The Making of A Scientist
By Bob West
May 15, 2003
For the first few years of my life, I changed my mind of what I wanted to be when I grew up many times. Indian fighter, big game hunter, author, bank robber, trapeze artist, were just a few of my life’s ambitions. In the fifth grade I decided I wanted to become the world’s greatest inventor, chemist and scientist. My parents furthered my dream by buying me a chemistry set for Christmas that year. It was a deluxe model complete with an assortment of chemicals, test tubes, Litmus paper, an alcohol burning Bunsen burner and other items needed by an aspiring scientist. A book with directions for many fantastic experiments was included.
One day Bert Farley, my fifth-grade teacher, asked me to bring the set to school for a class program. Every thing went fine. Well, almost. The look of admiration from my classmates as I made my way to my desk at the back of the room soon turned to laughter. You would think that an up and coming scientist such as I, would remember a basic fact, friction causes heat - heat causes fire. As I sat down at my desk my rear pocket rubbed against the back of the seat igniting the dozen or so stick matches I had placed there to start the Bunsen burner. Yellow smoke came billowing out of my pocket. Only the fast action of classmate Bob Dill saved me from getting a real hot seat. He grabbed a flower vase from a window sill and poured the water into my pocket.
David Malsed, a classmate of my sister Dorris, was four or five years older than I. Somehow I found out he was a scientist and had built a laboratory in his mother’s woodshed. I visited him quite often and he taught me some hands-on lessons for the profession I had chosen.
Making black gunpowder by combining sulfur, saltpeter and charcoal, and making hydrogen gas using aluminum, lye and water were the two of the formulas I learned from him.
One day my friends Eugene Schell, Revere Lazelle and I decided to make a gun. We went to the city dump, found a piece of water pipe about the right length. Using some of our hard earned money, we had Fred Ankcorn, of Ankcorn’sHardware, thread one end of the pipe, fit a cap on it, and drill a small hole for the fuse. Revere’s dad had a collection of steel ball bearings and we had no trouble finding one the right size. The site for firing this rifle was a high bank on the river. I had already made a batch of gunpowder so we were ready. I poured a good amount of the gunpowder down the barrel, followed with a wad of newspaper and then the bearing. I had soaked a piece of four-ply grocery twine in kerosene for the fuse and covered it with gunpowder for good measure. Using a small nail I pushed the fuse into the hole at the end of the pipe. A forked branch was cut from a willow tree, the end buried in the ground was the tripod to steady the weapon. Tying a rope to a gallon glass jug, Gene waded the river and climbed a pine tree to tie the rope to a large branch. Lying on our bellies Revere and I gave him directions to raise or lower the jug, or go left or right so we could get a perfect aim at this target. My friends agreed I should be the one to fire this musket. I struck a match, lit the fuse and ran for cover. We covered our ears with our hands as we expected a large BOOM. You can imagine our disappointment when there was just a small pffft. There was more acrid, dirty yellow smoke than sound. We kept our eyes on the target across the river. Nothing happened. I glanced down at the end of the barrel just in time to see our projectile drop out the end of it, and slowly roll down the bank into the river. So much for gun making.
My friends and I must have filled a hundred balloons from the lighter than air gas we made. We typed our names and addresses on toilet paper on dad’s trusty Underwood typewriter. We tied these to the balloon with thread and released them into the wild blue yonder. We knew we would soon get answers from far away places. We waited and waited. None came. One day a high school student told us he had something (it proved to be a condom) much larger that we could fill with gas and would be seen better and travel much farther, perhaps to Canada or even Mexico. The manufacturing of aluminum cans, foil and throw away baking pans was many years away and aluminum metal was hard to find. It took almost a month of searching the city dump before we found enough for this big project. The big day finally arrived. Tying the condom on the mouth of a gallon jug we waited for the gas to form. Our long-range balloon began to fill. The trouble of making gas in this manner is that after it works for about ten minutes, the action speeds up, condensing the gas into moisture. This happened to this experiment about half way through the inflation. Our hope of inter-state communication was a bust. What a disappointment for me, it was my second failure of a major project.
One of the first buildings built in our city after the fire of 1888 was a large warehouse built by the Palouse Hardware and Implement Co. It was located across the railroad tracks from their store, which was at the site whereBagott’s used car lot is now. It was a large wood framed building covered with sheets of corrugated metal. Over the years many sheets of metal had blown off leaving a skeleton-like structure and an eerie look. It became a favorite place for us kids to play games of all kinds. Many nights when the moon was full we acted out horror movies such as Dracula, Frankenstein, Hounds of Baskerville and others. Some nights I was scared to walk home alone.
One spring a group of boys organized “The Black Diamond Club.” What their purpose was I do not know. If I remember correctly they drew black diamonds on their left arm with indelible ink as part of their initiation. They partitioned off a corner of this old building with cardboard for use as a clubhouse.
About a week before summer vacation started my mother bought me a pair of cream-colored corduroy pants. Oh how proud I was of them the first day I wore them. At afternoon recess that day two members of the Black Diamonds approached me and told me I was forbidden to wear them, as they were the official trousers for members of the club only. Any kid my age would be severely punished if caught wearing them. I chose to ignore the warning.
Several days later as I walked past their clubhouse some of their members waylaid me, blindfolded my eyes and handcuffed me (using Dick Tracy handcuffs obtained by mailing in 25 cents and five Wheaties cereal box tops). I was put on trial for wearing trousers I had been ordered not to. How did I plead? Guilty of course, I was wearing them wasn’t I? I was ordered to drop my drawers and underwear. The members then took turns of spitting on my most personal part. I was released with the warning that if I ever got caught wearing the cords again they would be taken from me and I would have to walk home pant-less.
I was very humiliated and mad that day as I walked home. I swore revenge. I could tell the cops of course, but being called a snitch was almost as bad as being called a sissy so that was out of the question.
By the time I got home I had decided to tell my friend David of my problem. Maybe he had a solution. He did. We were going to make stink bombs to bombard their clubroom! I don’t remember the ingredients, but we manufactured the most awful smelling stuff imaginable. I can’t describe the vile smell. A combination of rotten eggs, dirty sneakers and fresh cow manure would be as close as I can get.
We made the bomb by wrapping string around the bases of large burned out light bulbs. We then soaked the string in kerosene and lit the string afire. After the fire died the bulbs were immersed in cold water. The necks fell off as if cut by a very sharp glasscutter. We used a funnel to fill them with the rank formula. Rubber stoppers from gallon jugs of Clorox and melted paraffin wax sealed these foul-smelling weapons. An empty Best Foods mayonnaise box, with shredded paper from a banana crate as a cushion became the “nest” for the bombs.
I told my parents I was going to get up early the next morning to go fishing. I left home about 5 a.m. with my fishing gear and the missiles of revenge. Arriving at the “clubhouse” I carefully tossed six bulbs between the top of the wall they had built and the ceiling. Mission completed. WOW! The stench was overpowering. I walked about a mile upriver to one of my favorite fishing holes. I then destroyed all the evidence by burning the mayonnaise box. I fished for about an hour and caught several nice trout for my breakfast. All and all, it was a very good morning.
There was quite a rumble about the bombing of their clubhouse by the members for several weeks. Dire threats were made of what was going to happen to the culprit or culprits if they were caught.
The first day of school that fall was a little scary. My mother made me wear the cords that had caused all the trouble the spring before. I met or passed several of the members in the hallway and spoke or waved to them. They were friendly to me. I must have not been a suspect. I was told later in the day that the club has disbanded. Was it because of my bombing of their headquarters? I certainly hoped so. I needed at least one success of a major project.