Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Over The River

“What day is it?” she asks a nurse who brings her medication.

“It’s Sunday sweetie,” says the nurse, who hands her a paper medication cup. “Here, take this.”

Lucille smiles and takes a tablet, places it on her tongue, and with an exaggerated grimace, sips water from a bent straw in a plastic tumbler.

         “It’s stuck,” she says, wrinkling her nose and sipping again.

         “You always say that,” laughs the nurse. “Take another drink.”

Lucille hands the glass back to Rachel, the nice nurse.

         “You need anything else?” asks Rachel.

Lucille thinks for a moment and then says, “I’m cold,” more to prolong the interaction than to address the temperature in the eighty-degree room.

Rachel dutifully adjusts Lucille’s shawl and the blanket on her legs.

“Is that all sweetie?”

Lucille nods and thanks her, then asks,

         “What day is it?”

         “It’s Sunday. Don’t you have a visitor on Sundays?” she says.

         “Yes!” Lucille smiles and says, “Thank you honey.”


From the comfort of her favorite chair she stares at snowflakes gently falling through the light that spills from her window into the adjacent courtyard. The giant flakes swirl in the fading daylight, mingling with a few windblown brown leaves into small, unseen drifts against the north wall of the Hope building. The way they appear and disappear in the shaft of fluorescent light is vaguely reminiscent. She frowns as the tantalizing recollection slips from her mental grasp and like the snow, is lost from view. 

 

She spends her days alone in a place of unfamiliar faces and the stench of excrement and antiseptic cleanser. Her fading memories fall to the gleaming tile floor, swept away each night like her small collection of paper napkins, straws and sugar packets. Her minor hoarding provides her with a limited sense of control over her surroundings now that many of her life’s pleasures are forgotten. Fortunately, so are many of her pains.

 

As the holiday season approaches, the silence and darkness of the night close in like a quilted blanket at the end of another cycle in what seems an endless day of days. She has outlived most of her family and friends. The time and place she occupies have become strangers. The curse of advancing dementia offers a blessing that shields her from thoughts best left unremembered. Even her window affords her a blank slate with an unstimulating view.

 

We walk slowly past countless closed and open doors and nameless wrinkled faces. Across a darkened courtyard window Grandma waits, standing now and shuffling between her bed and the window, backlit like an image on a television screen and slumping forward with rounded shoulders to study her uncertain footing. It is at this very spot in an hour or so that she will watch us leave, tugging at a sleeve or pocket to produce a mandatory white silk square. She will wave that handkerchief in a personal semaphore to bid us on our way as we grow smaller and eventually disappear around a bend in the hallway. Such has always been her way.

 

Her eyes sparkle as we begin the hour in a hundred we find to spend together. Those moments we manage to wrench from our seasonal chores are not relinquished easily. At the end of an hour of nagging sorrow and a dozen repetitions of the same conversation we are forced to leave despite her protests. Still, we harvest a beam of sunlight she sowed and nurtured long ago. She shares stories in a season that draws those memories closer, providing kindling for a long-term memory that blazes in her mind beyond the short-term vacuum of today and the expanding gulf that lies between the present and the past.

 

             “Do you remember,” she begins, “the year it snowed like tonight?” 

 

I turn my head toward the window to forge the connection.

 

            “That turkey was a big one,” she says, “…almost didn’t fit in the oven.” She glows with pride and glistens with tears of joy.

 

I look into my wife’s eyes, signaling, “Help me remember this. Be my witness, because this is going to tear at the very heart of me.” She nods her understanding and takes my hand.

 

Grandma proceeds to relate, with surprising clarity and detail, a tale of the most magical of my Thanksgivings. It begins, sandwiched one frigid automobile journey between two slices of warmth called home and Grandma's house.

 

Under a sky, darkening gray, the bellies of clouds swell with the promise of snow. Familiar landmarks drift past the right side of the family car. I sit gazing outward from the back seat, alternately pressing my nose against the cold glass of the window and creating a circle of foggy breath in which one gloveless hand un-paints various letters and shapes. Vanishing in the heat of the car's interior, one exhaled "Haaaah" brings my tracings back to life and I either modify or swipe the moisture aside with my hand to renew the canvas. 

 

The passing scenery appears artificial as it scrolls from left to right beyond the shoulder of the road. Once we close and lock the doors we are transported by some unknown means that Daddy accomplishes. We cross the Chicago River at a point where he comments that Great Grandma's grave is past the woods in a cemetery not far from where we are headed. Daddy's grandma. I am too young to understand how he could have one. I pause in silence for a moment to peer through my window drawings at the spot where perhaps I can glimpse this lady who is somehow more of a grandma than my own.

 

It is at this point that we realize we’re getting closer. And Mommy seems to know it too, for she begins to help Daddy drive the car, telling him which way to turn and reading the names of streets as we pass them. Daddy invariably makes funny faces. No matter how many other cars as big and round as ours we see, he always manages to get us to our destination and bring us safely home again.

 

Grandma lives on the second floor of a six-flat near Clark Street in the city. Hers is the brown brick house with leaded stained-glass inserts on each side of a heavy wooden door. There are eight wide polished marble stairs up to the second-level landing and another massive entrance that emits a funny buzzing noise when it is time for us to enter. Emerging from the car, our Noah's ark, two children and two parents separate at this point as my big sister and I take off for Grandma's door. She stands above and to our left in the window of her front porch, glowing as we spot her, waving and turning to reach for the buzzer while Mommy and Daddy fumble over shopping bags in the trunk of the car.

 

We wait impatiently as parents struggle with the heavy entryway. The musty wooden aroma of the foyer soaks us to the skin, melding with the fragrant potpourri of cooking smells that wash over us as grandparents stand aside, anxiously beckoning us inward.

 

What follows is a blur of hugs and treats and kisses and affection and food. The six of us create the commotion of sixty. Grandma works her yearly magic in the kitchen, shooing us away from underfoot, teasing with dishes of impossibly large olives, green and black, a glimpse of whipped cream, butterscotch and pumpkin pies, and a white Wedgwood boat of giblet gravy. A bag of candy is tucked up under the supports of the dining room table where only I can crawl to find it, coaxing a smile from the serious chef upon its discovery and my resultant joy. At the kitchen counter she hand-whips a mountain of steaming mashed potatoes while Grandpa withdraws the perfectly browned and sizzling, dripping bird from the oven for eventual carving. 

