THE BIG BANG
Mischief Beyond Measure
By Shaun Costello
During my twelfth August, I found myself without much to do, and, unusual for me, bored stiff. Many of my friends’ families had Summer houses on Long Island, and they were frolicking in the surf while I was roasting in Queens. Back then, houses were not usually air conditioned, so I was not only bored, but sweaty and uncomfortable. From the first of August through Labor Day the Community House closed every year for maintenance and repair. They repainted the inside, sanded and revarnished the gym floor, and spruced the place up for the coming season. No Community House meant no swimming pool, no gym, no organized sports, and no place to hang out.
My best friend Jimmy’s parents had a cabana at a beach club out on Long Island, but they had decided that they didn’t like me, so we didn’t go there very often. Catholics were too Jew-like for them, and under suspicion of suspecting. They only seemed comfortable in the waspy womb of Protestant America, where their pretense at Christendom could be fully realized.
Jimmy’s dad, an Austrian Jew, had emigrated from Vienna before the outbreak of World War Two. In Vienna, back in the early thirties, he had made a name for himself as an up-and-coming photographer. He was a talented young man whose portraits were in demand. He wasn’t rich, but his career seemed promising, and life was good. By 1936 the mood in Vienna was changing. In Neighboring Germany Hitler had been made Chancellor, and Crystal Nacht was just around the corner. Nazi gangs roamed the streets of Vienna, breaking the windows of Jewish shops, and beating up the owners. The Nazis had gotten their fingers into the Austrian government, and Jews began disappearing in the night. As time went on the great fear among Austrian Jewry was their country being annexed by Germany. Should that happen not a Jew in Austria was safe from murder. Jimmy’s dad had lost friends and family to the camps, and was determined to get out of Austria while he still could. He had enough money saved to make the appropriate bribes, and in the Summer of 1938 he found himself safe at last, living in Brooklyn, and with a promising career as, “that talented young European photographer”.
He had added an extra “n” to his name to make it seem more Germanic than Jewish, and filled in “Lutheran” as his religion on the immigration form. His safety, and the safety of the family he planned to have, was more important than his Jewishness. He was determined that the horrors of Nazi Europe would never touch him again. When it came time to marry he chose the most goyishe looking woman he could find, an ivory skinned redhead, who belonged on the cover of a waspy magazine. During the War he managed to secure a position for himself as a middle-man merchant between the Army Signal Corps and the manufacturers of photographic chemicals. He made only a few cents on a gallon traded, but the volume was enormous, and this was how he made his fortune. By the early Fifties he was a rich man. He had become quite famous as a theatrical photographer, with an enormous studio on Times Square. He had a gorgeous wife, and three boys, and it was time to make the move from Brooklyn, but he had one last piece of slight-of-hand left to do in the charade he had created. One last brick to add to the wall so that no one would ever suspect his Jewish past. He would move his family to the most anti-semitic neighborhood he could find, and become a pillar of the community. He would not necessarily become an open Jew-hater, but he certainly wouldn’t let his children marry one. So he bought the big Tudor house on Greenway South, one of the nicest streets in the Forest Hills Gardens, joined the local Congregational Parish, and settled in to life in Fortress Goyim. He was finally safe. His family was finally safe. Safe from anti-Semitism. Safe from danger. Safe from hate. Right here in the nurturing little community that existed under the threat of the race lien, which prevented him from selling his house to a Jew.
Once, while Jimmy and I rode in the car with his parents, his Dad saw Orthodox Jews walking along the street and yelled, “Look at them. Animals, with their big black overcoats. Overcoats in the middle of the Summer. They’re Animals. Animals”. His mood would darken, and you knew to stay clear of him for the rest of the day.
One day, Jimmy asked me if I had ever seen his Chemistry lab. Jimmy’s father was rich, and from a technical background, so when it came time to give his son the inevitable Chemistry Set as a right of passage, he build him a laboratory instead. It was a secret room in his basement that I had never seen before, about ten feet by twelve, lined with shelves cluttered with test tubes, and beakers, and scales, and jars that contained mysterious substances, and large metal cylinders that contained even more. This was a promising development. Jimmy had no interest in Chemistry and told me that he hadn’t been in his lab in at least a year, but maybe there was something that we create using all these exotic ingredients. Something like a gigantic stink bomb that we could set off in a movie theater. We were now two boys on a mission, and the month of August suddenly looked promising.
