"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

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Nature of Things

Though the title of this blog is The Black Cat Diaries, and there is in fact a rather persnickety black cat named Gink who resides here, there are several other furry creatures that live in our home as well, and one of them is a yellow dog named Uno.

So this is mainly an Uno story.

I have a small, old pillow that I wanted to throw away.  It was a homemade gift from a student a few years ago.  (Don't think me heartless—  This thing has been sat upon and laid upon and who-knows-what upon by teenagers for years.  It is old and dirty and smelly, and its time has come.  However, I did bring it home from school to dispose of because I didn’t want my current students to see me throw away a gift.) 

Instead of tossing it in the trash, I decided to give it to Uno to shred.  Uno’s a year and four months old now and he has gone through his share of toys.  There are a few “tough” ones out there that last a LITTLE longer (these Durable Dragons have been the best we’ve seen) but in general Uno reduces stuffed animals and plush toys to a pile of fluff in less than half an hour.  So I thought it would be a fun ten minutes for him to tear apart this pillow and I was willing to clean up the mess.  It already has a small hole in the side for “easy access”.

Well that backfired because Uno LOVES the pillow.  I gave it to him yesterday and it is still completely whole.  He carried it to his bed and is actually using it as a pillow.  Every time I walk by he hugs it and glares at me, as if to say, “I can’t BELIEVE you wanted me to DESTROY this wonderful thing!”

Sigh.  I guess I’ll be hanging on to the nasty pillow a little longer.

"Thank you for my pillow, Mom."

Hmm, maybe eventually I will learn my lesson.  When you try to “let nature take its course” it doesn’t always work out the way you think it will.  About twelve years ago, I decided to deal with a mouse situation “naturally” by letting Gink take care of it instead of using a trap.  He was young and spry then and, though inexperienced, I thought fully capable of taking care of business.  Another backfire.  That experiment ended with the mouse quite literally running over my ferocious black cat.  Twice.  

Gink was not available for comment.

ADDENDUM:  7/25/12

Uno is not so sentimental after all.  The love for the pillow only lasted three days.

Wait... this belonged to TEENAGERS?!?!

I'm on it!

That was exhausting... But it had to be done.

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.

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.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Science Fair (or The Time My Dad Blew Up the Fifth Grade) – Part 1

When I was in school, we had the Science Fair every year, and that meant every year going through the process of choosing a topic, doing the experiment, writing up the reports, making the tri-fold posterboard of impressive pictures and colorful charts, and presenting to the class. 

In elementary school, I got a lot of help from my parents on this.  Probably too much help to be honest, but it was fun and I did learn a lot.  We worked together to grow sugar crystals in jars (that was fourth grade), study static electricity in fifth grade, and then in sixth grade to test the effectiveness of various brands of toothpaste on stains.  To do this, we made several plaster molds and stained them with coffee, tea, juice, etc.   Then we brushed them using the various brands of toothpastes to see which one worked the best.  Pretty cool.  (Sorry, I cannot remember who was the winner just now.  I’ll get back to you.)

In middle school, I lost interest in the scientific process, my parents stopped helping so much, and my experiments became much less controlled and much less interesting.  In the seventh grade, I “tested” which type of birdseed the birds in our yard preferred, though I really don’t remember how I even pretended to have gathered usable data on that one.  And then in eighth grade, riding that laziness as long as I could, I basically did the exact same project again determining which type of cat food our outdoor cats preferred.  Since they would eat just about anything, I assume there was a lot of fudging of numbers there.  At this point it was obvious I would never be a scientist.

Then, in the ninth grade, we were suddenly allowed to work on our projects in pairs.  (I know now, from my own teaching experience, that Ms. Mitchell probably realized that if she let us work with our friends, we would be happy and she would have half the projects to grade.  It’s a smart plan.) I partnered up with my friend Michele (who did later end up in a scientific field by the way) and she suggested we do our project on RADON. 

