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Heavy Fuel

In the 60s we used to ask, “Hey, what if we put LSD in the water supply?” In 1934 it was laughing gas into the atmosphere.

Betty Boop Cartoon Banned For Drug Use 1934.

Laughing Gas, or nitrous oxide, has been used as an intoxicant since about ten seconds after it was first synthesized by Joseph Priestly in 1772. That, however, does not mean that by the 1960s laughing gas was regarded as passé. Au contraire since you have to remember that in those days people were trying to dry, roll, and smoke the inside of bananas. In those days, nitrous was just another established “fun” recreational drug. In those days you could buy a tank just by saying you needed it for underwater welding. Yes, underwater welding.

A friend I knew in those days discovered that taking a hit of nitrous “helped” him with his creative writing. In a way he was right. He did create very clever and interesting short stories when he’d had a few whiffs from the tank. Indeed, in the spirit of the 60s drug counter culture in Berkeley and San Francisco, he became convinced that if any drug was worth doing, it was worth overdoing. (A common American attitude that persists to this day.)

He was 24 years old and impatient for fame.

In pursuit of more and more “creative push” from his tank of nitrous, he designed a mask that would fit over his nose and mouth and be held there by some complicated elastics so he could type with both hands while whiffing from the tank.

It worked pretty well and I recall noticing that his writing did indeed get better and more interesting after his whiffing. It enhanced his writing right up to the morning when they found him slumped dead over his typewriter with the mask fixed firmly over his nose and mouth, and the tank still hissing away. Asphyxiated.

He was 24 years old and impatient for fame. Nitrous Oxide sent him up towards those Promethean heights and then laid him out in the cool room.

He left behind two binders with his writings in them. The stories were good and full of promise. I still have the binders somewhere. I think they may have turned to ash in the Paradise Fire.

If not they are moldering in a sub-sub-basement of a Brooklyn Heights brownstone on Pierrepont Street.

He “lived fast, died young, and left a good-looking corpse.” And two forgotten binders of “promising” work.

Too much heavy, heavy fuel…

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  • Skorpion October 3, 2020, 1:02 PM

    Remember, teenyboppers — if you MUST use laughing gas, fill balloons from the tank, and then inhale from the balloons. As Gerard’s friend found out too late, taking it straight from the source is asking for a one-way ticket to the Big Nowhere.

  • PA Cat October 3, 2020, 4:53 PM

    It was common in the early nineteenth century for British and American medical students to participate in what were called “ether frolics,” in which the apprentice medicos would get up on a stage and take a deep breath of either diethyl ether or nitrous oxide to demonstrate the mind-altering properties of these compounds. In many cases the participants would caper around the stage, fall down, or otherwise act silly for the amusement of their classmates. Crawford Long, a Georgia physician who received his M.D. from Penn in 1839, got the idea to use ether in 1842 to anesthetize a patient with a neck tumor because he remembered taking several falls during ether frolics in his medical school days and feeling no pain after falling.
    Thomas Rowlandson, a famous British cartoonist, made an 1820 caricature titled “Doctor Syntax and His Wife Making an Experiment in Pneumatics,” which shows a group of inebriated Brits having an ether frolic during a visit to Paris. The doctor is shown dancing and waving his wig in the air, with the container of laughing gas at the lower left. Here is a link to Rowlandson’s aquatint: