I’ve noticed in recent years how fashionable it’s become to express disdain for fireworks. Sure, they’re messy, hell on pets (out where I live, the fireworks stands stay open for a few days after July 4th—my dog has still got night terrors) and essentially pointless. But on some primal level, who doesn’t like to see things burn and blow up? I feel sorry for you if this slumbering Jungian archetype has somehow been bred or cajoled out of you by nervous parenting or smug PC nattering.
And I’m not even that much of a pyromaniac—not anymore, anyway. I just know that a boy who doesn’t like fiddling with stuff that burns and/or explodes is like a dog that’s been trained to be vegetarian: It’s just not natural. The really sharp kids are the ones who figure out how to fob these monkeyshines off on their parents as “science experiments,” as though figuring out which household items burn the best formed the empirical underpinnings of a brilliant future career in chemistry.
Of course, most boys eventually grow out of their “amateur chemist” phase once they figure out how much math is involved in pursuing chemistry as a profession. My own career ended with Supergross III, a noxious elixir that my friend John Parker (now State Representative John Parker, D-Great Falls, by the way) and I produced in our quest to come up with the most disgusting substance that ordinary kitchen ingredients would allow. Supergross III appeared to breathe, although it was really just the same kind of convection effect you see in a bowl of miso soup. In any event, last time I saw John he was still talking about getting together to work on Supergross IV, which would still please me immensely should it ever come to pass—and not just because I haven’t gotten to hang out with him in years. Last time we worked on Supergross, we hadn’t even heard of nam pla, the Vietnamese fish sauce.
For David Hahn, however, subject of The Radioactive Boy Scout, youthful puttering became an all-consuming obsession. An eager autodidact, by the time Hahn was in high school he knew more about chemistry than his teachers, who dismissed his probing questions and boastful talk about a battery of successful backyard experiments with radiation as mere showing-off. And weren’t they surprised, on June 28, 1995, to turn on the evening news and see a small army of men in ventilated HazMat moon suits descending on Hahn’s quiet suburban Detroit neighborhood! Perhaps the boy hadn’t been bullshitting after all.
Hahn was 18 at the time. Since his parents’ divorce nine years earlier, his amateur chemistry career had benefited considerably from an almost complete lack of parental supervision. His mother, a schizophrenic with a drinking problem, adored him but had too many problems of her own to deal with, and the men in her life tended to like drinking and lighting M-80s in the empty swimming pool. David Hahn’s father, a mechanical engineer for a General Motors subcontractor, was a hands-off parent who threw himself into his work because he didn’t know how to relate to David. Sensing, nonetheless, that his son needed some guidance, Ken Hahn persuaded David to join a scouting organization. Surprisingly, David took to it with enthusiasm. He wasn’t at his most comfortable around his peers, but he loved earning merit badges and was particularly interested in fulfilling the requirements for a badge in atomic energy.
The Boy Scouts of America, author Ken Silverstein explains, have always toed a fairly conservative line; it seems the organization’s official stance on nuclear energy has evolved little beyond the national euphoria of the ’40s and ’50s, when it was widely believed that atomic weapons were just a bump in the road to a nuclear utopia where energy would one day be too cheap to meter. As a result, David Hahn was encouraged in his radioactive pursuits by a body of literature that downplayed or altogether ignored the hazards of nuclear energy and radioactivity. In this world, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island didn’t even merit a footnote.
Meanwhile, David’s extra-curricular activities in the potting shed continued apace. By reading hand-me-down chemistry books, he figured out that radioactive materials that might prove useful for his experiments could be found everywhere. He located outlets for discount smoke alarms, which contain a pill-sized chunk of americium sealed in a foil pouch. He bought antique clocks with luminous radium faces (unaware, naturally, that many of the women who painted them on had died horribly, their faces and fingers literally rotting away), carefully scraping off the precious flecks of radioactive paint. Posing as a professor (a rather un-Scoutlike move, as was paying an acquaintance to steal thorium lantern mantles from a camping store), he sent away for specimens of other radioactive minerals from scientific supply houses, and for technical information from corporate and academic radiation experts. Playacting the professor was an especially risky undertaking for Hahn, whose interest in formal academic studies was so negligible that he was practically illiterate by the time he entered high school.
By the time the EPA caught up with him, Hahn had begun working on a backyard breeder reactor. He didn’t even come close to actually making one, but he did manage to create a small pile of fissionable material using the radioactive materials he’d acquired through his various channels. Scientific method was a burden for Hahn’s short attention span, yet he was able to successfully patch together the necessary procedures with the information he’d gleaned from his easily-duped professorial “colleagues,” as well as from—wait for it, Internet-worrying moms—the public library.
If nothing else, The Radioactive Boy Scout shows what can happen when bright, resourceful and uniquely driven kids slip through the cracks. Kinda makes other kinds of youthful experimentation look relatively harmless.