Radon (in case you don’t know) is a chemical element.  This noble gas, which is radioactive, colorless, odorless, and tasteless, occurs naturally as the decay product of uranium or thorium and is one of the densest substances that remains a gas.  Radon is considered a health hazard and is responsible for the majority of the public exposure to ionizing radiation.  I know all that because I just googled it.  Trust me, I did not remember it from the ninth grade.  Instead, I poorly paraphrased Wikipedia. There’s a lot more, but I got bored after the first two paragraphs.

The truth is, I don’t know really what radon is and I never did.  Michele had heard about it somewhere and it sounded interesting and smart and we decided to choose it for our topic.  The amount of actual learning that occurred (on my part anyway) was like negative two.  Yeah, I am pretty sure that I memorized a couple of incorrect pieces of information about radon during the process, thus lessening my understanding of the subject.  Go me.

Michele was gung-ho though, and I followed her lead.  We were both good students, excellent students actually, girls who did all their homework and made A’s easily and worked hard.  Leaders in the classroom.  Academic role models.  So, that’s probably why our teacher didn’t catch on to the fact that our project stunk—she left us alone and trusted us to do good work while she helped the strugglers.  (Again, as a teacher, I’ve been there.)

So, unsupervised and unadvised, Michele and I decided that our scientific inquiry would be:  Does population affect the amount of radon found in houses?  (Whatever your thoughts on that, hold your horses.)  And our experiment would consist of this:  We would buy six radon detector kits (which couldn’t have been cheap—a quick search just brought up some that were $15 each) and we would send them to six different homes, three in large cities and three in small towns, and compare the results.  I think our hypothesis was that larger cities would have more radon than small towns and I am sure that we furrowed our brows and nodded at this a lot.

I’ll spare you the boring details.  None of the houses contained radon.  Or at least, four of them for sure did not.  We never even received two of the tests back.  (I think we sent them to distant relatives and other disinterested subjects.  These were the days before email and free long distance calling, so it was much harder back then to pester people into sending you their radon levels.)  

Although the absence of radon should have been good news for our friends and family, we were disappointed.  In conclusion, our results were inconclusive.   However, that did not stop us—none of the aforementioned absurdity stopped us—from winning second place in the school science fair.  That’s right.  I’ve got a certificate somewhere to prove it.

You see, the thing was… there were only three projects entered that year in the field of environmental chemistry… and the third one must have been pretty bad.  I’m sure the judges felt just as awkward handing over that prize ribbon as we did receiving it.  To this day, Michele and I still laugh over the ridiculousness of our project and our prestigious ranking.  We both remember clearly the judge at the fair asking us, after hearing our explanation of our graphs and findings, “So… what made you think that population would have anything to do with radon levels?”  I think I let Michele fake and blush her way through that embarrassing answer. 

The radon farce was my final appearance at the science fair, which is probably for the best.  In high school, I took Anatomy, where Michele and I partnered up once again to dissect a cat (something I handled very well since once you get the skin off it really doesn’t look like a cat) and then AP Chemistry, where I relied on my friend Bruce to get me through the labs and equations.  (Coincidentally, Bruce spent most of his “free” time in class placing the six-inch metal rulers on the hot plates until they became malleable enough to stretch a millimeter or two before tossing them back in the drawer.  Yeah.  If you failed your Chemistry lab final at Richardson High School after the year 1995 and don’t know why, maybe now you do. )

Between antics my prankster friend helped me come to the right conclusions in my experiments and stay “PH-balanced”.  (There you go Bruce, there’s a little inside joke for you since I ratted you out about the rulers.)  I won’t go into the silly “PH-balanced” reference here, but it has to do with a guest teacher we had when our regular teacher was out on maternity leave.  This guy was very enthusiastic about his life choices and he told us that if we were not devoting our careers to science, we were wasting our lives.  Since I had already decided to be either an English teacher or a writer, he lost all my respect in that moment.  Enter Bruce.  He could listen to this freak, stretch rulers, and help me with my homework all at the same time.  And his ability to multi-task got me through AP Chemistry.

But none of these stories, as entertaining or as shocking as they may be, can compare to my dad’s science fair experiences.  Because, back in 1953, good ol’ Dad blew up the fifth grade.

(To be continued…)