Most all kids have a natural curiosity about the laws of nature, and are inclined to determine for themselves exactly what these laws are, and how they work. I was no different. A fair bit of what I learned came from the old man, who would become my general science teacher in high school. Well before that class, he taught me about physics. When Fred excused himself from the room, and said he was going to engage in physics, we knew what was about to happen. He always practiced his physics in the bathroom. His return to polite society revealed him to be much relieved, and far more comfortable than when he had left the room earlier. To engage in physics in our home took on a whole new meaning.
When I was in the second grade, I discovered a 22-rifle shell in the back yard. It was complete with its copper case and lead shell firmly planted in the front. It made sense at the time to see if I could fire it off the back porch of our house. As I had no gun, it was necessary to improvise a firing mechanism. Farmer’s matches were always around, so I snitched a few from the box near the stove in the kitchen. I laid the bullet on the floor of the porch, and pointed it toward the outhouse about 20 yards away, a fitting target for my missile. Then I lit a match and held it behind the bullet, because I knew the powder was in the copper shell. The first match did nothing, as well as the next, and the next. I must have made ten trips back into the kitchen for additional matches that I lit behind the shell. I was beginning to worry about the shell being a dud, or running out of matches. I had managed to scorch the paint on the wooden floor of the porch until it was black, but the shell was still there, – a passive aggressive bullet if ever I had seen one.
Then suddenly, after the fiftieth match, it exploded, scaring the by-Jesus out of me. I knew it would make a noise when it blew, but I was still not prepared when it did. The noise was so frightening, that I jumped. Then I decided it best to hide from the folks, who were sure to come looking for me. The only thing they found was a round burn mark on the surface of the porch. After a short time they returned inside, and promptly forgot about the incident. I was certain that the case and the bullet had been blown apart with considerable force, as judging by the explosion, but I never knew where the objects went. Except for the telltale burn on the porch, I deemed the experiment to be a complete success. Fortunately, I found only one bullet.
With advancing years and wisdom, it was inevitable that this earlier experiment would be repeated with enhancements and sophistication. At the time, the grandparents lived in Ottawa, and just north in Lawrence were two older and wiser cousins. What I had learned from my experiments was insignificant, when compared with my older cousins from the city. Cousin Bob and his sister, Marilyn, were nicely advanced in their understanding of the laws of physics. With their big city wisdom, they advised that a little bit of gin, or vodka, or brandy in a not quite empty bottle of coke, produced a volatile gas, creating a beautiful sparkling effect when lit by a match. Being much younger and equally curious, I was inclined to take in every word.
It follows that the experimentation with gasses would naturally lead to the discussion of bodily byproducts, like those emitted from either end of the alimentary canal. Indeed, in our collective wisdom, and together with our own personal experiences, there certainly must be a most volatile element to the body’s flatulence, beyond that readily acknowledged. Cousin Bob assured me that when chicken, or horse, or cow manure was properly fermented, that it was capable of powering an internal combustion engine, creating the required explosions in sequence. I had already learned that a match in the open air could explode a shell off my back porch. Combining this wisdom, it followed quite naturally that human flatulence would produce amazing flames, when ignited. All that remained was to develop the proper techniques for demonstrating this truth. Cousin Bob, from his college town environment, called the experiment flaming flatulence, while I preferred the small town terminology fahrts afire.
We all know, of course, that flatulence is emitted from a somewhat personal and certainly tender portion of the human anatomy. This immediately eliminated the possibility of conducting the experiments in public, and to a large extent replicating any experiments before dozens of witnesses. This placed a serious constraint on the number of observers who could attest to our results. This limitation did little to discourage us, as it was our personal curiosity driving the experiment. There was also certain sensitivity about performing the experiment in mixed company, like with cousin Marilyn being present. Cousin Bob and I chose to develop the appropriate techniques by ourselves.
First we picked a day when Bob’s folks would be out of the house. In preparation for generating the appropriate conditions, cousin Bob and I both ate as much junk food, like beans and broccoli, as we could stomach, knowing that the louder the gurgle, the more forceful the out-putt. Then we waited for the appropriate conditions to gather below. With the development of lower G.I. pressure, we knew the time was about ripe for beginning the experiment.