 

With fifty years of far from perfect intervening Thanksgivings, I imagine myself enter the scene at this point in the story. Even in Grandma’s telling, it is clear that I am acting out the starring role. Through the clatter of passing dishes, knives and forks, giggles, compliments, and seasonal conversation, I ache with knowing how quickly it will pass and long to bring pause for a moment to the seeming perfection that we achieve together.

 

In the voice of my younger self, I speak to my family of then with words from now through the little man who took for granted all that happened on that marvelous day. From my place at one corner of the massive table I issue a non sequitur during a brief break in the conversation.

 

         "Oh, how I miss you all so very much."

 

And the look of love and pride in the eyes of those whose voices have since been stilled by time or circumstance turn to me and briefly speak in ghostly unified response to my quizzical remark.

 

         "Yes, honey, we know, we miss you too..." 

 

         “The table’s not that long, stupid,” chides my sister, playing for a laugh.

 

The meal continues as it was meant to be while a rare and glorious November snow drifts quietly against the building under a window where we sit and eat our Thanksgiving dinner. There has never since been a snow like that, so gentle, soft and slowly turning, lacy-white against the black-draped streetlights. Nor has there been another gathering so exquisitely choreographed and performed. And then it was over.

 

The flakes cling to our hats and lashes, muffling our laughter and footsteps as we stroll so very slowly to the car. And while I climb into the auto and up onto the rear deck beneath the large and curving window, stretching lengthwise on my back, Grandma searches her sleeve and pockets to produce a mandatory white silk square. I fix my eyes skyward at the spot where the cascading flakes enter the city streetlight. I turn and wave my mittened hand to Grandma as we pull away. The flakes thicken as the distance grows between us. Her timeless silky white turns into snowy gray.

 

As blocks and miles and time pass far behind us, in the snow that strobes above me from light to light in hypnotic intervals of bright and dark, I drift to sleep and dream of another trip to Grandma's and wonder when the snow, her snow, will come again.

 

***

 

We pass again down the corridor of endless doors and faces. We turn to look through a courtyard window and past the gently falling snow, illuminated against the blackness of the night. Back in the room we’ve just left, Rachel helps Lucille to her feet and leads her to her bed. They pause and turn at an unheard command. I’m sure she sees us. I search my pockets for a white silk square and wave goodbye to Grandma.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Screened

I would like to attribute the following misadventure to my catlike reflexes, but the reality is that inertia and poor balance get the credit for what my body accomplished in Arizona during March of 2004.

My son lived in and loved Tucson during grad school. And long ago I searched for and decided to “Take it Easy” by actually standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona. In 1976 it was a fundamentally boring location but it remains my favorite song. My music-loving daughter wood-burned the title on a plaque for me. But if you’ve never been to a city built in the middle of the desert allow me to enlighten you.

The phrase “death’s door” brings a number of images to mind and resulted in towns named Tombstone, Nothing and El Mirage in Arizona. You can also pass through death’s door in nearby Needles, California or by way of Death Valley, location of the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth. There are any number of ways to unwittingly slip into the afterlife, several of them being in a place where plants grow for hundreds of years without much more than an occasional sip of water. The competition for Earth’s most abundant resource in this locale is so fierce that the plants grow dagger-like spines to protect their water-retaining innards. It is a beautiful, tranquil and most inhospitable place. Scorpions, tarantulas and rattlesnakes call it home. Do you really hate winter enough to move there?

A couple of brief examples from our 2004 vacation demonstrate what living within five percent relative humidity demands of the human body. We went for a walk one morning. I have never been a lean person, and as a result tend to perspire like a spring shower at the mention of exercise. But a half-hour into our gradual uphill stroll I noticed that I felt cool and dry despite the warm temperature and glaring sun. I was being evaporatively cooled! By the end of the walk I was quite thirsty and developed a headache.

It was an eventful day. The beautiful weather enticed us to take advantage of the home’s patio for lunch al fresco. We assembled lovely sandwiches in the kitchen and brought them out to the shaded table behind the house. We ate overlooking a picturesque hillside of sand, scrub brush, stones of many sizes, cacti and I assume, scorpions, tarantulas and rattlesnakes. By the time we took the first bite of our lunch the bread had the crunch and crispness of toast. Oh well, I sometimes like toast. We immediately brought four bottles of water outside and decided to keep them nearby at all times. I was thirsty and close to rekindling my headache.

There were no takers for a trip to the local Biosphere exhibit that afternoon so I went by myself. I found fascinating the idea of an experimental self-sustaining environment in which scientists sequestered themselves for extended research. It was a project intended to test the limits of human endurance in a Mars-like colony sealed off from the world except for communication. The experiment was supposed to last nine months, but for “certain reasons” was halted after six. If that conjures up images of crazed PhDs cannibalizing each other, I’m suggesting nothing of the kind. I think I stumbled onto a cause far more insidious.

I joined a group of perhaps thirty elderly tourists for a trip through the gleaming white geodesic domes and greenhouses of Biosphere 2, now managed by the University of Arizona. They were a slow moving bunch, and it pained me to see my future self illustrated so vividly. But I appreciated their curiosity and active lifestyle until we had to climb several long flights of stairs. I politely took a respectful position at the back of the crowd, the “no, after you” spot where I could be available to call for paramedics or perhaps prevent someone from falling backward down the concrete steps.

In arrears was also the unfortunate vantage point from which I looked up at their rears, a quivering walk of shame from which ripping and tooting uncontrolled flatulence began echoing on the acoustically conducive surfaces all around us. It wasn’t one person or four, but seemed that the entire entourage had dined at the same Mexican restaurant as part of a group package that I had missed. As the herd ascended like waddling penguins, the occurrences grew more frequent and varied in pitch and duration. It was simply musical, percussive and, due to exemplary air handling, inoffensive. But the flapping dance of buttocks, as an adjunct to the droning umpteenth discourse by a clearly bored grad student was more than I could handle. Rather than burst into teary-eyed, doubled over laughter I left the tour early and no doubt missed some of their best refrains.

I returned home just before dinner. It had been decided that I would grill hamburgers out in our mid-day desiccation chamber. Now, I haven’t described the house we rented for this trip. A friend rented it as a favor to trustworthy folks like us at an extremely discounted rate. It was considered their winter retreat. It was a 3000 square foot “cottage” with twelve foot ceilings, spectacular views, an open floor plan with four bedrooms and a “casita” up front which I suspect was used for counting money and dabbling in watercolors. The same couple later built a home in the hills that wound up being featured in Architectural Digest. So we were shocked, pleased and inordinately careful about taking off our shoes and other such good behavior while in the house.

