"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Friday, July 20, 2012

Science Fair (or The Time My Dad Blew Up the Fifth Grade) – Part 2

My dad, David Kinder,
with his coon skin cap and Bowie knife

Things were different when my dad was a kid.  

When he was in the fifth grade in 1953 in Richardson, Texas, his class once took a field trip, by foot, to a farm a few miles away.  They were pretending to be a wagon train, pulling little red “covered” wagons full of their supplies.   Since they were allowed to dress up as pioneers, the kids carried pitch forks, cap guns, knives, and (some of them) real rifles as they traipsed across town with their teacher.

Things were just different. That’s really all there is to it. 

This is my dad’s story of his fifth grade year, including the time he brought his chemistry set to school and became infamous at the age of eleven.


When I was about eight years old, I got to wanting a chemistry set (chemical set, as I always used to call them).  I was very interested in mixing things up, and creating my own version of Gruesome Ingredients.  I was also fairly interested in making gunpowder, like Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger would occasionally have to do in my funny books; but I didn’t stress that part to my parents (Tiny and Pappy) when making my request.  Neither Bailey’s Variety, nor Mr. and Mrs. R.L. Johnson’s Richardson Hardware Store carried anything like that, not even at Christmastime.  But you could find a Gilbert Chemistry Set at the big Sears and Roebuck store on Ross Avenue in Dallas, usually around Christmas, and since my birthday is December 6
th, they were available, and I got my heart’s wish for my birthday present that year!

It was the smaller set, that came in a cardboard box of about the size that a Monopoly set comes in, and didn’t have too much apparatus, and only a few brown bottles of chemicals; but that was all right, I was thrilled to have it!  I used it (probably not proper OR correct to say that I “played” with it) a LOT, and in the course of a few months, I had pretty much gone through it.  I tried just about all the experiments laid out in my manual, and used up most all of my chemicals, and quite a bit of household ingredients, such as vinegar, and borax, that were called for but not supplied in my set. 

And I don’t know if Tiny and Pappy knew it, but I tried a few of the recipes and concoctions mentioned in Pappy’s book of chemistry, too…the big thick red-jacketed volume that he kept on his bookshelf, that got into all manner of interesting concoctions.  Gunpowder, for one…

Anyway, after a few months, about all that was left of my first set, was the box, some empty brown glass bottles, and a couple of pieces of equipment that hadn’t burned up, or broken when dropped because they were hot, or mysteriously corroded and crumbled away, even though they had started out as metal.  So for Christmas when I was ten years old, I begged for a new, BIGGER chemical set.  They knew how much I had enjoyed the other one and nothing had (at that point) ever exploded, there had been no serious injuries, and the smell of burnt sulphur DOES go away… eventually…

So under the Christmas tree that year, was a rectangular present that turned out to be the BIG Gilbert Chemistry Set, the advanced one, in the hinged blue case, full of metal tip-out racks of exotic chemicals, and pipettes, and test tubes, and a flask; tubing, black rubber stoppers (some with a hole through them); tweezers, measuring spoons… just EVERYthing!  Except one little brown bottle, that was supposed to contain Nickel, only had a paper note inside, saying that Nickel was not available at that time.  ???  The Korean War was brewing, I don’t know…?  Anyway, I was ecstatic, and right away I plunged into bigger, more elaborate, more complicated, and DARKER experiments and mixtures!  (Several of them were, of necessity, SECRET experiments…)

I learned a lot, with those chemistry sets.  And I was fairly careful, and was almost always alone in my endeavors, so not putting anyone else… usually… at risk.  I did have a few mishaps.  Sometimes things would go boiling up, or foam out of control, when they weren’t really supposed to, and certainly when I wasn’t expecting it.  Several pieces of clothing got ruined, either by staining, or by burning, or by being eaten through by some experiment spilled or gone wrong.  I got burned on the fingers or hand, often.  And I had glass break, right in my hands, when I would substitute ordinary glass jars or bottles for the Pyrex ones that came with the set, but had already been cracked or scorched or broken.  So there were a couple of minor cuts.  Nothing serious.  Mostly, the occasional noxious smell.

