One afternoon in that class his teacher, lovingly called by his students, Papa Brown, showed the class an experiment placing a small half-pea sized chunk of sodium in water and allowing them all to watch the reaction as the sodium danced sizzling around in the water and reacted as a few tiny sparks actually accompanied the reaction.
Jim was fascinated and decided that he would like to try that himself. So after class while Papa Brown was occupied speaking with another student, our A student quickly pocketed the small brown bottle of sodium from off Papa Brown’s desk and made off with it.
My father, Lyman, was an accountant and had his office down in our basement where, later that Friday evening around 11:00 PM, he and Mom worked on some late evening deadline. Jim and I finished watching the TV and Jim then decided to impress his little brother, Pete.
As my parents worked downstairs, he called me into the kitchen where he had set up his fascinating chemistry experiment. Gullible Pete, who would have done just about any request known to man to please his older brother, was called in with a, “Hey Pete, ya’ wanna see something really cool?”
Of course I did.
He placed, what we later found out was a far too large a piece of sodium from his swiped bottle into a dish of water on our kitchen counter, and, just like Papa Brown’s experiment, the sodium block began to dance around madly through the water in the dish. At that point Jim said to young Pete, “Look closer, you can see the sparks!”
I bent down closer to the dish, fascinated, my face about a foot from the sparks, eyes wide with excitement, and then – of course –
Papa Brown knew that too large a piece of sodium in water would absolutely cause an explosion, but Papa Brown was not conducting the experiment. Unfortunately his A student was.
The explosion rang through the house, threw us both back on to the floor, filled the kitchen with smoke and stink, and peeled the paint from the kitchen ceiling. We both immediately began to scream.
My parents began their mad dash up the basement stairs. By the time they arrived, the scene was catastrophic. Two boys screaming on the floor holding their faces, chemical smoke pouring through the kitchen, and the house still shuddering from the explosion.
My Mom was a healer. My dad, a man who did not attend church, totally respected her life choices of no medicine, not doctors, no hospitals, etc. because Mom always took care of business. Colds were overcome in a matter of hours, the flu often overnight and sometimes broken bones overnight as well. The repair of accident and disease was always left to Mom’s (and God’s) talents and abilities.
This time, and only this time, Dad immediately took matters into his own hands. He picked me up by the waist and grabbed Jim’s hand and dashed us out the front door to the car. He threw me into the back seat and Jim scrambled into the front seat beside Dad. Dad took off like a shot for the hospital.
We lived in the St. Louis suburbs. The hospital was about five miles away through streets named Briargate Lane, Wildwood Lane and Dallas Road. No highways, just quiet little suburban streets on a sleepy Friday night. I sat in the back seat still hot from my facial burns. I dared not open my burning eyes but just hung on to our flying car for dear life. I heard my brother confessing his crimes to my father and then I heard Jim say, “Wow, Dad, you’re going a hundred miles an hour! Cool!!”
Jim could see! He had read the speedometer. I, the one much closer to the explosion, had taken the brunt of the flash. I knew I was in trouble. I had not opened my eyes since the moment before Ka-Boom and I had not the courage to try. Mom had been left at home to pray and call our Christian Science practitioner to help pray.
How we arrived at the hospital safely, I’ll never know, but we did have two mighty ladies supporting every turn of the wheel.
As I mentioned before, hospital trips were not at all customary for our family, so when we got there Dad had no idea where to go and in his frenzy missed the turn to the emergency room entrance and instead drove straight to the front entrance of our sleepy local suburban hospital. He grabbed my arm and led me, eyes still closed, up the stairs and into the darkened front hall of the hospital.
There was no one there. Jim and I were ordered to stand pat as Dad rushed up and down the hall calling for someone.
Finally a night nurse came ambling along. Quickly seeing the panic on my father’s face she rushed us into an elevator to take us down to the emergency room.
On the elevator, which seemed to move like molasses, I was left standing alone for the first time with no guiding hand or arm. As my eyes were still shut, and as the elevator jerked from floor to floor, I sort of lost my balance and reached behind to steady myself. My hand landed upon something eerily cold and clammy. My stomach turned as I turned behind me to get a better grasp on my immediate situation.
I opened my eyed instinctively to see that my hand had landed on the thigh of a naked and dead old man, a corpse on a gurney, being transported on our elevator to God knows where.
I jerked back in reaction as my brother warned, “Don’t look. He’s dead.”
My father spoke softly, “Oh thank God, you can see.”
I could see. Through my burning reddened eyelids, I could see.
The emergency room doctors immediately addressed our conditions, washed our eyes out, attended to our burned faces and released us home, proclaiming us most fortunate to be in such good condition after such a frightful close call.
We arrived home, having driven a bit slower, to a grateful Mom and her Bible.
Later that evening — it was probably now somewhere around 2:00 in the morning — we needed to celebrate our good fortune, so as any mid-western suburban family would do, we celebrated that good fortune at the end of our difficult day by sitting around the breakfast table and each having a bowl of ice cream.
As we silently ate and enjoyed life and family and health and safety, I looked down the table at my father. He had finished his ice cream first and sat quietly as the tears ran down his cheeks. I had never seen my father cry. He was a stoic gentleman, a disciplined accountant, one of those fathers of the 50s and 60s who was the workhorse of the family with rarely the time to get down on the floor and play with the kids, out of whose mouth I never heard the words, “I love you” yet never doubted, never called into question his love for his family.
Jim then looked up and witnessed the same family first – Dad with tears…
At that point Dad simply lowered his forehead to the table. Pushing his empty bowl aside, he began to sob as his shoulders shook from the release of tension and the stresses of the past three hours.
My mother simply put her arms around him, as Jim and I sat in shock and wonder, and spoke those words I’ll never forget.
“Oh boys, your father loves you so very much.”
Mom and Dad each did their own very special thing that night. In essence, they were both just great parents. Dad swung into action and took the human footsteps to save his family and Mom swung into action and took the immediate spiritual steps to save hers. In that moment, around that table with its empty bowls of ice cream we were as close as a family could ever be.