The Christmas Chemistry SetPosted: December 21, 2013
Christmas 1962 was spent in Hoenfels, Germany, a small backwater Army training base near the Czechoslovakian border. There wasn’t much of a selection of toys in the base P.X., so as usual; Santa did most of his shopping from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. He must have been really stretching to find something to get me because this was the year he brought me a Gilbert Chemistry set. It is my belief this was an effort to spark the scientific genius which my parents, I am sure thought was dormant in my eight year old mind. I was overjoyed to have such a present which was clearly designed for a much older child!
As I remember it, dad and I created all sorts of wonderful experiments and compounds at the dining room table, carefully covered with a plastic tablecloth. I don’t remember them all, but heating a piece of candle wax together with a little sulfur created a great stink bomb which I delighted to no end sharing with my sister and mother. After our science experiments were over, the area was carefully cleaned and the chemistry set was put up in the cupboard above a closet in my parent’s room with the injunction that I was not to touch it unsupervised by my dad.
Sometime later, my parents had a wonderful opportunity to visit Prague in with their good friends Roy and Donna Kilkenny. My parents rarely took vacations without us kids, but for some reason they decided to leave us in the hands of our German maid and neighbors while they traipsed around Communist Czechoslovakia. Maybe they couldn’t bear the thought of losing one of us in a Communist country (that was their official story) or they just wanted some freedom, who knows… I do know they regretted that decision when they got home!
A day or two after their departure, I began to feel the heady release of the lack of authority over me. Our maid an elderly lady named Frau Biefel, just didn’t seem understand how willful eight year old American boy can be, poor lady! Her English was limited, so it seemed okay to ignore her wishes and claim it was lost in the translation. I don’t remember going out my way to torture her, but she and I did not see eye to eye at all. Most of the stuff I got into trouble with her over was small stuff, but then I got the idea it was time to liberate the chemistry set.
Climbing to the top of the closet was some chore but I had done it before. I opened the closet, and used the shelves to climb up to the top and open the cupboard. Unfortunately, as I was climbing down, it slipped from my hand and fell to the floor. Frau Biefel didn’t hear it, but I could tell something was broken inside. I opened it and found a couple test tubes had broken. This was a disaster because I had hoped to put it back unnoticed after I was through playing with it! Dad would surely know that I had tampered with it when he saw the breakage. My brilliant mind began to formulate a plan that would remain a legend in our family for many years.
As my mind cascaded with plan after plan, the thought that I should create an important scientific discovery popped into my eight year old brain. This idea was perfect! If I created something useful with the chemistry set like say, a cure for cancer, then all would be forgiven. At the very least, the fact I disobeyed my father would be forgotten in the rush of celebrated notoriety. I picked up the set and headed down to the half bath we had at the end of the hallway in our Army apartment, locked the door and set up my lab.
At first, my experiments revolved around things I knew how to make like stink bombs. Those were just warm-ups for the main event. I soon began to move into areas of scientific discovery no kid had ever gone before! It is fortunate that I had the good sense not to ingest any of my compounds. After about an hour in the can, Frau Biefel became concerned, and yelled at me in German though the door. “Nix versteh” (don’t understand) I yelled back. “Ich muss poopin!” That shut her up and explained the stink bombs, but I knew I had to wrap up my scientific endeavors. In a move of desperation, I mixed a little of all the chemicals I had in the case together and ran a match over it. The compound turned a bright purple color! Perhaps I had something after all!
Frau Biefel yelled “Raus!” once more at me, and in my panic, I dumped the test tube into the toilet. I flushed it, and as the water swirled, the bowl of the toilet turned purple! I quickly grabbed the toilet brush and began to scrub. It would not come off! Meanwhile Frau Biefel was now pounding on the door and saying some untranslatable things in German. I knew then the jig was up and it was time to face the music.
As I opened the door, Frau Biefel’s face turned ashen at the mess I had made in the bathroom. She did not say another word, but turned and got her stuff and left the apartment. She went across the hall and told our neighbors she was quitting and that they should take care of us until my parents returned. The neighbors peeked in on us and fed us, but I don’t remember having any supervision after that until mom and dad returned. Two days later, mom and dad arrived to find us unattended with me running around the living room in a loin cloth as my brother and sister sat on the floor chanting praises to the Lord of the Chemistry Set.
The aftermath of it all was horrific. I would be hard pressed to remember being punished in a more severe manner. After the initial spanking, I was forced to go to Frau Biefel’s house and beg her forgiveness…that was after my dad had spent days apologizing to her. I had ruined the toilet and had also stained the sink in the bathroom. Every day until we moved from that apartment, I spent at least an hour in that bathroom scrubbing the toilet. The stain in the sink eventually came out, but it stayed in the toilet forever. Worst of all, the chemistry set was thrown away and I never again had the opportunity to try to save mankind. Who knows what advances in science I may have come up with? Could I have cured cancer? Would I have invented that anti gravity compound? We will never know, but I did invent a way to permanently dye toilets purple though!