If you’ve read a few of my other blogs, you know of my propensity for setting fires. Please rest assured that I did not burn down our vacation home. That’s not where this is headed. I know how to use a gas grill. The bungee cords that secured its black canvas protection were carelessly splayed out on the ground but the cover was in place and it didn’t seem a likely place for scorpions, tarantulas or rattlesnakes. Or was it perfect for them?

It was dark by the time I was ready to cook, burgers at the ready, plates on the granite countertop just inside the nine-foot tall screened patio door. The dining room table to the left was one of those plate glass numbers that top a massive lacquered tree trunk with branching supports. You know the type. If not, pick up a copy of Architectural Digest. Six chrome and leather bar stools stood like attentive soldiers to the right, a great place for a casual breakfast or for having drinks while the hostess directs caterers around the kitchen.

Anyway, dinner was delicious and a great success. The kids were relaxing, each with their own TV and remote in adjacent rooms. My wife was tidying up the kitchen while I made sure the patio was as we had found it. And that’s when the snake took me by surprise.

A SNAKE! A slithering coiled monster. It was an Anaconda by the feel of it against the tender bottom of my bare and vulnerable foot. But not an Anaconda. No, that didn’t make sense. This was a Diamondback rattler, denizen of the dark, cold-blooded visitor in the night, emerging to seek warmth near the recently heated grill. It need not rattle a warning, my foot planted on its lengthy spine. I could almost feel the piercing fangs as they prepared to inject a load of venom into my leg and sense its paralytic grip coursing through my arteries as it sought out my heart, my lungs, my nerves. All that happened in the first tenth of a second.

Of course it wasn’t a snake, but I had been thinking about them for several days, especially since we drove around a sunbathing giant while out on an otherwise super fun ATV ride. But you wouldn’t believe how much a carelessly placed bungee cord feels like a snake on the bottom of a bare foot.

I performed what can be characterized as a full body clench, a futile attempt to prevent gravity from grasping my mass and pulling it Earthward. There’s no stopping a front leg in motion when said leg is the body’s sole support, back leg having left the ground in what is essentially a controlled forward fall. The first sensation of a round, rubbery object underfoot caused a reflexive desire to avoid landing with my full weight, for fear of hurting either the object or my foot.

What resulted was an unstoppable forward fall, into and through the very tall and expensive screen door. The slow motion liquid that we call time lifted me like an undertow, lofting my entire weight in a crashing wave against comparatively fragile metal fabric, taut within its slender aluminum frame. To say that I broke the screen or pushed it inward is an injustice to the physics of my fall. The screen never ripped. It folded, collapsed, engulfed me like a cocoon, a wire-framed toga, cradling and turning me as I continued my journey through the door’s opening. The next casualty was the drapery that was seldom if ever closed, a decorative tapestry hung some ten feet overhead, ripping asunder like the temple cloth during the crucifixion. It is important to note that my wife and kids were watching this happen.

I now faced left, viewing the perilously close plate glass plateau, inches away. But the row of bar stools behind me were impacted next, like so many dominoes toppling one after the other in a crash, crash, crash that was not only a marvelous noise generator but quite a dramatic continuation of the wave metaphor, spilling onto the sandy beach that was the plush tan living room carpet.

Eventually I came to rest, as all great objects must. I was gratefully unhurt but trapped in a brown metal sarcophagus that no longer resembled a barrier against an evening breeze. It was ruined. The drapes were torn. The table was spared and the bar stools were only knocked over. As I began to laugh, harder and longer than possibly at any time in my life, I drew the ire of my nearby wife, mortified at what I had just accomplished in a few seconds of our cautious existence within this marvelous house. The kids also exploded in giggling, amazed amusement despite fiery looks from Mom, and are laughing to this day, also I assume in relief because Dad was apparently ok, but also because the show he had just completed was a memorable and spectacular performance, unexpected and unrivaled during subsequent vacations.

When emotions settled down and with no small effort I was unpackaged. We dragged the remnants of the screen door into the garage and attempted to unbend, straighten and hammer out the creases and folds that aluminum produces when treated like cardboard. It was hopeless. We called the owners to explain the new door they’d eventually notice. They were gracious. We just assumed we’d never be invited back. Other destinations awaited.

 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Never Forget

We are entering an era in which the oldest among us are the youngest who endured life in the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. The last camp liberated was Stutthof on May 9th, 1945. As of this writing, that is seventy-five years ago. I was born nine years later, so this may seem like comparatively ancient history to a teenager in 2020, and in fact it felt that way to me until I gained the perspective of age. That is when I realized that there is but a sliver of time between my childhood, one spent blissfully playing with friends in the vacant lot next door, collecting lightning bugs and being called in for dinner on endless summer evenings, and a horror that descended upon the Earth like a deliberate and dark cloud of poison and pain. They say we should never forget, but many of us already have.

I had a little camera when I was young. It took pictures on film that I used sparingly, precious at twelve to a roll. The man behind the counter at the local Walgreens to whom I handed the exposed film carefully labeled and placed it in an envelope to be sent out for processing. A week later if all went well, a dozen black and white images were ready to be picked up by a ten-year old boy whose patience was far from his greatest strength. I rode my bicycle to the store rather than wait for a ride from my busy mother. That envelope held wonders from the distant past a week before, moments frozen in time with the month and year imprinted in tiny black characters on the white border of the glossy, square photo paper. Moments that I saw with my own eyes. Moments that I could revisit.

I later became interested in the mechanics of photography, the seemingly magical appearance of a hoped for image emerging in gently swirling baths of developer and fixer under a dangling red safelight in my basement. I dried the pictures on a clothesline, pinned side-by-side overhead near my enlarger, chemical bottles and other supplies. There was no distracting Internet then, no video games and really not that much television. Many years later I was fortunate to manage a small photography department with two wonderful photographers. Together we navigated the rapid transition from film to digital photography, but the resulting prints were as magical as ever. A picture worth a thousand words indeed; we produced billions.

During my twenties my best friend and I spent so much time together his mother called me her “other son.” We were both fatherless by this time. She was a charming British woman, deserving of the nickname “Queen Mum” among those who loved her. Frequent holiday visitors to her lovely colonial style home included Aunt Lil, a sweetheart of a lady who smiled generously, spoke with an accent reminiscent of the Bronx and seemed to drift from room to room like an apparition. Her brother, Uncle Angelo effectively represented the Italian lineage in the small family. A New York cabbie with thick dark-rimmed glasses, short in stature but large in demeanor, he dreamed of someday being a famous singer, and would have been a big hit in bars had he not predated karaoke by several decades. His was the voice of Bing Crosby, a crooner to the core. But the world didn’t need another Bing, so Angelo sang for family or on tape, but nothing more.

