The sudden end to my budding career as a scientist
| As a teenager I was easily motivated to study, for I grew up with the shadowy awareness that, if I had to labour for a living, I'd starve to death before I reached voting age. So, year after year, and grade by grade, I did my thing until I had finished Grade Ten.
The school in Dunblane had three rooms and three teachers with four grades in each room. The principal had the senior room and taught all subjects to the four high school grades. All was going well until the end of my Grade Ten year when our principal joined the air force. The war was on and teachers were so scarce that the local school board could not find a replacement, so for the next year, the local educational facility was reduced by one-third. High school was suspended.
That wasn't as bad as it sounds. There was an alternative available through the Government Correspondence School. Its services were widely used throughout the province, especially in one- roomed country schools where the teacher, busy enough with Grades 1 to 8, was still expected to help high school students with their correspondence lessons.
As farm help was at least as scarce as teachers, I chose to stay out in November. By then, I thought it too late to enrol with Correspondence School, so I bought their lesson material second-hand from a girl on a neighbouring farm and worked my way through it without ever having it corrected or graded.
A few other boys were also using correspondence courses, perhaps not quite as diligently as I was. Someone suggested that we might all do better if we did our thing in school where we would benefit from the powerful academic atmosphere and would have access to the chemistry lab. The school board and the senior teacher agreed that we could be accommodated in her classroom and just before Christmas, the noble experiment began.
It wasn't a good idea, at least not the part about access to the chemistry lab. We were in there one day intending to collect some hydrogen in a glass jar. As I recall, this was to be accomplished by immersing something called phosphorous in water and then collecting in a jar the bubbles that rose to the surface. I understand now that a careful teacher would have demonstrated the feat with a small pan of water and a miniscule piece of phosphorous, but, back then, we didn't know that. We had a water tank big enough to wash our collective feet and a hefty jar filled with golf ball-sized chunks of something the label assured us was phosphorous. The crucial moment began when I, in trying to shake one piece of phosphorous out of the jar, managed the task so deftly that half the contents spilled out and plopped into the water.
We weren't at all prepared for the reaction. The water contorted itself in agony, foamed and began to boil. We gaped in awe as it writhed and churned as if being spewed from the very guts of Hell. Millions of bubbles fought their way to the surface only to explode when they got there. That didn't matter because millions more were going born every second to follow this mad rush to the surface and apparent oblivion.
Fascinated, we watched this raging phenomenon, all thought of capturing any of these mad bubbles forgotten. At last, Johnny Lesyk decided it was time for a cigarette. Johnny was a year older than the rest of us and should have known something about the excitable nature of hydrogen. But apparently he didn't. And apparently, by this time, our tiny chemistry lab was almost bursting with it. I remember seeing Johnny put his cigarette to his lips and I remember seeing him strike the match.
It wasn't a huge explosion. There was only a whispered but clearly audible WHOOF and the lab lit up like the inside of a flash bulb. Hundreds of little bursts of light started popping on and off all around us. Balls of fire zoomed like rockets, one of the striking Johnny squarely in the middle of his forehead leaving him with a richly deserved scar that he never tired of bragging about to anyone who would listen.
That ended my budding career as a scientist. I am timid by nature and decided then and there that the excitement of scientific discovery could better be borne by spirits bolder than mine. So from then on, what few bits and pieces of scientific lore I have amassed, I gained by reading, not by doing.