I was a kid. Sixteen maybe fifteen. It was the middle of summer, and I was bored out of my mind.
I was a dork and the slapdash summer group I hung out with was mostly harmless, too. Once or twice a week, we’d find ourselves in the house on the cul-de-sac, draped over basement sofas or stretched out on the floor, listening to a Tom Lehrer cassette on a boombox. We’d sing along, tripping over our own tongues in a struggle to keep up with “The Elements,” a speedy recitation of the periodic table set to piano. There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium, and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium. See? Harmless. But even nerds get into trouble.
One of the boys first got the idea. We’d fill an apple cider bottle with a household chemical and some packing material. The two react to create a flammable gel. Then all we would need was a target and a spark.
I can’t remember who suggested a state park Porta Potty. It was ideal—a smallish, enclosed structure outside of suburbia. Someone put the premixed mess in the trunk, wedging it against the side with a couple of thick textbooks. We piled into one car, driving five miles under the speed limit the entire way. The Porta Potty was at the edge of the parking lot. For some reason I had envisioned it beyond a hill or two, surrounded by trees and out of view.
Some of us stayed inside the car, petrified that at any moment the bottle would blow, taking eyes and fingers with it. We doused the inside of the toilet and walls with its sticky, noxious jelly. Standing a few feet back, we lit a gas-soaked tennis ball on fire. One of us held the door open while another tossed it in. Those outside the car ran for their lives, those inside curled up into tight balls and braced for the blast.
I can remember the heat more than the sight, and the sight more than the sound. It was beautiful and terrifying all at once. Carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen in a very specific and frightening form. Dazed, we drove back home in silence.
For months afterward, we’d see each other in the hall or parking lot, and I swear I could feel the heat embracing me again.
I suppose there are a few felonies in my history, if I really think about it. But blowing up a state toilet is arson, and arsonists can’t work with kids.
I’m a pediatrician now, and it’s been a long journey to get here. This morning, I kept a three-month-old heart beating with my index finger. I’d say that’s a much better use of my hands.