Stinks & Bangs

I’ve recently finished a chapter entitled “Stinks & Bangs'” in Oliver Sacks’ engaging Uncle Tungsten – Memoirs of a Chemical Childhood. Sacks, a distinguished neurologist known for his best-selling book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, recounts his boyhood fascination with all things chemical. That fascination led to experiments in his home “lab” that produced assorted noxious “stinks” and occasional big “bangs”. On one such occasion he’d used a great mass of a chemical that when combined with another produced a huge quantitiy of rotten-egg stinking, choking gas. He fled to the garden but the bubbling mass continued to give off clouds of toxic gas which soon permeated the rest of the house.  

What Sacks’ writes next really grabbed me. He related how his “parents were, by and large, amazingly tolerant of (his) experiments, but they insisted, at this point, on having a fume cupboard installed and (his) using, for such experiments, less generous quantities of reagent.” I’m pretty sure as a parent I would have put the kibosh on any further chemistry experiments. Period. But his parents “got” Oliver’s love affair with all things chemical and provided appropriate equipment and boundaries for his further exploration. And it stirred memories of my own childhood “laboratories” and the forthcoming parental encouragement or “kiboshment” of my love affair with exploring the I-wonder-what-ifs of a creative life.

My dad built a shop behind the garage and furnished it with tongue and groove paneling, a radial saw, wood and metal lathes, a drill press, hand tools and a gun cabinet, to speak nothing of the shelves filled with nails, screws, washers, and the magical smell of sawdust and metal shavings on the floor. I remember fonds hours of parallel play as he puttered with his project and I mine. I’m sure I used his tools in ways for which they were never intended, but I accomplished my purpose without rebuke, if not outright encouragement,  and loved the long-slanting golden light of late afternoon in this shared space.  

Somehow he also acquired thin wooden piano crates and I created a series of backyard forts that buckled and collapsed as winter progressed. Pillows and pallets likewise met their demise in these abandoned boxes, but I don’t remember my folks “kiboshing” them as eyesores.  They just were, and then one day they weren’t.

My one true “stink and bang” was attempting to make linseed oil as a binder for mixing my own oil paints. This was a legitimate project for a high school chemistry class and involved my own unresearched recipe boiling linseeds in water for hours on the kitchen stove in a sauce pan before the days of the internet. Googling an online recipe now reveals phrases like “the alkali method of refining” and “cold press forms” and gives me a clue as to why my experiment was a total failure and the sauce pan a complete loss – a stink and bust, so to speak. Like Oliver Sacks’ parents, mine were generously tolerant.

In visiting these long ago memories an arc between then and now emerges – my father’s workshop presence as we puttered and created together has left me with an abiding pleasure of creating art in community.

What were your “stinks and bangs” growing up? Your fascinations…passions…experiments…I-wonder-what-ifs? How were they encouraged or discouraged? How has all of that influenced who you are today?

Looking forward to hearing your responses!

8 comments to Stinks & Bangs

  • Jan


    I am not familiar with this book. However, as a musician and the grandmother of a synthesthete, I’m devoted to Sacks’ brilliant Musicophilia. I recommend it to anyone interested in music or the brain, and will add Stinks and Bangs to my reading list.


  • Deanna J Bowling

    I had forgotten this period of time until reading this blog. My dad had bought enough bricks to put in a brick drive way along side my grandmother’s house that we were living in at the time. For unremembered reasons to me now, he never got around to laying the brick, so allowed my brother and myself to play with the bricks. I remember designing and building many a “house” (no rooves) out of those bricks, playing in them, making mud pies, having our dog “Red” playing with us, sometimes some of the neighborhood kids joining in. It was a magical time.

  • melinda kornder

    castor oil is chemistry, right? My Dad & I decided to harvest the castor beans that grew in a barranca across the street, and try to make “castor oil” in our basement, for my chemistry experiment (for Mr Lawrence..remember him, Lynn?) It was winter and before they could be squeezed, they had to be dried…so I spread them out, next to the furnace….where they exploded and smelled, all over the workshop! My Dad always encouraged my creative efforts, especially involving Science, but was over-ruled by my Mom, who did NOT like the smell of castor oil whenever the furnace was turned on. Melinda

  • Lynne

    Melinda, this is hilarious. Not a big surprise neither of us pursued chemistry as a passion, heh? I remember Mr. Lawrence. I had chemistry with Mr. Brokaw.