Jimmy did all the looking, since I had no idea what any of this stuff was, and he pulled a large metal cylinder, maybe 24 inches high, out from under the counter and said, “I forgot I had this stuff”. “What is it”, I asked. “Sodium metal” he said, smiling. “What does it do?”, I asked, and Jimmy said the magic words, “It explodes”. “You mean like dynamite?” I asked, grinning ear to ear. “No, it’s different than that. I’ll have to show you”. So we lifted the heavy cylinder on to the marble counter and began to open it. The lid was very tight and took a while to open. Inside, there was a murky liquid, and submerged in the liquid was a gray ball about the size of a medium cantaloupe, that looked like it was made out of putty, or modeling clay. Jimmy lifted it out with large tongs, and scraped off a tiny spec, about the size of a beebee. He dipped a tiny jar into the murky liquid, which he told me was kerosene, and put the tiny spec of sodium metal into the little jar. He told me that sodium metal was an unstable substance that had to be kept submerged in kerosene to keep it out of the atmosphere. If it was exposed to the air for any period of time it would slowly oxidize, and then disintegrate. If it was submerge in water however, it would rapidly oxidize and explode.
We went outside looking for a puddle. Jimmy dropped the little spec into the water, and it began to wiggle, and then fizz, and then spark, and then the little spec exploded. It sounded like the crack of a cap pistol. He told me that this was only the size of a beebee. If it were the size of a ball bearing it would be as powerful as a cherry bomb. A marble sized piece would be as powerful as half a stick of dynamite. A golf ball would be the equivalent of three sticks of dynamite. He went on and on until saying that with a softball sized piece of sodium metal you could probably blow up the whole neighborhood. We would have to be careful with this stuff, but the possibilities were limitless.
We started with tiny pieces, increasing their size incrementally, and taking careful measurements that told us how much the slight increase in masse would increase the volatility of the explosion. After a while we were able to create ratios that enabled us to predict the power of each explosion in proportion to the masse of the sodium particle. Actually Jimmy, who was way better at math, did all the calculations, while all I really did was throw the stuff into the water and watch it blow up. It was like the Manhattan Project, during WWII when scientists endlessly tried to calculate how big a bang they could get out of plutonium. Not having the laboratories at Los Alamos available to us, we did our experiments in the lake in Flushing Meadows, the home of the 1939 World’s Fair.
The day came when we felt ready. Our objective was to make as many people as possible soaking wet without actually blowing them up. We put a ball bearing size piece of sodium into a small, kerosene filled container, put the container into a back pack, and got on the E Train for Manhattan. Jimmy remembered that there was a fountain outside the Plaza Hotel where people sat and ate lunch, so that was our destination. It was perfect. If all went well we could soak about fifty people, while innocently watching from across the street. It would take about 45 seconds in the water before this size piece of sodium would explode, giving us ample time to watch from a safe distance.
We watched and waited. KABOOM! It was not what we expected, but we learned an important lesson. The sodium particle floated on the surface so that when it blew up it moved air up and water down, and although the loud explosion terrified the crowd who ran in all directions which, I have to admit was fun to watch, no one got wet enough for the event to be truly satisfying. We wanted to see all the water in the fountain up in the air, and all over our innocent victims.
Back in his lab, Jimmy calculated that the sodium particle had to be submerged, equidistant from the bottom and the surface in order to maximize the movement of the water, so he rigged a kind of cradle out of thread that would contain the sodium and attached a tiny fishing weight to the other end. Since most of the fountains we had seen were about two feet deep he made the length of the thread 12 inches.
The next day we got back on the E Train and headed for Rockefeller Center. There was a good sized fountain surrounding a golden statue above the ice skating rink, and the best part was that it was crowded with people. Jimmy had increased the size of the explosive to where it could really do some damage, and the depth of the water was perfect, so in it went, and sat oxidizing 12 inches under the surface, while the two of us walked over to a Sabrett Hog Dog vender about a hundred feet away and stood in line. It took about a minute before it happened, and when it did, it exceeded our greatest expectations. The water seemed to start moving before we heard the loud explosion, and felt the air blow by us. There was one exquisite nano-second when virtually all the water in the fountain was airborn, soaking everything and everybody within fifty feet of the epicenter. Pandemonium began as soaked tourists ran screaming from the area, convinced that the Ruskies had dropped the big one.
When we thought about it later we realized that we had created the ultimate prank. A lot of water, and a lot of noise, but it couldn’t really hurt anybody. We continued inflicting water torture on the city for another week before we tired of it and needed a new challenge. It was time to see how much physical damage this stuff could do. We took a piece of our precious sodium the size of a golf ball over to Flushing Meadows, without really knowing quite what we were going to do with it. There was a public bathroom by the lake that no one ever seemed to use, so we went in and reconnoitered. There were several enclosed commode, and one urinal, and the place smelled like a hundred years of pissing on the floor, no wonder no one used it.
