The Movie: Eleven years ago, as a freshman in high school, I undertook a project that would become known as “The Kung Fu Movie.” This project was never finished, no part of it was particularly coherent and what little of the movie remains today is more a yearbook of a few misspent summers than a film (read video) that anyone would want to spend seven minutes and twenty three seconds watching.
The Device: My Brother Brian had told me at one point that if I could encase a ball of steel wool in a cage of chicken wire, tie that encased ball to a rope, light that ball on fire and swing that ball around my head I could have something that looked pretty cool.
- Steel Wool
- Chicken Wire
- Fire Extinguisher
Moral: If you get steel wool hot enough that little bits of molten steel flame globules start dripping off it, it’s gonna be real hot.
I spent about two months waiting to film this flaming ball of steel wool flying around my head, but there wasn’t any place for me to do it. I was in the middle of Chicago. I knew public places would be tough. There are always cops at the beach in the summer time and it is illegal to be in most Chicago parks after 10 (probably also illegal to have big flame balls of steel wool, but that is another matter.)
It developed that there was a girl who had a side yard (the size of a single lot) which was huge by city standards and, in my view, perfect for flaming experiments. She thought the scene might make more sense somewhere else, but I knew there was nobody else who I could sucker into letting me use their yard for Kung Fu pyrotechnics. So my father and I, my father came to save me if need be, took a train to the north side with our steel wool, and fire extinguisher in tow.
Well, when we finally got there we were anxious to get the experiment under way when we found that steal wool does not catch fire easily. We held it to the grill lighter and even put some paper in the cage, but it just didn’t seem to want to catch. We were about to try putting kerosene on this ball of metal when the idea struck me that I might just start swinging this hot ball around my head and see what happened.
Molten Steel. A red-hot ball of molten steel whistled around my head. It looked like a meteor with a tail of hot steel dripping off onto the ground. It was hot and heavy and beautiful and it was swinging around my head in Betsy Tangora’s yard. I felt proud and powerful and, after a while, I felt concerned that this ball of fire had been flaming a long time.
In this yard there are 4 sides: a street, an alley, a great old wooden house, and a neighboring apartment building. There were two things behind me: my father, and a tree. When the fireball exploded out of the chicken wire it did not hit the wooden house, and it did not hit my father. If it had broken even a fraction of a second earlier or later it could have hit either. What it hit was the tree.
The tree was only a little on fire.
What the tree did to the steel wool (and we were probably lucky that it happened this way) was break it up in to a hundred pieces and spray those pieces all around the lot. So now there is a slightly flaming tree and a lot of pieces of pretty flaming ground. There was a lot of yelling about hoses and fire extinguishers but most of what we did was stomp on little flaming bits and hope that the tree would put out itself. It did.
Dad and I got on the train to head home relieved. We were on the other side of a big adrenaline rush and it made me kind of giddy to have escaped disaster. It was in this mood that I turned to my father and said, “When we do this again we should…”
That was as far as that sentence ever got.