Matchstick Cats

In early June, 2000, I began formulating plans to entertain the crowd at our annual 4th of July block party...Ok, to be honest, I started formulating plans in February, but by June, I had struck upon a suitable project: Matchstick cats.

Entertaining crowds is a tricky business, to be sure, as I had  learned from the previous year's ketchup packet-bear experience.  Fireworks are a nice change of pace from television and video games, but as the years pass, boredom sets in.  By the age of 11, you are tying fuses together or crimping the ends of your Piccolo Petes.

Using masking tape and newspaper, I rolled and wadded together my first try.  Not exactly origami, it was pretty easy to make something that resembled a cat.  I could make one in about 15 minutes while I watched "A Change of Heart" on late-night TV.  

Do you want to know the secret of "A Change of Heart?" Well, it isn't a giant secret, but it is a nice thing to know when you watch it:  The director knows the answers before the couple show them on camera, so they arrange the order of revealing for best impact. If one person is "stay together" and the other is "a Change of Heart", they will always make the "stay together" person reveal their card first.  That way someone holding a "stay together" card isn't left holding the bag at the end.  It doesn't give you the inside story every time, but if the first person to reveal their card has "a change of heart", I Guarantee the second person does too.
I wasn't sure how many cats I wanted to have prepared, but I figured 10 would be a good start. I alternated building cats with the tiresome and dangerous task of matchstick de-booking.  I had purchased 15 boxes of 1000 paper matches (total cost $11.30).  I opened the books and cut off the volatile heads. Leif and Althea helped out too. So did Mark, Mike,  Brooke and Daniel...damn there were a lot of matches.  As a side-gag I re-folded the 4000 impotent matchbooks and put them in a shopping bag.  I left the bag near an old wood pile.

The plan was to glue hundreds of matches onto each cat, making them explosively flammable.  This plan meshed nicely with the tradition of flare-toting remote-control cars.  I would use the flaming cars to ignite the cats from a distance.  My brother Mike and I were greatly anticipating the disturbed reaction from our July 4th crowd. Would they catch a burning cat in the corner of their eye, and break into a cold sweat?  I hoped so!   

When I told my dad about the idea, he expressed the same concerns anyone's father would have: 1) would the cats catch fire, and 2) would the paper burn fast enough?  He suggested soaking the newspaper in a solution of potassium nitrate.  He claimed this would regulate the burn rate of the paper, and ensure a more completely burned paper cat. Potassium nitrate was available as stump remover at the hardware store, and the very next day, I purchased a pound of it. A quick test-burn had great results; p-n newspaper sizzled and disintegrated, engulfed by a slow red wave of flame: FFFFFTTT!!!  These cats were going to be great!  

Unfortunately I had already taped together a dozen cats, so I had to settle with spraying them with the Potassium Nitrate solution. 

I know what some of you are thinking, "Hey! Why didn't you spray them with gasoline? That would be awesome!"

The answer is that I am not an idiot. 
I was excited to test burn a cat, so a couple weeks before the party I sprayed one with a heavy coat of 3M Super77 spray adhesive and sprinkled it liberally with matchsticks.

I think about 400 matches stuck to the cat.  Mike struck a match and lit the cat's shoulder. It burned.  It was exactly the effect I was looking for!  The cats little legs folded up just like a real cat engulfed in a column of flame.  It burned entirely, reduced to a balled-up. horrifying little cat-cinder. Oh! This was going to be good!

Our neighbor peeked out of his window, "Go practice your witchcraft somewhere else!", he said with a big smile. Mike and I were both laughing, trying to imagine this scene multiplied by 15.

Remember this scene from Terminator 2?

Finally, July 1st came, and the day of the party was here.  It had slowly become clear that the city had denied our street-closure permit, which was going to put a crimp in my plans, but hopefully not destroy the evening.
With Brika's help, I sprayed the cats and applied the matches. There were 15 cats, and almost enough matches to go around.  I did a little experimenting at the end, covering one with black-powder and another one with wooden matches.

This poor guy got run over for real...yeah, we still burned him.

Steve Pham was part of the action.

I tried to wait until the maximum number of people were out, but I also wanted enough light to drive by. Around seven o'clock I got some help setting up the cats in the street.  Then I armed two r/c cars with burning road-flares and went cat-hunting.  
I guess it was more like cat cooking. The cats didn't catch fire as easily as I had hoped: I often had to stop the car nearby, and maneuver the flame delicately into position.  I ended up hitting & dragging the cats more than anything.  Still, it was great fun.  The cats put off a large amount of smoke, and the crowd went wild whenever one flamed up.  With the cats gone, there was plenty of time to watch the rest of the fireworks and play with Althea and Skie's Trebouché. I collected up the cars and poured myself a victory beer.  


The disappointment of the ketchup-packet bear was finally behind me! If people want burning animals, give 'em burning animals! 


One cat got away. My sister Sue liked the cats enough for me to part with one, sans matchsticks, for her to put on her desk at work. One left out of 15...and he was the runt of the litter too!

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