All in the Name of Science

The fact that my Catholic Elementary school did not teach Science  (conflict of interest–you know, the whole Adam and Eve– Intelligent Design*– Theory of Evolution debate. )  did not stop Sister Charles Nelson Reilly and the other nuns at Sacred Heart from hosting an annual “Science Fair” each spring.

*Though in recent years, the Folks Who Brought You Intelligent Design have upped the ante with their new “Garden of Eden” Theme Park in Alabama.  One particularly popular display features Cain,  Abel, and Esau as young lads riding on the back of an Apatosaurus.

During grades 1, 2 and 3, I unsuccessfully attempted to create a barometer using a mayonnaise jar, a piece of waxed paper, a rubberband and half a straw.  Since I had no idea what a barometer was or what its function was, it was extremely difficult to create, hard to explain and even harder to win first prize.  By nature, I like to win–If I’m going to bother to make something, I want full recognition for it–like a prize or a trophy or a piece of candy.  Today, I am called “results-driven” and “goal-oriented.”  As a child, I would have been labeled  (if there were such a thing as labeling in the 60’s) as OCD with a heavy on the C.

In fourth grade I decided to take a sabbatical from the world of meteorology and climate prediction and plunge into a world much more interesting and far more relevant to urbanites–people such as myself and Sister Nipsy Russell.  My new science fair project was titled: POLLUTION–How it is Sneaking Up on Unsuspecting Citizens in Our Fair City.  This is the title I remember.  It was more likely titled:  Pollution–Not Good.

Armed with a bag of cotton balls and Scotch tape (which until I had wrapped 40,000 Christmas gifts the year after my oldest was born, I never realized had a plaid logo-hence the “Scotch” name )   I went around to different streets in my neighborhood and taped cotton balls to trees (Wherever I could find ones healthy enough to support the additional weight of the cotton ball.  Remember, I lived only a few miles from the Airborne Toxic Chemical Capital of the World–Elizabeth, New Jersey.)  I imagined my finished project would feature dozens of pollution-riddled cotton balls adhered to a piece of poster board (or as we called it in the old days–oak tag)  Each cotton ball would be labeled with its pollution collecting location, the number of days it was left out in the elements and the type of pollution it contained.  I imagined the wild shrieks from my classmates–“Eww, that’s gross!”  The more hideous the project, the better my chances of winning the coveted First Prize trophy.

I spent my entire Saturday (a huge show of scientific and scholastic dedication on my part)  going around the neighborhood, taping cotton balls to trees.  The following Saturday (again a display of my commitment to humanity and the world of science)  I went to retrieve my fuzzy harbingers of mankind’s downfall.  As I strolled through the neighborhood, I imagined those cotton balls would propel me into notoriety–on a level with, say, Nostradmus.  People would praise my ability to predict human extinction before anyone else on earth.

To my dismay, the three cotton balls that had not fallen off the trees or been stolen, remained pristine and snowy white.  The Science Fair was in two days.  What would I do? ?? I had to have a science fair project in less than 48 hours or I was sure to be tag teamed by Sister Haystacks Calhoun and Sister Eddie Guerrara.

Dad and his three-pack-a-day cigarette habit to the rescue.  That afternoon, my father willingly sat and chain smoked–blowing smoke into several dozen cotton balls.  During the next two days, each was painstakenly labeled (fraudulently,  of course–Hey, this WAS New Jersey) and taped to my oak tag.  I listed samples of car, truck, and factory pollution.  Only I would know that every cotton ball contained tar and nicotine deposits made by my dad–who made each one unique by altering the  force with which he blew his exhale into the cotton ball.   Aah, success!  By Sunday night, I had put the final finishing touches on my project–a little glitter here–a scary skeleton head and cross bones done in crayon there and last but not least, the title of my project.  “Job well done, ” I congratulated myself. I slept soundly, dreaming of speeches given while clutching my first place science fair trophy.

While walking to school on Monday (yes, we walked–no bus service, no Mom’s taxi) a few of the cotton balls fell off the poster, without my knowledge.  So by the time the project found itself in the school cafe-gyma-torium next to the dozens of other displays, mine looked a bit worse for the wear.  A bit like my chenille bedspread which after numerous washings had lost a good many of its pompoms.*  But, I wasn’t worried;  the physical display was only one part of what we were judged on.  My project was a warning to the scientific community–an urgent wake-up call.  In a nutshell, I was telling the world to stop horsing around with this cancer research bullshit and get to really important things, like….cotton balls taped to a piece of oak tag.

