"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

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Science Fair (or The Time My Dad Blew Up the Fifth Grade) – Part 3

Here it is… the “explosive” grand conclusion to my dad’s chemistry set story! 

After a week of very successful science experiments performed by eleven-year-old David Kinder, including making red ink for his teacher's fountain pen, she asked him to do one more experiment for the class on Friday and offered him an assistant.

So, David and his friend William Thomas Tawwater got to work.

David Kinder, 5th grade
I already had something in mind.  I had wanted for a long time, to make some hydrogen gas.  The instructions were right there, and I had all we needed, except for a supply of carbon… a BIG supply of carbon, so we could make an adequate supply of gas, no reason to go half measures… and I knew where to get it.  After school, William and I headed over to the old brick Interurban Station.  I knew that there was a big pile of lead-encased, used batteries piled up at the side of the old depot.  I don’t know what they were used for.  These looked like regular D-cell batteries, with no paint, just a thick lead coating, and two terminals on top.  They were about ten times as big as flashlight batteries.  We gathered up a couple and took them home, and got the pole axe and chopped them in two, and then dug out great clumps of black carbon.

Two things just occurred to me -- Austin and Caitlin, my curiosity-filled grandchildren -- so that is the only ingredient I will mention for the rest of this story.

Anyway, we got us all this old black lumpy carbon, and gathered up the “other” ingredients we needed, and took them to school with us the next day.

That day was like a field day for William Thomas and me.  We were exempt from all other studies, as we set up and prepared for the great experiment, and no need to waste a good thing, so we really took our time.  Mrs. Shaw should have excused the entire class, as all eyes were on us anyway.  We moved her desk to front center of the room, cleared it, and set up our stuff.  Mrs. Shaw asked us what experiment we were going to perform, and we told her, “Make some hydrogen gas!”  She asked if we had ever done this before, and I told her, No, but I thought I knew how… I would say, she was duly warned.
William and I set up all our necessary gear, and got ready to conduct the Big Experiment. 

We had read over the procedure the day before, and figured we had everything pretty well down in our outlaw renegade fifth grade so-called minds.  We had our water, and our carbon, and our Other Gruesome Ingredients.  Truth be known, it is probably WAY too easy to make hydrogen gas.  We had our gas line, and our Bunsen burner and coil; black rubber tubing, and heavy-duty black stoppers (which turned out to be a mistake).  We had a Pyrex beaker and a Pyrex (thank heavens!) bell jar and our measuring devices.  When Mrs. Shaw was ready for us, we began. 

We had had to move the desk back away from the class, toward the blackboard, because our gas line wouldn’t reach, so our workspace was about 6 or 8 feet away from the students at the front of each row.  That is a good thing.  Mrs. Shaw stood at the side of the room, and all our classmates kept their assigned seats, at first; but then she told the ones in the back they could move forward if they wanted to, for a better view, and about half the class leaped up and moved forward and sat on the floor between the rows of desks.

We lit our Bunsen burner, got out our manual, and began measuring and mixing, and there is no need for great detail here, except to say, that we used a LOT of materials.  We didn’t want the experiment to run short, or fizzle.  In fairly short order, we had a beaker of ‘solution’ bubbling over the fire, and we had a black stopper in the top of the cone-topped beaker, with a rubber tube running from the hole in the stopper, to our collecting flask.  This was a Pyrex jar of about a gallon size, flat on the bottom and the top, and sealed with another stopper, through which the other end of the rubber tubing protruded.  The idea was that the ‘mix’ would release hydrogen gas as it bubbled and boiled, and the gas would rise and travel through the tube to the collecting jar.  The end of the experiment would have us release a little of the gas through a petcock valve on the end of yet another tube coming out of the jar, through a second hole in the rubber stopper.  As we released a little of the hydrogen gas, we would light it off with a match, to demonstrate that we had succeeded in producing gas.  We had taken pains to make sure the rubber stoppers were tightly seated.

Things were bubbling along, and we thought all was going well, but hydrogen gas is colorless, and we had NO IDEA how much we were collecting in that gallon glass jar.  For some reason, I began to get a little worried.  Maybe Tiny and Pappy’s words of caution had come back to haunt me.  I wondered, how would we know WHEN to stop, and let off some gas?  The instructions had seemed clear yesterday, but now seemed a little vague, in the actual situation, and I began re-reading them.  Then, I reviewed the set-up, the drawings of the layout of our equipment.

