grounded me for the rest of the summer and paid for the damages in the Constantine home. They quadrupled my household chores to enable me to earn back the money they'd had to spend, but at a quarter a day, I'd be mowing the lawn five times a week till I was twenty to pay them back.
And sometime around Christmas, when all was forgotten and the holiday vacation gave me time to reflect on the summer, I realized the power I'd unleashed.
I needed it.
3) Replenish ice and salt as necessary. Allow the temperature to drop below zero. Stir for 30 minutes. The temperature must remain below zero during this phase or the mixture will become unstable.
4) While stirring add a quart of crushed ice and now allow the temperature to rise very slowly. When the mixture has risen above the freezing point and the ice has melted, filter the composite through paper to retain the precipitate. The solution is very corrosive. Dispose of carefully.
Lesson 3: There is no risk where there is complete control. There is always risk.
It broke loose the summer of high school graduation. The garage floor was eaten through to the dirt below in melted craters from the thermite experiments. We'd rattled windows and set off all the car alarms in the neighborhood with the concussion from a plastic trash bag filled with acetylene from calcium carbide chunks and water, and ignited remotely with a nichrome wire connected to a couple hundred feet of wire, and my car battery.
Nealie and I painted toilet seats in the filling station john with nitrogen tri-iodide. Blew up the garbage cans behind the Quick Mart with film canisters filled with acetone peroxide. There were craters three feet deep from charges I'd made with empty CO2 cylinders from my parents wine storage kit. We filled them with smokeless powder, glued in some waterproof fuse, lit them and ran.
The astrolite was opportunism. Charlie had come across a small tank on his way home from work at Ortho. No one was looking.
He wanted to know what I could do with it and to be honest, I'd always put those recipes out of my mind. Two things nearly impossible to get are nitric acid and hydrazine. Distribution is controlled by the federal government for lots of reasons, one of them being industrious people with nothing to do.
There's an amazing amount of information you can get if you get it in pieces. A guy in Michigan made a self-sustained nuclear pile in his mother's garden shed with old indoor smoke detectors and gas lamp mantles. Took him a couple years, and he did it by asking one question at a time, each to someone different, so that nobody could have put it all together. All he wanted out of life was to make Eagle Scout, so he created enough radioactivity in his back yard that he was nearly synthesizing plutonium and the neighborhood had to be declared a super fund clean up site.
Imagine if he'd had an ideology.
It didn't take me that much. The British Army made astrolite when they ran out of TNT in World War II. It's simple to make if you have the components. Hydrazine and ammonium nitrate. Keep the stuff cool, is the main thing.
These things happen because someone gets too excited and doesn't pay attention. We buried the container in the field next to the house. Attached the detonator wires and were heading back a safe distance when something happened. There was a crack and an explosion that knocked Nealie and I off our feet. We never saw the plume. Dirt and rock pelted our backs as we lay face down.
I was actually getting up when Mr. Constantine dragged me to my feet. I'd grown a bit since the last time, but the man was still huge.
"Enough--" he said. "You want to kill me? You keep trying? Enough."
I tried to run but he tackled me. I screamed for Nealie to run and get our parents to call the cops. It was risk, but I wasn't calculating. There was a crazy man on my back and all I cared about was getting him off.
And he'd not lost any of his strength. He pulled me to my feet in a half nelson. Clamped a hand around my throat and I couldn't get away.
He pulled me into his back yard, and as we passed his house we crossed shards of glass that had fallen from the second story windows of his home. Some of the siding shingles were charred.
"I'm sorry," I said, wincing and trying to keep myself upright. Every time I squirmed he cut off my airway and I panicked.
"No sorry," he said. "You no sorry." He opened the door to his garage and pushed me inside into the dark. "You gonna kill a man, you gotta kill him all the way. That's the rule."
"Jesus, Mr. Constantine, I'll pay for--"
I never saw his fist, or the board, or whatever he hit me with. There was a flash like a firecracker had gone off in my hand and the hard garage floor hit me in the shoulder.
The light went on. Constantine locked the door.
"You wanna die?" he said, and with one swipe, he wiped a workbench clear of cans and tools. They clattered to the ground around me.
"No," I said. I sounded pitiful. I should be fighting. I knew it. But the man's presence kept me on the gray concrete floor.
Then he picked up a cardboard cylinder. Pried off the top, and began to sprinkle the contents onto the floor around all the other canisters. Black crystals.
And then I realized there were no cars in the garage. The walls were lined in shelves upon which sat bottles and canisters and bags bearing corporate logos. Fisher Scientific. ABM Chemicals. Dow. Ensign-Bickford. Olin.
I got to my feet. I recognized some of the chemicals. Potassium permanganate. Strontium nitrate. Sulfuric acid. Potassium nitrate. Potassium chlorate.
"Ok kid. Let's die."
