Orgone Research

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Burning Plastic

I've always been fascinated with fire. I remember making something called a "pocket rocket" when I was about 7 or 8. I got the "plans" from a strange place, The Great International Paper Airplane Book, which I received as a Christmas gift from my father. The pocket rocket was simply a safety match that had aluminium foil wrapped around the head and about half way down the shaft. A pin was pushed underneath the foil to form an "exhaust nozzle". This was placed on a paperclip that was bend up to form a "launch pad". A flame was held under the match head from the outside until it lit. The expanding gasses went out the nozzle, and off went the match. Not a great deal of fun, but it was worth a try.

What I really enjoyed was burning plastic. I think I rationalized this activity by wanting to "repair" the cheap plastic toys that I broke. I wanted to "weld" the plastic back together to repair it. But honestly, it's been so long that I really can't remember if this is how I truly felt, or if I was just rationalizing the fun of burning plastic. I remember noting that certain kinds of plastics would burn cleanly, while some would burn with a very dirty flame. When I became an adult my childhood curiosity was finally satisfied, as plastics began to have little symbols printed on them in order to sort them for recycling. Conveniently, they also had little letters printed beside them, like "PS", which stood for polystyrene. I didn't know it at the time, but the smokey flame was due to burning polystyrene, the stuff many toys are made of. Model airplanes are made of polystyrene, as old school "airplane glue" contained toluene, which actually dissolved the plastic to form the adhesive bond.

I had to take a back seat to burning model airplanes, as John Turman and Chris Reynolds had me outclassed in that regard. When John would get a new model kit, I would cynically ask him if he was going to burn it. He would always say no, that this new model was just too good to end up being burned. About 6 months later we would, of course, end up burning it. Chris and John would sometimes put firecrackers inside the models while they were building them to enhance the pyro display. Sadly this was often counterproductive, as the explosion would usually blow out the flame, Red Adair style.

I didn't know it at the time, but the Kings of Burning Plastic were HDPE and LDPE; High Density Polyethylene and Low Density Polyethylene. The flame burned very cleanly, unlike polystyrene. More importantly, it produced a wonderful burning "tail" of molten plastic. The ends of this tail would drop off while still burning. As they descended, they would produce a characteristic buzzing noise which we called "Screaming Me-Me's". Smoke would come off the little droplets as they descended, sort of like how white phosphorous munitions looked that you see in old Vietnam war footage. All in all, an impressive sound, light, and smell display for not much money. I wish I could take credit for this God-Given discovery, but I can't. I think John Turman or maybe Roald Sonju came up with it.

By this time I was 15 or 16, and old enough to drive. We were all too old to play with our Hot Wheels, but John discovered a remarkable property of the orange-yellow track; It made a really outstanding burning plastic torch! The length was perfect for holding and manipulating the molten end. The killer app for Hot Wheels track was dropping burning plastic on insects. One summer afternoon, John Turman and I drove up to Pattee Canyon outside Missoula MT armed with a huge bundle of Hot Wheels track and a can of lighter fluid. The lighter fuel was used to clear a path to our goal, a huge ant hill. You had to flat out kill the little bastards on the ground or they would crawl up your leg. This was insect genocide, pure and simple. All of this was dangerous as fuck, as Pattee Canyon was full of tall, bone dry grass... We spent that whole day dropping burning Hot Wheels track screaming me-me's onto the ant hill. John fantasized he was a WWI pilot, strafing the enemy trenches from a biplane. I imagined that I was an American B-52 pilot, dropping napalm on helpless, scurrying villagers.

Years later I heard a sort of urban legend about the screaming me-me's. I was told that "hippies" used to tie dry cleaner bags into knotted "ropes", with a knot every 12" or so. This was attached to the ceiling, and a pail of water was placed beneath. The bottom of the bag was lit, and the hippies got high. The lights were turned off, and the low-grade sound and light show was enjoyed with stoned reverence. Maybe these were the same hippies who thought they could fly after taking LSD, and jumped out of those windows.

I don't burn plastic these days like I did when I was a child, but I can't deny that when I see a nice piece of plastic I silently wonder what does it burn like...


At 12:59 PM, Blogger richardgoczinia said...


Your plastic burning stories brought back many fond memories from my youth. I was the "garbage boy" in my family, and my main chore was to take the garbage to the old oil drums we used for burning all of our household garbage. This was in the 1960's when everyone in town had a burn can in the alley behind their houses. I found that the best plastic was the bags from loaves of bread, wrapped around a stick. It produced the "screaming me me's" and would also make some wicked scars when one of them inadvertently touched your skin.
Back in the days before Gameboy, Xbox and the internet, us kids had to invent our own perverse games.
Thanks for the memories.


At 6:32 PM, Blogger Matt Crowley said...


Wow, thanks for reminding me about the burns on the skin, I forgot about that aspect!


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