We knew that as flames are created, the heat always rises. Consequently, it would be best to assume a position that allowed all flames to escape quickly from the body, leaving vital organs un-seared. In his wisdom, Bob allowed that a position with a substantial vertical updraft would be the safest. He also insisted that any male appendages should be well below any flames produced. Then he reviewed the important observations to be made, such as the color of the flames when ignited. We jointly acknowledged that the heat from flames was related to the color emitted. Blue and purple were the hottest, while red and yellow were the coolest. None of the flames were safe for long, when coming in contact with body parts. In the interest of safety, we had a fire extinguisher and a glass of cold water nearby to apply in the event we generated a dangerous inferno.
At that point, we assumed our positions in the family breakfast area. I insisted that cousin Bob go first, as he was the wisest, and probably would generate the most spectacular results. We chose farmer’s matches as ignition devices. With their long wooden stick, they could be held safely for several seconds after being lit. This provided a margin of error while preparing to expel the aromatic gas into the flame. Cousin Bob stripped to his shorts, and bent over forward onto the breakfast table. As soon as the proper urge struck, he lowered his shorts, and pointed his weapon toward the open air of the kitchen. On his signal, I was to light a match, and hold it just far enough from his weapon to avoid a direct burn.
“Go” he said, and I struck the first match. Holding it precariously close to his posterior, he blew a minimal puff toward the match. In the full light of the kitchen, I was not certain whether the flickering match was simply diverted by the wind, or if the flame was actually enhanced. He stood up from the table, somewhat anxious, as the heat from the match was clearly perceptible, he said. As he was not holding the match, his anxiety was understandable. I suggested to him that he should probably not stand up until after I removed the match.
From this first effort, I observed that the bright kitchen lights might be masking the actual flames that were produced. We elected to modify the kitchen to enhance visibility of the experiment, so we lowered the blinds on all the windows, and turned the lights off, converting the room from a kitchen to a poorly lit dungeon. We figured the match would provide all the visibility needed for the most careful observation. Then when the proper urge struck again, cousin Bob said, “Get ready”, as he bent forward onto the table, this time in considerable darkness. I delayed striking the match until directed to go. Following a short delay, he said the magic word. I struck a match and rushed it to the target area. He released almost instantaneously, and would have blown the match completely out, except the sulfur was not quite through its initial incendiary burn. I may well have rushed the match to the site a bit too quickly, as a distinct smell of singed hair permeated the kitchen.
For those of you who are not familiar with farmer’s matches, the working end of the stick is dipped into a colored substance that enhances the burning for a second or two until the wood catches fire. Then on the very tip is a small deposit of an igniter, which explodes into instant flame when scratched on a rough surface. We determined that timing was a critical consideration with farmer’s matches. Because of this we determined that the flatulence should not be lit until after the match had achieved a steady wood burn. This also would prevent the flash burn and singed hair as manifest in the earlier trial. Cousin Bob seemed to be none the worst for the wear, and agreed to one final attempt, assuming, of course, that his GI tract continued to cooperate.
Finally cousin Bob said he felt a great one coming on. He delayed as long as possible, to enhance its volatility. Then he waited some more. At last he bent forward onto the table and advised me to “Get ready. A powerful blow is about to appear.” I got ready. “Go” he said. I could feel the excitement of the moment, knowing full well that we were about to blow flames half-way across the kitchen. It would be a spectacular display. I struck the match, then waited for the wood to start a slow, steady burn. “Go” I said, indicating that the match was at its optimum state for ignition.
Cousin Bob let it all hang out. “Thar she blows”, he said in a moment of complete satisfaction. It was a mighty blast, worthy of exemplary status. In fact, it was such a fine burst, that it blew the match completely out. The only thing available to observe, beyond the fragrance, was the power of the wind when directed at a slowly burning farmer’s match.
We decided to call the experiment a flaming success. We had not seen flames of any color, like rockets bursting in air, Roman candles, or sparklers in a bottle. We had achieved an event not yet recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records at the time. Cousin Bob was the first to blow out a match from the lower end of the alimentary canal. It made him feel so proud. Even today, when attending parties with candles on a cake, it is best not to ask Cousin Bob to do the honors by blowing the candles out. He just might.