Fifth grade was a bit of a watershed. That's when I encountered two good friends with whom I shared two distinctly different passions. Curiously, both lived on the same block and the same side of Welch Avenue, just a stone's throw away from that house of ill repute (the College Girls' pad) to be described later.

Dean was extremely diminutive, probably the shortest guy in class, while I was the tallest. We made one hell of a Mutt and Jeff pair I suppose. His home life always intrigued me. First was his father, a somewhat gruff guy who constantly gave the impression of having a major roadblock between emotions and outward expression. But he left Dean and me to our own devices muggling around their home. Except for the time Dean managed to collapse the entire second story loft of their garage while crawling across it, escaping major bodily calamity somehow. His father was not amused at the ensuing fractured tinder piled up on the concrete like jack-straws, Dean sitting akimbo in the midst of the rubble, rubbing his eyes in disbelief. I learned a whole passel of new words that afternoon.

And then there was his mother. She was English, a war bride, and clearly from whom Dean inherited his diminutive stature. You just know that multiple generations of vitamin deficiency led to that trait. There was no mistaking the ancestry of his mother. Not only did the house constantly reek of boiled cabbage, but she spoke with an East End dialect and was missing multiple teeth. As you no doubt have heard, in those days it was common practice in England just to draw them rather than fill them. And the Isle was probably free of that nefarious Communist plot of forced fluoridation which so troubled the patriots of Duluth not too many years ago.

Put it altogether, then, visiting Dean and his family was always an eyeopener to this young pup. We quickly fell in together.

Independently, Dean and I had become enamored of chemistry, and both had admirable laboratories in our respective basements. What started out with the somewhat benign Gilbert Chemistry Sets, rapidly grew more malefic with various additions. This was back in the freewheeling days of substance liberty; it was easy and inexpensive to obtain all manner of wicked chemicals then. Somehow I managed to keep my mother at bay, but still recall her Inquisition when she noticed the ugly brown burn on my lab tabletop brought about by spilled concentrated hydrochloric acid. A couple minutes of prevarication took care of that, though. Just another talent a lad who's marched off weekly to the Siberia of Sunday School
quickly learns.

Or how about that nitrogen tri-iodide! In that glorious era of liberty, one was free to send off fifty cents to some address in the back of Popular Science magazine and obtain detailed instructions on how to concoct this amazing substance. It always intrigued me, for it's a contact explosive. Even a fly alighting on a small pile of it is instantly blown to smithereens. A major ingredient of it is pure iodine crystals--deadly, yes!--but in those free-wheeling days I had no trouble convincing Landsberg Pharmacy to sell me some with little more than a cursory admonition on how best to handle it. Indeed, the pharmacist-owner was always intrigued to learn of our latest plots.

Anyway, it's a fairly difficult series of steps to brew nitrogen tri-iodide, concluding with some titration, distillation and setting the tincture out to crystalize. In my attempt to hasten this latter process, I set the filter papers out on the window ledge to take advantage of the gentle breezes, then went to bed.

In the morning I anxiously sprang from bed to check on it, and...nothing! The ensuing brown-purple stains all around the ledge told the story. The curtains had whisked the substance and exploded it while I slept. That was the end of that.

In case you're curious, my ultimate goal was to make up a batch, keeping the concoction somewhat liquid and viscous (and hence inert) then paint it on the toilet seats at school to dry. But back to my friend. 

Dean and I soon became a force to be reckoned with and carried out researches in tandem. In particular, science to both of us always meant flames and smoke punctuated by the occasional loud report which rarely drew the attention of his normally taciturn father. As long as we kept all calamities confined to the cellar and not the garage, hunky-dory was the watchword.

Dean's passion was rocketry, but not the sort you could buy prefab from the local hobby shop. Everything to come out of his lab was hewn by hand from reclaimed materials. I still recall the rocket sled affair he contrived. Dean had taken a couple iron wire coat hangers and meticulously straightened them out to form rails attached to a scrap piece of plywood (probably from the collapsed garage loft). Then, the engine which rode along the tracks was crafted of a little aluminum canister which had formerly housed the ballast unit from an overhead florescent light. With the artistry of
Fabergé, he carefully pinched it this way and that, to give it an aerodynamic contour and make it conform to the rails it would soon sit upon. But before sealing it up, it was filled with a solid propellent of saltpeter and sugar, one of the magic compounds which became part and parcel of so much of my life. (Look out nuns!)  A tiny jet opening at the end of the rocket was guaranteed to shoot this guy along. Newton's Third Law, don't you know.

