It was a more innocent time – the early 1980s – a time when New Wave music filled the air and when blowing up pumpkins and setting things on fire in the desert was not a crime worthy of visit by officials from the Department of Homeland Security.
This was a good thing for my 17-year old brother, who was creative and a bit mischievous, and very, very smart. Think Bart Simpson with a 180 IQ.
He had long had an affinity for blowing things up and/or setting them on fire. He used to love to take a can of Lysol and my mother’s cigarette lighter, then spray the Lysol and light it on fire. Look kids! A do-it-yourself flamethrower! Did I mention he did this in the living room of a home furnished entirely in the 1970s, aka, pre-flame retardant?
His love of fire and explosions led to his love of chemistry. After all, chemistry is the science responsible for fireworks. And fireworks are awesome.
He was so good at chemistry his junior year that the teacher made him an assistant the following year. This, of course, gave him unfettered access to all the lab’s chemicals and, as it turns out, my brother had sticky fingers.*
He ‘borrowed’ some of said chemicals to augment his home chemistry set. One fall afternoon, he decided to add some stuff together in a copper tube and, in the words of the immortal Foghorn Leghorn, watch it fizz.
Fizz it did. Years later when I asked my brother about it, he said he knew something was very wrong because the tube got very hot. Hot is not a good thing when (a) you’re not expecting it, and (b) you’re a 17-year old kid mixing chemicals in your bedroom.
The resulting explosion sounded like a shotgun blast. My parents came running and found their son standing by his desk, blood running down his arm and a big chunk of the wall missing. They went into parental overdrive, which is to say they started yelling, pointing at things, screaming and running to find the car keys.
My 14-year old sister, clad in her mustard yellow and mold green band uniform, helped by running back and forth like a deranged chicken. She made this strange shrieking sound and, with the band uniform and its ridiculous hat, she looked like a very agitated nutcracker.
Being just 8-years old, I was pretty clueless about the whole thing. My brother held a rag to his hand, which covered up the bleeding, so I didn’t understand the enormity of what had just happened. However, I knew shit was getting real when my father propped my ghost white brother up against the laundry room door and my brother promptly fainted. Problem was, the laundry room door hadn’t been latched, so my brother fell backward to the floor, his skull making a sickening cracking sound as it hit the orange, yellow and brown linoleum. (Ah, the 1970s. What gifts you gave us.)
I don’t remember what happened next. Somehow my sister got to the football game, meaning she actually wore that hideous uniform in public. And we got my brother to the hospital, a stressful 40-minute drive from our house.
I watched as they used this big machine to pick copper shards out of my brother’s eyes. His hand was stitched up, his eyes were covered in gooey ointment and bandages, and all we went home.
His eyes recovered and his hand, save for a small scar, was fine. My parents promptly removed all contents from his room and put a permanent end to the bedroom laboratory, but it wasn’t long before he was back to making flame throwers with the Lysol can. And blowing things up in the desert.
My brother’s chemistry career was far from over. He just learned the value of using glass tubes instead of metal ones.
*UPDATE: My brother Jeff responds:
“BTW the chemicals I used for that little experiment were all procured legitimately. The chem lab was good for a few aromatic items, but the stockroom was somewhat lacking in pyrotechnic materials. And it blew a chunk out of the curtains, not the wall, but I did have a piece of copper lodged in my forehead between my eyes that grew out a few weeks later. It was the world’s first semi-precious zit.”