The gang of 7 to 12 year old urchins we used to hang around with in the early 1960s in the Northwood section of Frankford, between Castor Avenue, Wakeling Street, Oakland Street, and Harrison Street, were definitely all “scientists.” We formed a science club which met in the basement of Nicky Macko’s house once a week. Nicky was the President — it was his family’s house, after all. Each of us would go to Frankford library at Frankford Avenue and Overington Streets whenever we could and borrow as many books as we could on how to do interesting science experiments at home. We’d study the books with rapt attention. Mostly we’d look for ways to turn junk into science experiments — much cheaper!
Electronics was the most fascinating science. Those were the glory days of vacuum tube technology. I was fascinated to discover that magnets, held close to the vacuum tubes filled with ionized gas emitting blue light, attracted the ionized gas to the magnet. I brought my AM radio, cover removed, to the next meeting of The Science Club, after I discovered that the ionized cloud in vacuum tubes was attracted to magnets, and plugged it in, and everyone “oooooooooooo’d” and “aaaaaaaaaaah’d” as they moved their magnets close to the vacuum tubes and saw the ion clouds in them move toward the magnet.
We discovered static electricity. If it was Fall or Winter, so that the air was very dry, we would recover the fluorescent tube-type bulb from someone’s trash (being careful not to break it — they explode), put on our best shoes, turn off all of the lights in the house, and walk across the room, shoes sliding on the rug, while we carried the fluorescent bulb in our hands. Lo and behold, the bulb would flash, all of the way across the room!
Then one of the guys — I forget who — discovered “exothermic reactions.” If you go into a closet with a roll of garden variety masking tape and close the door behind you, after your eyes get used to the darkness if you pull a piece of tape off the roll you will see light coming off the roll at the point where the tape separates from the roll as you pull it off.
In you similarly take Wintergreen Life Savers into a dark closet, and snap one of them in half with pliers, you will see the Life Saver give off a tiny flash of light.
The really annoying productions of The Science Club, from our parents’ perspective, were the ones requiring that strings or wires be strung between houses or trees outside.
We built “foxhole radios,” a kind of AM radio anyone can make out of junk. It uses a piece of wood, thumb tacks, insulated copper wire, a #2 lead
pencil, a safety pin of the type used for a baby’s diaper, a rusty razor blade, and the cardboard tube from the inside of a roll of toilet paper. The only non-junk item needed was a pair of headphones.
We would construct the radio, hang a 50 foot copper wire antenna between trees or homes (so that the ends of the antenna did not actually touch the trees or homes, but instead were held by string connected to trees or homes), run a lead from the antenna to the “radio,” run a separate wire from the “radio” to a pipe in the house, and hear 1210 AM in the headphones. No battery was needed — the antenna itself generated enough voltage for us to hear the radio program in the headphones.
We also connected houses with the tin can walkie-talkie sets — just ordinary tin cans in each house, with taut strings running from tin can to tin can, set up so that the strings touched nothing but the cans, and we would shout massages to each other through string. The vibrations of the sounds of our voices were conveyed through the string from one house to another.
And I guess the most annoying thing of all to our parents was our discovery of the home made telegraph. We’d run telegraph lines between houses, and telegraph Morse code to one another at night, and then run to the telephone to confirm the meaning of the message.
As we entered our pre-teen years, much to our parents’ dismay we became more skilled got at collecting junk for science.
Once I brought home a TV from someone’s trash.
My father sternly warned, “Don’t you DARE plug in that TV — it’s dangerous.”
I was so disappointed to hear that. There it was, that wonderful junked TV down our basement, sitting there, waiting to be plugged-in and experimented with.
One day, the family went for a ride up to New Hope, to buy apple cider and donuts for the annual Fall treat. I decided to lie, saying that I was too tired and needed a nap.
Not too long after the family left, I crept down the basement and placed the TV on my father’s work bench and found an extension cord and plugged it in.
The angel on my right shoulder said, “Now, Peter, you know that you should not turn this thing on. Your father was really clear about that.”
The devil on my left shoulder said, “Are you crazy???!!! Think of the excitement, if this thing works when you turn it on! It will be WONDERFUL! Turn it on! Turn it on!”
As I said in a previous article, “Was I not a man? And is not a man stupid?” So, though I was still a kid, the devil won that one. I clicked the “on” switch.