We had two fifth grade classes that year, taught by sisters, Miss Rountree and Mrs. Shaw.  They were both large women and fairly attractive, when I see their pictures in my old yearbook.  They were probably about thirty-five and forty years old.  They were both new to Richardson the year I was in fifth grade, and became very popular teachers.  Mrs. Shaw (the older of the two) was a widow, maybe a war widow, I don’t recall for sure.  I was in her class.

Fifth grade was the year that almost all homework, except math and art, had to be done in ink.  Those were fountain pen and ink years, no ball point pens allowed.  It was the year we studied each of the forty-eight states in great detail, drawing elaborate maps of each one.  (Most kids drew all their states about the same size, pretty well taking up the full sheet of paper, regardless of whether it was Rhode Island, or California.  But I insisted on drawing mine all to scale.  Thus, Texas took up about half a sheet of paper, and Colorado was about 2 ½ inches by 3 inches, and Rhode Island and Connecticut were teeny.  Mrs. Shaw told me I could use as much room as I needed, but I wouldn’t do it any other way.)  It was the year that we did art in watercolor, and I fell in love with watercolors, right there.  Priscilla Waters and my buddy Donnie Skiles were the first kids I knew that ‘dated’, and they were a couple.  It was the year I had (serious) pneumonia for the first time.  It was also the year that I had to fight Larry Lester several times at recess, because we had gone from “best friend” status in fourth grade, to “mortal enemies” in fifth, and I never knew why.

We had a spelling bee in class several times that year, and I always won it.  Then one day, there was a “prize” to be awarded to the winner, and we were all excited.  I won the bee, as usual, and the prize turned out to be, that Mrs. Shaw said I could KISS the girl of my choice in our class!!!  WHAT???  What kind of a deal was THAT???  I thought there was supposed to be a PRIZE!?  Looking back, I think it was a set-up job.  Mrs. Shaw knew I always won those spelling bees and she and my mother were pretty good friends.  Anyway, I didn’t know what to do!  There was NO WAY I was going to kiss ANY girl in that class right about then!  Even though I was sweet on one or two of them, in secret, of course. 

I stood there, stunned and speechless, and I could feel my face turn SCARLET red, and I wished I was ANYwhere else.  Mrs. Shaw said, “Come on, David, you won, you have to do it…” and EVERYBODY was hooting and hollering and laughing… I was trapped, so I thought fast.  I got up and walked up to Mrs. Shaw’s desk, took her right hand, and barely kissed the top of it, and then, humiliated, walked back to my desk and sat down amid much laughing and cheering.  Mrs. Shaw just sat there, still holding her hand out, and still smiling, but now SHE was blushing, too, and I think it pretty much backfired on her.  That was the last time she did anything like that to me, or anyone else.  And I finally got over it, about the end of my senior year…

Actually, except for that one instance, I really liked Mrs. Shaw.  We all thought she was nice, and pretty, and we all thought that those two sisters were PROGRESSIVE (wherever we heard that), and they were always coming up with something new. 

Mrs. Shaw frequently encouraged us students in whatever activities we did for fun, and when she found out that I had a chemical set, she insisted that I bring it to school, and do some experiments for the class for what we (at that point) didn’t yet call “show-and-tell”.  I was overjoyed!  My experiments were now OFFICIALLY SANCTIONED!  NOW, maybe I could get something DONE!  Tiny and Pappy asked me several times, if I had permission to take my chemistry set to school, and cautioned me SEVERAL times, to be careful doing whatever I was going to do…

The day after I brought all my gear in, Mrs. Shaw cleared most of the top of her teacher’s desk, and allowed me to set up, and granted about an hour of the class to me.  Normally very shy, and horrified at being in front of the class, I was now TOTALLY unaware of the rest of the students, completely absorbed in what I was doing, and sublimely confident of the future outcome.  Without any of my normal self-consciousness whatsoever, I began my scientific lab work.

