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The Mad Chemist

by Stanley Scislowski

Whenever I happen to run into old classmates of mine from Windsor Vocational School (later known as Lowe Tech), class of 1940 or '41, we invariably reminisce about some of the zany incidents that took place in that 'one of a kind' school.

Back then, I was known to the guys in my class as the 'Mad Chemist', or 'Homer'since I specialized in chemistry, the only student in the whole school of close to 2000 who dared take up the subject and because I wrote a couple of poems. But this account I'm about to relate is not about my dubious talent of composing deathless poetry, it's about my dangerous preoccupation with properties hazardous to life and limb of both myself and those close by.

One time that stands above all others is when Lorne McGee, the chemistry instructor, was absent for six weeks due to a serious operation, and I was left with no assignments to carry out. Since I was the only student occupying space in the lab, I decided to make chemistry far more interesting.
What enthralled me was to concoct any mixture that either made smoke, fire, stunk to high heaven, produced fancy colours or made a heck of a lot of noise. As I leafed through a thick book on organic compounds I came across something that captured my attention: methyl mercaptan, said to be amongst the most smelliest compounds known to man and used as an additive to natural gas (which is odourless) so that it could be detected in case of leaks.

Fine and dandy! An overpowering desire enveloped me and I set about to make the stuff in the fume cabinet, of course. There were several stages of production involving simple mixing of three compounds, each of which did not have the pleasant odour of roses. Then there was a distillation, followed by another form of distillation known as refluxing. As is natural for budding chemists, my nose gradually became desensitized to the developing stink.

As I waited for the final stage of manufacturing this horrendously stinky concoction, I strolled over to the windows on the Parent Avenue side of the classroom to see what might be passing by, only to be shocked to discover what seemed like the entire student body out on the badminton courts and on the sidewalk, all looking up at where I stood at the window. In my naivete, I muttered to myself, "Gee, I never heard any fire drill bells go off. I wonder why everybody's outside."

Just then into the laboratory rushed Mr. Lowe the principal with a flushed and pained look on his face, holding his nose, exclaiming through convulsive gasps, "Stanley, Stanley, what have you done? I've had to evacuate the whole school!"

For this misadventure I thought I'd be expelled or at least receive 10 sharp lashes of leather belting on each hand, but I did not. All Mr. Lowe did was mildly admonish me and suggest that I should choose something far less discomforting to compound during Mr. McGee's absence.

I was not to be denied the lure for the spectacular however. A couple of weeks later I decided to make the most sensitive explosive ever known: nitrogen iodide, which was not a high explosive, but was in the class of those known as initiators that set off high explosives. My eyes sparkled at the thought of what I could do.

A very simple mixture it was which I will not divulge here for obvious reasons. It was so sensitive that it was too dangerous to work with. The book said that it would explode at room temperature, and could go off even when a fly walked across it. Again, those sparkling eyes of mine or maybe it was that mad chemist smile that flickered across my face.

And so I set to work. No sooner had the last drop of ammoniacal liquid exited the funnel in which sat the filter paper holding the mass of explosive iodide, when a crystal popped, sending the filter paper flying onto the floor and scattering hundreds of crystals. “No problem!" I thought. “I’ll just get a wet rag and wipe them up and bottle it with all the crystals and take them home to have my fun.

Suddenly, in swarmed a class of rowdy students, five of whom, instead of turning sharply left and walking past the blackboards to the lecture room, walked straight ahead to where I was about to mop up. Crystals began popping under their feet with machine-gun rapidity. Pretty soon half the class got into the act, stomping away with great glee. Man! You'd think there was a battle going on by the sound of things.

Thank god Mr. Lowe was never aware of this latest misadventure of mine or he'd have sent me packing for sure.



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