Probably the ultimate in real-life sense of wonder when you're growing up would be
to have a parent who was a scientist -- how better to become interested in science
fiction than to be exposed to science fictional-type experiences practically every
day? From those not-so-humble beginnings are fans created; the writer of the
following remembrance has been involved in D.C.-area fandom for many decades, and
lives out his sense of FIAWOL by hosting local club meetings in his home.
The first time I was tear-gassed I was helping my father.
In the summer of 1943 I was twelve years old, and my father, who had been a Chemistry professor at the University of Maine, was a Major in the Chemical Warfare Service, tasked with teaching civilians in the War Department Civilian Protection School at some little college in suburban Los Angeles. The curriculum was basically the lessons learned in the London blitz, plus a few side items including propaganda films, and one of the things my father did was explain about TNT. He had a one-pound block of the stuff, and after explaining how it wouldn't explode when you hit it with a hammer or set it on fire, he would spot a student dozing, and toss the block to him, a stunt which woke up the student and gave the class a laugh. The course also gave an introduction to the gas mask. This was done by having the class put on gas masks and enter a tent in which a CN canister was burning. Just before leaving at the far end, they would take off their masks to get a little whiff of the gas they were being protected from, so they would have confidence in the technology they were using. Eleven years later, in basic training, we went into the tent and then put on our gas masks, but this was for civilians.
I attended the course my father was giving because I wasn't otherwise in school, didn't know anybody, and staying at home was boring. On this particular day his class balked at going through the gas chamber, and he was trying to talk them into it. Maybe familiarity breeds contempt, or maybe I thought the class was a bunch of sissies; I don't remember what I was thinking, but at age twelve I had no judgment. What I did was take a deep breath, and went into the tent with one eye shut and one eye squinted so I wouldn't run into the tent poles. I walked through all that tear gas and came out on the other side, rubbing my eyes. After that the class meekly went through the gas chamber without any further argument, and my father offered me a dollar -- twice my weekly allowance -- to do it again for his next class. An offer I had no trouble declining.
The last time I was tear-gassed was thirty years later, in Washington, D.C. We then lived at 2126 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, an easy walk to the Mall, and on July 4th, 1973, we -- Dolly, our son Charles and I, and Kohlman and Sara, Dolly's parents -- had gone down to the Mall to watch the fireworks, which were, as usual, excellent. After the fireworks, however, there was an antiwar demonstration, and we were downwind of a distinctly off-brand of tear gas, which The Washington Post described the next day as "home made." The inference, of course, was that it came from the demonstrators. Working against that inference was the timing; if the demonstrators were trying to disrupt Nixon's Fourth of July, they should have released their tear gas when the fireworks started instead of waiting until the crowds were dispersing. Many years later it came out that the FBI had prepared the non-standard tear gas and released it in an effort to discredit the antiwar movement.
Returning to my father, it eventually became evident that the Japanese and Nazis weren't going to be bombing the continental United States, and the Army closed down the civilian protection schools. My father was discharged at the end of 1944, got a job teaching chemistry at Purdue University, and started doing research of interest to those willing to support it, notably Lloyd Defenbaugh, an Oklahoma oilman, and the U.S. Navy. Although I was in high school at the time, I helped my father or at least kept him company. Defenbaugh was interested in the blast cutting of iron as a way to perforate oil well pipes, and eventually my dad duplicated the work on the VanMeter patent for about 5% of the cost, but the company holding the patent was disinclined to give it up, so `twas all for naught. The worst thing he had me do was run potassium permanganate though a grinder, which generated this awful dust. Another time I was in the shop in the basement of the Chemistry Building, drilling a hole in a block of carborundum, using rusty old glass cutting files. I would take a dozen files, and sharpen them on the grinding wheel, and grind down on the carborundum, which was much harder than the files. Then I would resharpen the files and continue. Eventually I went through several dozen files, but the hole got drilled.
