Sometime in the early 1960s, when I was an elementary school student, almost ready for junior high, I got a chemistry set for Christmas. I remember asking for it. I’m not sure of my exact motivation; my memory is not so clear. I think I generally wanted knowledge, and knowledge meant facts that explained the world. Science was such knowledge. My view was, of course, naive. Still, my desire was fully developed. I don’t recall why I chose chemistry rather than geology, physics, electricity, or biology. Perhaps chemistry seemed the deepest knowledge to have then, secret of secrets, arcane yet fundamentally important.
I also don’t know whether my passion for chemistry, vague and short-lived though it was, came from something connected to chemistry as science--the exacting nature of formulae, how new compounds resulted from the dissolution or combination of compounds--or merely from a generalized desire to know. Chemistry was more attractive than geology or physics, yet I remember being attracted to telescopes and microscopes, tools that suited my interest in worlds beyond this, and within this. I had catalogs for both, and either would have helped me to become a scientist, a person with real knowledge, but all of those beautiful instruments were too expensive to ask my working class parents for, however much they would have wanted to give me one. (One of their joys, especially for my father when he was alive, though he rarely said so, has been the three university degrees I’ve gotten in my life, especially the Ph.D., the one graduation they came to see. No one on either side of my family ever went to college.) So whatever motivated my passion for chemistry, it wasn’t because I was any less enamored of or intimidated by those other sciences. Maybe it was just the formulae—esoteric, precise, complex, exotic, a foreign language of pure knowledge.
And so one Christmas day I found it gift-wrapped and lying under the tree in our small living room--my own chemistry set. The very words had power, enough to make you feel smarter just saying them. And with the tools, I now needed only a place, a laboratory in which to fathom the secrets of the physical world, a place for my initiation. The building we lived in was a single, large, 4-apartment building with a cavernous basement-cum-garage, though no one kept any cars in there. Cool in summer, chilly to cold in winter, this quiet, deeply shadowed space had a poured concrete floor forever covered in fine gray dust, a row of west-facing windows along one wall, and two large coal-fired furnaces to drive the boilers, furnaces whose size, appetite, and white heat in winter scared me when I was younger. The chemistry of fire never interested me.
This is where I made my laboratory. I improvised a workbench using a miniature pool table complete with green felt top that my brother and I had gotten the Christmas before. Since neither of us had become pool sharks like Minnesota Fats, several of the balls had gotten lost, the cue sticks used as swords or stickball bats, and the table used to pile laundry on. I asked my mother for it, and she agreed. So on this abandoned toy pool table, I made my laboratory—a discarded folding chair, a small notebook and pen, and a candle and matches. The last was essential, my source of power. Lighting the candle alone made me feel powerful, serious—"the scientist is in. He will see you now." My boyish heart believed in the lamp of knowledge, the quest for unknown truth.
Yet it wasn’t just atmospherics, though that drove me to some degree. Yes, I was posing, but as a means, not as an end. I wanted then what I want today—simply to know. Why do sunflower seeds develop in opposing concentric rings, a phenomenon expressed by the irrational number phi? The beauty of the lines is enough, yes, but ------wait. Is it? Do I want to understand why those lines are there? Will that knowledge cost me the joy of simply seeing them and marveling at their precise beauty? Is the sense of wonder what I really crave? Is that why, on some level, I refused to learn the minutiae of chemistry, the cold dictates of formulae, of chemical laws? Valences are the key. It’s really all about electricity—chemical bonds, free electrons, points of linkage, and voila, we have coffee and not cough syrup, plastic and not gasoline. I didn’t know then that knowledge, sure, certain knowledge, can be such death. Nothing else to seek, nothing changing, all answers laid before you like so many squares on a chessboard. Why seek God’s knowledge? Perhaps God envies us, poor limited things, eternally seeking and finding, living between frustration and joy.
Though I probably loved the mystery more, I did read the booklet that came with the set, a thin volume of instructions in pre-selected experiments. Of course. I had huge gaps in my understanding, and I needed to know what I was doing to try to understand what I wanted to know, what I hoped to learn. Yet I never sought a book on chemistry from the public library where I spent many Saturday afternoons. I never tried to decipher the mystery of chemical bonds, of valences, nor did I feel any urge to. I wanted, instead, discovery, but not of what was known already, and told to me, that when you mix acetic acid with calcium carbonate, you release carbon dioxide gas. I wanted a real discovery, a mystery unfolding before me, and I wanted to be the only one, or at least the first, to explain it. I wanted to be Ben Franklin with his kite and key, Alexander Fleming with his accidentally moldy Petri dish, and I wanted to stumble upon it like Archimedes’s discovery of the principle of buoyancy.
And so I would sit for hours on cloudy afternoons (sunny days weren’t appropriate for science or mystery), on any day in any month, lighting my candles, mixing my chemicals, sometimes according to printed formulae, more often rather randomly, by some unconscious hand, like a medieval alchemist, vainly trying to leap into the heaven of mystery, turning my base chemicals into golden discoveries. Yet I never did.
Once, however, I did discover something, by "accident," and also by a rather rough formula. The wise people who made this chemistry set, perhaps anticipating fools like me, printed several clear warnings in their thin manual of experiments.
