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Chemistry Kid

by Mark A. Rice

Copyright 2017 Mark A. Rice

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It is not apparent that everyone is born with a particular calling in life, but I definitely feel that in my case there is no doubt I was preordained to follow a certain path. My earliest memories are those of having an intense curiosity of the world around me. Even though the culture in which I lived was small, I needed to see beyond the curtains that everyday life placed in front of me, and I had wonderment for everything, even that which wasn’t obvious. Those were the days of the NASA moon missions, and I can still remember talking with my father about what it meant to have a universe that was to a child infinitely large. I recall trying to comprehend traveling through the unbelievable large space surrounding our puny planet even when a trip to the local city seemed like a significant journey.

This innate curiosity led me to what were probably natural pursuits for someone with my inquisitiveness, those of experimentation and exploration. My first noteworthy expedition at around age five was to the top of a hill near our house; known to the townsfolk as the “hill climb”. Some local dirt bike enthusiasts had clear cut a vertical swath along a hillside and they had competitions to see what cyclist could summit that steep incline. That dirt patch was my Mt. Everest and I pestered my father relentlessly to help me climb to the top. We did, and I still can see the tan colored dirt under my feet while grasping loose roots for support on that hot summer day. I was euphoric as we ascended; looking downward and observing the tops of trees that were now below us, feeling as if I were in another existence. It is interesting that something so common to most can be so enlightening to someone when they have never done it before.

These explorations became more scientific and brazen. After one excursion, I returned home and made a map of what I had encountered. I still have that map today, and I’m amazed at how detailed it had been considering I was only about ten years old. Next, during a regular car ride through the countryside, I had an idea that a town we passed through could be reached if I started from our house and walked in a particular direction. I grabbed my father’s hunting compass, set a dead reckoning heading, and started walking through the woods. I was somewhat lucky that by chance I had chosen a path that would later become a water line from a local reservoir, so my heading coincided with markers on trees that the surveyors had posted. I eventually crossed a small road that I remembered, by then tired and unsure of my position, and so decided to hitchhike home. It was only years later with the aid of a topographical map that I discovered I was only a mile from my final destination, and basically on course. Thinking back on this, it is disturbing to ponder of all the things that could have gone seriously wrong.

My experimental side was no less enthusiastic, and these activities were helped by the fact that two of my relatives had chemistry backgrounds. One was a chemistry teacher, and the other, my mother, had chemistry for her nursing training. She fascinated me by explaining that you could take the dangerously reactive metal sodium, combine it with the lethally toxic gas chlorine, and produce a molecule essential for human life; salt. My experimentation sometimes led to adverse results and the scrutiny of others, with one bad experiment causing the loss of an entire two-gallon container of olive oil in my mother’s kitchen. That one cost me a one week grounding.

In another instance, the combination of exploration and experimentation culminated in a rather unusual situation. The origin eludes me, but somewhere I had encountered a discussion about a chemical reaction whereby urea combined with silicon at high temperatures would phosphoresce. To this day I cannot find any similar reference, so I perhaps misunderstood the reaction, and even if it were true, it was unlikely that it could be duplicated with my humble experimental abilities. Even so, I’m sure that no one could have convinced me not to try this experiment because anything that glowed in the dark just had to be investigated. My research in an encyclopedia revealed that silicon was the main element in sand. Well, I knew where to find sand, but again, I didn’t realize that sand is a molecule containing silicon, not the actual pure element. Even if you had told me this fact, I still was compelled to continue. Urea was more elusive, so I asked my mother. I couldn’t have picked a better source because as a nurse, she knew urea was in urine. So, the wheels started turning and I began contemplating mixing sand and pee in a fire to make a substance that could be seen in complete darkness. It doesn’t get any better to a curious kid. Thankfully I promptly eliminated our kitchen oven as a heat source.

There were other boys in the neighborhood that accompanied me on forays into the local wilderness. These were trips in part designed to satisfy our imagination, with us pretending to be historic explorers or on brave military missions. We aided our sense of toughness by the constructive practice of using curse words. Yes, we did kiss our mothers with those mouths. We were further emboldened by the recreational use of fire. On one excursion I was with two guys whose names shall remain withheld in order to protect the innocent. For now let's just call them Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh.

There we were, standing around the fire, unleashing expletives, and pretending to be brave warriors. Harry went off to forage for more firewood and I began to explain to Robert the experiment I had conjured. Robert was overwhelmingly enthusiastic about trying to produce phosphorescent materials. We needed a containment vessel for the experiment, and the first choice was the Faygo soda bottle that Harry used as a water container on our trips. Harry had a Linus and the blanket like attachment to that bottle.

Robert and I hastily found what we thought was sand, more likely really just tan dirt, and put some in the bottle. We then proceeded to fill the bottle with a diluted aqueous solution of urea as only a male human can do accurately. The experimental crucible was then placed in the inferno of our making. What we didn't realize is that when cheap glass that has relatively cool fluid on one side comes in contact with a high temperature, the thermal shock is beyond the ability of the lesser grade material to withstand the mechanical stresses. Put bluntly, it shatters immediately. Well, most people never experience the odor of burning pee, and it is for the best because it is one of the most awful smells one will ever encounter. Harry soon returned, got one whiff of our work and said "What the &%$# did you guys do?"

In the process of Robert trying to explain, Harry saw the charred remains of his beloved Faygo bottle and immediately entered into a serious conniption. A verbal argument ensued between Robert and Harry, and rapidly escalated into a fist fight. Robert was older than Harry, and therefore larger and stronger, so it wasn't long before Robert began to dominate the fight. Harry, now sensing the futility of his situation, made a hasty retreat down the hill. In the valley there was a large stream that they had built a makeshift bridge out of old boards to cross over into the badlands. Harry flew across that bridge, and in what is reminiscent of a TV action chase scene, flipped the boards over into the stream. Robert, now in hot pursuit, was so determined to continue the chase that he simply jumped into the cold, polluted water to cross. The last thing I saw was Harry running up the other hill with a drenched Robert close behind screaming threats and obscenities.

I was lucky since I lived on that side of the valley, so I need not cross the stream to go home. Off I went, dry but discouraged with my failed experiment. My path in life didn't quite satisfy my calling, but it is memories such as these that still beckon me and make me think that I still need to try another course. How I long for that sense of wonderment.


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