As final year students, we had the freedom to run our own chemistry project in a private lab in the school. It was a small room but I could manage my time and listen to Rancid and The Offspring any time I liked. There was, however, little space to make a quick exit.
For my project, I analysed horse poo. I wanted to see how it was different from what the food we gave our horse. So during a wet November evening, I waded through soggy fields stuffing poop into a bucket.
In an old textbook, I found instructions on how to prepare the horse poo to measure its water content. I also found a recipe for making 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene. Also known as TNT. Yes, that’s the explosive stuff that cartoon characters and train robbers are fond of.
I studied the recipe and checked if I had all the ingredients and equipment. I had almost everything.
Channelling the spirit of Wile E. Coyote, I decided to make some TNT.
I put the ingredients in a conical flask and brought the contents to a boil.
My supervisor arrived to check how my experiment was progressing. He didn’t know that what I was preparing wasn’t a simple experiment to determine the water content of the horse poo.
“I think you are heating this too slowly, the liquid is never going to evaporate,” Mr Watts* said, moving to turn the heat up.
I didn’t know what to say. In my recipe for TNT, I had to gently warm the mixture. He turned up the heat.
I backed up, knocking over a chair, anticipating that turning the heat up was going to blow up the lab. He talked to me. I wasn’t listening. I was trembling.
I thanked Mr Watts for his advice and said that I must begin preparing the other part of the experiment. Thankfully he left and I turned the heat down immediately. That was close.
I wanted to know if I could make something dangerous like TNT. But another part of me knew I wouldn’t do anything with it.
“Don’t worry,” I reminded myself, “It’s safe, you’re not preparing the compounds under an atmosphere of sulphuric acid” (which is an essential part of the preparation).
After Mr Watts visit I was worried that next time he came by to help, we wouldn’t be so lucky.
“I must get rid of the mixture.” I could have thrown the mixture in the hazardous waste bin. That would have been the sensible thing to do. But…
I wanted to know if I’d created something explosive.
I waited for the liquid to cool. I then poured the black viscous liquid into a small conical flask and plugged the top with a cork.
Wrapping the flask in the red sweater of my school uniform I left the lab and found the quickest way to the quietest and most hidden part of the school which was behind the school gymnasium, next to the football pitches.
I removed the cork and placed the flask next to the gymnasium. There were no windows that could break, it was just a huge brick wall.
I moved to a distance at which I felt was safe and I could still throw a lit match inside the flask. It took me several times to get the match to land inside the flask.
When the match finally tipped into the top of the flask, the glass shattered into a muffled thud. A small black mushroom cloud, grey at the edges, scaled the gym wall. I didn’t stick around. I was sure many people would have heard the explosion or they’d see the rising black cloud. I ran. And never returned.
A black mark stained the wall of the gym for years afterwards.
There was a part of me that wanted to rebel all the years I was at school. To do something naughty. Maybe it was some delayed reaction to my dad’s death two year’s earlier.
This was my first rebellious moment in life. After University many of my friends ran straight into careers. I ran off to the jungles of Africa to chase monkeys.
When I returned from Africa I started working as a virtual assistant. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time but choosing to be a virtual assistant was a rebellious choice against the traditional idea of a job.
A job that you need to commute to.
A job that you must work a fixed number of hours.
A job that you can only take a limited number of days each year.
I wanted to choose the work I do. The hours I work. And where I work.
In this revolt of the 9–5 job, I often remember the irresponsible and dangerous moment I made explosives and almost blew up my school. But, as a virtual assistant, there’s little chance I would kill anyone or myself.
Did you have a TNT moment when you were younger?
In the work you choose to do, are you rebelling against something or someone?
Or are you looking for a revolutionary change in your working life?
* name changed to protect me