CHAPTER 1: "BENZENE"
by Matt Garvin
. . .
My father was a smart man. By any measure. He was also a well-educated man. But first and foremost, my father was a scientist. I mean, before being a stamp collector, an avid reader, a CNN-watcher, and certainly before being a husband or a dad, he was a scientist. It was tied to his self-identity, and seemingly rooted in his DNA. (And if you got him going on the topic of "DNA", you would really see what I mean. He would happily talk at you about mitochondria and nucleic acids and all manner of very dense, science-y gobbledegook; for a good, long time, too. Sometimes it was fun, and educational, and sometimes it was... overbearing.)
The man had a PhD in chemistry, and for most of his working life had made his living as what is termed a bench chemist. A "bench chemist" is a real chemist; someone who gets their hands dirty doing research, in a laboratory, wearing a white lab coat. And looking back on my childhood, most of the time my father was doing research, in a laboratory, wearing a white lab coat. Or at least he wasn't at home with us, his family. With my dad, there was never much in the way of games of catch, or picnics in the park, or family vacations. By "never much" I mean approximately zero. But, on the other hand, I did get to go to the lab on the weekend, now and again, where my dad would be doing work, and that was always interesting. (Yes, my dad was routinely at the lab seven-days-a-week. According to my mom he was a "work-a-holic." But, in all honesty, whenever I went to the lab with him he didn't seem to be doing a ton of work. He was more so... just not being at home.)
The best part about going to the lab with my dad was... spending time with my dad! Being close to him, and feeling important and connected to him. Also, seeing evidence that he really was a scientist, and how he had access to all of this expensive equipment, most of which had exotic names unfamiliar to most people. Sometimes this very expensive equipment would find its way out of the lab, and into our home, in all manner of different ways. I once had a goldfish that I cleverly named "Goldie." Now, there is nothing too strange about a 6-year-old having a goldfish. However, how many 6-year-olds get to keep their goldfish in an oversized Florence flask, which their dad had pilfered from work? Not many. But I did, and it was really cool. Until the huge flask broke in the back of our car, when my family was in the process of moving from Missouri to Kentucky, and my little gold fish was swimming in two inches of water that had collected in a bucket-seat. But it was fun up until that point.
The lab I remember best was in Lexington, Kentucky, on the University of Kentucky (UK) campus. He worked there for 4 years, starting when I was in Grade 3. The laboratory reminded me of a decommissioned hospital, with long hallways, and fluorescent tube-lighting, some office space, and some rooms filled with huge air ducts, troughs, and industrial equipment. Because we went in on weekends, there wasn't usually anyone around. The floors were a dull cement-grey, and had a polish to them from many years of being cleaned, over and over. There was always a strong alcohol smell present, that burnt my nose before I got used to it, and I remember the air feeling cooler than expected, for some reason. There were also more sinks, mostly made of metal, than you would think were necessary, and every now and then there was a little eye-wash station that looked sort of like a mini-shower. Besides hanging out with my dad, the best part of visiting the lab was getting to take home some dry-ice when we left. It was fun to drop a little piece of dry-ice into water and watch it smoke, or to hold a metal spoon against a chunk of it and make it sing.
One time my sister and I came down with a bout of food poisoning. We had used some tainted sour cream to make chip dip, and eaten a tremendous quantity of it coupled with a bag of potato chips. We were spending the afternoon how we had spent the morning: Watching TV; probably Gilligan's Island. We watched a lot of pretty well everything growing up, but I especially liked to kill off my brain cells with Gilligan's Island; it was perfect for that! Also, I think my first crush ever was on Mary Ann, the farm-girl castaway from the show.
Anyway, I remember later in the day, both my sister and I had nausea, and at least one of us ended up tossing their cookies. (Or, rather, tossing their Lay's potato chips with french onion dip). Somehow, my dad, ever-the-scientist, got his hands on some of our barf, with the goal of culturing it in his lab. A couple days later my dad conclusively announced to the family, with confidence, and hopefully not at dinner: We had Salmonella poisoning! It was like winning a prize or something. I think he even brought home the pitri dish, and showed us the dark, little, growing specks of Salmonella enterica bacteria.
See? Having a scientist-dad could be cool. It was unique, and interesting. However... On reflection, I think my siblings and I would have preferred having someone that was a dad first, and a scientist second. At least I know that's how I feel.
Many years after the tainted chips, and after yet another move, this time to Toronto, I made an important phone call to my father. I was in Grade 8 or 9. On this afternoon, during a long, hot summer, which I spent almost entirely indoors, I was hanging out with two ne'er-do-well brothers: The Muellers. When we hung out back in those days we were either playing marathon sessions of Dungeons and Dragons, or taking brief pauses from those marathon sessions, to do something stupid and often dangerous. Things like: Lighting off explosives; driving their mom's car around the block (none of us was 16 yet); or, "knocking each other out." The latter was done by bending over, hands-on-knees, and deliberately causing yourself to hyper-ventilate. Then suddenly you would stand upright and have a buddy press firmly on your chest, as if he was performing CPR. This invariably would send you to La-La land. I have since googled it, and have seen that it can also kill you, but luckily this never happened to me or my idiot friends. What did happen was we would have these bizarre little dreams right there on-the-spot, and then come-to, usually very confused and frothing at the mouth. Good times.
At any rate, when I made the call to my dad it was because of yet another stupid activity the Mueller's wanted me to try. My dad wasn't working quite as much at this point, and I think I even got him on the phone at home. By a stroke of luck, the Mueller's had gotten their hands on something they claimed was better and more effective than the knock-out game. It was in a clear glass bottle, and it looked just like water. But it wasn't water: The bottle was labelled "BENZENE". The Mueller's told me that if I just breathed the fumes in, very deeply, for only a few moments, I would go to La-La Land without all the muss'n'fuss of having to get knocked the fuck out. I was intrigued, of course, but at the same time, my spidey sense was going off. Sure, it sounded fun, but it also sounded a little scary. So I told them to hang on a second, because I wanted to call my dad -- Dr. Science! -- and get his input. Strangely, they didn't object. So I called him.
Calling my father was like putting on a little show for the Muellers. Their absent father was a drunk and a security guard. My absent father was a highly educated and extremely knowledgeable Big Time Scientist. I knew 100% he would be aware of Benzene and know plenty about it. And he did. With the Mueller's watching on (with jealousy?), I described the situation to my dad, and the bottle of Benzene, and ultimately asked if it was a good idea for me to inhale this strange substance, to get my jollies. In reply, and sounding like he had no emotional investment in the situation whatsoever, my father told me the chemical composition of Benzene (C6H6), what it was used for (as an industrial cleaning agent), and that if he were in my shoes what he would do (which was: Not huff the Benzene). Boom, that was it. I hung up. The show was over. I had the smart dad and they had the loser one. That is how I felt, at least on some level.
But on another level, on a deeper and more meaningful level, that wasn't it. It is obvious to me now, and has been for some time, that when I called my dad to ask if it was a good idea for me to huff Benzene, I didn't really want to know its chemical composition or how it was used by industry. Nor did I want to hear what my dad would do, if he was in my shoes, at the time. When I called my dad to ask if it was a good idea for me to huff Benzene, all I really wanted to hear from my dad was, emphatically: "No!" And "You are in danger. I am your father. I love you, and I am coming to get you."
- End of Chapter 1 -