Immediately, POW, BANG, FFFFFFSSSSSHHHHHHH! There was a loud pop and explosion, and fire like a blow torch shot out of the back of the set, and then it began squirting a geyser of very smelly thick black smoke. I ran for the extension cord and yanked it out of the wall. The smoke gradually stopped shooting out of the set, but I suddenly realized that the basement was so full of smoke that I couldn’t see 6 feet in front of me. I thought, “OH, NO! I’LL GET CAUGHT! DAD WILL KNOW THAT I DISOBEYED HIM!”
And then I remembered that I had left the cellar door open, and so I ran upstairs and, as feared, the first floor was also filled with smoke, and the second and third floors a little bit, too.
I ran through the house like a lunatic, thrusting open windows to clear out the smoke to try to hide my sin.
But, darn it, the air seemed so still outside! Opening the windows just didn’t help much!
As the smoke cleared out of the house very, very, very slowly, I kept a lookout at the corner of Wakeling and Rutland Streets for my parent’s car. Finally, I saw it. I thought, “OH, NO! HERE THEY COME!” I bolted inside and began slamming windows shut, hoping against hope that I had cleared out enough smoke and smell of burning electronic components.
My parents entered the house. I went up to the boys’ bedroom and pretended to be reading. Finally it happened…
“Peeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-terrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! Come downstairs! Your father wants to talk to you in the basement!”
Down the basement, my dad said, “Peter, the house is filled with the smell of bakelite — burned electronics! You didn’t disobey me while we were gone by plugging-in that television you recovered from the trash, did you?”
“No!,” I lied, trying to look and sound surprised.
Dad gave me a second chance to “’fess-up.” “Ya know,” he said, pointing to the steel-shielded BX wire in the basement ceiling, “If you did, there might be a raging fire in those steel-covered lines right now, and that will set the house on fire and kill us all.”
That line smoked me out. At first I insisted “I didn’t!” But that business about fire in the wires really spooked me. As I walked toward the basement steps to escape my interrogation, the fear of fire in the wires above my head which might burn down the house and kill the family built-up in my mind like steam in a pressure cooker, and before I reached the stairs my skull developed cracks and my mind exploded.
I turned around. “Dad,” I said, “I lied. I did plug in the TV. I disobeyed.” He seemed relieved to be told the truth, finally, and miraculously dropped the whole subject. And I went upstairs feeling like dirt, and I confessed it in the confessional at St. Martin’s Church the following week.
In 1958, the movie The Blob, starring Steve McQueen, hit the screens. It played at theatres off-and-on for years (like Battle in Outer Space and The Mysterians). We watched it again and again and again for 35 cents in the Regal Theatre up on Oxford Avenue, between Sanger Street and the Boulevard, across from what is now McDonald’s.
We kids were all kind of spooked by that film The Blob, and were very glad that there were things like CO2 fire extinguishers hanging on walls to freeze such monsters to death!
In The Science Club one day, Nicky Macko said, “Do you remember how, in the movie The Blob, the monster would grow and grow and grow? My dad says that there really is a mix of chemicals which keeps growing and doesn’t stop!”
I had serious doubts about Nicky’s statement — but to tell the truth I wasn’t sure! So, I filed the statement away in the Caution Department of my kid brain.
One day, several weeks later, I was downstairs in the basement of our home, randomly mixing chemicals from the chemistry set my parents had given me for Christmas.
As I mixed chemicals in the beaker, I saw that I had created a very satisfying pool of brown slop in the bottom of the beaker. I reached into the chemistry set and took out one more chemical and mixed it in.
With greater satisfaction, I saw that the pool of brown slop was foaming up in the beaker.
But, it didn’t stop. It kept foaming-up, higher and higher in the beaker, far beyond my expectations,. Suddenly, I panicked. I thought, “OH, NO! I HAVE ACCIDENTALLY CREATED THAT MIX OF CHEMICALS NICKY MACKO TALKED ABOUT! IT WILL NEVER STOP GROWING, AND EAT UP ALL LIFE ON EARTH!”
I knew that I had to act quick to save the world. I courageously picked up the beaker of expanding brown goo, and ran over to the basement wash tubs with it, and turned on the water, and flushed that dangerous world-consuming man-made Blob down the drain!
I looked anxiously down the drain after I had done that, concerned that the thing might expand back up the drain and into the house and eat us all up. But it didn’t!
I killed it!
And that’s how I saved the family, Frankford, and possibly the entire world, from an accidentally-concocted homemade Blob!