How To Be Your Nephew’s Cool And Awesome Uncle, Extreme Fun & Project Gutenberg

In just a few short months my cool nephew is allowing me to take his son, my great-nephew, away for our first weekend of bonding. The young man in question is twelve years old, he’ll turn thirteen the month following our trip. When I was that age everything – and everyone – was LAME.

This is our first trip (my fault for not arranging this earlier), and what guy doesn’t want to be the cool (great) uncle? My mind raced as I tried to recall the things I was interested in when I was his age:

  • * Looking like a mysterious dude alone in the shadows
  • * Experiments resulting with fire and explosions (I hope mom doesn’t see I have no hair on one arm and I’m missing part of an eyebrow)
  • * Groveling over my lack of girls and greenbacks
  • * Music and art
  • * Sharing my thoughts to the only thing I could trust, a journal


I suspect I just defined the interests of many young men in five bullet points.

I recall a handful of meaningful conversations shared with fringe relatives in my youthful days. It was a pleasure to speak to an adult that wasn’t part of my daily life. The separation made it easier to open up and share thoughts without risking being judged or teased endlessly. We communicated in an adult manner.

After a some thinking (can you smell the rubber burning?) the possible itineraries boil down to two themes:

  • 1. Camping, Fishing, Hiking: A quiet opportunity to relax and share what’s on our minds.
  • 2. Extreme Fun: A loud opportunity to forget about what’s on our minds.

My great-nephew is a quiet young man. He never sits still and prefers to be off alone occupied by the mischievous things young boys do: whacking tree stumps with an ax, poking at tree stumps with a crowbar, quietly groveling about life while sitting on tree stumps. This is the expected outcome of a camping trip.

I’m the cool uncle, so let’s be extreme! Amusement parks are great, but not with your uncle. What’s more extreme? I know!- go karts (not the dumb kiddie ones), ATVs, UTVs, motor boats, off-road Segway adventures – how about paintball, target practice with a compound bow or slingshot!

Many of these awesome activities do not allow “children” under the age of 13 to drive or be responsible for taking charge (and slingshots are mainly illegal). My nephew may be a goof, but he’s responsible and knows his capabilities. A front running idea is a camping trip including some extreme fun and experiments.

Nostalgic Camping Activities

The Boy Mechanic, Volume 1
Playing Baseball With A Pocket Knife

The other day I was having a conversation with my pops. He asked me if I ever played “the pocket knife baseball game”, something my father remembers fondly. I’ll admit I’ve never played this game (yet) but any dangerous activity that doesn’t require physical exertion has my attention. Perhaps this is something my great-nephew and I can play on our camping trip! I started researching the topic.

Project Gutenberg

My search concluded, as it usually does when researching old fashioned fun, at Project Gutenberg. For those of you that are unaware, Project Gutenberg “offers over 59,000 free eBooks… for which U.S. copyright has expired.” Many of the books are solid gold and chuck full of fun. Back in the “old days” kids were encouraged to experiment and play with all sorts of stuff – stuff that “nowadays” adults could get in trouble for!

The pocket knife baseball game was found in a Project Gutenberg eBook titled The Boy Mechanic, Volume 1: 700 Things for Boys to Do by H. H. Windsor. Alongside the rules to play knife baseball are other “things for boys to do” such as:

  • How To Make Boomerangs
  • Glass-Cleaning Solution: water & sulphuric acid
  • Polishing Cloths for Silver: 2lb. of whiting, 1/2 oz. of oleic acid & 1 gal of gasoline
  • How to Make a (real) Cannon: utilizing hydraulic pipe
  • How to Make a Small Electric Furnace: wrap asbestos, wire and plaster-of-paris around a block of wood
  • How To Explode Black Powder with Electricity
  • Small Electrical Hydrogen Generator: make hydrogen and enjoy the “report” after placing a match nearby
  • A Homemade Acetylene-Gas Generator
  • How to Make a Box Kite
  • How to Make a Small Medical Induction Coil
  • … and 690 other things to keep a young man busy.

As you can imagine books such as this, and many others, are no longer being printed. Many books from the old days are flat out banned because of the potential dangers lurking on the pages. These books were wildly popular during their heyday and with good reason. They encouraged kids of all ages to responsibly experiment, engage their minds and hands, and have fun doing so.

I’m BORED!

It’s no wonder many kids today aren’t interested in math and sciences, they aren’t allowed to actually practice any of this stuff. Compare chemistry kits (or toys) from the old days to the ridiculous boring “safe” stuff that’s on the market today. The thrill of mixing vinegar and baking soda doesn’t last long. I studied chemistry in high school and was dumbfounded by how little “chemistry” I practiced. It’s like giving a kid a piano but not allowing them to touch it until they understand everything about how music is composed.

Stop asking why kids only want to sit on a computer – it’s the only limitless thing they have to experiment with. It’s impossible to limit what kids do online. The computer provides a dangerous and thrilling frontier for kids to tinker with unobserved.

I’m not suggesting handing kids hazardous things (the internet for instance) to let them play willy-nilly. These old books don’t condone reckless behavior either, they encourage responsible experimentation. Know it or not, kids are going to get into stuff – shouldn’t we provide information and supplies to explore responsibly?

Great-Uncle And Great-Nephew Fun

With a few months before our weekend together I still have time to decide what we’re going to do. Last night I came up with the idea of including a stop at an old fashioned county fair complete with tractor pulls, live music and livestock contests. There’ll be plenty to keep busy and my gold chain decked-out great-nephew will have droves of gams to ogle.

Camping may be involved as well. I can demonstrate how to make charcoal with wood chips in an old paint can. The charcoal, when mixed with a few (formerly readily available) ingredients, is transformed into an explosive powder. Using a simple to build apparatus we could distill wood chips into a liquid alcohol creating a spectacular burst of flames when sprayed into the campfire. Maybe we’ll start a fire with a drop of water or enjoy the challenge of using a magnesium fire starter. We’ll filter our water using the charcoal we made together.

I can teach him how to sharpen a knife using an oil stone, ruin the blade playing baseball and do it all over again. Perhaps demonstrate how to carve wood using the knife. We can stroll through the woods and I could teach my great-nephew how to identify trees by examining the leaves. We could carve our names into the bark of a beech tree with our freshly sharpened pocket knives.

In my mind the weekend plays out like a soft focus montage in a nostalgic movie. A very real possibility is that I’ll be called a “jerk” (if he respects me enough to use such a gentle word), ride silently in the car, stare blankly at a campfire, I’ll pet goats and be audience to a patriotic folk band while my great-nephew explores the fair on his own with a fistful of my moola.

No matter how the weekend plays out we’ll have fun, great-nephew’s disapproving scowl and all. The fun may not be evident during the trip but the memories – they’ll only improve with age.