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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Blowin' Up Ain't That Hard to Do

NAZRAN, Ingushetia — Some things are just predetermined to blow up. Spinal Tap's drummer. The penguin on the television set in the Monty Python skit. Everything at the end of "Zabriskie Point."

To this illustrious list I would add the hot water heater of my Ingush friend Islam. The first day I laid eyes on the heater, a dubious ensemble of rust, scrap metal and propane gas that hangs in the basement bathroom in Islam's home in Nazran, I thought to myself, "You and me, baby; we're gonna blow sky high together."

And when we did blow up, it all made perfect sense to me. Years of cheap Hollywood action flicks in which hit men used gas stoves to blow up people honed in me a highly developed sense that gas appliances you light with a match are nothing more than explosions that are waiting to turn from potential energy into kinetic energy. This is not to disrespect Russian gas-heating technology — I'm sure people blow up all the time when those electric-powered gas heaters of my American childhood short-circuit — but whenever I think of match-lit gas appliances, I think of the way Charles Bronson did his contract murders in "The Mechanic." Close the windows. Open the valve. Wait.

Of course, given the stark alternatives of freezing in their apartments or risking explosion, most people in Russia would rather be warm than safe. Given the unreliable nature of central heating in this country, who can blame them?

Who can blame, for example, residents of Grozny, who run pipes from outside gas lines into their apartments, and ignite the gas so that they can see? Or freezing people in unheated parts of Primorye, who steal copper tubing from pipelines to redirect gas to their homes?

By comparison, the gas water-heaters are relatively tame. Pretty much everyone who lives outside big cities, or lives in parts of the country where for whatever reason the central heating has not gone on, has a contraption similar to Islam's. Everyone wants that hot shower.

So there we were, yours truly and a colleague (who will go unnamed — he knows who he is). Cold, shivering, we wanted that hot shower. We wanted it badly. Badly enough to die.

I stepped into the tub and stripped, but only to my underpants. I was thinking, presciently as it turned out, "wouldn't want to be stark naked when it all blows sky high." My colleague opened the valve, as Islam had showed us. Natural gas spewed out, unseen but very definitely smelled, into the cramped, poorly ventilated basement, just as Islam had said it would.

"Fffffft," went the gas, followed by the sound of my colleague trying to light the match. "Fwit, fwit, fwit."

"Ah, there it goes!" he cried triumphantly.

And then we blew up.

Oh, it wasn't all that bad. Just a benign little "poof," lots of black soot and us running around in our briefs through Islam's courtyard, scurrying the chickens. No harm done, really.

I thought of that November day when I was in Namangan, Uzbekistan, with my acquaintance Akhmat, watching his neighbor's house burn down. The cause of the blaze? Gas leak.

We all shivered in the cold as the house burned to ash. Then we went inside. Akhmat stoked up his gas stove, sighing contently at the warmth as I reeled in horror at the noxious gas fumes spewing out of a leaky pipe into the poorly ventilated room.

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