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Danny Struckman: Boy Scientist

April 6, 2016

Another science experimentHere, in the third grade, I am exploring the flammability of flatulent emanations.

I owe a lot to my third grade teacher, Mrs. Ruth Olson.  No, she wasn’t my favorite teacher.   No, she was the most destructive.  I also didn’t like her.  That says a lot, because in the third grade I still loved school and I loved just about every teacher at Washington School in Missoula.  Mrs. Olson wasn’t just insane, she labeled me a genius.  She also spanked me.  Both actions were cruelly unjust.

My third grade classI had performed several experiments on this photograph of Mrs. Olson’s class.


In the first instance, Mrs. Olson enrolled me in a study for the School of Education at the university to try an accelerated elementary program to take the fourth through sixth grades in two years.  This messed me up.  I shit my pants and smelled bad.

In the second instance, she caught me copying the answers on an arithmetic quiz.  I had been in a hurry so I could go home and eat lunch.  I did eat lunch, but I went home sobbing and sore.  She spanked me really hard.

But that’s not why I blame her because I nearly burned down the house.

Now, I’m thinking burning houses down isn’t that rare a thing for a kid to do.  This story gets hashed and rehashed.

It always comes back to the same larger tale, that of my maternal uncle whom I never met.  I never met him because he died about four years before I was born, yet evidence of his life has been popping up periodically even until now and I’m 67 years old now.  The latest evidence appeared just two days ago.

I could blame the burning of my house on my uncle Carl Ralph Bonde, Jr. because I got the fire going thanks to some things that had once belonged to him.  Sure.

Carl grew up in Kalispell.

My grandparents lived in Kalispell.  That’s where uncle Carl grew up.  That’s where I borrowed a great big black electric motor that had probably once powered a washing machine.  Uncle Carl had used it with a pulley to power a bench grinder for sharpening tools.  It had been in their long garage up on the hill where the Bonde family lived.  It was one of those orchards with a big garden.  They had maybe, oh, two dozen fruit trees.  They had several acres they rented out to a woman named Marion who had a few horses.  She kept her saddles and stuff in grandpa’s barn.  You get the picture, I hope.

Anyway, the thing about my grandparent’s place was its size:  five acres had plenty of room for old rusting stoves and old motors and a shop.  Several shops, really.  Grandpa drank beer down in the barn where Marion kept her saddles.  Pete Rigg often visited grandpa there to have a nip of “County Fair Whiskey” or two off grandpa’s bottle and to smoke a cigar or two, or perhaps dip some snuff.  Drink a beer.  I knew all about that, even though nobody told me.  I was pretty much everywhere when I visited or stayed with my grandparents.

I got the old motor off the workbench in the long garage with an adjustable wrench and lots of work.  I was in the third grade!  I lugged it out to my mom’s Oldsmobile and put it in the trunk without telling anybody.  I knew, of course, that grandpa would discover that the motor was gone.  Or not.  He had emphysema really bad, so he didn’t make unnecessary trips into the long garage.

Grandpa accused me of kissing the girl.

He did go fishing, though, and he eventually did find the motor missing.  He suspected me!  He didn’t accuse me directly.  At Christmas he accused me of kissing the girl across the road.  A false accusation.  He must have been thinking of one of my cousins, instead.  Probably Mike.  He was the cute one.  I didn’t react.  Then he accused me of taking the motor by starting, “You know, Danny, it’s a good idea to leave other people’s things alone.”

Of course I denied everything, tearfully, with dramatic force.  He didn’t even know about the fire.

The fire might not have happened if it hadn’t been for Mrs. Olson, who told my mother that I was a genius.  I may have been a genius before getting hit several times on the head, but I certainly wasn’t a genius when I nearly burned down our house.

Motors are mysterious to many, but I had confidence in my knowledge.  I knew about electricity because I had gone to show and tell at school and told all the kids how I would wire the motor.  My teacher didn’t contradict me, so I knew I was right.

Only I wasn’t.  And one day, when the weather was cold and I stayed home because I wasn’t ready to give my report on “Norway’s natural resources,” I sought to give the motor a trial run.  The motor had no wires because I had unscrewed the terminals when I took the motor from my grandpa’s workbench.  How I loved motors!

I was good at science.

I was good at science.  Even when I was four years old I played with my brother’s Erector Set motor.  That’s when I learned that it didn’t matter which way I plugged it in, it still ran.  Another thing:  both prongs, or just either one, could give me a shock bad enough to make me cry every time.  I tried again and again, touching the top prong, then the bottom, and every time I got the same painful result.  Pure science.  I came to the conclusion that the two slots in the plug in were about equal.  In those days the slots were the same size and there was no third, grounding plug hole.

The lessons I learned from that and my other experiments gave me the solid confidence I needed to wire the big electric motor.  On my day off from school.  I got the day off by playing sick.  My friend Mike across the alley and I sometimes played sick on the same day so we could do experiments with our bodies.  Those experiments almost always involved burning things.  But that’s a story for another time.

The day I stayed home I started by playing sick in bed.  Once mother’s car was out of the driveway I leaped out of bed and lugged the motor to the middle of my floor.  I remember the floor was varnished pine and I had a small hooked rug near my bed.  My clothes were scattered all around and I worked away in my pajamas.  I did most of my experiments in my pajamas.

I needed a wire.

I needed a wire to plug into my wall, to make the motor work, so I cut the end off an extension cord.  My mother often complained that she couldn’t find an extension cord and I always urged her to buy another.  School teachers didn’t make much money, so we usually just did without.

I used one of my brother’s razor blades to strip the rubber insulation from the wires.  Then I twisted them and wrapped them around the only screw remaining on the motor, in the little recessed place where the wires went.  I plugged the plug into the wall.

Nothing happened.  The motor didn’t hum.  I always felt happy when the motors hummed.  Often they made a nice sweet smell, like lubricating oil warming.  Only this time nothing happened.  Took me a long time to figure out that the circuit breaker in the back room had tripped.  Well, I pushed the breaker switch back with my finger, but it wouldn’t stay.  I knew what to do.  Sometimes we had mops or brooms in the back room so I held the switch with my finger and imagined holding it there with some kind of stick.

A popping noise from the front of the house.

At the front of the house I heard a popping noise, so I let go the circuit breaker switch and ran to my room.  I saw flames!!

I read lots of Tom Swift Jr. books in those days.  I could see in my mind’s eye a drawing illustrating the young genius in his room with the caption, “He saw flames!!”

The flames emanated from the extension cord joining the motor with the wall receptacle.  The flames were easy to extinguish with a pair of my pants that was on the floor.  ‘That part of the trouble was easy to cope with,’ I thought.  The smoke was stinky, like burning plastic.

Science!  I had to keep these findings private for years.

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