I'm not even sure I heard the words, as much as I saw the dust he tossed in front of me, saw him drop a lit match into a berm of the black stuff he'd poured, saw it explode to sparks that followed the black trace on the floor, consuming itself like the ouroboros eating its tail and propelling itself into another dimension.
The garage door was locked and bolted. The windows were slits out of reach; a body couldn't slide through if you could get to them. My guts wound themselves into a burning knot behind my navel.
The eye-searing brilliance traveled along the black pile toward the explosives and I puked. I sank to my knees and emptied the contents of my stomach on the floor.
"Marron!" Constantine shouted. And then silently, poetically, he drew a line across the black powder with his toe forming a rift. When the flame reached it, it simply disappeared.
"You know you problem, kid? You problem is you no think. You no think and so you no control. You no control you chemical. You no control you flame. You no control you stomach. You shudda let me blow us up because you are gonna get killed enough for both of us, you keep this up." Now I could hear the sirens. Red and blue lights flashed through the thin windows near the ceiling.
He tossed a rag into the yellow film at my knees. "I should give you to them. You whole life will be over. They take you away, you want that?"
I shook my head. "I'll pay..." I started to say. But it was as futile as it was ridiculous.
"You right you gonna pay. You gonna pay and pay. Now clean up my workshop, asshole."
5) Add the precipitate into half a quart of boiling water for ten minutes. Repeat filtration and perform a ph test. Repeat until the ph is neutral.
Lesson 4: A charge is focused. A bomb is indiscriminate.
He showed me how to make whizzers. He showed me how to make stars. Red. Green. Violet. Blue was hard. Blue was a family secret.
He gave me the chemistry. The formulas. Showed me the techniques to mix the components. Roll the shells without blowing up.
Constantine had been born into a family that made fireworks. He'd given up the family business to move to New Jersey and work for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. There was less money in it, but less chance of going through life minus an eye or a limb. Now, as I was his indentured servant, we spent a lot of time talking. Or should I say, he spent a lot of time talking and I spent a lot of time cleaning.
"You gotta girlfriend?"
"Nah," I told him, one afternoon, mopping the floor of his workshop. Constantine sat wearing his reading glasses, pouring through catalogues from chemical supply houses.
"He's no a substitute," he said. "You get me?"
That was nowhere I wanted to go. There'd been girls and it never worked. I wasn't who they thought I was, or they lost interest, or whatever. After a while you just give up. Why work so hard for the disappointment?
"You anna you brother. You live in that house, never come out. He's no good, you know for two boys. You should be out."
Yeah. My mother had been saying that for eighteen years.
He pointed to a box on the table. "You take that for me. Delivery. Dom's Barber Shop inna Roselle. Grant St. You know that street?"
I told him I did.
"Don't shake it too much," he said, and when he read the look on my face, he added, "Just kidding."
"Are you giving me a bomb?"
"He's no bomb," Constantine said. "He's none of your business. Go in and give it to Dom. That's all."
I put the mop and pail in the corner. The box was heavy. I brought it to my face. There was no odor other than musty cardboard and tape.
"You a sniffer dog. You don't trust Constantine. You tellin' me that, now?"
"I'm not taking it unless you tell me what it is."
Constantine sat up and took off his glasses. He pulled a folding knife out of his pants pocket and tossed it to me.
The box was full of white clay wrapped in plastic.
He told me what it was as the name came to me. "Semtex. Czechoslovakian formula."
"It's a military explosive," I put the opened box down on a workbench.
"They use him to melt the solder for the stained glass. He's a hobby of his. He's burns hot."
"A blow torch isn't enough for a goddamned barber to make a window?" I headed for the door.
Constantine put his glasses on and went back to his reading. He knew I wouldn't leave.
"You're making this? Here? That's illegal. This stuff is controlled."
He looked at me over the top of his reading glasses. "He's legal to have hydrazine in you garage? You making a moon rocket?"
"What do they really do with it?"
Constantine said, "He's a business. Some people need it. Outside the country. No inside," as if I would care that whomever he was supplying was blowing things up in other countries.
I ran my thumb over the explosive through the plastic leaving a groove. It could have been Play Doh.
"I show you how to make it."
"I don't think I need to make that kind of bomb."
"He's no a bomb. He's a charge. There's a difference. He's a tool like a wrench. And they pay good money."
"I can work at the grocery store for money. Why the hell do I have to make C4?"
"Why you burn your papa's garage floor with thermite? Why you blow up you brother's toys with cordite? And why you make astrolite? Why you make bombs? You tell me why."
I tucked the box under my arm.
"You brother. He's interested. He's more focus than you."
"Leave him out of it," I said.
As I went through the side door to the garage I heard him say, "He's just chemical formula. He's easy. I show you tomorrow."
6) To make the plasticizer, mix by weight:
18% mineral oil
Lesson 5: Never try to salvage an explosive situation gone awry. Run.
You can mold C4. You can hit it with a hammer. Run it over with a tank. You can even set it on fire with your lighter. It won't explode. It just burns like a candle.
