by Kyle Vernon
© Copyright 2007 - All Rights Reserved
In the weeks that followed the night we shot Allowat we returned to a more traditional tap out. The guards lit the fires and I was shuffled off with Bobby Andrews to light the flaming “W’s” on Forbidden Mountain, safely away from crowds and arrows. Through almost no fault of my own I was branded by the adult staff as someone to be watched with caution, much like a used car dealer views a person coming on to his lot with a slim-jim lock picker. It wasn’t until the next camping season that the creative minds on BTSR staff were able to again put forward a plan to light the fires for the tap out, one that abolished the primitive technique of using torches. A plan that looked so safe and sane that it was practically rubber stamped through camp staff leadership. After all, it had been done before on numerous occasions, and nary a soul injured.
The plan was called “The Mysterious Lighting Fires” and it employed a Styrofoam cup with a black powder charge suspended over a small amount of kerosene. The powder was triggered to ignite by a small wire, often provided by raiding the spring from a clickable pen, and coiled around a match. Using a spring from a pen also meant that the summer camp staff was reduced to using pencils rather quickly, and often by the time Friday night rolled around there wasn’t a working clickable pen within a hundred miles of camp. We joked that the bank in Alpine had used ex-battleship anchor chain to secure their pens after a week or two of camp staff visits – leaving the customers unable to pick them up to use.
The plan was straight forward, at that magical moment where Allowat screamed “Let the Tap Out Begin” a well hidden member of the team would simply hook up the wire leads to a car battery and viola! Smoke and fire erupted from a number ten can buried in the middle of the woodpiles. Within moments the wood would be engulfed in fire and the process of inducting could begin, filled with the resinous pops and sizzles that accompany large fires.
However, the staff in its ever curious ways, couldn’t leave well enough alone. No, we wanted a bit more “poof” to our magic fire. Like the ones made by magicians that pulled rabbits from hats. (The thought that a sound effect might had been added to the video had not dawned on us yet). So in true experimental fashion we tampered with car batteries and gunpowder during our staff week with hardly a question from our new camp and program directors. As long as we did it safely and did not exceed the program director’s personal limit of one third of a cup of powder everything was peachy. A third of a cup a powder provided a satisfying “woof!” that tickled nearly everyone, except those looking for their pens.
The trouble with that much black powder is that it
also blew the kindling out of the can before the flaming kerosene could
ignite it. Attempt after attempt, enough to go through a can a black powder
and a stack of Styrofoam cups, resulted in the kindling popping up from
around the wood and floating down like confetti on a parade. After trying
numerous ways our solution was as ingenious as it was dangerous.
Jimmy was one of our newest members of staff that year. Wiry as he was smart he personified the perfect balance of mischievous and aptitude, if there was some way to play a joke Jimmy would have exploited it. He had already earned a reputation as a prankster when he “adjusted” the speed knob on the record player used to blow reveille in the morning over the camp loudspeakers. Waking up to a 33rpm bugle call record played at 78rpm ranks as one of my fondest memories. Reveille in 15 seconds! He even slipped in a George Carlin tape into the loudspeaker play list during staff week. On top of that he hack sawed through half a dozen personal aluminum chairs in the staff area just enough to make them collapse when you sat on them. It helped to be his friend, otherwise you were doomed. (He would later be the best man at my wedding, but that’s ANOTHER story)
“Yeah, that might do the trick,” said our Rifle Range Director Sam Hernandez, pausing to look at Jimmy over his glasses, “but there’s a fine line between magic fire and bomb making if you put too much weigh over the powder,” he said with a pause as he began making another wire fuse out of a clickable ballpoint pen spring, “yeah, that would be a bomb.”
The trouble with Jimmy was that he could exploit any weakness. Take for example if you work in the NATECO area of camp, next to the amphitheater where the tap outs are held. Also the place where the black powder was stored on Friday’s, away from the rifle range and safely tuck away in my chuck box turned into a portable library.
“How’s it going?’ he asked as I lay stretched out under the sheet metal roof. Business was slow and I had just signed off a few campers for their Environmental merit badge. Between the heat and the boredom he found my cognitive powers at their weakest. Nearby on the two rock karns of the amphitheater sat the wood piles for that evening’s ceremony. The wires had been set in place and the car battery was all that was needed. In my euphoric state I could simply stare at him and wonder what was going to happen next.