The plan became dropping the sodium into the toilet, and flushing it down. If it really was the equivalent of three sticks of dynamite then there should be a noticeable rearrangement of the inside of the little building. I kept watch outside, waiting for a moment when no one was in sight, and yelled “All clear” to Jimmy. I heard the toilet flush, and my best friend came tearing out of the building. We ran up the hill, and stood under a tree, and waited. It took a while, and when it finally happened it was different than we expected. There was a light flash that was visible through the doorway, followed by the glass in all the windows being blown quite some distance across the grass. The sound of the explosion was muffled, I guess because it happened down in the pipes, but the intensity in the air pressure change was extreme. There was a residual sound of glass and metal falling, and then nothing. It was over.
The sound was not loud enough to attract much attention, so we slowly made our way down to ground zero. The inside of the building was probably the most amazing site I had ever witnessed. There was nothing left. The urinal was still intact, but the walls of the stall had become crinkled pieces of jagged metal that seemed to be everywhere, and where the toilet had been there was only a hole in the floor. Little pieces of the porcelain toilet covered the room, and a metallic smell hung in the air. We looked at each other and realized that we had gone too far. We had completely destroyed a public facility. Up until now we had only made people wet, but this was different. We had committed a crime. We had vaporized public property. We were desperadoes without portfolio. The authorities would hunt us down like animals. We would be disowned by our families. This was serious. So it was time to put what was left of the Sodium back where we found it, and go into early retirement from the demolition business.
About a week before Labor Day and the reopening of the Community House we found ourselves going through sodium withdrawal. The amount left in that metal cylinder was slightly larger than a baseball, and if the whole piece oxidized at one time we might just recreate the big bang. We agreed on two conditions: no victims, and no damage. What we wanted was one last glorious demonstration of the movement of a massive amount of water, even it was only for a fraction of a second, which was all we could hope for anyway. Jimmy came up with the solution, and our target became the Community House pool. We would explode all the remaining sodium at once in a glorious farewell to our very own Manhattan Project.
It was perfect. The pool was still closed for repair, and there was nothing breakable in the area. The walls were cement, and the floors were tile. Our main concern was the windows, but Jimmy suggested that, if we opened them all, then the force of the blast should leave them intact. The pool was nine feet at the deep end, and we calculated that the sodium should explode twelve inches from the bottom to move the maximum amount of water. Zero hour would 6PM the next evening, a time when most people were home having their dinners.
An hour before the scheduled cataclysm, using my very own keys to the building, I sneaked inside and opened all the windows. We were ready. At the appropriate moment Jimmy tossed the baseball sized piece of sodium metal into the middle of the deep end of the Community House pool. We were unsure just how long it would take for such a large amount to oxidize, so we watched and waited. It seemed to take forever, and when it finally happened, the event seemed to reveal itself in slow motion. First the water began to move, outwardly from the center. Next, the air blew by us with enormous force as the explosion expanded the atmosphere. The water continued its outward movement from the center of the pool, crashing into the walls and flowing upward. Gushing onto the ceiling and, pushed by the force of the explosion, it had nowhere to go but to follow the ceiling to its center, converging with the water that had flowed up the other walls, and forming a fantastic waterfall, from the very center of the ceiling, back down into the middle of the pool. At that one glorious, unforgettable moment, as the water converged, but just before it began to fall, the Community House pool was empty and bone dry. Not only did the explosion empty the pool, but the moving air instantly evaporated any residual moisture on the surface of the bottom. The whole conflagration probably took no more than five seconds, and when it was over it was as though it had never happened.
No one was hurt, no damage was done, the windows were intact, and all of the water, or almost all, was back where it started. The walls and ceiling were still dripping wet, but eventually all that moisture would either evaporate or find its way back into the pool. Mischief beyond measure. We had done the unthinkable, and succeeded. We had witnessed something as yet unseen. Our magnificent triumph was complete. The sodium was gone forever, and the summer was over. Soon school would start, and our lives would resume, but that one moment, when every drop of water in the Community House Pool was airborne, will stay with me forever.
© 2009 Shaun Costello
January 25, 2011 | Categories: Fiction and non-fiction from Shaun Costello | Tags: Blowing things up, King Gustav, Malicious mischief, Shaun Costello, Shaun Costello's Blog, Sodium Metal, The Nobel Prize, Young Nobel Laureates | 2 Comments