Childhood memories

The High School was built at the top of a hill on the north side of Collier Avenue, then a quiet side street. There was a bitumen covered playground behind the school, and the area near the class-rooms was marked out with netball courts, where the girls used to practice.

Beyond the bitumen a scrubby hillside sloped down to a larger playground at the bottom of the hill, with a creek running along the school's northern boundary. Next door to the school was another block of scrub which was occupied by the Seventh-Day Adventists Convention Centre. This had one large hall and several army huts, and a track wandered across the block to the Upwey Recreation Ground on the other side, where we played our official sports.

One morning when I got to school I found my (male) friends hanging around the netball courts, watching the girls as usual, but that morning they were tossing silver cylinders to each other. When I enquired what these were I was told that they were detonators. One of my friend's father had died a year or two before, and he had found a supply of gelignite, together with detonators and fuse, in his father's workshop.

I had spent some time studying my father's manual of military engineering, and knew both what they were and something of their dangers, so I was rather horrified. I did not make a big scene -- that would have marked me as a wimp, but I did bring in the manual, and tried to establish some safer work practices. First we amused ourselves attaching the detonators to the fuse, and studied the effect of putting them into the locks on the buildings in the convention centre, and then we tried using them to explode the gelignite. Our supply of fuse was rather limited, so we also tried other ways, mostly involving a sealed metal container containing gelignite, and a fire, often in an old paint tin, to explode the gelignite.

On one occasion some of my friends had put some gelignite in a brass cartridge case, then rolled over the end and hammered it flat. Then they put it on a fire and waited for the bang. When, after some minutes, nothing had happened one of them went back to see why, and just then it exploded. Many years later he still had a piece of brass embedded in his leg.

We also tried drilling out the end of an empty soda siphon sparklet, squeezing gelignite into it, and sealing it with a 4 inch nail. When this was put in a paint tin fire it exploded with an impressive bang, throwing burning coals everywhere. (Fortunately it was winter when this all happened, so the risk of fire was minimal.)

There was a rough bridge consisting of a few logs across the creek on the way to the recreation ground, and one lunchtime we scientifically prepared a charge of gelignite using most of our remaining explosives, following the instructions in the manual, and placed it under the bridge. Then we lit the fuse and retreated a safe distance, but just then one of the teachers wandered down the track directly towards the bridge.

One of the students bravely stepped forward, and advised him that it would not be a good idea to cross the bridge just then, and, as the teacher demanded to know why, the charge exploded, making a nice bang, and sending up a shower of dirt. It did not do much damage, but the police were called in. They interviewed us, and confiscated my fathers manual of military engineering and our few remaining explosives, but nothing else was done. I don't think they even told our parents, as I am sure my father would have been very indignant if he had known his manual had been confiscated.

 © Roger Riordan 2004-2019

(Unsupervised) Lessons in Military Engineering