This post is by Don Weiss, writer of murder mysteries, pharmacist, friend. Part II will describe some of my parents' worst nightmares when I was beyond their reach.
I’d like to see a show of hands. How many of us remember playing with mercury as kids? We watched in fascination as the round shiny silver blobs coalesced into one larger blob, as we rolled the mercury around in our hands in blissful ignorance of the danger. Of course our mouths were, and maybe still are, loaded with mercury amalgam fillings, but no matter. We were curious about everything; our bodies, the girl up the street, and of course if you were a boy and possibly a girl, the space program—which brings me to our topic.
I grew up in a family where money was scarce. I wore hand-me-down clothes and played with hand-me-down toys—the best of which were from the AC Gilbert Company Hall of Science: The Erector Set, the Gilbert Microscope and the greatest toy of all, the Chemistry Set.
What were our parents thinking— giving a child a chemistry set? Here ya go junior; here’s carte-blanche to blow up the house and poison the cat. I can still picture the rows of colorful chemicals in small bottles. Didn’t mom and dad get the hint? Let’s see; we were transfixed by rockets and satellites, combined with the fact that we had very little money—hmmm—let’s make our own black powder. We already had the charcoal and the sulfur, all we needed was the potassium nitrate and we were off to the races or the moon, or more likely, to kingdom come.
There we were in my friend’s bedroom mixing our own black powder that was to be loaded into tubes made from many layers of paper and fitted with a balsa wood nose cone and cardboard fin and a nozzle made of tin foil. We guessed at the proportions. Too much charcoal, not enough sulfur, a smidge of potassium nitrate. This was science, and we were experimenting. If our parents only knew, they would have been so proud of us.
Then, came the moment of truth! Armed with homemade fuses and matches, we took the missile outside to the nearby field where the huge radio transmitter stood. We carefully placed the rocket on its homemade launch stand, lit the fuse and ran like hell. The rocket danced violently for a few seconds and fizzled out. It didn’t fly but it also didn’t blow up—oh well, back to the drawing board we went to try again. You see my fellow sexagenarians, these toys satisfied our natural curiosity and they taught us perseverance. They also taught us not to tell our parents what we were up to.
Those days are all behind us now. Children’s toys today are microprocessor-driven, digital marvels that ostensibly improve junior’s hand-eye coordination— but so what. With our toys, we dreamed of the moon and the stars, built things with our hands, and through it all grew up and managed not to blow up the house.