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Sixth Grade Chemistry Nerd

July 1, 2021
Sixth Grade Nerd. I had big lips that I sucked in

June 30, 2021

Five weeks since my TURP.  That, if you’ll remember, was the medical procedure in which my prostate gland was resected (reamed out) with a surgical instrument.  A trusted urologist did this work.

Put less delicately, a doctor inserted a kind of knife through my penis down into the area of my “man gland.”  Using multiple cuts, he cut out my urethra and prostate until there wasn’t much left but a husk.  I like to think of it as removing the guacamole from an avocado.  At least I was asleep and don’t remember a thing.  Lucky for me.  

I still like guacamole, incidentally.

I haven’t peed red blood for at least a week!   And at least now my pee doesn’t look bloody.  Importantly, I don’t have to take medicine to help me urinate.  That was the trouble that led up to the need for a TURP in the first place.

Oh, the tamsulosin worked quite well, but I couldn’t tolerate the side effect of low blood pressure upon standing.  Some times I had to lie flat on the floor.  My internist told me it was not safe to have a blood pressure that low.  

I am grateful to my urologist who did the TURP because I think he was expert and thorough.  And careful.  I’ll admit I keep a diaper at the ready if I should become incontinent of urine—and I have peed my pajamas a time or two, but I think that might have been a result waiting until I was desperate to go.

Thanks for reading thus far.  Now my reminiscence.

As a 12-year-old in Missoula, I was naughty.  I stole or begged important chemical reagents and apparatus from the university laboratories that I needed.  

I did draw a line.  I didn’t steal and beg from people, but from institutions.  One of my fellow grade school students stole from people and I despised that.  Also, he ate the proceeds of his thievery and got quite fat.  I eschewed such crime.

In 1961, I lived at home with my brother, sister, and mother.  We all had our own rooms, but I preferred to play in the basement.

Most important was my basement chemistry laboratory, where I performed the experiments I read about in my sister’s high school chemistry textbook, Matter and Energy.  

My basement laboratory was scant.  Lots of concrete and dirt and cobwebs.

Trouble was, I could get the necessities for my experiments only at Christmas and my at birthday, in March.  Those were the two times I could cajole my mother into purchasing materials (poisonous chemicals, flasks, beakers, test-tubes, ring stand, burners, glass tubing) by mail from the Chemcraft company in Hagerstown, Maryland.  

Other times I was not above stealing chemicals or items of apparatus from the University of Montana science buildings.

I worked alone, although I shared the results of my experiments with my fellow sixth-graders.  

A lazy and a lousy student, I expected my baffling knowledge of chemistry to carry me through.  

It did.  My entire life it did.  I still try to baffle.  Ask my grandchildren.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  In the beginning I wanted to impress my fellow sixth graders and my teacher, Mrs. Jay.

Example:  I wanted to make a working volcano.  

This would be an 18-inch square plywood board with plaster-of-paris replica of a mountain with a hollowed out top for a chemical reaction that would look much like an eruption.  My aim was to make such a replica and show it to my fellow sixth graders at school, and perhaps at the annual science fair.  I doubt if I made the plaster volcano.  I think I borrowed it from another student who had the means to create such a majestic object.

All the while I made such wonders for the amazement and edification of my fellow students, the few denigrated me for not knowing the times tables or being able to perform long division.  

Damn!  I still have trouble with those.  I didn’t learn my 6’s and 7’s until I was in the Marines.

Familiar with the old baking soda and vinegar combination to produce a fizzy eruption, I wanted something that had a bit more pizzazz.  Looking through a variety of books (at the university library) I found the recipe:  Sodium bichromate, I believed, could be touched off with a match to produce a spew of ashes and a hot flame.  Trouble is, I didn’t find out until nearly fifty years later my plan had two major problems:

1.  Not sodium, but ammonium dichromate is flammable as described in the books.  

A chemistry professor gave me a large brown bottle of the inert powdered sodium bichromate (after assuring me that dichromate and bichromate are equivalent chemical expressions).  At home I tried in vain to light the sodium bichromate.  I even returned to the chemistry professor and expressed my disappointment, but he didn’t know enough about the bichromate to enlighten me.  What I did end up doing was to mix the bichromate with water and a bunch of other inorganic chemicals in water and attempt to boil them to distill out the water.  