Finally, I spotted it.  Our flaw in planning.  The big collection jar was supposed to be an inverted, open-ended jar, with a stopper in the top, and NO BOTTOM so that too much pressure wouldn’t build up, and cause, for instance, an EXPLOSION.  Immediately, I told William to cut off the burner, we had it wrong… but I only got about four words out, and William had not had time to comprehend, let alone react, when  B  A  M  !!!!  Make that, 
KA – BLAMMM!!!!!  
There was a great loud explosion, right there!

There was a ball of fire, and stuff flying up in the air, and stuff flying out in three directions, and William and I were shoved backward by it, and there was a thirty-something voiced scream, and everything happened all at once!  The sound, in my memory, was about like letting go with both barrels of a twelve-gauge, in that enclosed space, maybe louder!  Kids were falling backward, jumping up and running… William and I were hit in the face and on our arms and clothes with hot wet spray… and then silence.

And silence is REAL loud after something like that.

The gas had built up, creating WAY too much pressure, and it blew.  Miraculously, no one was hurt.  God must have laid everything else aside, that morning, until we had finished our scientific experiment, because we were all okay.  William and I were slightly burned, eyebrows and eyelashes singed, but not scalded.  I do not know WHY we weren’t burned, but we weren’t.  It was like a medium sunburn on our skin, that was all.  The broken glass was Pyrex, and had only broken into three pieces.  It did not ‘explode’, but the gas pressure broke it, and it had already come apart when the contained hydrogen escaped to the flame and went up.  The explosion had jarred the stopper out of the beaker that was over the fire, and the bubbling gas there had ignited, and blew the mess of carbon, water, and… other stuff… to the ceiling, making a big black spot on the ten-foot ceiling.  No one except William and me had been touched by the spray, and no one at all had been hit by the shrapnel.

In about three minutes the principal, Mr. West, ran into the room.  The blast was felt throughout the building, and it had taken him that long to run from his principal’s office to the old boiler room to see if the boiler had blown up, then hurry elsewhere, trying to find the source of the explosion to ascertain where ground zero was.  He was concerned, bewildered, vastly relieved that no one was hurt, perplexed… Mrs. Shaw and her sister quickly verified that no one was hurt, even though William and me looked like we might be.  She sent us to the restroom to wash up, and make sure we were okay.  While we were on our way down the hall to the boys’ restroom, we heard the fire truck’s siren, but by the time the volunteers arrived on the old red crash truck, someone was outside to tell them that all was okay.

For some reason, William and I went into the custodian’s room under the stairwell, where Mr. Huffhines kept his barrel of red, oiled sawdust for sweeping the floors.  I guess we wanted a second by ourselves, to calm down a bit.  We looked at each other, and I was very concerned at his appearance!  His face was mostly black with soot, and his eyebrows seemed to be missing!  His eyes were shining out from this mask, and he showed his white teeth as he went “Hee hee hee” and pointed to me.  We went on into the boys’ room, and in the mirror I could see that I looked just like him!  
William Thomas and I were a little uncomfortable, felt as if we had a moderately bad sunburn, and I could smell the singed hair where my eyebrows had formerly been, but we washed up fairly good.  I, personally, was very embarrassed for a few minutes, partly because of my scientific failure, but mostly because I had drawn undue attention from Mr. West.  He was my principal, and I didn’t want to look like a doofus to him.  We headed back to the classroom.

In the office, Mr. West and Mr. Pearce (the superintendent of schools) had thought the boiler had blown.  Some people thought that it was a sonic boom from a jet.  But there was no evacuation, no chewing out, no huge upset that I was ever aware of… And Mrs. Shaw got over the shock of the explosion, almost immediately!  There were some papers and a textbook on a table near the site of the explosion, that had sustained a little damage from the solution spraying on them, but she didn’t seem to care.  She was EXCITED!  As UNBELIEVABLE as it seems, in this day and age, everything settled right back to normal, within about thirty minutes or so.  The ceiling had to be cleaned and painted later, but by the time old William and I got back to class, the custodians had already cleaned up the room, and we were back to normal.  


