Pyromaniacs

I love fireworks. I have always had a fascination with fire and explosions. So much so, that as a very young person I read everything I could find about pyrotechnics (fireworks) and started experimenting to make my own fireworks. My parents had given me a fairly extensive chemistry set for a Christmas present, and I was able to order the chemicals I needed from the supply house listed on the set. We reloaded our own shotgun and handgun shells, so I had access to gunpowder.

I had a couple of mishaps (setting our garage on fire twice), but I eventually succeeded in creating a shell filled with stars and a dispersal charge as well as a launch charge. One Saturday, I loaded my homemade launch tube with the charge and the shell and placed it in the center of the intersection next to our house. I lit the fuse (yes, they will sell cannon fuse to a kid) and stepped back a “safe” distance.

When the launch charge went off, the first significant miscalculation on my part became apparent. Not having attended any engineering classes as of yet, I grossly underestimated the strength that would be required of the tube to contain the launch charge and force the shell skyward. The explosion shredded the tube and left the shell pretty much in place, with the fuse lit. Then the shell went off on the ground instead of 200 feet in the air.

It was spectacular and terribly dangerous.

What makes fireworks so wonderful are some simple chemicals in combination. For gunpowder you need sulfur (S), carbon (C), and potassium nitrate (KNO3). When heat is added, the potassium nitrate gives up its oxygen (it’s an oxidizer) and nitrogen so that CO2 and N2 can be formed. It’s the rapid release of these gases that causes the pressure and subsequent explosion. For colors and other effects, you can add metals and metal salts or other chemicals. Finally, to accelerate the burn and cause the additions to burn, you need an additional oxidizer like potassium permanganate.

Without the oxidizers, the fuel is hard to ignite and slow to burn. If you doubt this, try to light some carbon. With the addition of the oxidizer, the mixture becomes unstable and only needs a little heat (spark) to start a chain reaction that cannot be stopped. When these reactions occur in a controlled way, they are useful, exciting, and beautiful. When these reactions are out of control or misplaced (like the middle of the street), they are frightening and dangerous. A simple explosive charge can remove rock and earth to make way for a road, or it can level a building full of innocent people. The difference is in intention, timing, and placement.

People are often like oxidizers. Through their actions and words, they provide the “oxygen” to the existing “fuel” to accelerate a rapid chain reaction. There are times when this accelerated reaction is necessary and useful, and there are times when it is destructive and damaging. The difference between helpful and hurtful is intention, timing, and placement.

Our actions and words are helpful when our intention is to fan the flames of creativity, determination, and justice. 

We are helpful when we…

  • Encourage and energize others who are working hard to make a difference. 
  • Stand with and support others when their burden is heavy and their road is long. 
  • Demonstrate love and care equally for all in word and deed.

Our actions and words are helpful when we acknowledge that the time is now, not “later” or “sometime.” 

We are helpful when we…

  • Speak up and stand up when it is needed, not when it is convenient. 
  • Sacrifice our own comfort, willingly, to ease the pain of someone else. 
  • Make people the priority over profit or power or popularity.

Our actions and words are helpful when we realize we can make a difference right where we are. 

We are helpful when we…

  • Listen to understand rather than to be understood. 
  • See other’s stories as more similar to our own than they are different. 
  • Choose to offer grace and mercy quickly and freely while being slow to deliver judgement.

As leaders we are an accelerant in the world around us. The question I must ask myself is, “What flame am I fanning?” Am I adding to the destruction and damage that is already so prevalent around us, or am I increasing the care, value, and support that we all so desperately need?

I love watching fireworks or sitting in front of a fire on a cold winter night, but those same elements can destroy and wound if misused or left uncontrolled. Let’s be leaders who are known for our “acceleration” of what is good in our communities—pyromaniacs for human value, if you will. If we do this, we will truly be making a difference in people’s lives, and we will be living out The Kimray Way.

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