Higher Education

I clearly remember the time, long ago, when I knew so much about so many things that I could barely contain myself. We’re talking big-picture type stuff here, of course, not the mundane subjects school teachers were trying to distract us with, nor the dulling restrictive thoughts of grownups, although they did contribute useful ideas now and then; Danny Bosser, a kid who lived across the street, thought my Dad’s knowledge of how to build stilts was pretty darn neat so we went into stilt-building, each set getting longer by a foot or two until we were legging around the neighborhood eight feet above the ground. Our parents put a stop to it after Pat Mastin, our test pilot, took a magnificent tumble, his naturally-balanced self completely undone by the roller skates we’d attached to the bottom of the tallest stilts yet attempted.

Curiously, stoppages like this didn’t faze us much. We would move easily on to whatever next inspired us, after showing the proper amount of repentance, of course. Not too long after the stilts had been hauled off to the dump, I brought my old chemistry set over to the clubhouse in Danny’s backyard. It was risky on my part: words like ‘chemistry’ or ‘geography’ were studiously avoided in the summertime and could easily get you blackballed, but this was way too worthwhile to pass up. And the guys all agreed when I showed them the heading, “How to Make Gunpowder”. We promptly mixed up a little batch and huddled behind a tree while Pat Mastin lit the fuse. We were disappointed when there was no explosion, but the stuff did hiss and burn brightly while producing a delightfully thick cloud of whitish smoke. There were some real possibilities here, if we only had enough of it…

After a couple days of pulling weeds and mowing lawns we had sufficient funds to bicycle down to the pharmacy and get the ingredients we needed to mix up about two gallons of the finest gunpowder this side of good sense. We had it in the back of our minds to make the nation’s largest 4th of July firecracker, as we sat in our clubhouse admiring the pile of black powder heaped there on the wooden table we’d used as a mixing bench, and Danny decided to test it to make sure it was suitable. He cupped his hand and scooped a bit of the powder over to a corner of the table, and then, bypassing Pat Mastin entirely, lit the sample with a kitchen match. It burned wonderfully, and so did the little trail of powder leading back to the entire stockpile.

By the time the fire department arrived the fire had pretty much burned itself out. Amazingly, the clubhouse survived with only minor scorching, but the table’s skeletal remains lay accusingly on the dirt floor, giving us away to even the dimmest of detectives. That and the great, billowy, whitish cloud of smoke that was reported for miles around rising lazily into the summer afternoon.

What was getting so frustrating about all this kind of stuff was that people in positions of authority didn’t realize we weren’t just running around ricocheting off walls; we knew exactly what we were doing. I mean, just because things didn’t turn out the way we expected, is that any reason to ground a guy for two weeks? It went without saying that things would be very different when we became adults.

Technically, that happened on my 18th birthday, a few weeks before I graduated from high school, and, coincidentally, just when I realized I now knew everything there was to know. Right on time, I might add, and would the world please just get out of my way?

Ironically, that is the exact moment when my fountain of knowledge began springing tiny, barely noticeable leaks. Had I not gone into deep shock during Marine Recruit Training I’m sure the dam would have burst right then, but upon my release a couple years later I regained my illusion and spent much of the next decade as a knowledgeable and stylish welder in large cities. And then I moved to a very small, very remote town and built my own restaurant without access to plumbers or electricians or carpenters or roofers or contractors of any stripe, whereupon my vast ocean of knowledge was quickly exposed to be nothing more than a teacup of foam.

And that was just the beginning; with sudden 20-20 hindsight the full bloom of my ignorance came into focus. It was unnerving to realize that I was once so reckless as to run around on stilts playing tag eight feet above an asphalt street surface. Add roller skates? Yikes!

And kids manufacturing gunpowder, holy cow. Should never happen. You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out how that’s going to end.

Thank you, Austin Nevada and Tecopa California. The best part of growing old in small towns is the happiness that comes with knowing so much less than you knew to begin with.