“Have you ever seen magic powder?” my buddy Paul asked. We were scouts, all sitting around the campfire on a raised site overlooking a lake. It was a nice area, peaceful. The sun had gone down and the scout masters were off somewhere, leaving us to tend the fire and cleanup the site after dinner.
“No,” I said with eager eyes. It sounded exciting. Paul popped the lid off of a cardboard tub of cocoa mix and grabbed about a half-cup’s worth in his hand. He crouched near the fire and tossed the cocoa over the flames. The airborne dust cloud erupted in a beautiful fireball.
“Whoaaaa,” I said, and eagerly grabbed my own handful to test.
“Don’t use too much,” Paul said, “we still need some for breakfast.” So we tried a few other bits from our kitchen to see how they did:
- Baking soda – not so good
- Bisquick – meh
- Cocoa – decent fireball
- Tang – very nice fireball, beautiful blossom, truly breathtaking
Now, the reason for why these worked had more to do with the physics of grain elevator explosions than with their chemical composition, but our takeaway from that night was clear:
Tang + fire = fun
A decade later, my work buddy Steve once commented, “Only in scouts could you play with axes, knives, and fire, relatively unsupervised,” and it was true. He and I often spent our lunch hours laughing over all the dumb shit we did as kids, incredulous that no one ever got seriously hurt.
With the Tang revelation, the scouts in my troop started experimenting with the orange instant breakfast drink. A couple kids tried to make torches by stuffing Tang in old socks, then wrapping them around the end of a stick. Us older scouts were dubious, but sure, whatever.
They ended up with burnt socks, spilled Tang, and no torches.
Sometimes a couple of us would throw Tang at the same time, and get a bigger fireball. During our summer campout though, we had a brilliant idea: what if a bunch of us threw Tang simultaneously?
After lunch one day, the scout masters were down by the lake, well out of sight, and eight of us were cleaning up our campsite’s kitchen area. We decided it was time. We cracked open the tub of Tang and each of us grabbed two fistfuls.
Nervously, we stood around the dwindling campfire, trickling orange crystals in the dirt. We looked at each other, waiting for the call.
“On the count of three,” someone said. When the count came, all eight of us launched both our fistfuls at once—sixteen in all—into, above, and around the fire.
I actually felt my eyelashes curl from the blast heat. It was so big and so bright, it momentarily blinded us as we stumbled backward, tripping over camping chairs, logs, underbrush, bumping into tables, clustering f-bombs like young teens who think they’re out of earshot.
“That was a bad idea,” one scout mumbled.
“Holy shit, I can’t see a damn thing,” someone else said, blinking.
“WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!?” we heard. One of the scout masters had forgotten something and was walking back to the campsite when our fireball detonated.
“Nothing,” one scout mumbled, rubbing his eyes.
“I don’t know,” another one said, trying to stand.
“BULLSHIT!” the scout master spat. “Are you trying to burn the woods down?!? Who spilled Tang all over the fire? What is the matter with all of you?” …and so on. Luckily no one suffered lasting injuries. We received our punishment—carrying several dozen buckets of wet sand from the road down to the beach to help rebuild some erosion. By that night, our arms were sore and limp from all the forced labor.
In hindsight, we were damn lucky no one got hurt, or that the fire didn’t spread. And while at the time, it was kinda cool, now I relate more to the scoutmaster than to my pyromaniac younger self.
So yeah – it’s fire safety month, kids. Don’t burn shit.