My schooldays in Greytown in the 1950s included four years at the boys’ hostel, where there were 77 boarders covering the full range of school ages. Among the older ones there were plenty of local traditions and short-lived crazes, and many of these were new to me. Some were widely known, such as cat’s cradles or French knitting, but others were quite local. And some were mildly explosive.
The purpose of the hostel (and the girls’ hostel, a few hundred yards away) was to serve the surrounding rural community, mainly farmers, and most of the boarders would go home over the weekends. In that time and place it was normal to have a selection of guns on such a farm. There would be at least one shotgun, a .303 rifle, and often a .22 rifle for the schoolboy to use. Bullets were freely available, and on one occasion someone brought in a handful of .22 bullets to the hostel. One of the prefects, a flamboyant character, decided to make some sport with them.
At the time there was some building work in progress and a cement mixer stood outside, close to the small brick building that was the coal store. Out there he went that night and fired a bullet at the brick wall with a catapult, stepping back behind the mixer in case the bullet shot off in his direction. This was visible from the windows of two of the dormitories, with boys crowding around to applaud the “Crack!” and the faint flash they saw.
The next Monday, and the week after, several boys brought back more bullets and the prefect put on repeat performances. I never did get to see it from the window; I would have needed to fight my way through the throng, and also I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind that a stray bullet might just come my way.
By daylight I went out to examine the wall, where I saw the parabola-shaped soot stains on the bricks from the tiny explosions. In later years I realised that there would have been no real danger from bullets; there is a good reason why guns have a long barrel to send the bullets on their way and a breech to confine the case. Exploding like that in the open, my guess is that the first effect would be the bursting of the case. Probably the bullet would detach, but being heavier it would not travel far. The burst case might fly off but its high wind resistance would slow it down rapidly so that it soon fell to the ground. How far might it travel? Lacking facilities to do tests nowadays, I can only guess. As far as the cement mixer? Perhaps? Up to those first-floor dormitory windows? Never, surely!
Occasionally some pupil would manage to purloin something from the chemistry lab when it had been brought out for an experiment, and there were three main targets. Most popular was to break a few inches from the roll of magnesium tape, for the brilliant flame once one had managed to ignite it somewhere out of sight of prefects and staff.
Another was silver nitrate, if one could get a few small crystals. In the chemistry lab this was used as a test for chlorides but as far as we were concerned the attraction was its ability to stain the skin. As far as I understood, the process was that over time it reacted with perspiration to form insoluble silver chloride. This, in common with various other silver compounds, is light-sensitive and darkens with the formation of metallic silver as extremely fine particles. The practical result was that a stain slowly appeared on the skin, taking some hours to darken fully and then persisting for up to several days. Boys often talked wisely about it being used to mark items that might be stolen, so that the thief would be caught black-handed, although I never heard of this actually being done. (For magnesium tape at school, perhaps?) More commonly someone would dissolve it in water and just dab a bit of the solution on some object such as a door handle, and watch the surprise of the victims as patches on their hands slowly appeared and darkened. They would also find that washing failed to shift these stains.
There is much on silver nitrate on the internet, but although there are descriptions of medical uses such as applying it to warts I could find no mention of its use simply for the staining phenomenon. This may be because of modern-day concerns for health and safety but I can certainly recall several occasions in earlier years when I’m sure I saw it in news reports. These involved the supervisors at events like rural polling stations or distribution of relief supplies in regions where access to higher technology was limited. The technique was to dip a glass rod in the solution and wipe it across the palm of the hand to show that the person had already attended once and to detect any who tried to come for an illicit second visit.
I ran into the topic again a few years later, on a vacation job while at university. Some of the work was in a chemistry laboratory and at times involved titration with silver nitrate. It was hard to avoid getting the hands marked while working with this reagent but one of the other students knew a way around it. Washing or wiping with iodine solution removed the silver stain, but left a stain of iodine. The cunning part was then to remove that with another of the regular reagents on the shelf, sodium thiosulphate.
