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N: the fire that clings to everything - part 1

 I've finished the fifth  of my Cold War stories. They are: Crossed Lives; The Curious Case of the Missing Dogs; Double Cross; Almost a True Story; and my latest one, N: the fire that clings to everything. 

I haven't found the illustrations yet for N., but I am going to publish it here in bits. This is part One.


-         “The people in these villages had been told to go to relocation camps, because this was all a free fire zone, and technically anyone there could be killed.”

-         “The materials are excessively simple: 25 percent benzene, 25 percent gasoline, and 50 percent polystyrene, a plastic manufactured by Dow Chemical and others. The point of this mixture is to form a highly incendiary jelly that clings, and so causes deep and persistent burns.” – George Wald

-         Everybody seems to have gotten used to the idea that war, if it comes, will be total, and the lamination of Korea has been received by the populace with fatalism. We have to destroy the enemy in mass, and no matter how, all the rest is sentimentality. Such is the concept openly applied in Asia by the so called civilized nations. – Esprit, 1951

-         « Our combat is disinterested. It is the whole of civilization that we are defending in Tonkin. We are not fighting for domination, but for liberation.» General de Lattre, Hanoi, 19 December, 1950.

On the 15th of January, 1951,  General de Lattre employed a new weapon on the Vietnamese scene: N. It had been delivered by the Americans, and was used by de Lattre on the village of Vinh Yen. The fiery seed was planted. N. would outlast the defeat of the French in Indochina. It would light the way to the defeat of the Americans in Indochina, all those straw roof huts burning in the Chinook twilight.



I look at the backs of my hands. Even when I was a young guy, I was always aware of the vein knottiness beneath the skin. I grow old, the knottiness becomes ever more prominent. Under the contour map of wrinkles, there’s a bluish tint. These hands are destined to grub in potato fields or haul away firewood from the pile on a particularly cold day, and not to lounge in a lounge, or to arrange their manicured self around a book, or tap on a café table. I remember my grandfather’s hands, which were even knottier. My iconic memory-image of his hands must be from when he was in his eighties. I remember thinking that they must be cholesterol clogged, the things he ate: enormous slabs of butter on his bread, the liverwurst, all the fatty meats. Yet, he still lived to 99, not entirely compos mentis the last years but able to return from his dream, the long dream he’d sunk into awake in his late eighties, to say the pertinent thing, show he was paying attention.

I remember that he only had beer on his birthday. He loved beer, but by the late eighties it passed right through him. My grandmother wasn’t going to stand for very much of that. Can I blame her?

I think that these hands have been passed from one generation to another – handed on. They bring me close to my grandfather’s father, L., dead in 1917, obituary in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune. “Inventor dies.” “Inventor whose gun was rejected here, sold the fuse to Germany.” He was “often credited with the success of heavy German siege artillery in the present war.”

-         “My invention is this: There is a shell containing 200 or more pounds of guncotton; then a fuse, which is separated from the main charge of the explosive by a barrier or door, and that door is always closed in the handling. It never opens except after the shell is fired from the gun and begins rotation, then the door opens by centrifugal force; then, of course, the fuse and explosive are connected.” – Testimony of L.



 In 1940, Fortune magazine published one of the wonderful and prophetic illustrations of the 20th century, entitled the Continent of Synthetica – the continent, that is, of synthetic materials. It floats on a sea of glass, and contains territories such as Cellulose (next to which is the island of Rayon) and Phenolic. “On this broad but synthetic continent of plastics, the countries march right out of the natural world – that wild area of firs and rubber plantations, upper left – into the illimitable world of the molecule. It’s a world boxed only by the cardinal points of the chemical compass – carbon, hydrogen oxygen nitrogen.” The map includes a territory, Acrylic Styrene, which contains “crystal mountains”. This is the territory from which N. was carved by chemists at Harvard, working on creating incendiary weapons in 1942. They wanted a gel, with the power to burn like gasoline while sticking like glue. Optimally, the N. bomb would scatter this gel over a given area, increasing the burn. After experimenting with products from all over Synthetica, they found that a combination of Aluminum Napthenate and a kind of coconut oil, when doused in gasoline, did the trick. Putting it in a shell and making it burn and distribute was the next trick – one ensured by adding white phosphorus. It was tested at Harvard. “The performance, from the start, was most impressive. The high explosive cuts the inner well into ribbons and opens the casing down the entire length. Pieces of phosphorus are driven into the gel, and large, burning globs are distributed evenly over a circular area about 50 yards in diameter. Extinguished with carbon dioxide or water, the phosphorus-containing gel may later ignite.” Quote from Robert Neer, N. An American biography.  

- On November 15, 16, and 18,  1901, at Sandy Hook, my great grandfather L’s projectile was tested against an ironclad Navy Ship. The ship’s plate was manufactured by Krupp. The Navy rejected the projectile, claiming it was no better than projectiles already on the market. Controversy ensued concerning both the observations of the Navy officers and the motivations behind the rejection of L.’s invention.  Scientific American, November 30,1901. “With regard to the L. test, it is our opinion that while the results are not comparable in their effect upon the plate itself to those achieved by the army shell, the effects produced upon the target as a whole were so tremendous s to render the L. shell anything but the absolute failure it is generally pronounced to be. A shell that is capable of crumpling in concertina fashion the plate steel framing of an Iowa and swinging the 12-inch Krupp plate with its steel and timber backing and several hundred tons of sand around, 8 feet to the rear and 8 feet to the left of its original position is certainly entitled to be called something more than an absolute failure.”

- The M69 N. bomb was light on its feet. It was tested in 1942 at the Dugway proving grounds in Utah. There, structures were built to resemble a village of German housing and Japanese housing. Standard Oil built the structures. The German structures were designed by architect Eric Mendelsohn, who worked with Gropius at Harvard. The structures were intimate and cozy: “Nothing was overlooked in the village’s design. Brick wood and tile structures were outfitted with authentic furniture, bedspreads, rugs, draperies, children’s toys and clothing hanging in the closets.” The children’s toys were a sort of signature, here. The Japanese houses were designed by an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Czech architect Antonin Raymond. Standard Oil acquired “authentic rice-straw tatami mats from Hawaii.” “When the sources of authentic mats (perhaps left behind by interned Japanese families) ran out, Standard Oil used thistle to construct imitation tatami mats.”

The technocrats on the field used the word de-housing. The M69 was just the ticket for dehousing on a mass scale in Japan. Alas, the German houses, made of wood and stone, were a harder nut to crack. This is where children’s toys and other furniture came in: they served as kindling.


-  I still have charge – secret charge –

Of the fire developed to cling

To everything: to golf carts and fingernail

Scissors as yet unborn  tennis shoes

Grocery baskets  toy fire engines

New Buicks stalled by the half-moon

Shining at midnight on crossroads  green paint

Of jolly garden tools  red Christmas ribbons:


Not atoms, these, but glue inspired

By love of country to burn

The apotheosis of gelatin. – James Dickey, The Firebombing