* All my life, I have used the word “pompoms.”  Very recently, I saw the word spelled “pompons.”  Have you ever, in all your days heard someone say the word ‘pompons’?  No, I think not.  Maybe the French say it that way…

That year, Roland Herbanker won first place for his project entitled, “Macular Degeneration in Albino Mice.”  Obviously, Roland had had some public schooling in his educational history.

The following year, I was inspired by an article I’d read regarding a new field of science and life after death:  Cryogenics  (which I believe is from the Latin, ” freezing for later on”)   Cryogenics was in its infancy and people were signing up to have their bodies frozen in hopes of being resuscitated at a later date.  The big rumor was that Walt Disney had been cryogenically preserved and once a cure for cancer had been found, they’d thaw him out, cure him and the world would once again enjoy his animated films featuring forest animals with tight, cute little derrieres  (this, apparently was one of Walt’s curious fetishes.)

As I read more of the article, I was convinced it was a sure thing to win that year’s science fair.

I was unsuccessful in trying to coerce my 6 year old brother to volunteer as the second person to be cryogenically preserved.  (No, he didn’t buy the “you’ll be famous, wealthy–and have an unlimited supply of snowballs.” )  He took my proposal quite badly and ran to my mother, crying that I wanted to kill him by freezing him to death.  I was sent to my room until I was able to explain that the experiment was “all in the name of science” and had nothing to do with the fact that my brother recently found my secret stash of Halloween candy and had eaten everything but the Good ‘N Plenty.

The thought of playing God was titillating.  Megan could destroy and create life at will.  As far as I knew, up until this point in time, only Jesus had done this–so I was on the short list.  I reminded myself–only use your powers for good, Megan.  All in the name of science.  I searched the house for suitable subjects.  My eyes fixed upon the glowing light coming from the living room.  I carefully retrieved three unsuspecting guppies from the family fish tank; placing them in a mostly clean soup bowl filled halfway with tapwater.  I read on–the subjects needed to be frozen at a rapid rate to minimize tissue damage.  Okay…the freezer would do nicely.  I placed the bowl on the bottom rack of the freezer–right alongside the two foot high pyramid of grape ice pops (the grape ones tasted like cough medicine) and the chewy remains of a half gallon of Neapolitan ice cream.  Every few minutes I would check the freezer and found the guppies swimming slower and slower as the water turned to slush.  I was kind of feeling sick to my stomach a bit, but I knew the guppies would eventually be revived, so my guilt aside, I left the bowl in the freezer overnight.

The next morning, I had frozen guppies.  My brother screamed when he saw them and of course, told my mother.  “Mommy,  Megan killed our fish–she frozed them to death.  I hate her, I wish she was frozed.”  Again, I was sent to my room.  Again, an explanation–The guppies were not actually dead–they were in a state of suspended animation.  When I thawed them, they would be right as rain and quickly returned to their home in the living room aquarium.   I wondered if Jesus had to waste so much time explaining things to the unenlightened–my mother acted like she was an idiot.  “You honestly think, Megan, that when you thaw out the fish, they”ll be alive?”  “M-o-o-m, they’re alive right now.  They’re just in a state of-”  “Yes, Megan, I know, suspended animation.  I get it.”  Okay, reading on…the frozen subjects next had to be revived, “thawed out” if you will, at an equally fast rate.  I placed the bowl on the radiator in the kitchen.  It being mid-May and the radiator not operating at full capacity–I moved the not-so-living, living specimens to the oven.

The guppies baked at 375 degrees for an hour.

My mother kindly suggested that I not “check in” on my experiment by opening the oven door every two minutes.  I explained that I thought it might be good for me to stir the water up a bit every once in a while–to baste them. “Keep the frigging oven door closed–we’re not trying to heat the universe.”  Dear Jesus, I know you’d understand.

When the timer dinged sixty minutes, I opened the oven door.  To my surprise and dismay, my guppies were not only NOT alive, they were stuck to the bottom of the bowl–I squinted at the three dried out, baked little bodies.  If only I had basted them once or twice–damn my mother.  Big sloppy wet tears fell on my oak tag as I worked.   I titled my project, detailed the steps to the experiment and then tenderly scotch taped the three guppies, looking  like the Gorton’s Fisherman rejects of the day to the display.  That night, I said a special prayer, asking God to forgive me for killing my guppies.  The next morning I woke to the sound of Lucky, the dog, happily chewing through the Scotch tape and crunching away on my guppies–like doggie-sized Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks.  My science fair display was titled:  Cryogenics–a Long Way from Reality.

Louise Mahoney won first prize that year.  She made a barometer.