I don’t remember what I did, but I conducted two fairly simple experiments, that I had already tried out at home, and got good results, no big surprises (which was often apt to happen to me, as I sometimes “adjusted’ amounts of chemicals, or added extra ingredients on the spur of the moment).  But on these trials, I played it safe.  Mrs. Shaw frequently had to remind me to “say something”, talk to the class, let them know what I was doing.  I was mostly too absorbed, and was completely unaware of my classmates, but gradually I got to where I would briefly describe what I was up to, Mrs. Shaw constantly telling me to “speak up”.

As I said, things went well.  Blue litmus paper magically turned red; clear liquids weremixed in a test tube, and then an invisible cloud of scent, maybe ripe bananas, would drift across the room.  I was “oohed” and “aahed” in awe, especially by some of the girls.

I kept my set there for a few days, and one day Mrs. Shaw frowned and said something like, “Drat, I’m out of ink!”  We all used ink in most of our subjects that year, and we all kept our bottles of ‘washable blue’ in our desks.  She also used red in a separate fountain pen, to grade with, and she had run out.

In an instant, I shot my hand up in the air, and told her I could MAKE her some red ink!  (I had seen this experiment somewhere in my lab book, but I had never tried it.) She was surprised, and pleased, and told me to come on up and get started!  I cleared off an area of her desk, and set up my gas line and Bunsen burner, and pored over my manual, to see what was required.  I had all the chemicals I needed, and I began measuring and mixing away, and adding water, and then boiled my concoction over the Bunsen burner.  I had never tried this, and it was going to go into a fairly expensive fountain pen, belonging to my teacher, but like my son Pat (who had never taken archery before but signed up for the ADVANCED class at UT because “how hard could it be?”) I was supremely confident.

And it turned out!  In about a half hour, I had her a sufficient supply of red ink, to fill her pen and her empty bottle!  And just for the record, it did not dissolve the innards of her pen, nor the paper she marked on, nor her ink bottle, nor her hand!  It was a complete success!  And then she, and everyone else (except maybe Larry Lester, my mortal enemy, and Glenn Williams, the boy who called me the teacher’s pet) was convinced that I was a child prodigy, and an absolute chemistry genius!

At least I was pretty convinced…

So Mrs. Shaw suggested that I plan and conduct one more experiment the next day (a Friday) before I took my laboratory back home.  She said I could pick anything I wanted to, and we would do it the next day.  Then she asked me if I would like an assistant, and asked the class if anyone else had a chemistry set?  And old William Thomas Tawwater’s hand just SHOT up!

William had been one of my friends since we had met in first grade.  He was not as tall as me, but may have been even skinnier, and he had a mop of really red hair.  He had a slim face, and was ALWAYS grinning, and he laughed his evil little “Hee hee hee” frequently.  William Thomas was a good kid, from a big family, but he was always into something, and he had already gained fame, or maybe infamy, from a fourth grade assignment the year before.  Mrs. Churchwell had assigned us to think up the title of a book that we might someday write.  William Thomas’ choice was “Flowing Yellow Rivers, by William T.T.”  =)  I personally thought it was destined to become one of the classics…

William said that he used to have a chemistry set, and I really liked old William, and so we got together at recess and plotted what we would do.

(To be concluded…)

(And yes, I know what you are all waiting for and, trust me, you will get it in part 3.)

Thanks to Dad for sending these pictures of me and my science projects.  
I had completely forgotten about the wooden display board he made for us.  :)
Left is fourth grade and sugar crystals.  Right is fifth grade and toothpaste.
(I do not know why I am holding a hammer.)

And sixth grade was static electricity.  
Hmm... static electricity... that must be why I have all those ribbons stuck to my shirt.

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