Why I Can’t Smell, or Blowing Up the Science Lab

It often comes up in conversation that I cannot smell a thing. Not even strong chemical smells or gas. I only have four senses – my sense of smell is completely gone, and will be forever.

Nope – wasn’t born that way. Heck, I remember growing up, all the way from downstairs I could tell you if we were having cheese dogs or regular hot dogs for dinner. I was a sophomore in high school (10th grade) when I lost my sense of smell in a science lab experiment gone horrifically wrong. This was to be the first of two incidents directly involving me, and the high school science lab.

The first incident was the one in which I lost my sense of smell. The second one was just a very hands-on lesson in the surprising properties of certain molecular compounds.

Fall, 1986. By this time I was driving my parents’ Chevette to school every day, as I had to be at the Bus Barn by 5:30 each morning to run the airport school bus route.

My 6th period class that semester (right before I would return to the Bus Barn each day for the afternoon run) was Physics. We were boiling water and several mostly inert (non-reactive) ingredients in beakers, then we were supposed to identify the resulting compound by smell.  The winning answer was sulfur, but everyone kept guessing it was ammonia. Finally, in a subdued fit of bad judgment, our teacher retrieved a 5 gallon glass jug of commercial grade ammonia from a cabinet in the classroom, opened it, and carefully poured out a capful of it to pass around. In this way, he reasoned, we could smell what ammonia smells like, and differentiate that smell from the sulfur we were obtusely cooking up in our beakers.

Commercial grade ammonia is undiluted. The ammonia you buy in the store is 10% ammonia, 90% water. Commercial grade ammonia is 100% pure ammonia. Ten times stronger. Nothing could go wrong with this plan, just nothing at all.

So we are all passing around this capful of commercial grade ammonia, and as it gets to me and I lower my nose for a good whiff, Dan comes hurdling up behind me in a rubber band fight with another student, and crashes into the back of me.

The capful of ammonia went into may face, most of it up my nose. Very luckily, nothing but the fumes (which were horrible) got into my eyes. So I’ standing there yelling in pain, blood literally squirting out of my nose and onto the floor. The teacher got my face washed in the emergency washing station immediately, and gave me a towel to hold to my bleeding nose.

Well, the recovery from that was long and uncomfortable, but eventually the membranes inside my nose rejuvenated themselves, and I was okay, except that the nerve endings in my sinuses that lead to the olfactory center in my brain were burned off, not unlike taking a Bic lighter to the ends of a pair of shoestrings. From that day on, I have never been able to smell a thing. That luckily, was the only permanent damage.

My second accident in the science lab, later that semester, did not result in any injury or property damage. It did, however, come uncomfortably close to blowing the east wing of the school off.

For this experiment, we were back to boiling stuff in beakers, over Bunsen burners. This time it was just salt water though. The exercise was to boil salt water until there was nothing but salt left, then measure the purity of the salt.

Depending on how much water you put in your beaker, this could be rather time consuming. So we all got bored waiting for our beakers of salt water to boil – the boiling time was affected not only by the amount of water in the beaker, but also by the salinity of the water. So, high school students being what they are, we started amusing ourselves by sticking things in the flame of the Bunsen burners to watch them burn, melt, or glow, depending on the material.

And it caught on. Soon almost everyone was sticking something in their Bunsen Burner – a pencil, the end of a ruler, a Bic pen, a paper clip glowing red hot – hey, this last one gave me an idea. I was always fascinated by the way metal behaves in a hot flame – the way it glows and becomes more bendable always intrigued me for some reason. So here’s this little strip of metal I found on top of the counter – about 3 inches long and a quarter of an inch wide. This will be sorta cool.

What I didn’t know (nor would it have mattered if I did) was that I had found myself an improperly discarded little strip of pure magnesium just lying around.

Magnesium is an interesting metal. It has a very low flash point and a very high sustained burn temperature. For those of us who thought in high school that Physics was something that happened in the gym, that means that even though it’s metal, magnesium bursts into flame quite easily, and burns at white – hot temperatures of around 1200 degrees Fahrenheit.

You learn something every day.

So here I am – directly underneath the gas pipes leading to the Bunsen burners – holding this strip of metal in the flame of the burner, when a huge white star of fire erupts on the countertop, engulfing the burner and my beaker. It sounded like lighting 100 sparklers all at once. (Magnesium is actually used to make sparklers and other fireworks – the strip of metal I had contained enough magnesium to make 20 – 30 sparklers, easily.)  Of course, I instinctively dropped it, so that the white hot flame was now heating the gas pipes leading from the gas main to the burner heads. Our teacher calmly turned off the main gas valve to the burners, got a chemical fire extinguisher, and put the fire out.

My salt water experiment was toast. But the teacher didn’t mind, he just dealt with the problem, made sure I was okay, and told me he was glad that my hand and the east wing of the school were still both there. I had to stay a bit late, help clean up the mess, and answer a few questions about how I thought the saltwater experiment would have turned out if I hadn’t attempted to ignite a small sun under my experiment. I answered the questions correctly, still got an A, and was sent off just a few minutes behind schedule for my afternoon bus run.  

After that class I took a healthy interest instead in Biology (even throughout college) – there were a lot fewer explosions in that field of study. Though fascinated by Physics, I always struggled with the equations (high math has always been a bit of an Achilles’ Heel for me) and was obviously far too much of a klutz to be trusted with volatile compounds.  

