Monday, October 22, 2007

The Vortex Engine

I was in my spa contemplating the smoke that was intermingling with the steam and rising into the night sky. It was a rare and quiet moment of hedonistic pleasure -- me, a good cigar and a glass of fine Cabernet. I don’t have cigars often; in fact, practically never. This was my fourth in 55 years, but my second in the last six months and, truth be told, I could make cigars a habit if I was in need of another bad one. Thinking of nothing in particular and everything at once, with no problems to solve and a perfectly healthy outlook on the weekend ahead, I watched the smoke diffuse the starlight in an otherwise crystalline night.

I thought fleetingly of a portion of my ill spent youth when I was fascinated with smoke and fire and all its many forms. I dabbled in fireworks, firecrackers, firepower, and fires in general with probably a little too much interest and much too little self control. Before I caught up to the more scientific, fire-through-chemistry approach discovered by the Chinese a thousand years before, I had already nearly burned down the house. (I unwittingly set the weeds in the side yard to smoldering with a magnifying glass and left to do other more pressing things in the house. My mom asked me to empty the trash and on my way out to the trash cans, I spotted the side yard totally engulfed in flames. Fortunately, the hose was handy.) I doused the flames and spent the rest of the afternoon digging up the evidence so that I would not get into trouble. My parents praised me for my industriousness and unprompted gardening.

I finally gave my pyrotechnics up for good when my last great experiment released energy in such abundance that I thought I might be unable to ever hear again. It occurred to me that I was fortunate to have escaped with all my limbs and eyes intact with little noticeable damage to my immediate surroundings. I was a senior in high school and I was very, very lucky. This I know. At that moment I realized the extent of the grace afforded me. In fact, that may have been the last risky behavior I’ve indulged in prior to this cigar.

In raising my boys, there have been many times when their own curiosity has led them to question, and me to provide anecdotes of my adventures, but I have always steered these inquiring conversations away from the how and why and into more acceptable pursuits. If they die prematurely of a foolishness of their own making, it will not be because I gave them the means, the wherewithal and the desire to reproduce some grand effect that their father had once told them about or showed them how to do. I would rather they worry about The Red Ripe Strawberry and The Big Hungry Bear, or Oh, The Places You’ll Go.

The sad fact is that this avoidance of all things combustible has left them without a single demonstration of one of the greatest marvels of modern science, the vortex engine – and its best known product, the smoke ring. The confluence of time, place and stillness never seemed to be perfect and their mother always seemed to have something else much more worthwhile for us to do. This was not necessarily a bad thing. Although stillness is not a strict requirement, it helps when the weather cooperates.

Weather is a fickle thing. Normally, air becomes cooler as the elevation increases. As the air is heated by the earth’s surface it generally rises and displaces cooler air that falls downward only to be heated by the earth’s surface once again. This cooling effect is very gradual and typically very consistent. There are occasions when this phenomenon gets disrupted, usually when there is some variation in humidity in the atmosphere above us which causes the air to hold its heat and become warmer than the air that is rising from the surface. This is called an inversion layer.

There are a view times in the seasonal cycle that you can witness the dramatic nature of a temperature inversion and its impact on the weather. The most common occurrence of this is a fog bank that nestles into a depression between two hills. We’ve all seen this. It is less common to see inversions when they help create clouds.

I can remember days in the late spring when the rice farmers to the north would burn their bestubbled fields after the harvest. From my vantage point the sky was big and the horizon stretched as far as I could see. The farmlands checker boarded their way up the state. On rare days, I could see a few fields set ablaze and watch the smoke rise until it hit a very definite inversion layer. At that point, the grayish smoke splayed out horizontally or curled downward, and above, the humidity allowed puffy pure white clouds to form over the burn. The sight was pretty dramatic. I’ve also seen it on a larger scale when I’ve been close to a forest fire when the conditions were just perfect. I think that the effect goes unnoticed for most people because the scientific curiosity is just not there to observe that the smoke and the clouds differ in texture, color and nature.

Generally, inversions can occur at essentially any altitude, but they are only observable when there is some catalyzing event that betrays their presence, like fog or a large fire that causes some atmospheric turmoil. Occasionally, such events do not have to be on a large scale at all.

As I soaked in the spa I attempted to blow a smoke ring or two as if the height of decadence and self satisfaction was measured in such things. I’ve seen people do it with such precision and with a certain smugness that in other circumstances I would find contemptible. (But, since it was just me, I let that feeling pass.) I am a hopeless smoke ring blower. My attempts were rather buffoonish and it was not a skill in which I intended to invest any time or effort perfecting. But, I did manage in those moments to transport myself back to a time when I was the king of smoke rings.

It was summer of my fifteenth year. It was hot – too hot to play inside. I had become the proud owner of a simple cardboard box. How I came to own the box is not important. Not big enough to crawl into. A little too big to just jump on and destroy. Not too small to ignore. It was just perfect.

I set the box in the middle of the backyard. I cut about a 4 inch hole into the top of the box. I spirited some matches from the kitchen and lit the edge of the hole to flame. I blew the fire out and the cardboard began to smolder and smoke as cardboard does. The box filled with smoke. By tapping the sides of the box I could force perfect smoke rings out of the hole. By pounding the sides of the box I could send smoke rings speeding into the sky. I could send smoke rings through other smoke rings, which, if you haven’t ever done this, is one the most interesting physical phenomenon you will ever witness. The slower ring actually expands to allow the faster ring through.

So fascinated by the output of my vortex engine, I failed to notice that just above the house sat an inversion layer. The smoke rings rose to a certain height and then either stayed there or began to settle back down to the ground. After about 20 minutes of smoke ring play my backyard was thick with the fog of smoke. It had not dissipated even a little bit before my mother looked out the back window and was shocked and frightened at the sight of the backyard full of smoke. She started yelling indiscriminately for me. To her eyes, I was lost and must be found before she called the fire department. That motherly instinct saved us a call to the fire department and me from acute and very public embarrassment. I quickly emerged from my reverie and from behind my smoke screen. trying to quiet the situation by stating that I had everything under control. My mother argued this fact with me in no uncertain terms, thus putting an end to my experimentation for the time being.

When the smoke finally cleared, my vortex engine privileges had been revoked. I was cautioned again not to play with matches. I was lectured on responsibility. I was restricted to the more tame and mundane uses of my time. I was thoroughly chastised, but secretly unrepentant.

Even though I do not apologize for providing my sons with an upbringing devoid of recreational fire, I do regret that I could not have them duplicate the youthful joy that comes with doing really stupid things and surviving. On second thought, my guess is that they have plenty of those adventures stored up on their own without my contributions. I am sure that these will slowly be revealed when there is no longer a consequence in their retelling. Which of these experiences will they shield from their own children? I guess we'll never know.

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