Mr. S. was Cool

“You wanna do something fun?” I whispered to Norm, who was sitting to my left. He just smiled. He was cool.

It was the last Grade 12 Chemistry Lab of the year. The Chemistry Lab had been completely refurbished at the start of the year. New tile on the floor, new paint from wall to ceiling. Even our lab workstations had been redone. Somehow it had survived the year unscathed – that was about to change.

The Chemistry Lab had three rows of workstations, two workstations per row separated by a four-foot wide aisle. There were positions for four students at each workstation. There was a single gas outlet for the Bunsen burner at each student’s position and a single sink in the middle for all the students to share. The students could work individually or in groups of two or four.

Each student’s position had a cabinet with one Bunsen burner, a tripod stand used to hold items over the burner flame, a wire gauze with the centre coated with asbestos used to protect items from direct contact with the flame, and a striker for lighting the burner. There was also an assortment of test tubes, Florence and Erlenmeyer flasks, beakers, glass rods, and a box of splits. (Splits are thin strips of wood about 18 inches long used to ignite experiments.)

We were in the second row on the left.

The teacher was on a raised dais at the front. Windows to his right, the vented fume cabinet for doing ‘gas experiments’ or ones that might explode was to the left – by the door. (Which always struck me as a strange place to do a potentially dangerous experiment.)

There was a tradition at the school, on the last Chem Lab of the year, the senior class (that’s us) could work on their own experiment. Traditionally, at least one person would make a stink bomb.

Not this year. There had been a new school principal last year – he was not impressed with the smell. Anyone making a stink bomb would be expelled.

No stink bomb – no problem. I had something else in mind.

Our teacher, Mr. S., was giving the end-of-year speech. ‘Great class . . . had fun teaching you . . . blah . . . blah . . . blah. I wasn’t paying particular attention. I was more interested in what was coming next.

If I were to make it work I would need help.

I passed a note to Norm, it just said ‘Rocket fuel’. He knew what I meant and smiled.

Now, dear reader, I must digress:

If I were writing this back in the mid-1960s, when all this happened, you could go into any well-maintained school library and find instructions on building a ‘homemade rocket’. For science geeks of the day, homemade rockets were what computers and robots are to today’s youth. The rocket fuel of choice is made with two common elements. It was supposed to be much safer than making gunpowder, which some idiots used in their rockets, losing various body parts in the process. (It wasn’t)

This fuel is dangerous and has since been banned by all amateur rocketry associations. So, I will refer to chemicals used as RF1 and RF2. By themselves, these two chemicals are benign and safe to handle. However, mixed together in equal parts – rocket fuel.

Back to the story:

John and Simon were on my right. I passed them a note saying “Ask for equal parts RF1 and RF2” They were hesitant, they looked at Norm. He nodded – that was good enough for them – they were in.

Mr. S. had finished his speech. There was a rush of students asking questions; some were just trying to get extra points for ‘class participation’, the new ‘in thing’ for student evaluation; some were lost on what to do for their experiments.

Finally, students lined up to get the chemicals they would need for their experiment. We had decided not to go up together. After about fifteen minutes we each had our 10ml of RF1 and RF2. On their own, not enough to make more than a small flash – what would be the fun in that?

I took the tripod and wire gauze from my cabinet and set it up in the centre of the workstation. Norm had set up his Bunsen burner and taken out a splint. Pouring all our chemicals on a sheet from my notebook I carefully mixed them together. (It is crucial to fully mix the chemicals together or it wouldn’t burn evenly.) Finally, I poured, what was now rocket fuel, on the asbestos-covered centre of the wire gauze. 

If I were launching a rocket using this fuel I would be fifteen feet away using an electrical ignition system. But, there was only 80ml – what could possibly go wrong?

Norm had lit his Bunsen burner, well away from where I had been working. I used it to light a splint. Norm, John, and Simon stood at the end of the workstation, their eyes fixed on the small pile of rocket fuel. Most of the rest of the class had their backs to us, watching a ‘volcano’ fill the fume booth with smoke and foam.

Having no idea what would happen, I stood as far back as I could, stretching out, touched the rocket fuel with the lit splint.

There was a loud WHOOSH as a greenish-yellow flame leapt up, burning a small spot on the ceiling. The flame was gone in an instant. A blue-grey smoke ring that had formed around the flame was lazily drifting up toward the ceiling. On reaching the ceiling, the smoke ring singed a circle on the ceiling. The burnt spot was now in the centre of a ‘bullseye’.

That was more than I expected. I stood there transfixed.

Norm, John, and Simon were equally stunned. Hearing the WHOOSH, Mr. S., who had been watching the fume box, turned around in time to see the smoke ring drifting upward. He just shook his head and went back to the action in the fume box.

I looked around to see if anyone else had seen what had happened. Three other students in the row behind us, who were working on their own experiment, stood there wide-eyed.

Yep – they had seen everything

Norm, Jon, Simon and I scuttled back to our positions, put away the equipment, packed away our books, and, with hearts racing, waited for the bell to end the class. At the bell, my partners in crime bolted for the door. I held back.

I had done some stupid things in high school. Most of the time I had come clean. I wasn’t sure how much Mr. S. knew, but I needed to find out. There were a number of students lined up to say goodbye – some sincere, some still trying to get extra credits.

Waiting until they had all left, I went to see him. As soon as I approached him, he started to smile. I knew he knew what had happened. Before I could say anything he stuck out his hand:

“It has been an adventure having you in my class Michael. Good luck in whatever you decide to do next.”

That was it. . . . I shook his hand and headed for the door.

Mr. S. was cool.

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