Saturday, January 12, 2008

Science Fair Pay Back

I spent my entire school life avoiding science fairs. Avoid is a weak word here. I skipped them to the point where I can't remember ever doing any. Except one. But I remember my friend Bruno Valle, an otherwise awful student, going wild for them. In the 6th grade he made, from scrap metal in those days, not a kit, a robot that worked via remote control and had ball and socket arms and working fingers--basic working fingers--that could pick up and throw a ball. I was very impressed but could never imagine doing anything like that. And I wasn't one of the kids who did fruit fly experiments or any of the other standards either.
I did get juiced up for one science fair as a freshman in high school. My biology teacher had said that alligators had a heart and brain that was configured differently than ours, and that fascinated me. Or rather, what fascinated me was the opportunity to go to the pet store and buy an alligator. And I loved it until I realized that to do my esperiment I'd have to kill it. I wasn't much for killing animals, tell you the truth. I'd been hoping that I could just bring the thing into the class and then have Brother Stern tell me where to get photos of the different heart and brain sections. No chance. Instead of photos I was given a jar of formaldehyde, a syringe and instructions to carefully cut the heart and brain into their natural sections.
Well, the obvious happened and the formaldehyde opened on the way home from school and the other bus patrons--it was a public bus in Queens, New York, taking me from Bishop Reilly HS to my Whitestone home--made a scene over the chemical odor and I got tossed from the bus and walked the last three miles.
Home, I did something with the syringe but I forget what. It was probably something fun, like putting liquor into oranges or something but I forget. What I remember is that I had no idea of the syringe's connection to the experiment I had do to so I made some other use of it.
And that evening, I went to the basement with one of my mom's small pots, put my pet gator into it, filled it with the remaining formaldehyde, covered the pot and waited. I thought it would take a few moments and then I'd somehow have a dead and stiff as a board alligator on my hands to work with but instead, in just a few seconds the little guy pushed the lid off the pot and gasped for air. I was surprised and re-lidded him, this time with a weight on it. He thrashed, his tail slapping the sides of the pot and splashing the liquid. I didn't like that he was suffering and thought this was a stupid and selfish experiment and should have never been done, but I had to do it. So I went out to the backyard and then to the street: Nobody was around except for my friend Danny McGurran's little brother Jimmy. So I called him over and into the basement and asked what I should do. He had no idea but was as squeamish about the death throes as I was, and after uncovering the pot just long enough to show h im I really did have a small alligator we closed the pot again and went upstairs and snuck a cigarette out by the evergreen in front of the house. We waited an appropriate time, returned to the basement and checked: Sure enough the fumes had gotten to the gator and he was dead.
I put him on a table and tried to cut his head open with a knife. Didn't work. So I took a hammer and chisel and that did the trick but also cut the brain in half, crushing most of it. I had better luck with the heart, but it was so small it was difficult to see the sections without cutting it open, so I did, ruining any chance of identifying the sections.
So the experiment was a total loss, and worse, I'd killed a perfectly good alligator at the same time.
And now I'm dad. Somehow I managed to have Italo and Marco skip every science fair that ever came along--except one in which Marco made a rocket that flew pretty good and started a small grass fire here in Joshua. But times have changed and Madeleina has been forced to enter the science fair the last couple of years. I've already discussed the disastrous ant farm in a previous post so won't go into that here: Suffice to say that when all ants are dead the experiment is too.
This year she's doing the "which candle will burn the longest" experiment. That's one in which you have your dad scour the city to find several different companies that make identically sized candles--and remember that Johnson County is not exactly a hot bed of romance, so that's no easy task. Then you ignore them until the experiment is due, which is Monday, then you cry a lot and say you've been working very hard at thinking of the experiment. Not doing anything, but thinking.
The next step of this particular experiment is to have dad come up with a way to make this little worthless experiment turn into something that looks like science. Dad suggests you take pictures of the candles--along with height length and weight measurements, then burn them for an hour and take new measurements. Then burn them for another two hours and remeasure. As one of the candles promises--thank god--to burn out completely in 4 hours (a simple 'white linen scented $8.95 baby acquired from the hobby lobby), one additional hour should bring the experiment to a merciful end. And if the companies are not lying, one of the other candles should still have half it's weight, another three-fourths of its wright and the last, a 60-hour Sterno beaut, should almost still be new after the four hours.
My daughter not having fallen far from the tree, however, this experiment, which should have taken about 10 minutes to set up and start the fires burning--and let's fact it, not much to do but watch movies while the candles are burning--is nowhere near ready to start yet. Heck, it's only been about 5 hours today. "I think I should put the height and length before the wright on the cards, don't you, dad?" took a full half-hour. "Do we have lined cards to write on dad?" led to another half-hour search--fruitless, of course. So the experiment is derailed until I go to Walmart, and I can't go to Walmart for the cards until Marco comes back tonight from his girlfriend's so I have a vehicle to go in.
And yes, I just raised my voice when she stopped measuring and I asked her what the heck she was doing--standing in front of the television, natch--and with a straight face said "I'm looking for the ruler." "You can't be looking for the ruler. You are using the ruler. You were not to step away from that table until you had finished with the ruler. How the hell did you lose the ruler?"
"That's what I'm trying to figure out...something happened..."
"Yes! Something happened. You walked away from the freaking table with the ruler in your hand! You have eight measurements to take. If each takes you 3 seconds the whole damned thing would take 24 seconds. Now get it done!"
And then she looked at me and very calmly noted--and correctly so, I suppose--"Well, dad, I don't really see what's the hurry. I mean I can't really finish it until you get the cards for me to write on and you don't look like you're in any big hurry to do that. And if you're not going to take this seriously, why should I?"
Ah well, the science fair waited a long time to get me. I should have known it was gonna happen someday.

1 comment:

daisyduke said...

...ahhhhh from the mouths of babes...