We have tried to make the world such a safe place, I sometimes wonder if Americans will lose our knack for leading the world in scientific and other useful innovations. Fear has foiled youthful experimentation of a useful kind and, therefore, a large segment of learning. Americans have always been adventurous people but has this changed?
I often think that in my own youthful search for knowledge, I would probably be in federal prison if I did the same things today.
A couple of other ten-year-old friends and I received chemistry sets for Christmas. A child’s chemistry set then contained many of the ingredients that have long since been outlawed by government. But they included potions that would allow experimentation far more impressive than today.
Three of us formed a “Science Club” and some of the things we concocted would have landed us in federal prison under the rules, regulations and terrorist zeitgeist prevalent today. We could (and did) make explosives with our chemistry sets. Way back then, the sets contained every ingredient required for making gunpowder and other interesting concoctions. Naturally, we were bound to experiment with them all.
And you know, it never occurred to us to take a “pipe bomb” to school or to do harm to anyone in any way. What has changed?
Fireworks were legal in most locations and we were able to “experiment” with pyrotechnics. Whatever ingredients we lacked we could pick up at the local “Drug” store. If they did not have what we needed, the pharmacist would order it for us. They didn’t want to thwart the spirit of adventure as they were undoubtedly reliving their own youthful exploits. However, today, druggists, as we termed pharmacists, would be thrown in jail for aiding and abetting juvenile delinquency.
We were soon making fireworks of every kind. We became somewhat expert in what elements and compounds would produce the desired pyrotechnical effects. Our parents knew little of chemistry and, therefore, were not filled with fear of our adventures. We continued unabated to satiate our experimental thirst.
Both of my science “partners” were much smarter than I, although many adults doubted the intelligence of us all back then. In fact, one friend ended up a world-renowned brain surgeon. During his career, he served as chairman of the neurology departments at several prestigious universities before he ironically died of an inoperable brain tumor. I can’t tell you where our third partner is today. I hope he is not in prison!
Steve read one day that Nitroglycerin could be formulated by mixing Nitric acid with heated animal fat. Although we had small “laboratories” in our bedrooms, we decided to play it safe and work over a fire in my backyard. We proceeded to carefully mix the two ingredients for our piece de resistance. We had no idea how dangerous our efforts might be but — mix it we did — in an old pot over an open fire. Once our experiment was completed, we did not know what to do with our product. We lacked the courage to try it out – besides, we didn’t know how. So, we dug a hole and poured it into the ground. I spent the next several years worrying that my Dad might hit the stuff as he plowed his vegetable garden and we would indeed find out if our efforts had been successful. I feared for my Dad’s life so, I told him what we had done. There was a bare spot thereafter in our garden as everyone gave wide berth to the area of our deposited munitions.
It was not long before our interest turned to rocket building. There were no guidelines and most of rocketry was still far in the future. We young lads were flying rockets when Werner von Braun was still a Nazi — before he came to the US to lead our space program. Kids today fly homemade rockets thousands of feet into the air. Our efforts never reached more than a couple hundred feet or so.
At any rate, we designed, built and flew rockets for a couple of years before we all developed an interest in girls and our “Science Club” faded into the past. But I often think how much kids miss today because they are not allowed the freedom of experimentation in the attainment of scientific knowledge but, yet, are given a free pass in many cases for their experimentation with drugs, alcohol, sex and over-the-edge philosophies. Surely, what we did was much more wholesome.
Of course, we could have lost a finger or two (or worse) and that would have been tragic. But have we suffocated our young people today with our insistence that everything must be totally safe and secure? If we have, one has to ponder what this has done to American creativity and sense of adventure. Perhaps my friend would never have become a world-renowned brain surgeon and humanity would have suffered. On the other hand, had I lost a digit or two, I would probably not be a newspaper columnist and that would certainly make my critics happier.
We might have endured injury but is it better that we “protect” our kids from intellectual investigation while growing too permissive about drug use, unwanted babies and the like? Our youthful immature adventures were in another and probably more emotionally healthier direction. We did not have the distractions of television, play stations, Internet, unbridled pornography or out-of-control sin, sex and moral permissiveness guiding our lives.
Society and parents today are, perhaps, too permissive but in the wrong arenas.
But back then, kids were free to experiment with ideas that for some would lead to world changes and even fame. For us in our “Science Club, it was a terrific learning experience.
John Brock is a retired newspaper editor/publisher and college professor. He can be reached by mail at this newspaper or by Email at: email@example.com
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