When Willy, the regular chemist, saw us he was scornful and told us that his method was more adventurous. Later, when he found some stains on his own hands, we watched as he set up an evaporating dish, sprinkled some crystals of elemental iodine into it, and lit the Bunsen burner beneath it. Soon fumes began to rise and he rubbed his hands together in these as if washing them. One of the other students began to murmur warnings about iodine fumes and toxicity, and our little group backed nervously away. As for Willy, there seemed to be an almost satanic look to him as he chuckled wickedly at us through the thickening brown cloud that curled above the evaporating dish. Give him his due, though, after a rinse with thiosulphate his hands were certainly clean.
But what about bangs? The third item sometimes pilfered at school was elemental iodine, but not with any connection to silver nitrate. In those days many homes seemed to have a bottle of ammonia as a household cleaner and so it was easy for one of the boys to bring a little of it to the hostel. Mix those two chemicals together and you’re on your way to a very sensitive explosive that we called ammonium iodide but was properly nitrogen tri-iodide. Luckily for us it seemed stable until dried out, and we took advantage of that. The simplest use was to splash it on the floor where no one was likely to walk for a few hours, by which time it would be dry in that warm inland climate. The dried patches could be small enough to go unnoticed but when someone arrived and trod on one there would be a sharp “Crack!” under his feet.
Occasionally someone would try to be more imaginative and the best example that comes to mind involved someone’s towel, hung in regulation fashion on the steel bar forming the head of his bed. Someone carefully placed a blob of the iodine mixture on the bar a few inches away, pulled a thread from the towel, and laid that along the bar so that it ended in the sludge-like blob. A few hours later it had dried, and when the victim next reached for his towel the watching crowd of boys in the know weren’t disappointed by his startled reaction.
Back to empty cartridge cases from .22 bullets, known to us as “doppies” from the Afrikaans, they were always easily available. Apart from those that some boys brought from home, there was a firing range at school. Target shooting with .22 rifles was part of our cadet training and the empty cases had to be cleared up after each session. An occasional trick with them was to take a couple of matches and shave off the material forming the head, trying not to include any wood with it, and feed this into the doppie. Then a pair of pliers was necessary, to pinch together the open end and fold it over. This sealed doppie could be carried around in a pocket until the opportunity arose to toss it into a fire, and then one had a minute or so to move clear before the bang.
At one point, a brief craze arose that might have been inspired by such doppies. We had no single name for the combination of items used; we would just have spoken of a key and the context would have made it obvious.
The key component, one might say, was a barrel key; the kind that has a hole in the tip. Then one needed a nail of a size that would fit easily but not loosely into that hole. The nail also needed the end to be squared off; some boys could simply use a hacksaw at home during the weekend while others just spent ten minutes rubbing the tip of the nail against the sandy mortar between the bricks of an outside wall. These two components were tied together with about two feet of string, and then one needed a box of matches. Once again the next task was to pare off the material forming the head of the match. Some boys had a penknife, others would have half of a blade from a safety razor (a popular desk or blazer pocket item at school, for sharpening pencils), and a few had sharpened the tip of their key (again, with the mortar in the wall) so that it would shave off the match material straight into the barrel of the key. And that’s where it should be, tamped down by using the nail as a ramrod.
In that state, it was ready to go. Push the nail firmly into the barrel, jammed against the match-head bits, grasp the string in the middle, stand close to a brick wall with the nail head closest to it, and swing so that the nail head strikes the wall. The result would be a pleasing little “Bang!” as the match head ignited, and then it was time to load up again. At the height of the craze there could be half a dozen or more boys lined up along the preferred wall around the back of the building, swinging their keys and discussing technique. Some found that with well-used keys the tip began to bulge visibly, and perhaps even develop a crack, as each miniature explosion distorted the metal by its own minute amount. These visible changes were certainly seen as the proud sign of a veteran. I never had a set of my own although at times friends allowed me to have a swing or two with their keys. It all seemed good fun.
The problems began when the staff at the hostel received a phone call from the parents of a boy. They needed to open a store cupboard and the key had vanished; could someone ask Peter if he knew where it was? More phone calls followed, with parents wanting to wind the grandfather clock or get into the wardrobe in the guest room. One father drove into town to collect the key, and back home he found that the bulging tip would no longer fit into the lock. That was when the masters declared an end to the game – but it had been entertaining while it lasted.