Sunday, January 30, 2011

How I Washed Out of Chemistry

When I entered Albion, I expected to become a chemist or a chemical engineer. At the bookstore I discovered a mechanical "pencil" set for the drafting class cost $70 at a time when books ran $10 -15 per course. I quickly decided I would become a chemist. The road less traveled began.

I signed up with the Chemistry department head, Dr Carnell, to be a lab assistant and was given the job of preparing 10 - 12 chemistry experiments he used to demonstrate the wonders of chemistry to his freshman class. I worked diligently following a teacher's experiment manual and lined the experiments up ready for a class I was taking. I can still recall the look of amazement - turned to wonder - on Dr. Carnell's face as he presented "my" experiments which failed as often as they succeeded! Where is that hole to crawl into when you need one?

I was reassigned to running viscosity tests in Dr. Carnell's lab. There were 6 to 8 viscosity tubes immersed in a hot water bath (fish tank) whose temperature I was expected to hold constant during the tests. You timed the flow of a fluid from top to bottom of each tube, using a stopwatch, to measure the viscosity of the liquid. If the bath temperature remained constant, all eight trials would produce the same result. The temperature rarely stated constant, so I had to rerun these tests literally hundreds of times. Was this what I had to look forward to as a chemist? Or was it payback for all those failed chemistry experiments?

To make things worst, the water bath was set in front of a window looking out over the campus, directly across from the library. What I saw while "doing my time" was guys and gals coming and going on their library dates while I was keeping company with smelly test tubes. When I saw a "woman of interest" with some other guy, I asked myself - "what in sam hill am I doing here?"

As a chem major I was required to take German as my foreign language. I am not a linguist. One day I asked Dr. Carnell how many times he had translated a German chemical tract for his work? Once! So why did we have to take German? "It shows you are an educated man." In my junior year I went to New York as best man at my cousin's marriage into a second generation German family. At the dinner celebration, I was told there were two German cousins straight off the boat. So, as best man, I proceed to one of the young ladies and in my best German said - "Wollen Sie mit meir gedanzen?" Her response was a very puzzled look! Fortunately an older lady sitting nearby reached over and said "My dear - he just asked you if you would like to dance." Why can't I find those holes when I need one?

Second frosh semester and I was blasting my way thought chemistry - full speed ahead. My chem grades were borderline B+/A- and I figured if I aced the final an A was in the bag. I studied hard and was ready. The day after the final I stopped in to see Dr. Carnell and casually asked how I had done on the final. C+ which guaranteed a B in the course. That summer at Y camp I thought long and hard, and in the fall, I said good by to Dr. Carnell and went looking for a new major. I found political history / economics and never looked back.

Fast forward 30 years. My daughter came home from her first year at Whitman College. She found a summer job as a receptionist with a management recruiter. A week later she came home and told me she had been fired! I phoned the recruiter and asked - "What's up?" He replied his business depended heavily on phone calls and my daughter was writing down incorrect phone numbers which he could not return. That's when I discovered she transposes numbers and letters sometimes. My former wife asked where that came from?

I reflected long and hard. I was never a good speller, but was unaware of a problem transposing numbers. I then looked closely at how I deal with large numbers. Sure enough - I was transposing numbers now and then. Aha - answer to why a C+ on chemistry test.

In retrospect, it's probably a good thing I washed out of chemistry. I knew the tables and valences backward and forward - maybe too backward! My career change probably saved me and other people a lot of frustration and possibly some big bangs!          BruceF

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Out of Tune and Out of Luck

At the end of my first semester, I joined the choir and was a member until I graduated - but just barely. Choir members were expected (required?) to stay on campus though graduation to sing at commencement. At the end of my sophomore year, I had a summer job offer at a northern Michigan Y camp that required my presence as soon as finals were over. I left without seeking "permission" from Mr. Dave (Prof David Strickler - one of the finest men I ever met). Returning that fall, I asked to rejoin the choir and got the famous Mr. Dave stern look. After pleading my case, he relented with the understanding I was on probation for the rest of my college life.

During the JFK presidential campaign, some of the choir members arrived at practice singing JFK booster songs. Mr. Dave had the choir stand and sing one of them. Being a staunch Republican (ah - days of youth), GaryM and I remained seated and did not join in. Mr. Dave noticed our "independence" . When the song was over, he asked Gary and me to stand and sing all three verses of the Albion Alma Mater. Gary was a fraternity member and had learned the words to all three verses. I only knew one verse. Boy, did I feel stupid humming the final two verses in support of my fellow political criminal.