We walked into the room, me red-faced (well, I guess we were both red faced, from our minor burns) and William, grinning like a jack o’-lantern and going “Huh huh huh hee hee hee” like he always did when he thought something was funny, and quickly found we were HEROES!  Everybody was staring open-mouthed and in a worshipful manner, even old Glenn Williams, who’d called me the teacher’s pet!  

Just as soon as we walked in the door, Mrs. Shaw scooped us up and took us back out in the hall.  (UH-oh, here it comes…)  But she said not ONE WORD of reproach, not then, not ever.  No, ‘My goodness, you could have been killed!’  No, ‘It’s just a miracle that no one was hurt!”  Not a single ‘WHAT were you boys THINKing?!’  No, she 
 apparently thought it was great, and she and her sister had already had their heads together and talked it over, and she wanted to know if we could do it AGAIN, just “not quite so much so” for Miss Rountree’s class!  

By then, I am sure that every teacher in school knew all about what had happened, but the students didn’t, except in our class.  And they wanted me and William to go to Miss Rountree’s room, and set it all up again, and repeat the procedure, explosion and all, but on a much smaller scale!  Immediately, all my embarrassment vanished.  Here, was approval!  Here, was TRIUMPH!  GLORY, in its purest, most unadulterated form!

Some items had been lost in the explosion, but we had enough gear to repeat on a very small scale, and we set up.  We only used a fraction of the original ingredients, and trapped the gas in a medium sized test tube.  That was the only thing we had a stopper to fit.  We went to the other class, and took over Miss Rountree’s desk, and started the procedure.  Then we stopped, and said, ‘Maybe you all ought to move back a little’, and there was a short silence, and then a mass exodus to the back of the room!  Maybe they didn’t KNOW exactly what had gone on in the other room, but they had FELT it!  And there wasn’t anything wrong with their hearing…

We started it up, with a VERY small flame on the Bunsen, and trapped just a SMALL amount of the gas, and we had the stopper just barely in the top of the test tube, so that in about two minutes, simple gas pressure popped the stopper.  Even then, the invisible gas reached the lit Bunsen, and there was a fairly loud “WHOOSH” as it went up in a small ball of flame, and the black rubber stopper hit the white ceiling with sufficient force to leave a black mark.  The class was thrilled.

That afternoon after school, William Thomas and me packed up what was left of our apparatus, and carried it home. 

The heroes ride off into the sunset...

Regardless of how all this sounds, I remained painfully shy, most of the time, around most people.  And I knew nothing of the reputation, and notoriety I had gained, until DECADES later.

Our fortieth class reunion was just a small affair.  Charles Campbell, one of my classmates, had invited to his house as many of us ‘old-timers’ who had started first grade together as he could round up.  There were about 25 classmates in attendance, and almost all of us had been together in fifth grade.  Jackie Stenner was there, as was William Tawwater.  I had seen neither, in all the reunions before.  Jackie found out that I did not have a class picture from fifth grade.  The picture was taken when I was out with the pneumonia, and we never got one that year.  Jackie very graciously had his copied, and sent it to me. 

David's Fifth Grade Class - 1953
William T. Tawwater - bottom left corner, Mrs. Shaw - top center
The Infamous David Kinder - not pictured
William laughed and talked and “Hee hee hee’d” all night.  We all got to reminiscing about fifth grade, and the great explosion came up, of course, and William and I got a double earful from everybody who had been present.  Several of the girls said they thought that was the coolest thing they had ever seen.  Sue Hardin said she IMMEDIATELY wanted her own chemistry set, but her parents wouldn’t hear of it, as they HAD heard all about what happened that day in class.  Nia said she got a crush on me that day that lasted for years.  (I never knew it; she was about as shy as I was…)  She said that her mother was always saying, “Why don’t you play with that David Kinder, he’s a real nice boy?” but that her mother insisted that I come to HER house.  Nia wasn’t allowed to come to our house, because her mother was worried that we would get out the chemistry set and blow something up! 

That was in the year 2000, and I never knew any of that, until then.

And I have never again attempted to produce any hydrogen gas.


  1. Hydrogen gas, eh....? Lemme go find me a chemical set!

  2. Hello,

    Your black and white cartoon image of a chemical explosion is really nice, and I am wondering if you would give permission for the chemistry club at my college to use it as a design on a t-shirt. Could you please let me know by replying to this comment?


  3. Actually, I don't own that image. I believe I found it on another blog site and (unfortunately) did not credit it. So I can't give permission.