“Hey Kyle?” he asked after watching me swing my staff cap vainly at a fly trying to tap dance on my nose, “How about we make this tap out REAL special like?”
Inside my head the wheels and cogs spun for a bit, but the warning lights just didn’t register.
"What you got in mind?” I asked after another swing of my hat. Darn Fly.
"You know that problem with the kindling being blown out? We could put a tad more powder and a little more kerosene in there. I figure the extra fuel would buffer the detonation, thus assuring more pop without the kindling being struck by a more intense pressure wave.”
I stopped swatting long enough to process his hypothesis. Big words are a strong point with me and I understood him loud and clear, but I think the danger center of my brain was still trying to get the fly.
“Yeah, I guess that would work,” I said.
“Great,” he replied with a slight smile.
In no time we had the innards of the magic fire out of the woodpile and Jimmy began to go to work. One third a cup of gunpowder magically became one-half a cup of gunpowder. One cup of kerosene became two cups of kerosene, and one rock became two arranged in such a way that there was a slit between them to direct the new and improved “pop” up and into the wood pile.
“You think this will do it?” I asked as we placed the new and improved can into the pile.
“Awesomely!” was his reply. I learned two things about Jimmy that summer; If he smiles he’s up to something, and if he uses the word “awesome” in any form it is possibly fatal. He did both when he grinned at me.
By luck of the draw for Jimmy he was placed with my crew on Forbidden Mountain to light the “W’s” for the ceremony. We were at least 200 yards from the amphitheater. As we took our places for the event Jimmy turned to me nonchalantly and said “It isn’t so bad up here really, I’ve got a good head start up the mountain if the team tries to scalp me!”
What happened next was the stuff of camp legend. A hot day had given way to a perfectly still and cool evening. A beautiful crimson sunset had given way to a darker blue being chased by stars and night from the east. With speakers set on concert volume the tap out team strode proudly into the amphitheater to the classic “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” soundtrack. Most of the same team was present from the night we had shot Allowat, but several successful tap outs had occurred since that one, so much of their twitching and stuttering were in complete remission.
From our location 200 yards away and about 30 yards higher we could plainly see the technician tying the wires to the car battery. The technician was well hidden from the crowd behind a rather large creek willow tree, but from where we sat we could see the plain and the hidden beneath our lofty perch. Of course, everything we heard was on a time delay. We went through the motions of turning the “W’s” to face the crowd while the tap out team continued. Allowat’s hands went skyward, when they dropped we would light the “W’s.”
It was at the moment the second wire touched the battery I knew something was wrong. Two white hot volcano plumes flashed forth and erupted from the woodpiles. Copious amounts of white smoke quickly climbed to about ten feet above the wood and then drifted away. Almost in slow motion I saw a piece of wood lofted skyward, tumbling end over end, in a ballistic arc towards the sound technician. As if on springs every member of the tap out team levitated at once, a feat I haven’t seen before or since. A wave swept the crowd, not from side to side like at a sporting event, but rather bottom to top of the amphitheater. Everyone and everything jumped in the amphitheater.
Then the sound arrived at our location.
“Let the Tap Out, BEGIN!” came the yell.
Shriek of crowd, followed by the sound of boards landing. Only it wasn’t “Ka-boom” in the cartoon sense. I heard artillery later when I was in the Army. Believe me, an eight inch artillery tube can pack quite a punch when heard from a mile away, no, this was louder.
And then it was over. The team kept their composure and did their jobs, although I wonder today if any puddles appeared on the amphitheater floor. The fires recovered, or at least mostly fell back in place on the karns and blazed forth. At the cracker barrel the two Indian guards demanded that somebody pay for their broken headdress feathers and the tap out team had to have everything told to them twice, but apart from that and the fact that nobody was actually hit by a flying two-by-four all agreed it was a good job. The camp director was twitchy in a nervous kind of way and said little, but I noticed that the black powder can never again stayed in my NATECO area after the fires had been set for Friday Closing Camp Ceremonies. For campers and others it was the night the Mysterious lighting fires exploded, but for those of us on staff it was known as “The Night we Blew up Allowat!
We want to thank Kyle Vernon for providing us with this new story about some of the funny events at Buffalo Trail Scout Ranch. Disclaimer: This story was not endorsed by or written expressly for the Boy Scouts of America, it is part of my personal memories written for the book "Teacup Dobermans". Names/dates have been changed to protect the innocent and/or guilty.