"Never," they clearly admonished, "should the experimenter mix any substance that contains chlorine or chlorine compounds (bleach, cleansers, scrubbers, tile and bowl cleaners, mildew removers) with any base or acidic materials (such as vinegar, carbonated drinks, lye (sodium hydroxide), or ammonia). The ensuing, highly explosive chemical reaction could readily release the chlorine in any of several caustic and potentially fatal gaseous forms, such as chloramine gas. Exposure to chloramine gas will cause watering and burning of the eyes, inflammation of the sinuses and airways, and shortness of breath with difficulty breathing. Prolonged exposure will cause damage to lung tissue and a condition known as chemical pneumonia which, if sever enough, could cause death."
Well, I tried it. I was curious. What was chlorine gas like? What color was it? Did it have a smell or a taste? Would it burn like methane? The experimenter’s manual didn’t say anything about that. Perhaps the authors believed the threat of death sufficient to deter such questions. What’s the point of finding out if you don’t live to tell anyone?
I remember putting the test tube in its rack holder, adding a small amount of powdered toilet bowl cleaner, and then pouring a little pale yellow liquid bleach into it at arm’s length. Immediately the two substances reacted in my test tube, bubbling furiously, the foam rising in the clear glass tube. The resulting gas was a faint but clearly greenish color, and it seemed to move around in tiny waves inside the test tube, as if alive. But what was its odor, if any? Shouldn’t I find out? Could knowing that possibly save someone’s life someday? After several seconds of sweaty indecision, as I wondered how much gas was actually escaping--how far it would travel in the basement, whether it was light and would rise or heavy and fall, how much or how little was lethal-- I resolved to find out. Carefully.
Having read all the warnings in the manual, and having once burned the inside of my nose by directly sniffing a test tube full of ammonia gas, I knew I’d better do this correctly. Picking up the tube and holding it away from my face, and using slow and steady hand movements across the mouth of the tube, I wafted some of the gas toward my nose.
I remember the moment. I could see nothing nor smell nothing, but as I breathed in, suddenly a wave of sickly cold shot into my nose and down into my lungs. I could feel this heaviness in my chest, quite alien for that pleasant fall day. Instantly, perhaps instinctively, I held my breath, hurriedly put the test tube back in the rack, stepped back from the table, and quickly walked to the other side of the basement. As I stood there, I realized I didn’t know how much chlorine gas was too much. Had I already breathed in too much? Would I soon be discovering the Final Mystery? As the moments passed and I unconsciously began breathing, I noticed that my mind remained clear, so despite my fear and my trembling hands, I thought I might be all right. But what about the gas? Was it building up in the basement? Realizing I had to try to undo what I had done, I held my breath, went back to the table, picked up the test tube, walked to the basement door and went outside, leaving the door open for ventilation. Outside I tossed the tube onto the grass and stepped a good ways upwind from it. As a slight breeze was blowing, I felt rather safe now and took many slow, deep breaths.
The moment passed. I seemed to be all right, but I left the door open the rest of the afternoon to help dispel any lingering gas. I didn’t tell anyone what I had done, and I remember my enthusiasm for chemistry waned after this. I don’t know if that decline was related more to my fears from this incident or the growing belief that I was not going to discover anything, that I was far from being or becoming a scientist. Yet afterwards, I do remember thinking a good deal about my Great Uncle Leo, my maternal grandmother’s brother, a poor man I knew really only by name and by his sad figure forever lying in the upstairs front bedroom of my grandmother’s house in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, down the street from St. Coleman’s Catholic Church and not far from the Westinghouse Air Brake plant where he had worked before the war.
Uncle Leo had been gassed in an attack on the western front in France in the early autumn of 1918, and had come home from that war to end all wars crippled in mind but not so much in body. I learned from my mother, many years later, that after the war, Uncle Leo lost his job at the plant. Something had happened to his mind, and his strength would come and go. Yet on occasion he would get dressed up in his finest wool suit and tie, starched white shirt and beautifully shined shoes, and go down the street to the large intersection in front of St. Coleman’s, where my mother married my father in May, 1946, after my father came home from the Second World War. There, in the middle of the street, wearing his best clothes and a pair of the heavy welder's gloves he had worn when he had a job at Westinghouse before the war, Uncle Leo would direct traffic, regardless of the weather, until such time as one of the local cops would come by, gently thank him and lead him home to my grandmother’s, where she would take both of them into the kitchen for some tea and toast. Other times he would take the streetcar to downtown Pittsburgh and try to buy everything in Kaufmann’s department store. Someone at the store would then call my grandmother and ask her to send someone for him.
This was in the 1920s and 30s, back when Uncle Leo could still dress himself and walk unaided. By the time I first met him, sometime in the middle ‘50s, he had become bedridden and would just lie there in that front room upstairs, under a simple white sheet regardless of the season, and sleep or stare at the ceiling. Grandmother or Great Aunt Margaret, his other sister, would shave and bathe him and feed him his meals. I knew nothing of their other kindnesses to him. I remember being told by my mother as a young boy, years before ever wanting a chemistry set, how Uncle Leo had come to be that way, and I always felt so very sad for him, though I was too frightened to go and talk to him. He would instead talk to himself, things I couldn’t understand or that made no sense, or he would suddenly call out or shout for his sister Margaret. Yet no matter how frightened I might get from that, I never stopped feeling sad for him and wishing God would help him.
After I smelled the chlorine gas that day in our basement, I wondered if Uncle Leo, who was still alive then, had known anything about chlorine gas before it had ruined his body and crippled his life. I wondered if he had had a chance to run away, as I had, and who would have made such a horrible experiment on grown men, or why.
Now I know.
Copyright © Mark McTague, 2004