By Steve Van Rooy
Guns, firecrackers and dynamite. Also home built muzzleloaders. Anything that went “boom”.
It is a wonder we did not blow ourselves up.
I suppose our fascination with things that go boom started with fireworks. These were available frequently due to various Indian festivals and they were cheap. Our purveyor of provisions, the Prakash brothers at Sisters Bazaar, figured out real quickly that the Americans would buy all sorts of things that go boom on (and often well before) the 4th of July and he was well stocked. Besides the anemic sparklers, and bottle rockets there were packages of small firecrackers with fuses all linked so you could light one and all of them would go off in sequence. These also came in a bigger size. Then there were single large ones, about 4 inches long and about a half inch in diameter. These really went boom.
The inherent problem with all of these firecrackers in those days was two fold. One was the powder. The other the fuse. Sometimes the thing would not go off at all. It seemed. But it was the wise kid who did not pick it up for several minutes. The fuses were often faulty, either burning too quickly or too slowly and seldom at the rate they were intended. Again, it was the wise kid who lit and got rid of the thing as quickly as possible. Even quick was not quick enough on occasion as the fuse literally went from lit to boom in an instant. On one memorable occasion, I was on the chukkar above Bothwell Bank, lit that sucker, reared back to heave it and zip, BOOM. The thing went off in my hand. My hand was right by my ear. It is still ringing. My thumb tingled for weeks.
It was also discovered that with a cigarette you could have a timed fuse. You light the cigarette. Stick the fuse in the butt end of an unfiltered cigarette). Set it below a window somewhere and you could be in your bed half a mile away before it went off. The boys at hostel used this to good effect and pulled a couple great pranks at Midlands. When the firecrackers started to go off, the staff there immediately phoned Hostel. The staff there at the boys dorm then checked each room, kept an eye on the hallways for anyone trying to sneak back….and nothing. The perpetrators were already in bed giggling themselves to sleep.
Mason was pretty bold. I was in the Po one day and he had a string of TP across the top of the booths and had a fairly large cracker tied on the end. He lit one end of the TP and suggested I get back to class real quick. I did. A minute or so later, kawumpf, the thing went off, muffled but distinctive.
And of course we had to try to roll our own, always looking for a bigger bang. This involved taking apart several large patakas (the Hindi term for firecrackers, quaintly onomotopaeic), and amalgamating all the powder into one much larger firecracker. The trick was not in a huge amount of powder, we discovered, it was to make sure the powder you had was wrapped tightly. It was Mason who finally came up with the ultimate bang…dynamite. This was procured from Smiley the Sikh on Mullingar Hill. Mason would stick a small piece, an inch or so, down an open pipe end of the pipe that used to line the chukkars as a fence. This was stout pipe. It looked like a pretzel when Mason got done with it.
One day Conrad came to school with flecks of gunpowder (actually, firecracker powder) burned into the inside of his right forearm going back all the way to his armpit. What had happened is that he (and several others) had a pipe gun made for them in the bazaar. Strictly illegal, of course. In total violation of school rules and common sense, of course. It was just a two foot piece of one inch pipe with a plug welded in the back, a small hole drilled in the side, and two short pieces welded onto the pipe, one at the end, one half way down to grip the thing. You put a a firecracker fuse in the hole. Put in powder. A wad. And shot (gravel or whatever). You light the fuse, point the thing, and hold on for dear life. Worked great…for a while. Then the back blew off and Conrad was lucky all he got was burned. And that was about the last of that.
I got the itch to make muzzle loader when I was a senior. This was a partially insane idea. Gun control in India was strict and restrictive. An you darn sure aren’t supposed to make a gun. But I went to Dehra, finagled a lock and hammer mechanism from Himalayan Arms, the gun place about a quarter mile from the clock tower. Then I had one machine shop make me a barrel. It was about 14″ long, and tapered. The owner looked at me quizzically and asked me just what this was for. He had a pretty good idea.. My explanation sadly lacked creativity, but he bought it. I took the barrel to a second machine shop to have a hole put in on the end. He also deduced what this thing was for. The nipple fit in perfectly into this hole and was welded in by Kishan, our mechanic.
I then took these components to Sharma , the “mistri” at the top of Mullingar. He made anything of metal, a bit like Khaliq a bit further down the hill. I showed him what I had–the pieces. Squatting, he picked up the pieces out of my knapsack. Got up, and shut the door. What did he want me to have him do? Well, I needed a stock and I needed the parts assembled. Looking at me over his round glasses with a sly smile he said he would do it. He would make the handle for this little pistol and put the hammer mechanism in it, figure out the trigger and put it all together. And he did. And did it well. He knew a little about guns. Although not a gunsmith, he had helped dudhwalahs fix their old muzzleloaders.
The thing worked like a charm. The powder I used was gun powder we made. One winter dad took us to Tanakpur (on the western border of Nepal) to visit some old friends, the Strongs, missionaries who ran an agricultural mission. They had a farm. And they had a son, Jay. Jay was a hunter extraordinaire. He had 4-5 guns of various sorts and vintages and took us pig hunting one night. We never saw a pig, but we buzzed through considerable territory on foot without benefit of flashlight or moon. Jay was so familiar with this area he knew every track. We could hardly see a thing and here he was leading us through the pitch black jungle . We got back late late. But boy were we impressed.
Jay did not go to Woodstock. He was homeschooled there at the farm. In some respects the freedom he had we wished we had. One of the things he did was teach us how to make gunpowder with ingredients you can get at your local pharmacy right off the shelf. And how to reload our shotgun shells (right down to taking caps apart, and using them to reload our primers). We even learned how to reload .22 shells. From Tankapur we were going to go back via Corbet Park. and even though they had lived very close (less than 75 miles) from the park, Jay had never been there. So we took him with us on the way home. He had never seen so many cheetal in one place. His trigger finger itched something fierce. A week later we but him on a bus back to Tanakpur from Ramnager.
It was Jay’s gunpowder concoction that I used in the little muzzle loading pistol. After the thrill of the conspiracy of getting it made and assembling the parts, and shooting it some, the thought of getting caught and getting into serious doo doo overcame any notions to use it much. Not even my folks knew of it until much later. Because it was not licensed I could not sell it for much and ended up practically giving it away before I left India.
Not long ago I was with my family at a local fireworks display on the 4th. Big bangs, way up in the sky. Sophisticated patterns. Lots of color. But awfully sterile I thought. No smelling the powder. No ringing ears. No lighting a large firecracker with a stick of incense and heaving it as quickly as possible. No fun at all.
Copyright 2003 Steve Van Rooy