To detonate C4, you have to insert a cap. You have to introduce a shock wave strong enough to break the chemical bonds through pressure. Heat alone won't do it. You need the pressure. And then the wave propagates through the matrix. At sea level, it detonates at 7800 feet per second, more than twice as fast as a high-powered rifle bullet.
A couple pounds of C4 are enough to take out any moderately sized building. Brick, steel. No problem. Wood--forget it. It's splinters. Everybody goes.
The detonator was buried in the center of the mixture. It was hard to find but I dug through the matrix and pried out, the batteries, the cap, and the RF receiver. The RF went off the Raritan River Bridge on the Garden State Parkway. I kept the rest.
Dom and his barber assistant took off as soon as I walked into the shop with the box. They left two gray haired guys sitting in the chairs with their hair half cut and the capes around their necks. I left the box in the store and headed for home.
My mom and dad and Nealie were sitting in a house I'd filled with explosives I'd made just fooling around. Not really living, just going from rush to rush. Everything was going wrong. Somehow it went from strings of firecrackers to delivering contraband. I had to get home.
Why does a guy need explosions in his life? Was it because when I was a kid I liked watching how bright the sun was and wanted to make my own? Maybe the noise and light scared me and I was attracted to it the way people like horror movies. Maybe there was a huge hole in everything I thought I could fill with smoke and that millisecond I was the cause of raw energy. Women can bear children and give life to the human race but all I ever could bring forth was a burst of light and air.
Now I knew exactly how Mr. Constantine felt. I felt it when I drove the Toyota through the closed garage door. I felt it when I got out and wrestled past the folding door that had collapsed on the car, felt it when I saw him realize what had happened. Followed his eyes when I shoved the detonator into the cord of his own semtex I'd molded across the dashboard.
"I left them the box, like you said."
"You don't wanna do that," he said, and his eyes darted from side to side. What was he looking for?
"I thought you were kidding. You know, trying to scare me when you said that if I was trying to kill you I should just do it. Well I wasn't. I was just doing my chemistry, but then you took it personally and then here I am with this--charge--enough to take out half the block. So what do you say? You want to die now?"
He looked scared. His face was red and the veins on his neck stuck out until he saw the batteries in my hand. Then he relaxed and smiled.
"He no work. You miss a piece." And he took his transmitter from his workbench and held it up for me to see.
Everybody makes a mistake but with explosives the one you make usually kills you. I heard the muffled explosion behind me, turned and saw the smoke coming from the busted windows of our garage. Heard my mother screaming.
And I ran back to the house. Pulled open the door and waded through the smoke until my mother collapsed into my arms. She said my brother's name.
I was holding her when the blast from Constantine's house blew a spray of glass and splinters into the walls.
One of the most easily made and powerful explosives is potassium chlorate.
• Potassium Chloride
1) Add 60 grams of potassium chloride to a quart of bleach...
Lesson 6: Dead is dead
They figure Nealie hadn't gotten past step two in the process. They found instructions written in Constantine's hand stashed away in his sock drawer. He'd filled the bathtub with salt and ice, but the mixture got away from him. He must have thought he could cool it down. He should have grabbed mom and run.
The explosion took out the wall between the downstairs bathroom and the garage. It made a mess of Nealie.
Constantine was a bomb maker and he had a strong ideology. The FBI wanted to know what I knew about the Brigade Romanza. How long I'd been a fascist. Why Constantine sent me to kill Gianfagna and Borel. Who else we were supplying.
It took them a year to believe that I didn't know anything. I spent most of it in one of their holding cells eating their crummy food and reading newspapers. No matter how many times I told them I hadn't deliberately set off the car, they kept circling around back to it. Was I supposed to move up in rank and take Constantine's slot when he was dead.
I'd been holding the cap's detonation wires shorted while I decided whether or not to just blow the hell out of both of us. When the explosion went off behind me, I'd just dropped the wires. It should have gone off then.
Constantine must have picked up the dangling batteries. Something broke the short and the current flowed.
After a year they believed me. I was convicted of possession of scheduled explosives and sentenced to time served.
What I regret most about that time in my life is how I never realized the apathy in someone's heart can leak out and hurt other people who might have been enjoying their lives.
And that they didn't let me go to Nealie's funeral, or Constantine's.
Lesson 7: Do something else.
I turned down the Army, Navy, and Marines. They all offered me OCS once I got out of therapy, and they had jobs in a number of areas they classified and couldn't tell me till I got there. Instead, I'm majoring in physical chemistry. Got a scholarship.
My girlfriend's name is Deena. She started seeing something in me and then I helped her see more.
Since her, I haven't even gotten close enough to a match to light a candle. Since her I haven't needed to see anything brighter than a couple of stars. Maybe a movie, now and then.
"Radioactive Boy Scout" Harper's Magazine, November 1998. Ken Silverstein.