Sunday Scribblings - The Experiment - 3/9/08

High school chemistry was about the most fun C- I ever received. While most of the students were busy memorizing the Periodic Table and learning the atomic weight of helium, I, and a couple of other ne'er-do-wells, spent most of our class-time performing our own experiments. Combining chemicals never meant to occupy the same beaker and finding out what combinations explode, burn, and melt stuff. The chemistry lab had a closet just filled with bottles and jars of chemicals to explore. Many of which probably would not be available to students now, with the threat of terrorism and mayhem and the emphasis on school safety.

The instructor, Mr. Fromm, was a typical scientist. He was a genius when it came to Chemistry, but knew nothing about what went on in his classroom while he was elbow deep in the experiments contained in the syllabus.

One particular chemical, I will never forget. It was in a rather large jar and it was labeled Cyclohexene. In today's world, it would have had about a dozen warning labels affixed to the jar, but in 1969, it sat innocently in the closet. It was stored well back on the shelf and had layers of dust indicating it had never been opened. I opened the jar preparing to pour some into a flask. As soon as the lid was off, the jar emitted a malodorous stench, the likes of which I have never experienced. It was like the smell of rotten eggs, but in that enclosed space was multiplied times 1,000. I nearly passed out, but managed to exit the chemical closet, followed closely by my coughing and wheezing counterparts, who were interrupted from their sulfur, phosphorus, and glycerin projects. Here is a little experiment to give the reader an approximation of the conditions inside that closet: remove an infant's soiled diaper and tape it across your face.

What I was not able to do, however, was replace the lid. So quoting Shakespeare: “the rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril” (amazing the quotes that stick in one's mind) soon spread throughout the entire floor of the building. There was lots of coughing and teary eyes and some puking, as Mr. Fromm evacuated the room. The Chemistry students along with the rest of the classes in the general vicinity went outside to the welcomed relatively fresh air of the local lead smelter emissions. Then Mr. Fromm donned the protective equipment available in all chemistry labs and secured the offending vial. I received some detention, which I was not a stranger to in those days. But it was totally worth it.