Will I ever again be a Mad Scientist?
One of my favorite boyhood books was Bertrand R. Brinley’s The Mad Scientists’ Club (1965), a collection of short stories about a group of young science geeks in the fictional town of Mammoth Falls. The boys of the club used their scientific know-how to get in and out of various adventures. They had a clubhouse, scientific equipment scrounged up from here and there, and enough outdoor gear to support their explorations.
With stories like “The Strange Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake,” “Night Rescue,” and “The Big Egg,” The Mad Scientists’ Club takes us back to a time when kids created their own fun, without having every hour scheduled and coordinated by adults. The unstructured time enabled children to improvise and imagine. More often than not, they, nay, we managed to do so without getting into too much trouble!
Grade school years are a wonderful time to stoke curiosities about science, and The Mad Scientists’ Club captures that fascination. But I know that things have changed. Today, I’m afraid, keyboards, screens, and smartphones might overcome the exploratory instincts of yore.
I caught the science bug early. My first view was to the skies. I became interested in astronomy early in grade school. This was, after all, the early heyday of America’s space program, and our young imaginations were filled with wonder over what might exist above. What would it be like to travel in a space capsule? Is there life on Mars? Do UFOs exist?
Soon my fascination turned toward the invisible, and those curiosities required a microscope. A birthday present in the form of a student microscope (much like the one pictured above) brought enough magnifying power to observe the activities of one-celled animals — protozoa — such as amoeba and paramecia. I read up on early pioneers such as Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the 17th century Dutch scientist who used his own hand-crafted microscopes to explore the world of microorganisms.
The microscope gave me many hours of fun exploration, especially when I made slides filled with stagnant water, blood, tiny brine shrimp, plant cuttings, and other objects. The cheap metal case that came with the microscope opened to form my own little lab in the bedroom I shared with my brother Jeff.
I think it’s more than nostalgia for my childhood — which wasn’t nearly as dramatic or exciting as that portrayed in The Mad Scientists’ Club — that has caused me to go online at times to price out student microscopes and biology kits. I live within walking distance of a pond where I could collect all sorts of specimens to view through a microscope, and I sometimes wonder if I could lose myself in a hobby that appeals to the little kid in me.
For now, I’ve got plenty of good stuff to keep me busy, and I’m not sure where I’d find the time to add another hobby. But I’ll definitely keep this on my radar screen.
Adult student enrolling in Hogwarts
Many years ago, my long-time friends the Driscolls gave me the first two books in the Harry Potter series. Give them a try, they said. All five family members were big Harry Potter fans, and they thought that I might enjoy the books.
I did give the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the U.K.), at least a half-hearted try. But after a couple of chapters, I put it aside. I’ve never been into the fantasy genre, and despite the legion of grown-up Harry Potter aficionados, I just couldn’t see what the big deal was all about.
Fast-forward to this week. It dawned on me that I’ve read rave comments about the Harry Potter series from favorite writers, ranging from Stephen King to Brené Brown, praising the stories and their insights on the human condition. I’ve also admired author J.K. Rowling for her down-to-earth demeanor and sense of social responsibility. So I posted on Facebook that I was thinking of giving Sorcerer’s Stone another try, and several friends share effusive praise for the books.
(Slight spoilers ahead…)
I’m now about 100 pages into Sorcerer’s Stone. Folks have cautioned me that it’s a little slow going at first, that the set-up takes a while to build, and that the story won’t start to sparkle until later in the book.
And yet, I already find it charming, engaging, and very, very clever. Of course, as someone steeped in workplace anti-bullying work, I couldn’t help but to pick up on the bullying themes in Harry’s life with the Dursley family. Now Harry is preparing to enter Hogwarts, and I’m excited for him. With Hagrid’s help, he is picking out his school supplies. Rowling captures beautifully the anticipation and nerves that go with starting a new school.
I haven’t read many fantasy or children’s books, but I can tell a great storyteller from an okay one, and this early foray into Harry Potter’s world is enough to show me that Rowling is a brilliant writer. Her ability to create vivid detail and her sense of empathy and humor come through from the start.
Being something of an Anglophile, I love the little references to London, including the Underground and Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at the King’s Cross rail station. As someone who has been around schools and public transportation all my adult life, maybe I’m already identifying with parts of the story!
On Facebook, one of my friends suggested that I suspend my grown up reader’s worldview and let the inner child in me enjoy the stories. The only problem is that I didn’t like to read fiction as a child. I emphatically preferred non-fiction, and my 11-year-old self would’ve rebelled at having to read the Harry Potter stories. Even today, I estimate that some 80 percent of my personal library is non-fiction.
No, mine is more a tale of arrested reading development. Call me a late bloomer, but it’s a twist that I’ve had to go deep into adulthood to be “ready” for the Harry Potter series.
