My kid's tenth birthday is only a couple of days away and, as usual, I was faced with the question of what to get her. With that in mind, I turned to the venerable members of the elite task force known as the E2Parents group and asked for any suggestions that they might have. After all, there’s the theory that there’s safety in numbers and I figured those more experienced than I would be willing and able to lend a hand. Naturally, I wasn’t disappointed when a flurry of suggestions came back from the group suggesting things like bicycles, books, outings and other assorted treats came raining down upon my inbox. After some consultation with her mom, it was determined that she already had a bike, had read the recommended books and the outings were more for group stuff than an individual present.
I asked her mom if she had dropped any hints along the way to aid me in my quest. She whispered the words “Chemistry Set.” I thought to myself “Oh Christ”. Once again, my mind began to wander.
I remembered as a youth, the things that I tried making with my first chemistry set. The experiments started out slowly at first and kept to the rules of the book that came with the set. I remember the eye-droppers and the tweezers and the test tubes. I remember the little measuring devices to mete out carefully measured grams of each chemical to be placed in whatever concoction was being formed. I remember the goggles and the rubber gloves. I remember the vials and the little plastic bottles that contained the powders that had the dire warning that read “Caution: Maybe harmful if swallowed” and the red set of cross bones. I remember the little pieces of iron and the various types of wood and I remember spending hours in my room, sheltered by a closed door and a vivid imagination from the rest of the world. I remember pretending to mix potions that would either cure the sick or make me ruler the world depending on my mood.
Naturally, the set came with a warning to conduct all of the experiments under adult supervision but since I was a latch key kid before the term was invented, this advice often went unheeded.
That being the case, most of the time I was left to my own devices and I had plenty of time to practice my trade. I don’t know how long it was before I came across the recipe for what was called a stink bomb. All I know is that they weren’t lying, for indeed, the stink that permeated through my humble household one day was enough bring tears to one’s eyes. If my olfactory memory is correct, the scent seemed like a cross between the smell of rotten eggs and elephant farts or some other horrendous mixture. I do know I remember that when my parents came home and that they weren’t too pleased.
The chemistry set soon founds its way to the trash. After all, I couldn’t be trusted and my father figured it would only be a matter of time before I either burned down the house or caused some other type of catastrophe. My budding career as a scientist was over.
You would think that the memory of those days would bring a sense of disappointment. That something was somehow taken away from me that shouldn’t have been. Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s how I should feel but these days I’m looking at that little series of events through a different set of eyeballs. I’m thinking that the memories my little chemistry set inspired and my foray into the realm, albeit brief one, of mad scientist has lasted this long and that something good must have come of it.
She’ll get her set and I’m hoping that she pretends to do many of the same things I did at her age. I can probably live without the stink bomb but I doubt I’ll have the heart to throw it out. Who knows what lay in store, maybe years from we’ll all benefit from her first exposure to scientific experimentation or maybe only she will. But then again, maybe we’ll all rue the day.
Note: I don’t know how much the contents of a chemistry set have changed over the last 35 years or so or what experiments are being recommended for ten year olds. I’m guessing that they're safer and are probably more environmentally inclined than the ones I performed as a youth. Hopefully though, the imagination and willingness to learn that the set will inspire are still considered part of the package.