That was pretty much the end of my short career as a student scientist, and a blackened beaker and permanently closed off olfactory nerves were all I had to show for it.

Batman and the Willow Tree

In the winter of 1976, Northern Wyoming experienced one of the worst cold snaps on record. I remember it well – on the day after Christmas 1976, we awoke to a beautiful blue sky, and three feet of freshly fallen snow.

The outside temperature that morning was – 65 (that’s 65 degrees below zero) Fahrenheit. And that is without the wind chill factor. That’s cold enough to freeze engine oil solid, and cold enough to cause instant frostbite to the membranes and tissues in your throat and mouth. You have to cover your face and breathe only through your nose in those temperatures. Without a heavy goose down parka, heavy mittens, wool socks, moon boots, and extreme cold weather head gear, hypothermia would take hold in less than 15 minutes.

Another thing we noticed was that the huge old willow tree in our front yard was beautiful – its branches a crystalline frost white.

It was also dead – killed by temperatures willow trees just aren’t supposed to be exposed to. In the spring, we were forced to cut the old tree down. Its stump remained for a few years to come – we finally had it removed in 1980 as part of some improvements we were making to the yard at the time.

Willow trees are most commonly found in America in the southern portions of the Midwest and in the southern states. They are susceptible to cold temperatures, as we found out. What a large willow tree was doing in the front yard of a country home in Northern Wyoming is anyone’s guess. I suppose the man who built the house and the Blockplant planted the willow tree for one reason or another.

We had always sort of adored that willow tree. It seemed like a kind of sentinel, something that somehow defined the uniqueness (and major strangeness) of the property. It was really sad, for all of us, I think, to see it go.

Like I said, the stump of the old tree remained for a few years. For one reason or another, that stump became one of my brother’s and mine favorite little play areas. We would play ‘King of the Hill,” trying to knock each other off the stump. We also used it as a podium where we gave speeches mocking our most mock-able teachers. Heh.

We also used the stump for our GI Joe adventures and other action – figure related activities.

My mom always referred to this as “you boys playing with your dolls,” but we were NOT playing with dolls. We were playing with our action figures, thank you very much.

 And it wasn’t just GI Joes, either (we had the old school GI Joes, too – the ones that are worth bank today). Some of our favorite action figures were Captain Kirk, Spock, Shazam (if you remember Shazam you probably have a few gray hairs, just like me), Aquaman (majorly collectable today), Bullet Man, the Six Million Dollar Man, his robot nemesis I now forget the name of – another rare collectable – well, you get the idea. And we had the Enterprise Bridge for Kirk and Spock too, and the GI Joe Mobile Support Vehicle – that was one ridiculously cool toy (that one was my brother’s, dammit).

We used to load up the GI Joe Mobile Support Vehicle with every single GI Joe accoutrement we could think of and take the whole thing, along with our GI Joes, out to the stump and play there for hours, the stump of course being the objective of our mission – the stump could be a castle, a mountain, whatever.

And for some reason Captain Kirk wound up with Shazam in my Tonka Winnebago Motorhome (I still have that one) packed to the nines with GI Joe gear.   Hmmm – must have been an away mission or something. Hope they got permission from GI Joe. (You might remember the ‘70s Saturday morning live action “Shazam!” show, in which Shazam and some old dude traipsed around the country in a Dodge Winnebago motorhome and got into generally impossible scenarios, which often involved Isis, from another TV show called, appropriately enough, “Isis.” So that was probably where we go this particular idea.) 

And of course, we can’t forget our Batman and Robin dol……  er, I mean, action figures. Batman and Robin were the only action figures we ever had who failed one of the missions we invented for them with our imaginations. I really don’t know why. Maybe we were just sick of them – I mean, we had to put up with these two on Superfriends (Superfriends and Scooby Doo, Where Are You? were pretty much our favorite after school cartoons) just about every day after school. Or maybe Batman and Robin just looked too stupid behind the wheel of either my Winnebago or the GI Joe Mobile Support Vehicle.

Whatever the reason, Batman and Robin went out to willow stump in the GI Joe Mobile Support Vehicle and never came back. They got their butts handed to them by the mummy from the GI Joe Secret of the Mummy’s Tomb play set (also lost to history – too bad too, that set goes for $300 on E Bay now!) . That was the prevailing story our imaginations kicked up, anyway. So, in a cruel twist of irony and sadistic glee (well, for the mummy, anyway) Batman and Robin were buried alive at the base of the willow stump.

I actually think we meant to go out there and retrieve our ill-fated dynamic duo, but we sort of forgot about them by the time dad had the stump removed, and so the action figures went along with it.

Hardly a fitting end for the Caped Crusader and his Boy Wonder. Oh, well.

I visited the old house, by invitation of the current occupants, this summer when I went back and visited my hometown. I got a surprise – a new adult willow tree now stood six feet to the north of where the old one had been. The occupants had no idea how it had sprung up, it just broke ground one day by itself, and they decided to give it a chance. And it thrived.

Although I somewhat euphemistically like to think that the house – or more precisely its lingering, ghostly occupants of old – wanted the willow tree back, I have to recognize that logically, it must have just been a matter of time with a portion of the root structure left underground. Even then, it’s taken 37 years to grow back. I guess it’s like they say – the more things change, the more they really do, sometimes, at least, stay the same.