Growing up


In the 1970s, shortly after my dad was tenured in the School of Engineering at UPENN, my parents divorced. My dad was working hard in those days and often when he took us for weekend visits we had to stop in at “the lab” to check on his grad students and their experiments.

His office and the student labs were housed in a rad 70s looking building at 32nd and Walnut in West Philadelphia. The building has not changed since then, at least not on the outside—it still has its dark sheet glass windows and boxy exterior. Inside it smelled like chalk and cleanser and chemicals. We would take the tiny elevator with is clanking orange doors to the third floor.

I remember especially the particle accelerator that he and his students had built— he allowed my sister and I to look through a glass lens at an atom shooting forward and splitting; it looked like nothing much to me at the time. I was more impressed by the immense equipment and the big lead screen that was supposed to protect us from radiation exposure, but that my dad darted back and forth in front of without a seeming care.

The desk in his corner office always had a pack of Juicy Fruit gum in the top drawer. The packs were larger back then but my sister and I would make short work of them. The smell of Juicy Fruit still reminds me of him. My sister and I would draw on the chalk board in his office while my dad consulted with his students.

As a treat for being well-behaved at the end of these visits my dad would appear with a large canister of liquid nitrogen. We were ready. We always prepared for this in advance by picking bunches of ivy leaves from the beds around the building. We took the ivy by its stem and dipped it into the canister, careful not to get too near to the billowing cloud of liquid cold. Then we would pull out the frozen leaf and throw it on floor of the tiled hallway, and watch it shatter. Sometimes we would stomp the pieces and watch them shatter more. After we ran out of ivy leaves my dad would have us stand back while he threw whatever liquid remained in the canister down along the hallway floor. The liquid nitrogen would adhere to the particles of dust and we would chase along behind them as they skittered away. Is it any wonder that I saw my dad as some kind of wizard? He once burned a wart off of my sister’s hand with that stuff- this just raised my estimation of him further.

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