It took several attempts to make the goddamned thing quit blowing up in his basement, imperiling our eyes more than once. But eventually, we got it to fly along its rails on an even keel some three feet or so. Mission accomplished.

I recall Dean and I announcing to my mother one day that we intended to write a book on chemistry. That's how confident we were of our abilities. And of course, we just knew that any red-blooded American kid would want to read how to set things alight. Clearly, fairly early on, writing was beginning to appeal as one of the great creative arts and I wanted to take part.

Dean moved away the following year, which was probably timely, for soon something other than science would occupy my mind. I mean, apart from the crotch.

He left what must have been a rental house, for at a later time, a group of some ten grammar school students and a goody-two-shoes team leader departed one Saturday morning for a Gray-Y field trip to Ledges State Park. But first we had to collect the second chap who would also chaperon us that day. And here he was, in Dean's former abode, now occupied by six or seven college guys, still inebriated and sprawled all over the assorted cushions and divans. Our leader, who really was too lily pure to be true, was totally disgusted, but the rest of us lads formed a definite attachment to the bleary-eyed guy still snoring in yesterday's clothes. His hangover didn't improve much that day, by the way, and I'm certain he wondered why he had ever volunteered for such service. Do I remember him napping in the woody panel-wagon while the rest of us hiked Ledges?

Around the same time I hooked up with Gary, and we became inseparable pals. He was originally from Detroit, and I seem to recall his father had some connection with automotive engineering. Iowa State University, of course, was a great engineering school, so it wouldn't be surprising.

Gary and I were always horsing around. We were both partial to practical jokes, and spent many a quarter at the Ben Franklin store on sundry prank items. I remember one Saturday we each purchased a fun rig, presumably imported from China. It was a zig-zag plastic extendable affair with a pair of loops at the end like those on a scissors in which you insert your thumb and second finger. This then progressed to multiple crisscrossed struts, eventually terminating in a fuzzy rubber black widow spider. When totally collapsed, the thing was only six inches long, but pinch your fingers together and the device extended a couple feet, shooting the spider in close proximity to a hapless victim. We had no end of fun at the Varsity Theater that day, scaring girls sitting in the row ahead of us. Sandy and Barb (soon to become cheerleaders in junior high) made particularly good foils.

Sandy apparently never forgave the injury, for in high school she turned in Dugg Bedd and me for failing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at a school assembly. Which was particularly rich given that she and Dugg Bedd were cousins. In case you're wondering what that was all about, let me simply mention Viet Nam weighed heavy.

That's yet to come, so back to fifth grade. I recall how Gary and I found rock and roll together. We often camped out in a tent in my backyard during the warmer months, a box of crackers and transistor radio our bivouac companions. Previously we had suffered through all manner of Bobby Vee, Jay and the Americans, and Chubby Checker. Then one night, a new group squeaked through that tinny speaker of the battery driven radio: the Beatles.

We were captivated by the new sound, new chords, new harmonies. In short order, we each purchased a cheap black Beatle wig and wore them proudly around town. It's never particularly bothered me to be an asshole in public. Hell, I got paid to do so in the East Side Pharaohs. Gary bought some of the Beatles's records, and naturally he and I would sing along with them, even strum imaginary guitars. I was actually learning guitar myself at that time, but was still hamstrung by Michael, Row the Boat Ashore and similar detritus.

Wearing my wig to school one day, I was sent home by the pipsqueak of a new principal who could have easily played either the British or Japanese general in Bridge over the River Kwai. No problem. The following day, I sported my own hair, but completely plastered flat with copious globs of Butch-Wax. It looked as though someone had dumped a bucket of Crisco over my noggin. This time it was that redoubtable bulldog, Miss Myers, who spotted me on the staircase and promptly sent me home. (Remember her?

For whatever reason, this all took my father the wrong way; authoritarianism always riled him. He marched down to Louise Elementary School and read the principal the riot act who never tried that crap again...

I woke up after a month of this when the Dave Clark Five erupted. While the Beatles appealed to me briefly in a pop sense, much like the Singing Nun and the Tijuana Brass, here was a new group that spoke to the nether regions, and that's what I had been waiting for. While I still vaguely recall a few
of the first tunes from the Fab Four, they have left very little imprint otherwise. A few nice chords, though. But, no, it was the Dave Clark Five which would revolutionize music for me.

After a year or so, Gary departed, back to Michigan if I recall aright. But for that brief spell we sure had fun. I'm pretty certain the Varsity Theater was glad we two no longer hung out together. Their housekeeping duties probably became far simpler, with less of a budget devoted to antiseptic cleanser, and no more stench of chicken soup wafting from the floor.

Next installment: Books and Drizzle

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