Lil and Angelo were the fond familial remnants of my friend’s late father. Both single, they lived together in a rent-controlled apartment in New York. They went through tough times, a Depression and a World War in which their youngest brother, a soldier took a British war bride to America and settled in the lower east side of Manhattan. In their brother’s absence, the strength of his devotion lived on in the tenuous bond, that obligatory honoring of extended family that endures beyond loss, and among the best of us. There was a very subtle sense of tolerance on the part of the Queen, much like the frequent eye rolling my mother demonstrated upon visits from “Cousin Kurt” of my father’s clan, only more gracious. I now imagine these things in hindsight from the stored intuition that emerges with adult perspective of distant memories.

It was shortly after college and after one such family gathering that my friend and I slipped away to his nearby apartment to relax and have a few beers. In an age before recreational marijuana, we excelled secretly at the forbidden intoxicant, surrounding ourselves with pre-purchased food, and generally schemed to surprise each other with astounding revelations. You know, blow my mind, I dare you. It was fairly easy to do in that condition. We opened up vulnerable neural pathways to all things amusing or amazing.

The family time earlier that day set the stage for what was to follow. About half a pizza into the evening, I found myself silently confronted by my friend’s outstretched arm, a yellowed envelope in his hand.

            “Take a look at these,” was all he said.

I carefully opened the clearly ancient paper vessel and saw the edges of photographs much like the ones I’d excitedly received at Walgreens so many years earlier. Just like them. But not.

            “Oh, cool, what…” was as far as I got.

Into my hands spilled a series of black and white photos, a bit faded but still vivid and entirely genuine.

            “They were my Dad’s. He was there. He took them,” said my friend.

By now we’ve all seen the documentaries, Shindler’s List, countless interviews and anniversary newscasts. But in my hand, like the little black and white squares I produced as a kid, were moments in time as seen through the eyes of a soldier, a liberator in 1945. The film, the camera, the lens through which were focused the horrific historic images I was about to review one after another, were in a Nazi concentration camp at the end of the war. My hands began to tremble. I could no longer shelter in place in the distant future. I mentally traversed a bridge in time to a place no one should see. 

There were the skeletal survivors, the camp clothing, shaved heads and gaunt faces. Huge piles of corpses in open mass graves, interrupted burials, naked and dehumanized people tossed like misshapen branches onto a fire. Parents, aunts, uncles and children, herded and paraded like tortured animals. During these preserved moments there was captured on the victims’ hollow faces, in their eyes, an emotional cocktail of gratitude, of distrust and disbelief. They had been lied to, tormented and humiliated, long and often. Liberated. A relief only death had provided for years. These were not actors, extras. They were not the displayed images from a holocaust museum. The fragments of history I held were unique, seen by very few, but they corroborated the many stories and other more widely known imagery from that shameful human tragedy. Man versus man. Man become demon.

We cried. The pictures were carefully put away. We will never forget.

 

  

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Falling For You

I looked down a flight of stairs longer and steeper than any I’d seen since climbing the pyramid at Chichen Itza. They led to the basement in the home of my mother’s 90-year-old cousin who lived alone in Iowa. They also led to her death. My own slight anxiety, tightly grasping the handrail, was justified. Several years later we could only imagine the misstep that sent cousin Ruth tumbling head over heels down her treacherous carpeted staircase. We wondered how long she lay on the basement floor, neck and back broken, with internal injuries, before she was found.

That brief story is background information for a similar episode that I witnessed and that had a better outcome. You see, falls are the leading cause of fatal injury among older adults, one every nineteen minutes. After about age sixty-five you really don’t want to have stairs in your house if it can be avoided.

During the 1970s commuting to college meant getting up early to catch a train or making an hour-long drive to the university I attended in Chicago. My grandmother lived with me at the time. I was twenty and she was seventy-two. We got along famously, but occasionally behaved like a bickering old married couple. We had daily delivery of the Chicago Tribune, tossed unceremoniously onto the apron of our long driveway in the darkness of the very early morning. Before I left for school I made a point of retrieving the paper and leaving it on the kitchen table for Grandma to enjoy later in the day. That and the soap opera General Hospital were two highlights of her mostly sedentary existence.

My goal each day was to quietly go out the back door, pick up the Trib, lay it on the table and then head off to school without waking Grandma. There was no point in waking her. I poured a bowl of cereal as quietly as possible, ate my breakfast of champions and tried to sneak out in as much silence as a small brick ranch would allow.

I’m not sure when a new pattern emerged, but upon entering the house with the newspaper, there would be Grandma waiting to take the paper and see me off. You need to understand something about this woman. Many years earlier, holiday visits to her apartment in the city always culminated in somewhat misty-eyed goodbyes as we drove away. We looked back to see her standing in the front window of her second floor Brownstone waving a white hanky as if we were headed off to war. It was her thing, and in hindsight was adorable and a fond memory. I have often joked that I come just short of this tradition (no hanky) when our adult children drive away from a visit to our home in Florida. I just hate to see them leave and wish they wouldn’t find me so annoying.

So there is Grandma standing just inside the back door each morning no matter how fast I try to retrieve the paper and bring it back to the house. I realize in hindsight that this became a game. It was the Olympic newspaper event, and seldom resulted in a medal-worthy performance by yours truly. She was just that fast, rising from a sound sleep at the sound of my spoon in a bowl of Captain Crunch, shuffling to the back door with sleep in her eyes. Now that I think about it, perhaps a quieter cereal like oatmeal would have improved my odds, but that would have required use of a noisy microwave and the danger of a cycle-ending beep.

Each day I tried harder, moved faster, eventually breaking into a run only to find my smiling Grandmother waiting with her hand out and a ready kiss goodbye, no hanky necessary. I know that I told her repeatedly that it wasn’t necessary to meet me at the door. I would leave the paper on the table for her.

Things proceeded, growing increasingly competitive. An imaginary starting gun and streamers lined the driveway. My time for the fifty-foot dash improved dramatically but was never quite good enough.

And then came that morning. That fateful morning when the competition ended. Out of breath from my driveway sprint I threw open the screen door and Grandma wasn’t there to meet me. I almost yelled, “Ah HA!” in triumph, but looked down and saw something that didn’t make sense. There on the landing to the basement stairs were Grandma’s bedroom slippers, side by side as if neatly arranged for effect. Was she mocking me?