Subsequently, my father found that graphite was suitable for controlling the flow of liquid iron, and a whole lot easier to work with. There were accidents as well, the most serious being the time one of the thermite guns went off prematurely. As my father said afterwards, "I could feel the liquid iron running into my shoe." The one I was involved with was going down to Oklahoma City with a trunk full of bottles of preheat, whose function was to burn fast and provide the gas pressure to squirt the liquid iron through graphite nozzle. We were driving a 1939 Packard, which had an external trunk, making slow time because of having a lot of flats (new tires were not yet available) and eventually the preheats ignited. I jumped out of the car, which was going pretty slow, and my brother Walter, who was sitting next to me, got a burn on his ear.
For the Navy he once made a batch of silver nitroform, a brilliant yellow powder, which he put in a glass desiccator -- a two gallon jar with magnesium perchlorate in the bottom and a ground glass lid made air tight with a grease seal to the jar. Then we went out to dinner. When we came back, the desiccator was in place, but the silver nitroform was gone, and the desiccator lid was also gone. On the ceiling was a circular mark where the lid had hit, and on the floor and the bench tops and all over was the fine glass powder that the lid had been smashed into. Later, he began working with fulminuric acid, for which the intermediate step required mercury fulminate. He kept the dry mercury fulminate sitting around in paper cups, each covered with a piece of filter paper. "It's safer that way," he explained. "If it explodes it won't throw fragments."
It was about then that the Chemistry Department moved him out of the regular Chemistry Building and into the Heavilon Hall Annex, which had last been used to make elemental fluorine. There was still an acid smell in the air, hydrogen fluoride probably, and exposed glassware would get etched. After we finished moving in, he was missing one cup of mercury fulminate, which he discreetly chose not ask after. One of the things we did in the annex was to make tetranitromethane (TNM), because the Navy was buying the stuff for a dollar a gram and at the end we were using the biggest glassware they had in the stockroom.
Eventually, my father left Purdue and set up his own laboratory in a converted garage as a prime contractor for the U.S. Navy. One of the things he was doing was making TNM, and on a pilot plant scale. He bought a 55-gallon drum of red fuming nitric acid, for instance. In this endeavor he was about six months behind another entrepreneur up in Chicago, but after a bit, we got his system working just fine, producing a couple of thousand dollars worth of TNM at a time. And then he just stopped. He never told me why, but later I discovered that his competition up in Chicago had had an accident, resulting in a crater fifty feet wide and about twenty feet deep, and three people missing and presumed dead. Well, knowing that your reaction mixture is a Sprengl-type explosive and therefore dangerous is one thing. Knowing that it has actually detonated is quite another. My father put the drum of red fuming nitric acid in the freezer and went on to other things, eventually inheriting the family farm and traveling between Lafayette, Indiana, and Harrington, Washington. The lab became a storage place for things too explosive, corrosive or dangerous to keep about the house.
My father died in 1971 at age 70, and the bulk of his estate, including the farm and the laboratory went to my brother Paul, who eventually sold the house in Lafayette and moved out to Harrington. Being a serious packrat like our father, Paul left the laboratory in place since he couldn't bring himself to dispose of its contents.
In 1981, my father made it onto the front page of The Washington Post. What happened was that the Lafayette Fire Department had been interested in the lab for some time, but my father, and Paul after him, had declined their requests for an inspection. Then a transient broke into the place, seeking shelter from the cold, and made a small fire on the concrete floor. He departed, having caused no damage, but left the door ajar, which the Fire Department took as an invitation. They went in and freaked out, calling in bomb disposal experts from as far away as Hawaii, and the discovery of an "abandoned bomb lab" from the counter-cultural `60s made front page news.
The bomb disposal experts found most of the stuff harmless and all of it properly labeled, but Paul had to get rid of it, burning the preheats and pouring the red fuming nitric acid down the drain in the dead of night. Was that permitted? Probably he figured it was better to ask forgiveness than permission. He may still have the bomb models my father used as teaching aids -- but I don't know about that one-pound block of TNT.
Title illustration by Teddy Harvia