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PRIVATE LIVES

I think we got the idea for making the gunpowder from watching an episode of Star Trek, the one where Capt. Kirk gets transported down to some Class M planet to battle the Gorn. The Gorn was, in essence, a walking, thinking lizard about 6 feet tall and dressed in a Tarzan suit, and neither he nor Kirk got to use standard weapons. Instead, the two had to make weapons from what they could find on the planet's surface.

Both try rocks and spears, primitive knives, and Kirk realizes that such weaponry cannot penetrate the Gorn's thick, reptilian skin. Luckily the planet has abundant natural resources, so Kirk locates saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal, gets the proper mix and stuffs it into a bamboo log that's closed up on one end, tosses in some diamonds as projectiles, ignites it and drives a diamond right through the Tarzan thong into the Gorn's thick, scaly skin.

The next morning, Alby and I were the first in line at the drugstore. We purchased the sulfur and saltpeter and felt positively outlawish. We knew the right mix of chemicals from the Britannica, and my mother, who was at work, would never know about the white and yellow powder stains on her mixing bowl and measuring cup, since Alby had promised that if we made it at my house, he would clean up the mess.

We got the cup and bowl and a tablespoon out there on the back porch. For charcoal, we found some old briquets from the summer barbecuing my father had done when steaks were cheap enough to afford; the charcoal was old, and we had to pound away at it with rocks to produce the fine black powder we needed. The mix was 75 percent saltpeter, 10 percent sulfur and 15 percent charcoal.

Alby lit a Camel (unfiltered), and I told him to be careful, that I was too young to be blown up. He bribed me into silence by offering me a cigarette, which I took _ not inhaling, of course. It was gross.

The best way we knew how to mix was by using 10 tablespoons as the initial base, meaning we needed 7{ tablespoons of the saltpeter, one of the sulfur and 1{ of the charcoal. My mother's red mixing bowl, which was a kind of pale white on the inside, got smeared with chalky white, egg-yolk yellow and nighttime black. The saltpeter could be especially stubborn as far as chunking up went, and I finally helped grind the mix into a powder that eventually took on the consistency of flour. Alby sprinkled some along the concrete porch in a thin line and stuck his lit Camel to it; the trail burned slowly, hissing all the while, and left a black line that smelled, we believed, like hellfire.

We went inside, to the basement, and found a Mason jar my mother used for canning. We found a good lid and took it out to the porch and scooped the gunpowder into the jar. We mixed another batch in the bowl so we could fill the jar completely.

Alby got a funny look on his face. I did not realize, then, that he was wondering what might happen if we dropped a match inside the jar and screwed the lid on tight. We took the jar down the hill, to the brick wall at the end of the yard down by the railroad tracks. A train was sounding in the distance, maybe half a mile away, loaded down with coal.

I stood by the train tracks. Alby, standing on the yard-side of the wall, spooned out a short trail along the top of the bricks. He lit it, and then he kept adding scoop after scoop to the smoking trail.

Alby was laughing at the fun he was having, but somehow I was letting the train distract me. It was rounding the bend, and I could see its single headlight now, turned on even in the daytime, so cars would see it better at crossings.

Then I turned and saw Alby running across the yard, and I probably wasn't more than 5 or 6 feet away from that jar, and it was glowing now and the lid had been twisted on tight. The powder was burning inside the jar, all of it combusting at once, a bright orange, and Alby was on the porch now, yelling at me to run, but the train was on one side and the jar on the other.

I remembered the Gorn as he advanced toward Kirk, the fuse on the makeshift cannon burning fast. I took one good drag off that last cigarette Alby'd given me and waited.

Michael W. Cox, a University of Florida graduate, teaches writing at the Johnstown (Pa.) campus of the University of Pittsburgh. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.

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