Back in high school, I worked as a roadie for my friends' rock and roll band. It was a great job, since I didn't need to make much money. Good thing, that. My take from our fabulous two-week, Christmas '74, "Wyoming Tour" was $9.
The band covered tunes in the emergent heavy metal genre - Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk Railroad - and got regular gigs all over the Black Hills and Wyoming. I made literally dozens of dollars a week, when the band was busy, just helping with unloading, setup, and aloof swaggering.
The swaggering came easy for me, because I also ran the band's light show. Oh, I tried to be part of the band, proper, when I first met the guys. "Go ahead and sing this Black Sabbath song for us" they said, so I sidled up to the microphone to belt out the definitive rendition of "Sweet Leaf."
A few seconds later, as the auditory threshold of pain dwindled in my vibrating memory, it was obvious that I needed to be able to hear myself sing - in my own ears - to have any hope of carrying a tune. Since it was uncertain, just then, whether I would ever hear again, I decided to just participate in a "supportive" role.
To put the era in musical perspective, a big hit of the time was Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water," which tells the nostalgic story of a flaregun-sparked building fire at some European resort. Our band covered the tune really well - it was sort of our "signature song" - though we never expected it to be prophetic...
For a bit there, we were exploring spacey visual effects: Radio Shack strobe light kits, black lights with white T-shirts, incredibly bright flash bulbs...anything was fair game. One day, as I was devouring some countercultural reading material, I happened upon a simple recipe for a powerful - yet nontoxic and nonirritating - smoke bomb. It was really simple to compose, but it had to be "cooked," so the author advised taking great care in its preparation.
I carefully cooked up a batch on my Mom's stove, mixed in the necessary matchheads, and took it out in the backyard to light. After a few false starts, the cakelike material finally took off, momentarily filling the discovered universe with impenetrably dense white smoke. I walked through it, took a deep breath, and didn't immediately die coughing, so I figured we had the band's next Great Special Effect!
Back then, I started every road trip with an entire Sara Lee cheesecake, just out of principle. It never took long to polish one off, but this one went particularly quickly since we needed the aluminum pie plate to cook up our first "official" smoke bomb. One of the guys brought along a little alcohol burner, so right there in the back seat of the band's '65 Impala, we mixed up the ingredients in the pie tin and heated them ever-so-gently.
When it was time to cool this concoction down so we could knead in the matchheads, one of the guys had the bright idea of holding the pan out the window. The windy subzero winter air would certainly speed up the cooling process, but this turned out to be a Bad Plan. The wind caught that pie plate and delivered it, rolling like a wheel, across the prairie to oblivion. We didn't even slow down; it was gone.
What next? What can we use now? Ah, the ashtray! We can force one tine of the fork into that hole you use to extinguish smoking material, like so, and cook a batch of smoke bomb stuff here in the back seat! Yeah!
I had no idea that cigarette ashes could catalyze a reaction so violently.
"Fun with chemistry" ended with a trip into the fiery mouth of Mt. Vesuvius, there at the end of my right arm. Even factoring in the perceived time-dilation, allegedly unavoidable in such acutely extreme circumstances, I feel I can safely say that the car filled with opaquely dense white smoke "instantly." I can only imagine how that vehicle must have looked from the outside - probably like the car suddenly filled up with milk.
Later, the driver told me what happened in the front seat, but I didn't see any of it. I didn't see anything at all, until my buddy finally rolled down his window. The wind blew into the car, so out of reflex I held up my hand. In the airstream from the open window my hand was absolutely the only thing I could see, appearing to float with me in our own fluffy white pillowcase.
Since snow is water, our snow-packed Wyoming highway adventure was our own personal "Smoke on the (Frozen) Water." (I'm just glad the band never learned "Highway to Hell.")
Blair Wyman is a software engineer working for IBM in Rochester, Minnesota, home of the IBM iSeries.