Only this maneuver didn’t work.  When I heated a flask with the chemicals, the mush jumped out of the container and went “splook” out the distillation apparatus.  I discovered the best way to clean up the tube was using a sprig of lilac sprout to rub the interior.  I did this in the backyard before I broke my foot.

2.  Bichromates cause cancer.  I think there was a movie about a young lady lawyer who sued a company that polluted with hexavalent chromates.  They have a property of linking when exposed to ultraviolet light, so they can be used in organic colloids as photosensitive emulsions.  However that’s going to be the topic of another post.  Bichromate must be handled carefully.

Turns out ammonium bichromate burns brightly and emits a nice green ashy substance, suitable for a volcano model.  In fact, I have some of that in my basement as I write.  I’ll be happy to demonstrate, should you ask.

Well, that’s one example of my chemical inquiries.  

Mostly I wanted to explore the university buildings, especially the laboratories.  Almost every building had a chemical laboratory or at least a darkroom:  journalism, liberal arts, theater, botany, geology, main hall.  All of them.

  Also, I wanted to use their bathrooms because I had difficulty pooping at home.  Because my poops were too large and hard to go down the toilet, I faced the trouble with plumbing that I couldn’t cope with at home.  I took to using our garage lilac hedge, where I could drop big ones without a bad consequence.  If I wanted to poop in a toilet, the university offered thousands of opportunities and I didn’t need to worry about flushing.  Thus, I could explore for chemistry laboratories and take care of my physical needs after school each day.  

Happy exploring!!

The university labs were most interesting.  Grade school in Missoula let out about four o’clock each day.  Mother didn’t need me around until about six or six-thirty, so I could bicycle over to the university —seven blocks away—after school.

I had a routine:  

  • check the doors of the chem-pharm building.  Usually, I’d go in and explore.  But If they were locked, 
  • I’d try the journalism building.  The darkrooms were great.  Also the printing professionals were friendly.  However, If locked, 
  • I’d try the geology building.  If no-go, 
  • I’d hit main hall.  It had a darkroom and a fossilized mastodon tusk.
  • Then the law building.  Had a library with a glass floor.
  • Then the library.  All kinds of chemistry books.  But, if they were closed, then the 
  • university theater building with amazing laboratories and passages.  
  • Then the liberal arts building, with fantastic elevators.
  • then the various men’s dormitories.  Finally, 
  • the women’s center and the 
  • math-physics building.  

Because all of the doors were always locked, supposedly, I wouldn’t be able to enter any of them, supposedly.

Only I would and did.  Because of the thousands of students and faculty, someone would inevitably leave a door ajar and I’d be inside the building in the space of a few seconds.  I’d just abandon my bicycle somewhere nearby.

A word about my bicycle.  My mom painted it red and white.  At some point I broke off one of the pedals, so I pushed down the remaining pedal with my right foot, then allowed the pedal to coast around so I could pedal it again. Stroke (pause) stroke (pause).  Like that.

In that way I’d explore all of the buildings, ride the elevators, get stuck between floors and panic.  Scream!  At the end of the day people at the university were generally pretty nice to me.  Also, my father was a faculty member until he died of cancer (hmmm bichromate???).  Sometimes students and faculty gave me laboratory glassware to take home to my lab.

One evening I was in a lab in the geology building and I decided I needed some concentrated sulfuric acid.  In those days there was a bottle with the embossed label, “Conc H2SO4” on it.  I didn’t want the whole bottle, just a small amount, so I found a small bottle of litmus paper, I emptied the paper onto a counter, then poured some of the concentrated acid into the bottle.  I didn’t have a cork, so I used a wad of paper towel.  Put the bottle into my pocket.  Rode my one-pedal bike home.

At home I went to the basement, my left thigh was itching.  Also my pants (white) had burn holes from the acid.  The paper towel looked like tar, where it touched the acid.  Ruined my pants, didn’t do a thing for my experiments.

I told the above story to Ted Wood at Todd’s house a couple days ago.  First time.

That’s my writing for today.  Peace Out!

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  1. Richard Judd permalink

    I loved reading this story !! your adventures would make a great book that i would love to read !!

    Peace Out !!

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