A Chemical Christmas

Both my father and mother imagined that all of us children would surely want to be involved in our back garden – sowing, weeding, all that kind of thing. My laziness and impatience (I had no time whatsoever for weeding) were expressed in my planting choice – gladioli. I could just stick a few of the big bulbs in my assigned front-row plot in the spring and in the summer – bingo. Visitors to our back garden never said, “Oh, I do like the potatoes and carrots”. They couldn’t see past the gladioli doing their ostentatious thing. I always felt like I was somehow cheating but I could never figure out to whom I should confess.

One afternoon when my parents were away for the day, they left clear instructions as to how I was to weed the shallots, of which we had a long, raised bed. Like I said, I was not a natural weeder – I thought of my approach as being more scientific and effective. To me weeding seemed like work and not suitable for a pleasant Saturday. So I roped in my friend Philip Brown to help – he was our doctor’s son who was visiting and surely he would share my technical approach to things. My brainwave was to remove all the plants of every kind from the raised bed – shallots and weeds alike. Then, once the weeds were discarded en masse one could clean off the shallots and pop them back in again. I couldn’t imagine how no-one had ever thought of this before.

Apparently, there’s a good reason why our novel method had remained untried. It doesn’t work. It ruins the planting of the shallots. It causes your parents to have to plant new shallots all over again. For me the only good thing that come out of this exercise was Philip’s presence. My parents held his father the doctor in very high regard so his association with the weeding venture somewhat took the edge of blame off me.

The back garden also accommodated two sheds. One was a henhouse. My mother wasn’t about to put all that good Donegal hen-keeping training to waste. The other was the “coal-house”. This had originally been designed to house our coal. In those days the “coal-man” would come on schedule and manhandle the required number of bags into a bunker within the shed. By the time I was attending secondary school I regarded the rest of the coalhouse as my own exclusive scientific laboratory.

Some kind relative had given me a chemistry set at Christmas and that was enough to get me going. I tried every experiment in the instruction booklet and then set off on a teenage-scientific career of my own. It beat weeding any day.

I started with making cuprammonium crystals – ridiculously easy to make by adding copper sulphate to ammonium. You can easily grow them up to half an inch long and you can easily convince your mother that such a lovely creation makes the whole coalhouse lab a worthwhile pursuit.

Thus emboldened, I went on to make coal-gas using the test-tubes supplied in the set. You could set fire to the little flame of gas. I thought this was appropriate for a coalhouse, never imagining the havoc that would have been wreaked had the whole shed gone up. Manufacture of hydrogen was now calling and I rose to that task too. It doesn’t burn with a small flame but it explodes with a hopefully “small pop” – well, the booklet said it would be a small pop. Now it was time for pharmaceuticals.

It had become known to me that you could write away for mail-order supplies of chemicals if you wanted to mix a new compound (I think it was written on the original cardboard box the set came in). And there was indeed a new compound I wanted to make. Our parents long had extolled the virtues of Andrews Liver Salt and I discovered that it tells you on the tin exactly what’s in there (I guess they legally have to). My supplies duly arrived and I did the mix and drank it. I waited and waited but it never produced the normal laxative effect. Either I got the formula wrong or I had, by that time, developed a cast-iron constitution.

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