The Sordid Story of the Sodium Balls by the American author Robert Mitchell. Part I. Enjoy your day, Yareah friends!
My friend Jim Hickey couldn’t be bothered to go to most of his classes. How he graduated from Lock Haven High School I’ll never know. Jim did what Jim liked. The subjects he liked he was very good at. He excelled in chemistry and physics. Forget about history and English. If we had been studying philosophy, he would have excelled at that, too, I think. He had a keen, analytical mind, and a mischievous sense of humor.
Then came that unforgettable Halloween. It was our senior year, which would have made it 1956. We must have had Satan whispering in our ears, because Hickey—we called each other by our last names—came up with a devilish plan for how we would trick-or-treat. I had no idea what he had in mind, but, he was my buddy, so I went along with it, no questions asked.
I’m also not sure how he managed to pull it off, but I guess he must have hung around the chemistry room long enough so that when Mr. Kulak stepped away for a minute, Jim swiped a large glass jar full of sodium balls. Don’t ask me how he got them out of the building.
From our junior year class in chemistry we knew that when you joined an unstable element like sodium with another unstable element like chloride, it would become a stable compound, in this case, sodium chloride, or table salt. Hickey, ever the experimenter, also discovered for himself how explosive it can be to join an unstable element like sodium with a stable compound like water. Sodium plus water produces caustic sodium hydroxide and highly flammable hydrogen gas resulting in an explosion. My chemistry is a bit rusty, but the formula looks something like this: Na + H2O NaH1O + H1 ↑, the last arrow means that one molecule of hydrogen is released to the air—which will be dramatically demonstrated shortly.
I had no idea what Hickey had up his sleeve, and he was not about to explain it to me. “You’ll see,” he commented. The wheels of naughtiness just got a jump start. So, on Halloween Night we set out to have some fun. Admittedly, I was feeling apprehensive about what Hickey considered “fun.” I blush at how quickly my guilt feelings were wiped out by the thrill of the chase.
We went to the houses of people we didn’t like, such as my next door neighbor, a certain Mrs. Messerly, an old battle-ax if ever there was one. She always yelled at the neighborhood kids for any slight infringement of her property. She even built a fence to keep us out. It wasn’t a high fence, maybe three feet or so, constructed of decorator iron. After her husband died she reinforced it with chicken wire. If we hit a ball accidentally into her yard, she was there to confiscate it. She never gave them back.
I wonder what happened to all those balls after she died…
We had a number of apple trees in our back yard, the remains of an apple orchard from long before we lived here. The tree nearest Mrs. Messerly’s fence still produced a good many apples. My mother loved to make pies and dumplings with them. Part of the tree hung over the Messerly fence and deposited apples in her yard. She picked the good ones for herself and threw the rotten ones back into our yard. As it happened, it was my job to clean up all the apples, separating good from bad, so I especially resented her compounding my work.
Anyway, back to that Halloween evening, we carefully placed a small tray of water under the front doorstep of an unsuspecting victim, then put a sodium ball on the small space in front of the outside door directly over the tray of water, so that when the outside door opened, it would knock the sodium ball into the water.
We worked quickly and quietly. When everything was in place one of us rang the bell and we both ran to hide behind the nearest bush. Mrs. Messerly came to the door. She opened the inside door, but not the outside one. With glasses against the pane, she squinted through the glass suspiciously. She knew full well it was Halloween and expected trick-or-treaters. When she didn’t see anybody, she opened the outside door for a better look to see who rang her bell.
A jet flame shot up in front of her, causing her to jump back, dislodging her glasses. She shrieked as we expected. We snickered from behind the bush, and took her moment of confusion to make our escape.
Looking back on this I feel ashamed of the great danger to which we exposed people. In one case, the sodium ball flew up under the dress of the unsuspecting victim. I don’t know what happened after that, but clearly she could have been severely burned. Afterwards I prayed God we didn’t cause serious damage or injury! I never heard of any…
After only two, perhaps three of these “visits,” it was not surprising that we heard police sirens from downtown screaming their way towards Susquehanna Avenue. Well-seasoned to such contingencies, Hickey hissed, “Let’s get out of here!”
We jumped on his old Indian motorcycle and headed down Susquehanna Avenue as fast as we could. I held the jar of sodium balls in my right arm while holding on to Hickey for dear life with the left. (No safety features on motorcycles in those days.) The jar was still quite heavy, as we had only used four or five of them. There must have been twenty-five or thirty left. Not only was the jar awkward and heavy, it was slippery, being made of glass.
“Where’r’ we goin’?” I shouted over the din of the Indian.
“We have to get rid of these things,” he hollered back. “If we get caught with’em, we’re dead meat.”
“Where we gonna do that?”
“The river.” (the Susquehanna.)
“Can’t we put these back?” I pleaded, my conscience pricking me. “What’s Mr. Kulak gonna do for future lab experiments?”
“Forget it! You wanna get caught for breakin’ and enterin’, too?”
End of discussion.
We roared straight for the Lockport Bridge without passing a squad car, lucky for us. They must have come up Church Street or Main Street when we went down Water Street. A wonder they didn’t hear us, the Indian was so noisy! I nearly dropped the jar a couple of times, going over the railroad tracks and taking curves at high speed. I almost lost my grip on Hickey as he laid the motorcycle almost to the ground turning left onto the bridge.
“Wait ‘til we get to the other side,” he called over the din. He slowed down as we approached the Lockport side.
“NOW!” he shouted.
He pulled the cycle as close to the bridge railing as he could. I heaved the jar over the side to my right, much as a football quarterback shuttle-passes the ball as he’s being tackled. In the several seconds it took for the jar to reach the water, Hickey went to the far end of the bridge and turned the machine around so we could get back to the Lock Haven side.
Keep on reading: The Sordid Story of the Sodium Balls. Part II.