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Thursday, June 02, 2011


(Guest contributor Joe Finnerty returns with another childhood memory from his teenage days in Hoboken, NJ in the 1940s. Chemistry class was never the same after Joe and his buddy Johnny Gallagher got through with the lab!)


By Joe Finnerty

Johnny Gallagher was my lab partner in high school chemistry. He was impish and very Irish. Teachers and classmates liked him. He was not an honor roll pupil, but he was a star varsity basketball player despite his short stature: 5 feet 4 inches, in sneakers. Johnny could make two-handed set shots from mid-court. Gallagher was a spunky player much favored by the team’s coach, Mr. John Kane, who happened to be our chemistry teacher.

Mr. Kane was not a very good basketball coach, as evidenced by our teams’ losing record year after year. His record as a chemistry teacher may have been even worse.

The first time our class entered the Chem. Lab, Mr. Kane warned us about the danger of spilling or mixing the various chemical reagents. These were neatly stored in glass jars that lined the shelves placed above the sinks and workspaces. Our first task, Mr. Kane said, would be to make our own stir rods. He distributed 1/4" diameter glass rods that we had to saw cut into one-foot lengths. He then demonstrated how to twirl the roughened ends in a Bunsen burner in order to smooth them into a rounded shape.

Gallagher had no difficulty following these instructions. Then, it was my turn. It seemed reasonable that I should be able to perform this simple task, right?

Moving deftly, I positioned the glass rod in the flame, rotating it while one end melted and became round and smooth. I then reversed the rod, putting the other roughened end into the flame. Within seconds, the smell of something burning hit my nostrils. It was I, oh Lord! The end of the rod I had just heated touched some fuzzy threads of my beautiful baby blue angora sweater, causing them to smolder.

With alarm, I said, “Here,” handing Johnny the rod in order to beat out the incipient flames with both hands. He grabbed hold of the end I had just removed from the Bunsen burner, scorching his palm. Johnny screamed in pain and flung the rod which knocked over some reagent bottles. Their contents interacted violently, creating a cloud of acrid, dense smoke. We had created a scene akin to a Three Stooges skit: I’m dealing with a blazing sweater; Gallagher is bellowing in pain; and Mr. Kane is rushing around the room, telling the rest of the students to “Get the hell out.”


After that incident, Gallagher kept his distance from me. We never became close friends. Despite this misadventure, Mr. Kane gave me an exceptional grade of 90. In truth, he passed everyone with the same mark, as he did not much care to evaluate students. His mind was on the next basketball season, worrying about how he was going to find a player to replace Gallagher.

This experience taught me never to choose an Irish leprechaun as a lab partner. They ruin your best clothes.

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