But my attention shifted to the stairs. There may have been a muffled groan, I don’t recall, but there at the bottom of the stairs on the tiled concrete floor was a crumpled body, perpendicular to the last step and looking small, broken and oddly situated.

I bounded down the stairs, nearly slipping on dribbled urine that was left behind during Grandma’s tumbling descent. I assumed I would be picking up her lifeless corpse and carrying her body upstairs before calling for help. But as I approached, one of the nine lives of this legendary survivor kicked in. It was almost like an apparition from a movie, when the spirit of a recently dead character rises above the body unaware that anything has happened. In fact, she got up, muttered, “What the Hell happened?” and headed back upstairs.

            “Oh, there are my slippers!” she remarked. I can only imagine at the nature of the precipitous swan dive that allowed her feet to leave her footwear exactly where she had arrived at the head of the stairs. It was as if she had climbed to the summit of a three-meter platform and carefully stepped to the edge, held her arms out and accomplished a twisting double gainer into the basement. I followed her, stunned by her apparently uninjured condition and the feeling of having been missed by one of those bullets they say are as satisfying as a tax refund.

I got Grandma situated in her comfy chair after she completed her morning urination in the proper room, cleaned up the basement stairs and had a little chat.

            “Grandma, I’ve said it before, you don’t have to get up to meet me in the morning. Look what happened!”

She sat quietly. I suspected there was something she didn’t want to say.

            “Why are you doing that?” I continued, “You can stay in bed.”

And then the truth came out, a sad confession, a fear that had gone unspoken until the fall downstairs shook it to the surface.

            “What if I die in my sleep?” she said, “You won’t know and I’ll just lay there all day.”

I had no choice but to give her a hug and make a joke to lighten the mood.

            “Grandma,” I said with my hands on her shoulders, looking into her eyes, “You’ll still be dead when I get home from school!”

We laughed. I think I stayed home from school that day. And from that point forward she may have gotten up when I went to pick up the paper, but she stayed in her room or slept late. And I would occasionally peer around the jamb of her bedroom door, make sure she was alive and say good morning if she was awake. That seemed to help.

 

 

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Dog Only Knows

First and foremost, this is a ghost story, so it works well at this time of year when ghouls and goblins abound. As one of this tale’s three principal participants I am neither the sole subject of the haunting, accompanied through the chapters of my past and possible future by shadowy guides, nor am I shown the error of my ways through the alternate lens of some wandering spirit’s duty roster. No, this haunting was shared, but I am the last remaining witness able to testify to the true nature of what you are about to read. This happened, I swear it.

Second, it is the tale of an animal, a dog, whose ability to sense a paranormal presence can only be wondered at, discussed at length and marveled over as I hope will here be the case. The love and loyalty of a kindly treated dog is beyond human capability and has routinely been shown to endure beyond the master’s grave. They are better than us, and any man who mistreats one of these dear creatures deserves a reservation for one at a burning table in the brimstone cafe. Perhaps his turn away from a dog’s endearing glance reveals jealousy for affirmation the dog receives but he seeks. Insecure human. I say again, this dog in its short life is superior to you.

And last, this is inevitably a Christmas story. Not the kind that necessarily warms your heart with hope and holiday cheer, but every bit the essence or absence of anticipation, of smoke from within a crackling hearth and the tang of pine that issues forth during the evening exhalation of a finely decorated tree top in its final resting place. But not all Christmases are joyous. In fact, every Christmas is populated by an uncounted contingent of those suffering in solitary grief or desperation. And for them the worst moments of the year come sliding down the cold chimney like Old Saint Nick, fresh out of toys and promises. Maybe next year.

*****

We meet our characters a bit earlier in the year as we enter the kitchen of a small brick ranch by way of the back door. At the end of summer the unlocked screen allows an exchange of delicious cooking fragrances with the welcome cooling breeze at the onset of evening. Outside, the voices of children, a cacophony of cicadas and barking dogs attract our hero’s attention. His tail wags, his nostrils flare. The comingling of fresh air and food paint a picture in his mind, the sounds provide narration.

Meet Rebel, a ten-pound toy poodle with curly black hair that is periodically quaffed into the well-known style of his French brethren. Only some humans think it cute and even other dogs find it appalling. But he cares not, and stands near the threshold of the back door landing, one step up from where Dad will enter at 5:57pm. Rebel approaches, drops his nylon toy bone on the red and white-checkered linoleum and waits for the daily arrival.

When not greeting the human master of the house, Rebel can be found sitting or reclining on a towel that covers the top of an antique wingback chair. The chair is positioned in front of the living room picture window and is the throne from which he rules over the fifty square feet of his kingdom. When he is allowed outside he obediently walks the line of his territory, marking it occasionally for the benefit of other dogs that live nearby.

An evening ritual repeats each weekday with clockwork precision. Run for the bone and bring it to the back door at 5:56pm. Drop the bone on the floor, then sit and wait for footsteps to approach on the concrete driveway. When the door opens he picks up the bone and offers it to Dad, looks up lovingly at the tall man with the jacket, tie and fedora. He waits for a caress and a coo, and soon heads into the living room for a satisfying chew. Rebel is eight years old. It has been like this for his entire life, but that is about to change.

Mom is in full command at the other end of the kitchen, barely ten feet away. She juggles simmering pots, perhaps a sizzling frying pan, utensils and place settings with the practiced dexterity of a circus performer. A stream of water from the kitchen faucet stops as she dries her hands on a colorful towel, turns to hug her man, greeting him with a kiss and a hello.

            “Dinner is almost ready. How was work honey?”

            “Oh, ya know, another day,” he responds, taking off his hat and loosening his tie.

His relief at being home is visible and immediate. Chest pains have not prevented his daily trek to the city or his eventual half-mile walk home from the train station. He heads for the bedroom to shed his confining garb, with full approval from the dog.

This choreography has been fine tuned by the need for safe harbor in seas with a history of rogue waves. Fortunate adults pass through years without notice, complacent and comfortable. Parents live by moments, seeking the calm they once took for granted. Either can be upended by a sudden, unsolicited act. Mom and Dad perform their daily dance for the last time and are entirely unaware what the next morning will bring.

*****  

His is a violent death. The kind of ending that wrenches a man’s soul from his body and leaves it wandering the world in search of closure. And we never see it coming.

The final few moments proceed in clockwork staccato. Time is broken. I’m just a frightened kid, fascinated by the traced beating of Dad’s heart on a round green screen. A shelf-mounted device paces the chaotic electrical impulses that brought him down. A reliable organ the size of a fist has reduced this soft-spoken warrior to a reclining corpse the color of chalk. I watch the screen while he sleeps in his hospital bed. It is a boring visit. A busy morning. Time briefly returns to normal.

