Monday, April 14, 2008

The Chemistry Set, or Too Late I Think of Consequence

I don’t know what Mr. Lovely was thinking the recess he left Barbara Hyde and me alone in our classroom with an unlocked chemistry set. It was newly purchased and so enticing, a little suitcase filled with glass vials of elements to be explored. I am sure Mr. Lovely had intended to have us perform scientific experiments with the contents under supervised study. He probably imagined our eager little minds intrigued with testing to see if a substance were an acid or a base, a classroom full of engaged, hormonal 7th and 8th graders. He never banked on how powerful an urge is curiosity; how it overcomes reason in a young brain as yet unfettered by consequence.
Barbara and I read over the contents, which while interesting, were mostly unknown to us since we’d had no instruction in their usage so far. That might have been a good thing since sulpher was in one of the vials and we could have made stink bombs had we known. As it was, thanks to me, what we did was awesome and scary enough. I recognized the contents of two vials as we read: nitrogen and glycerin. Something sparked. Ah, yes, thanks to TV and its depiction of building railroads in Westerns, I knew things were blown up with nitro-glycerin. I didn’t know the exact recipe, which can no doubt be found today on the internet, but this was waaaay before personal computers. I reasoned that maybe if we combined some of that nitrogen with some glycerin, we could make some home-grown dynamite. I think it’s safe to ask what was I thinking.
My mad scientist buddy agreed this experiment was one worth doing, and so we poured, sloshed, jiggled and combined and there was our result. Now the frightening reality hit us. What were we going to do with it? If it really was dynamite, we couldn’t just throw it anywhere because it would explode—us, for sure, maybe the school and everyone in it. This was when Barbara got really angry with me and started yelling. That brought Mr. Lovely back from the teachers’ break room with its cigarette haze and day-long burnt coffee stench.
We had to tell what we’d done. I did not volunteer it was first my idea because I didn’t think I’d get any gold stars for brillance in this case. Besides, I didn’t want a whipping either. I swear that a look of fear passed over his face when he heard what ingredients were in our concoction, but maybe that was projection? Surely he had enough of a science background to know what we’d done was harmless? Surely he realized the makers of the chemistry set would never include ingredients that could kill schoolchildren? I’ll never know because he looked panicked to us.
He took the vial, slowly and carefully, as if it were the deadly substance, from my hands. “I am going to throw this down the sink,” he said. “You look out there on the playground,” and he pointed to a specific place. “That’s the septic tank. If you made dynamite, the whole place will blow up and you will be in more trouble than you can even imagine.” Not to mention, dead.
His footsteps faded and our heads turned toward the septic tank. Time stopped and our short lives with it. Images of what could be gushed through our brain. Silence reigned except for kids on the playground shouting and laughing.
Nothing happened. When it became clear nothing would happen, we breathed again. Barbara started yelling at me. “I hate you now and I always will.” She remained true to her word, too, for the rest of our school career together.
We were punished by having to stay in for a number of recesses, her glaring at me and making nasty comments, the chemistry set safely locked away somewhere for the rest of the year.
That Mr. Lovely hadn’t made the kids get off the playground or emptied out the school should have been a clue to us that our dynamite really wasn’t. That he just threw it down the sink should have been another. That we hadn’t already blown ourselves up with all that jiggling and fumbling, another. Because, really, had it been real, he wouldn’t have made all those bad decisions, would he?
Mr. Lovely died quite early and I hope our experiment had nothing to do with that. I don’t know what happened to Barbara after high school. Myself? I never did take a chemistry class.

1 comment:

Steve in Paris said...

KK, a charming story. But, my dear, nitrogen is a gas. In fact, it comprises most of the air that you breathe. I'm sure that you mixed glycerin with nitrous (or nitric) something, but I can't imagine what. Even though you never took a chemistry class (and it shows) your fans love you anyway.