It may take me another week to finish Sorcerer’s Stone, as lately, I haven’t been one to rush through novels and stories. But I’ve already got Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ready to go, so it appears that I am matriculating into Hogwarts as an adult student. Better late than never.
Hawaii calls: My first bout of nostalgia
Given my frequent bouts of nostalgia, I thought I’d delve way back into my boyhood to trace how this has been a natural state of affairs for me. Indeed, while we often associate nostalgia with memories of people, events, and experiences of long ago, I recall having these feelings as early as my grade school years.
In fact, my original bouts of nostalgia were grounded in family trips to see relatives in Hawaii, when my brother Jeff and I were very young. These visits occurred every few years, and they created lasting memories. When one of the local Chicago area TV stations would run episodes of “Hawaii Calls,” a syndicated travel program that included many of the touristy Hawaiian songs we learned during our visits, I would find myself holding back tears over memories of our own travels to the Aloha State — memories that may have been only a year old!
By the time I entered my teen years, and proceeding into my college days, nostalgia was a natural, common state for me. During those years I also discovered my penchant for historical nostalgia, that is, feeling a very emotional connection to defined stretches of the past that preceded my arrival. America’s “Roaring Twenties” constituted the first such period to capture my fascination. No doubt that my enjoyment of history is fueled by this energetic tie.
As I alluded to above, like many, I associate memories with music. My nostalgic episodes, real and historic, typically have strong musical connections. It’s appropriate that I would link in this post a couple of classics from Don Ho, one of the iconic performers of popular Hawaiian songs. Both were favorites during our visits to Hawaii many years ago.
My first camera: The Polaroid Swinger
As a young grade schooler, I really wanted a camera. Already being an independent type, I was drawn to the Polaroid cameras that produced more-or-less instantaneous photos, as opposed to the Kodak-brand models that required you to take or mail your film to a photo lab to be developed. Unfortunately, the Polaroids also cost a mint, and so I assumed it would never happen.
But in 1965, TV commercials for a new model, the Polaroid Swinger, started airing, with catchy lyrics that hyped its (barely) under $20 price point: [Trivia questions: (1) Who is the leggy brunette featured in the commercial? (2) Who wrote and sang the jingle? Answers below!]
In case you want to sing along:
Hey, meet the swinger
meet the swinger
It’s more than a camera
it’s almost alive
it’s only nineteen dollars
Swing it up (yeah yeah)
it says yes (yeah yeah)
take the shot (yeah yeah)
count it down (yeah yeah)
zip it off
Don’t get me wrong; $19.95 was a lot of money back in that day. But it made it under the line for a Big Gift, and so for Christmas 1965, the Swinger made its way under the tree.
I was ecstatic. I probably took a full roll on Christmas Day alone, all 12 shots. And while I didn’t exactly become a serious photographer, I used it often and at one point had quite a stack of prints. I remember being especially proud when my Uncle Kenny asked me to take his picture so he could use it for his next U.S. government employee I.D. photo!
I also was a perfect example of the emerging power of television advertising. That darn jingle got into my head and stayed there, both before and after I received the camera as a gift.
You can read more about the Polaroid Swinger in this piece recently published on Boston.com, marking the camera’s 50th anniversary.
Trivia question answers: (1) Ali McGraw; (2) Barry Manilow. Yup!
Exploring the ‘hood on our Schwinn bicycles
As I’ve mentioned here before, I grew up in the northwest Indiana city of Hammond, a small (est. pop. 100,000) working class city. We lived in a neighborhood known as Woodmar, which had something of a suburban look and feel. During the 60s and early 70s, it was a relatively safe and secure place to grow up. Parents didn’t have to worry too much about kids being out on their own, even during the early evening hours.
During grade school, a good bicycle was the primary means of attaining a degree of youthful independence, at least when it came to getting around the neighborhood on your own and meeting up with friends. Among the many brands available, the basic, one speed Schwinn Sting-ray was a popular choice. It was simple, sturdy, and easy to control. A big step beyond a child’s starter bike, it could move pretty fast when powered by an energetic grade schooler.
For me, the Sting-ray was my ticket to exploring the neighborhood beyond our immediate block. I could ride to friends’ homes, the parkway, our grade school, or even the shopping center. The bike had enough giddy up in it that in some areas I could ride (carefully) on the streets, rather than sticking exclusively to the sidewalks.
I’ll stop short of trying to paint this as an idyllic childhood, because I was bored at times and felt lonely on occasion as well. Part of me yearned for something more, even if I didn’t know quite what it might look like back then.
But such feelings are hardly unique among kids (or adults, for that matter). Overall I am fortunate to have happy memories of hopping on my bike to ride around the neighborhood.