Fun with Explosives

Road work, farming, coal mining. All require dynamite: “one of man’s most useful tools,” as 1957 educational film Blasting Cap Danger would have you believe. Apparently, blasting caps littered the American landscape in the 1950s. Hence the need for an educational film warning children of their hazards.

But what are blasting caps?

The narrator breaks it down so a second-grader could understand. Blasting caps are detonators. Detonators “explode the dynamite [and] are safe and useful in trained hands, but dangerous when handled by boys or girls or inexperienced adults.”

As we shall soon see!

Girl fight

The film opens as a young boy we will call Junior Sociopath bickers with a little girl we’ve renamed Future Pilot. They are hotly debating what type of model airplane she is playing with. She bases her identification on:

  1. The word of her dad, who is a TWA pilot
  2. The label on the box that the model came in

He bases his on:

  1. He’s a boy and she’s just a dumb girl
  2. Shut up!

Junior Sociopath has a pal, Wimpy Wingman, who sides with his brother in arms. The two gents sneer at Future Pilot’s career ambitions. In response, Future Pilot departs to meet her pilot dad at the airport. As she exits, she informs the boys that, upon her return, she will enjoy a family-only birthday celebration for her dad. Birthday parties restricted to the nuclear family are common enough phenomena, even in the 1950s, but his exclusion inexplicably breeds resentment in Junior Sociopath. Sullenly, he picks up a box Future Pilot left behind.

Is it filled with blasting caps?

No, it’s the model airplane box that proved he doesn’t know his planes and will never be a real man.

“Doggone girl! Thinks she’s so smart!” he growls, hurling the box to the ground and kicking it.

The film cuts to Future Pilot at the airport. Her TWA pilot dad swaggers up. A redubbed voice booms, “You’ve been such a good girl, I’ve got a present for you on my birthday!”

Is it blasting caps??

No. It’s a dorky cowboy outfit. The child wants to be a pilot, sir! How hard would it have been to swipe your drunk co-pilot’s hat during the final descent?

While the flyman’s family heads home, viewers are treated to the sight of a creepy old man puttering around his front yard. We know he is creepy because he is slowly whistling “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” in a minor key. He’s clearly a serial killer.

Junior Sociopath and Wimpy Wingman abruptly impose upon him to fix Wingman’s bike.

Mr. Creepy is altogether delighted to fix the bike. “Say, why don’t you fellas go around back and pick yourselves an apple. The trees are loaded with ‘em,” he coaxes in an oily voice.

Beneath the apple tree, the companions each find an apple waiting for them on the Astroturf lawn. It’s almost like Mr. Creepy left them there, as a lure to catch boys.

But what is this? Sociopath discovers something else among the bait apples. It’s a small, tubular object made of metal.

blasting cap

A bullet! Run, boys! This is Mr. Creepy’s killing tree!

No, it’s not a bullet. Why, it’s a blasting cap! The hero villain of the film at last makes his shiny, lethal entrance. It seems that blasting caps truly did litter the American landscape in the 1950s. Did they grow on trees, like the apples the boys are gnawing on? Is it a blasting cap tree they are seated under?

The boys study the strange object.

“What is it?” asks Wingman.

“Sorta like a firecracker,” muses Sociopath. And then he proves that his earlier outbursts of anger were but warning signs of a deeper psychosis. Believing he holds in his hands an unexploded firecracker, he gleefully makes plans to sneak onto Future Pilot’s property and drop the explosive into the family’s flaming grill as they cook birthday steaks for Pilot Dad.

“It’ll scare the daylights out of her. It’ll be fun. We’ll sneak up, plop it in, and then hide and watch their faces when it goes off,” he chortles.

Wingman equivocates. But Junior Sociopath will not be deterred.

Mr. Creepy is slowly circling his dooryard on Wingman’s bike when the boys return from apple-picking.

“You boys have a big date, huh?” he grins.

Creepy old man

Faced with hanging out with Mr. Creepy or dropping explosives into a family’s barbecue with a juvenile delinquent, Wingman chooses the company of the serial killer. Sociopath departs. It’s only a matter of seconds before Wingman discovers Mr. Creepy’s box of blasting caps and realizes the truth.

For everyone’s benefit, Mr. Creepy explains the science behind blasting caps. But frankly, it’s confusing. So, are blasting caps like candle wicks? If the dynamite is the explosive part, how are blasting caps dangerous, exactly? Mr. Creepy casually strews them around under his apple tree. In the absence of dynamite, they’re harmless, right?


“Because these caps are verrry powerful, they’re verrry dangerous. Especially if they’re handled carelessly or get into the hands of children,” Mr. Creepy drawls. “Let me show you something.”

Mr. Creepy treats us to a slideshow of objects blown apart by blasting caps. My personal favorite:

exploded baseball

That’s so cool! Think what an awesome job a blasting cap would do on something bigger — like a barbecue grill! Man, that would be something to see.

“They’re like a hand grenade. Dangerous as a hand grenade,” says Mr. Creepy with relish. For example, a boy found a blasting cap at a construction site and banged the hell out of it with a rock. “That boy’s right hand was crippled. He’ll never play baseball again.”

“Could it … kill you?” squeaks Wingman.

“Yep. Might even do that,” says Mr. Creepy cheerfully.

Wingman panics. He must stop Sociopath!

Meanwhile, Sociopath, master of subtlety, approaches the family grill to do his wicked work while everyone is standing right beside it. Wingman easily thwarts the evildoer.

Pilot Dad is upset with Sociopath.

“You could have killed somebody!” he rages in his dubbed voice. “I’ve been in air battles and a lot of tight places, but I’ve never had a closer call than just now.”

Sociopath offers an insincere apology and Pilot Dad neither calls the police on this hooligan nor marches him over to Mr. Creepy for a little lesson. The best he can muster is, “I want you to promise never to touch a blasting cap.”

Yeah, that’ll learn him.

The suffix to this morality play is a slide show of the various flavors of blasting cap that children were bound to encounter each day of their lives in sunny, mid-century America.

“Take a good look at this blasting cap, and don’t touch it,” says the narrator. “Here’s another kind. Don’t touch it. This one’s a little different. Don’t touch it! Here’s one more. Remember what it looks like, and drop it in the neighbor’s barbecue grill to punish his daughter for challenging your masculinity.”

The end.

I guess the film made its point. Blasting caps: Don’t touch them.

And yet, this lesson feels too simplistic. Perhaps, as Dr. Sigmund Freud never said, “Sometimes a blasting cap is not just a blasting cap.” They must be symbolic. What might they represent?

There’s always communism: enticing to the young, seemingly harmless, and luring under every all-American apple tree in the 1950s.

under an apple tree

Or perhaps the blasting caps represent something simpler: a small, tubular object every boy is quite familiar with. Something that can “go off” unexpectedly. A “rocket in their pocket,” as it were.

“You boys have a big date, huh?” … “Don’t touch it!” … “That boy’s right hand was crippled. He’ll never play baseball again.”

You understand perfectly, don’t you?

A bullet!

No. It must be something more obvious.

Blasting caps are unpredictable, ubiquitous in the 1950s, and can ruin your life. Just like Pilot Dad’s employer, TWA.

Trans World Airlines, Inc. Owned and operated by this guy. Later to be replaced by this guy. An airline that managed to kill a movie star, crashed into competitor United Airlines twice, and finally went bankrupt in 1995. And we haven’t even gotten to all the hijackings.

It’s clear that Blasting Cap Danger was actually intended as a warning that TWA was a dangerous investment.

Don't touch it

“Dangerous as a hand grenade … don’t touch it!”

the delve