There are a few things I am proud of in life.
I married the perfect girl.
I have never gotten a traffic ticket. Well, once. But it was thrown out in court because the police officer wrote down the wrong violation number. So legally, it never happened.
I have never watched an episode of Oprah.
And I never took chemistry.
Which is great, because I hate chemistry. My understanding of that branch of science is limited to what I learned in grade school, back before my voice changed. I remember sticking soda straws into styrofoam balls until my teacher would say something like, “Nuridium!” Then we all laid down on our mats and took a nap.
And then there is this.
The Periodic Table. It is called that because of how often I would actually look at it.
Which is similar to what would happen when a ship’s Engineer would try to explain the chemistry of the engineering plant. That’s one of the reasons I switched to meteorology – to get away from all that.
So it seems pretty ironic that chemistry almost ruined my career.
I was in charge of an Open House ceremony for a newly renovated building that would become the headquarters for the Meteorology and Oceanography Facility at North Island. The old place looked spectacular – new furniture, new paint, and a brand new carpet. Everything was in position for the big event – the chairs, the programs, the band, everything.
All that remained was to hang an old barometer in the lobby to add to the historical feel of the building. We found one, and just as we were getting ready to hang it, the fellow holding it turned it upside down to look at its bottom.
And something silver dripped out onto our new carpet.
It was Mercury.
Now, I’m no chemist, but somewhere in my training I remembered hearing that Mercury is not good for you. We called the base to ask, and within minutes a HAZMAT van screeched up and some men in astronaut outfits trotted up to the building.
They looked at the spill, put up yellow tape in the lobby, took samples, and began to extract the deadly penny-sized droplet of Mercury off our brand new carpet.
It was at about this time that people began arriving for the ceremony.
How ironic, I thought, that after avoiding chemistry my whole life, it would be a chemical that would end my career. Maybe all the years of disdain had created bad ju-ju with the chemistry spirits. Maybe, if I had studied it when I had the chance, I would have known what to do.
Instead, my future depended on the HAZMAT astronauts decontaminating our new carpet. To my amazement, they worked quickly and finished their work just before start of the ceremony. Then they had the good sense to discreetly leave the building so as not to disturb the audience. The Open House took place on time, and no one was the wiser.
I guess I learned a few things from the experience.
No matter how well you plan, be ready for the unexpected.
When things look bad, don’t panic. Think things through, then act decisively.
Don’t turn old Mercury barometers upside down.
I also learned that understanding chemistry is important, and that I needed to quit fighting it. One of these days maybe I’ll pick up a book and learn about atoms and molecules and the basic components of the chemicals we work with every day.
I’ll do that.
Right after Oprah.