Each spring the choir went on tour for two weeks to promote the college.  We sang at high schools in the morning and churches in the evening.   On the tour, Mrs. Dave would often join us for a week or so. She was a most attractive woman, always dressed well, and was interesting to talk to.

Sometime in my junior year, the Choir was allowed to use one of the sorority houses for a social event. It was the first and only time I saw the interior of a sorority house. There was nothing exciting going on, so I decided to look around. I went upstairs and, to my amazement I discovered a stunningly beautiful young woman in the powder room putting on her makeup. She probably saw my jaw drop. Where had this lovely creature been all my life?

 She was not a choir member. As we chatted, I noticed there was something familiar about her.  As our conversation continued, I was thinking - I could not be so blind to have never noticed this young woman on campus. What was she doing here? She was preparing for a date - off campus, on her way up to Michigan State. Then the bell clapper dropped. She was Mr. Dave's daughter, blessed with her mother's good looks, Mr. Dave's wit, and that certain something you see in a woman who knows she's got IT - the look I call "Catch me if you can, but it will cost you your heart to do so".

Some types of fish I catch almost without trying; but I have never been able to catch my favorite, the elusive rainbow trout

On Guard - Off Duty

During my junior year, JohnW (my roommate) and his friend StanW signed up to "protect" the campus during football season. The thought was that students from other schools might show up and do some "unsavory" stuff on campus. There were four student guards; two stationed in front of the library and two down at the athletic field. One of the guys was assigned to ride a bicycle around campus each hour. If a problem occurred, guards had a whistle to summon help (from where or how was a bit of a mystery).

John asked me to stand in for him one night while he caught up on his studies. I visited the guard post that evening and found the guards huddled on loungers in sleeping bags under the library lights and decided this was a piece of cake. The next night I was on duty. I was assigned to the "A" field with one other guard. He went up to the top of the broadcast booth where he had a light while I stood watch at the entrance to the field. John had told me that whoever went to the broadcast booth usually went there to sleep, so I had drawn the short straw so to speak.

It's dark at the 'A' field. Around midnight, I noticed a car coming over the railroad tracks and slowly drive by. It went beyond the river and turned around at Victory park. It slowly returned and stopped in front of me. From the car one of the guys called out - "What are you doing?" "I'm guarding the campus." With that three guys get out of the car and head for me. One says - "How'd you like to go for a ride?" "Don't think so" - says I. What to do? I expect backup guard is fast asleep on the roof of the booth and it's a ways to campus. Dutifully, I blow my trusty whistle. Meanwhile these guys produce a rope, surround me and start to tie me up. Just then the guard on the bicycle comes over the railroad tracks - toward us. "What's going on?" I call out, "these guys want to take me for a ride." "What?", as bicycle comes closer. With that one of the guys from the car lights out for the guard on the bike. Guard and bike head off in the nick of time - but headed for Victory Park. Big help that was.

I get in the car with these guys who turn out to be students from Olivet - our football opponent for this coming weekend. After a few minutes, the rope is loose; I take it off and hand it to my captors. They offer me a beer since there seems to be plenty. "No thanks - where are we going?" "Just for a ride." So we drive around the north side of town for several hours; my only concern is that these guys are pretty well wacked and are driving a pretty crooked line. Meanwhile, back at campus, guard on the bicycle loops around Victory Park and finally arrives back on campus. They call the campus maintenance chief who organizes a search party.

A couple of hours pass. I'm the only sober one in the car, so I volunteer to drive. The Olivet guys almost accept my offer but then figure maybe not such a good idea. "Well then, how about dropping me off so you guys can get some rest someplace?" That idea sounds better. They took me to the Delt house, dropped me off and then rambled our of town, never to be seen again. I walked back to the library around sun-up and learn that the campus maintenance crews are out looking for me ( 2 or 3 trucks were driving around for three or four hours looking for the car that took me).

Looking on the bright side, you can learn something from almost any experience. I learned I couldn't count on my fellow guard asleep on top of the booth; I learned (to my surprise) my whistle worked; and I learned that if you keep a sober head when everyone else is getting drunk, you stand a pretty good chance of getting things done your way.