A nurse notices us bedside. Dad is sweaty and unshaven, his hair uncombed. Time breaks again. She rapidly drifts over like a specter in white. Plugs razor into the same outlet as the device. Interference. Fibrillation. I document the event in my mind. Frenetic biologic Morse code, tracing peaks and valleys of light green on dark, swinging like a wild pendulum, erupting in Dad’s chest like a massive earthquake. His heart beats so fast it nearly explodes. He jackknifes in the bed and screams, and then falls back dead.

We are ushered out of the room as alarms sound and urgent words are spoken over the intercom. Emotional fog. Confusion. Anger. It is over. The essence that was Dad floats briefly above the bed, beginning a search of rooms and corridors, wandering the winding streets that used to lead him home. This insensate quest, striving only to comprehend a new reality in which thought and motion require effort unlike any known since conception takes him months. Or at least that’s how I envision what happened next, as hard as it is for me to imagine my father as a wisp of ethereal energy that will never come home.

*****

The dog knows none of this. He waits at home; ready to run to greet Dad at 5:57pm. Pick up bone, run to back door, drop bone, look up lovingly and wait for caress and coo. For the first time in his life, his efforts are unrequited. He misses Dad. The sad routine continues for several days and then is no more.

*****

Grandma moves in to help Mom. More death. Grandpa enters the hospital the day after Dad’s funeral. Nineteen days later he is gone. Mom and Grandma are suddenly widows. I am the last man standing. We fear leaving the house, the ringing of the phone. Death has descended and we are its remains, a raw and exposed electric wire.

*****

Christmas Eve, seventy-six days later. Time has slowed. Days last for weeks. Our mourning family mimics joy on what was up until recently our favorite holiday. It is a necessary ritual we each perform for the other. I am man of the family now. I set up the tree like Dad would. A rainbow of Italian lights glimmers through tinsel and ornaments. We are quiet, pensive. The decorations are not quite right. I can’t get them to hang the way Dad did, suspended freely without hint of a metal hanger. One ornament resists my efforts after much time spent. I leave it hanging at an awkward angle, prompting an obsessive annoyance as I view it from across the room.

The dog lies in the middle of the living room floor. Not his usual post. He seems to understand that the family mobile is rearranged. His master is missing.

Time slows even more. The rhythmic pendulum within the wooden cabinet of the Regulator clock across the room meters our silent breathing. It slows perceptibly, first left to right, and then again in slowing hypnotic reversal, a blaring indication that time is passing while we sit and wish for the evening to be over. We’ve been reminded by patronizing well-intenders that time heals all. The dog startles us with a sudden bark.

In a precise reenactment of his old evening ritual, a bone is retrieved, brought to the back door with a wagging tail. He drops the bone, sits and looks up lovingly, anticipating.

The unfolding drama is not lost on the three of us. It continues. The dog turns and follows, trots back to his place at room center. There he sits, turning to watch the back door, then slowly tracks a presence at head height that only he can see, past the clock, the front door, around the coffee table and past the Christmas tree. His gaze is steady. His movement fluid.

We alternately look at the dog and glance at each other in silence, eyes communicating what we dare not speak for fear of disrupting his thoughts and actions. An invisible drama is playing out before us. We all see it.

His gaze settling on the space above my mother’s head, the dog stands and stares, tail wagging. Then he becomes motionless. He holds his gaze for several moments, hunches his shoulders, drops his head and growls, then slowly walks to his little bed in the kitchen and goes to sleep as if exhausted by an extra-sensory exercise, or as if he had been told to go to bed. Like Dad would often do.

I want to cry out, “Dad?” but am sure my voice would tremble and that I would feel foolish. Instead, my mother proclaims, “What was THAT?”

We exhale as one, unaware of holding our collective breath. I do not mention the swinging ornament on the branch I obsessed over earlier. It is now hung perfectly, suspended in Dad’s signature style. We turn on the television to disrupt the quiet. Mister Magoo observes the Cratchit family through an animated frosty pane of glass. He observes his life as it was when he was a younger man and a spirit at his elbow urges him on as we settle into our new family order on a very silent night.

  

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Morning Rounds – Part 3 – Dawn of the Dead

I’ve written twice previously about my brief phlebotomy internship at the hospital where I got my first job as a Medical Technologist. I made no secret of my desire to avoid patient contact and drawing blood. Patient contact was for nurses, and although many of the lab techs wore full white uniforms and lab coats, we stayed mostly in the basement away from the patients and doctors we supported.

In fact, we were often asked, “Are you a nurse?” by folks who didn’t know better. That led to my sarcastic entry in a slogan contest for National Medical Laboratory Professionals week. It was open to all entrants and was voted on by those of us being honored. Many of the entries reflected a wish to be appreciated or recognized as something more than a moderately educated factory processor of human fluids.

 Several typical example slogans were:

            “Saving lives daily with knowledge and skills”

            “Med Techs do it with results”

            “From the lab to your floor, your doctor couldn’t ask for more”

I chuckled when I read through the lengthy list of proposed slogans. It seemed everyone had some self-righteous idea that they felt would forever improve our perception by those within the professional hierarchy we supported and in which we occupied a firm position at the very bottom.

I had a different approach. Don’t tell them who we are, tell them who we are not. I quickly scrawled,

            “No, I am not a nurse!”

It was a joke. Good for a laugh but not much more, until a large majority of our staff in multiple labs found it eminently relatable and selected it as the winner.

Our lab managers were aghast. This was not the image they were hoping to convey, let alone reward with a gift certificate. But they had published the rules and lived with the results.

Lab Week came and went and we returned to the daily monotony of testing hundreds of patient specimens. In our lab this was usually blood. Phlebotomists stopped by a central receiving area from which glass tubes with colorful rubber stoppers were distributed to the areas where they were tested. We checked the labeled tubes against a computer generated list of the day’s workload and followed up on those that were missing.

Following my rotation as a member of the blood drawing team I had a profound admiration for the work they did beginning at 5am most mornings and upon demand throughout the day.

One memorable missing tube arrived late one morning. We were about to issue a request for a re-draw, assuming it had been skipped. The phlebotomist, a seasoned veteran of the requisition-driven protocol that culminated in the delivery of tubes to our lab, strolled into our area grinning and holding a tube up high for us to see.

There was something decidedly wrong with the specimen. It looked mostly like water.