  • Lynn Dempsey

    I was privileged to hear Sacks speak some years ago at Pleasant Valley Hospital, and I suspect you also shared the occasion, Lynne.
    My sister who has suffered for decades from cluster migraines is an admirer and I wish she had consulted him, even though he was in NYC and she near Edinburgh.

    “Stinks and Bangs” — middle school aged chemistry projects on winter afternoons in the bedroom as well as dragging road kill, I remember in particular the possum, for exploration. My father, a family physician, was notably lax with his children on matters of hygiene, and so all my projects were largely uninterrupted. I do wonder now whether the cooked possum delivered as a thank-you from a farm patient was not a further creative value added to my science. One of those questions never to be answered by him, long gone, best left in the little mysteries box of memories.

  • Lynne, your article brings back many memories. My parents didn’t kabosh me so much, but having an older sister and younger brother I seemed to be limited in my areas of experimentation due to her being the first to succeed at something and my brother doing the boy things. I felt I shouldn’t try to improve one of their successes or try on my own.

    I do remember the rotten-egg smell, that the son of my parents best friends and I created with a chemistry set he got for Christmas. It was really bad and I don’t think we were allowed to create it in the house again. My favorite chemical event was vinegar and baking soda because it was readily available and not noticed so much if some was missing. (Most of my experiments were done in a covert operation setting!)

    Also, Mom was quite the seamstress so I made clothes for my dolls while she sewed. I remember her cutting 4 inches of new elastic for me to make a skirt for my Lu Ann Simms doll. She asked if I was sure it was 4 inches around and I said I was positive (no measuring was done.) So she gave me 4 inches and when I discovered I needed 12 inches instead, she gave me that without reprimand over wasting 4 inches of perfectly good elastic. I went on to make clothes in high school and modeled them in fashion shows and later for my own family for many years due to her encouragement and allowance of experimentation and encouragement.

    My favorite thing I remember is the etched champagne glasses my mom kept on the very top shelf of the kitchen cupboards. These were never used to my knowledge because we had no alcohol in our home at all. Every time I was alone in the house I would get out the Kool-Aid, get a chair and stand on the counter to carefully reach one of those glasses. I’d pour my Kool-Aid into one to see if Kool-Aid tasted differently in a champagne glass. It didn’t. But, I sure felt different drinking Kool-Aid out of a champagne glass. I still like to have delicate glassware, although I seldom use it now. I just look at it, or photograph it.

    Thanks, Lynne, for taking me back to a happy childhood this morning. It was fun and I’m sure I’ll think of more as the day goes on.

  • Lee

    Like these others, your blog took me down memory lane. My dad said he would build me a longed-for playhouse, but when it did not happen, I found a large cardboard box and lavished loving decorating care upon it. My motto became “necessity is the mother of invention”, so I invented a “sink” out of a metal tin, with “running water” from the condensation hose from the swamp cooler. “Wall to wall carpet” came from a fluffy discarded rug. “Drapes” were carefully jerry-rigged over the cardboard openings, that I cut so there was a fold-down “awning”. So, my creativity was encouraged by benign neglect. I see the roots of my love of mixed media, and of redeeming and repurposing discards into fine artwork. And I am thankful.

  • Robin Rice

    What a wonderful story! Leaving children alone to explore without the squelching supervision of adults is an art form. I am happy that my mother modeled this flexibility with me so that I could do the same with my children. Memory: We lived in the country, our neighborhood was on the edge of the building boom, so apartments and houses were built in my wilderness, the area I explored with my dog at my side, climbing huge eucalyptus trees, rolling down grassy hills and more. I was only six years old when I did this. My mother did not rein me in even when the construction started, and I remember giant mud puddles after the rain in which I would use wood from the scrap piles to build bridges and “houses”. This mud was so thick that once my rubber boots came off my feet and I had to walk home in my socks, my mother returning with me to rescue the boots. I still can’t stop myself from using a stick to make new rivers in any run off I happen upon.

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