            “What is that?!” we asked.

            “The patient you were missing,” she said.

            “It doesn’t look like blood.”

            “It was a difficult draw. I couldn’t wake him up.”

            “Actually, I think he was dead,” she whispered.

In response to our raised eyebrows and silence she continued,

            “I had a requisition that said to draw him.  So I did.”

She strolled away with her head held high, on to her next assignment, and left us holding the juice of death, separated into its component parts not by spinning in a high speed centrifuge but by gravity in a lifeless vein.

We called the nurses station on the patient’s floor to report that we had a specimen that couldn’t be run.

            “You have a specimen?” the nurse said.

            “Yes, but it looks odd. There aren’t many blood cells.”

            “Well, that explains the bandaid,”

            “The bandaid?”

            “Yeah, the patient passed away early this morning.”

We weren’t sure how to end the call.

            “Ok, we’ll have the request deleted in the computer.”

            “So, you mean the phlebotomist drew a dead patient?” the nurse whispered into the phone.

            “I mean, no harm done,” she continued, “But that’s kinda weird, isn’t it?”

I wanted to say, “I can neither confirm nor deny its weirdness” but instead wished the nurse a nice day and said thank you, then got back to work.

This may or may not have been a reportable offense. It fell into the category of memorable true-life oddities. The stuff stories like this beg to be written about, many years later.

Part 2            Part 1

 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Code Blue

If you’re reading this, you’re curious about what happened to my father on the morning of October 9th, 1970. I’ll get right to the point. He was electrocuted in his hospital bed.

You might wonder how that is possible. Well, I’m not talking about the kind of electrocution that results from touching a downed power line, or even as the result of an electrical appliance falling into a bathtub. Those are outside-of-the-body events. My Dad was electrocuted from the inside.

My father was not a well man. He had lifelong polycystic kidney disease (PKD) that eventually led to high blood pressure. A bout with misdiagnosed histoplasmosis in his forties landed him in the Hinsdale Tuberculosis Sanitarium for three months. Yes, it took three months for them to figure out that he did not have that easily identifiable disease. During that time our entire family was exposed to the disease he didn’t have. I developed a permanent positive TB skin test that got really interesting looks from doctors through the years until I began warning them not to test me.

Dad swore he would never go to a doctor again. Sadly, this left his kidney and blood pressure conditions untreated and culminated in a series of heart attacks during his last year of life. Symptoms of a heart attack that are now considered classic were not as widely understood fifty years ago. Factor in his aversion to seeking professional help and it wasn’t until he was doubled over in pain on the morning of October 7th that he would agree to go to the doctor.

I recall my mother speaking to me in hushed tones, urging me not to be late for the school bus, when I expressed concern about Dad. He was sitting on the living room sofa, bent in half, arms folded on knees, head on arms. This was the man who had not missed a day of work in over twelve years. It’s probably something of a miracle that he didn’t die at home that morning.

I will skip over the next two days. There were many anxious hours, from my return home after school and the somber news about my Dad’s urgent hospitalization, through a difficult night during which it was decided that he needed a “demand” pacemaker to control his heartbeat. The device would be temporary at first to assess effectiveness, and then permanent if deemed necessary. By his second day in the hospital he appeared to have stabilized.

Visiting hours were somewhat limited in the hospital’s coronary intensive care unit. Two visitors were allowed in at a time. It was decided that my mother and sister would visit during the evening of October 8th. They were visibly shaken when they returned home. It was difficult to see our strong, stoic breadwinner reduced to a vomiting, vulnerable mess. Medication was interfering with his cognition; repeating himself, falling in and out of sleep, pale and sweating, looking so frail between the rails of the hospital bed.

Armed with that knowledge we braced ourselves for a visit the next morning. It was my turn to go in with Mom. My sister graciously, perhaps gratefully, remained in the small waiting area outside of the CCU. She had seen plenty the night before.

We walked into the unit, through a sterile confluence of hushed voices, beeping equipment, white linen and stainless steel poles and guardrails. Dad’s bed was near the 8th floor window. He looked a mess, unshaven and hair uncombed, barely aware of our presence, slipping into and out of sleep. On a shelf next to his bed was a large box that was plugged into a wall outlet. It had wires coming out of it that ran down and under the sheet that covered Dad. This was the temporary pacemaker. Facing us at his bedside was an oscilloscope, a heart monitor, that traced his heart beats on a circular green screen, perhaps four or five beats from left to right until it started over at the left edge. I was fascinated with the technology. The beats were regular and identical. Dad had ten minutes to live.

We visited as best we could, given his mostly unresponsive state. Several minutes went by before a nurse came over, made adjustments to an I.V. and commented that Dad hadn’t been cleaned up for visiting hours.

            “It’s been really busy,” she apologized.

She hurried toward the other side of the room. Dad had five minutes to live.

When Dad woke up, however briefly, he seemed irritated by the wires and tubes, the nasal cannula that delivered supplemental oxygen, and he tugged a little at his sheets. Mom tried to calm and assure him, stroked his arm and said that a nurse would be right back.

At the nurse’s station, the unlucky woman who was caring for my father had no idea that she was about to make a mistake that would end the life of her patient. The incident would haunt her for the rest of her career and long be remembered by everyone on duty that morning. She picked up my Dad’s personal items, his comb and electric razor, and headed back to his bed. We watched her approach, a sheepish smile on her face that we attributed to having fallen behind schedule so visibly. Dad had two minutes left; about the time most people spend brushing their teeth.

            “Oh, honey, the nurse is going to comb your hair,” said Mom.

Indeed, the nurse combed Dads’ hair, parting it on the side as he always did. He had a growth of facial hair, gray stubble he always eliminated during his morning routine, even while on vacation. The nurse put down the comb and unwound the razor’s electric cord. Death approached without a sound, unseen, and hovered over her shoulder. She plugged the razor into the same outlet as the pacemaker.

My fascination with the oscilloscope would factor into the resulting wrongful death investigation. I watched while the razor’s electromagnetic field disrupted the pacemaker’s signal, causing the slow, steady mountain range on the green display to become the tracing of a wildly oscillating Richter scale during a high magnitude quake. But in this case the quake on screen reflected the activity of Dad’s heart.

Alarms sounded. Dad rose up in bed and yelled something unintelligible; arms stretched outward and then fell back.

            “Code Blue, Coronary Care,” was repeatedly announced over the hospital public address system. Teams of white coats assembled pushing a “crash cart.” We were quickly, calmly ushered out of the unit. It was clear that something was horribly wrong, but it’s so odd how your mind can retreat to a place of safety even in the face of overwhelming certainty. Time slowed. My memories take on a gelatinous quality at this point, like looking through a glass block window. We seemed to float, our progress impeded in an upstream struggle against the white water of talking, joking lab-coated personnel. They came in as we went out. As a teaching hospital it is likely that some of the people were residents or interns on their way to watch a real life cardiac arrest, the code blue. They would also get to see a failed attempt at revival.

Of the three of us, Mom was the most deluded about what was transpiring. My sister was thrown into a state of confusion and shock. She knew only that we had suddenly returned with an incoherent story amidst a sea of sound and activity. I knew what had happened.

What came next is the stuff of television hospital dramas. The breaking of news to a family in generic vocabulary that is beyond comprehension. It remains an ugly, private few minutes that changed everything in our family forevermore. The world went on around us while we were impaled by the moment. Death batted us around like a shuttlecock for a few minutes and then moved on. My mother dissolved in a torrent of screaming hysteria that sounded like animal noises, like nothing I’d ever heard a human make. The shock to her system ignited a long dormant, mysterious illness she had suffered in her twenties. It was called Lupus and it came on with a vengeance, killing her within five years.

Charles Kuralt covered our story nationwide on CBS radio. There were no names mentioned. Names didn’t matter. And it felt like my Dad didn’t matter either. A wrongful death lawsuit was settled out of court. When lawyers and actuaries got done dismantling my Dad’s financial value, given his age, likely medical outcome and earning potential our attorney recommended accepting $15,000. Years elapsed and my mother was too ill to be dragged through a deposition and court proceedings. This is the kind of lawsuit that would yield millions today. Mid case our attorney’s home burned down, destroying his files and completely changing his previously optimistic demeanor. Even at age sixteen it seemed very odd to me.

Many years later when my grandmother needed a pacemaker I had a chat with her doctor, a family history lesson. He allayed my concerns, assuring me that the technology had matured dramatically. As for the nurse who plugged in the razor – it was an accident. There is nothing to forgive. And hopefully there were lessons learned and shared, some sort of positive result from the events of that morning.

Fifty years later, my sister and I exchanged emails on October 9th. We’d both been thinking about that day, each without the other’s prompting, but both with a deep, retroactive sigh of relief for all the good things that have happened since. Many people have it so much worse.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

College Hellfighter

Quantitative Analysis (QA) was possibly the most frustrating class I took in college. It seemed no matter how carefully I prepared experimental materials, weighed them to four decimal places and calculated the results, I got an answer that yielded a mediocre grade. It was not my least favorite chemistry class. That honor goes to Organic Chemistry. The structure and naming of molecules was a strange combination of geometric art and a bizarre, boring language.

QA actually reminded me of my early scientific explorations, hours spent with alcohol lamps and glass tubing, mixing small quantities of exotic sounding compounds and setting stuff on fire. I wrote about one such episode here.

At college age, a pseudo adult with a less than completely developed judgment area in my brain, but able to vote and be drafted, perhaps I wouldn’t need adult supervision in a chem lab. But my frustration with getting the correct result combined with an extreme lack of patience turned out to be an explosive combination. It wasn’t my first accidental chemical fire, but it was definitely my most dramatic.

The lab was large. There were six long chemically resistant black resin workbenches, each about thirty feet long, complete with wet sinks, gas and air nozzles and a vacuum line. Four students worked in each row, a class of twenty-four overseen by one instructor. A huge supply of glassware lined shelves in cabinets at the back of the room. There were beakers, Erlenmeyer and boiling flasks, graduated cylinders, glass tubing and black rubber stoppers. The plentiful Bunsen burners with flint-strike lighters, thermometers, boxes of wooden applicator sticks and ring-stands excited my inner child chemist.

On the day of the fire each student was assigned a mystery compound. We were to perform a variety of experiments to determine its identity. I’m not even sure what we were trying to measure when we began heating our liquid over a Bunsen burner after measuring the volume of the contents. The mouth of the flask was covered with aluminum foil in which a pinhole had been made. In theory, removing the liquid from heat when the gas was no longer visible escaping through the pinhole indicated a state of equilibrium at which we were to measure the liquid again. The gas was very hard to see.

A friend in the class wandered over as I struggled to see my escaping stream of gas. He had a tip. Ignite the gas like a candle flame and the second the flame goes out is exactly the moment to stop the experiment, a way to time it perfectly. He went back to his bench as I prepared to act on his idea.

The difference between my compound and his was the identity of the gas being released by the liquid. His was mildly flammable. It turned out that mine was pure hydrogen. If you recall, the Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen. Oh the humanity!

I lit a wooden applicator stick in the flame of the Bunsen burner and slowly approached the top of my flask. At this moment the instructor was turning away from my side of the room in a slowly revolving scan that he had been doing throughout the class. I got no closer than about a foot away from the flask when the invisible cloud of hydrogen that had been accumulating over my benchtop ignited in an instant. The resulting smoky black and flaming orange ball engulfing my experiment was about two feet in diameter. There was no noise other than a wooosh. No one screamed, but all safety goggled eyes turned to view the spectacle that hovered in front of me like ball lightning. If we received any fire safety instructions at the beginning of the semester, that information was forgotten in a moment of panic or rendered useless in the face of something completely unexpected. I mean, who would deliberately set an experiment on fire?

There was a 1968 movie called Hellfighters, starring John Wayne. The movie was about firefighters in Texas who battled oil well fires. They used explosive charges, carefully brought into position, soaked with fire hoses to keep the explosives cool until just the right moment, to blow out the fire and cap the well. 

Perhaps I subconsciously remembered the movie from a few years earlier. I don’t know, but my method worked similarly. I did not pull a fire alarm, throw a fire blanket on the inferno, run for a fire extinguisher, or dump a bucket of water on the flames. Instead, I took the deepest breath my lungs could contain, leaned toward the base of the fire, the mouth of the flask, and blew as hard as I could.

My breath separated the flames from the mouth of the flask long enough to prevent further combustion. I turned off the burner, looked up for the instructor and found him still in mid turn facing the other side of the room. My experiment was a blackened mess, the remnants of labware that had been seriously scorched but otherwise in place on the bench as if nothing had happened.

When the instructor noticed my mess he slowly walked over and just said, “Huh.” It is unknown how he would have responded mid-crisis. He got lucky. I took care of it for him. Ironically, my first job after college was in a chemistry lab where I worked for eleven years. Fortunately we never needed to use open flames.