Readers of my blog have met John Fahey, author of the memoir, Survival, which I reviewed here on January 6 of this year.
He is now well on the way to completing the second book, Arrival, which will continue to mark, for his readers, the path of his determined march out of struggle, out of pain, and into the clear light which his determination and his intelligence made possible. Arrival will take John Fahey’s story through his successful studies in chemistry culminating in the awarding of a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1972 and a position with a research laboratory in America. Mr. Fahey expects this second volume of his memoir to end in the late 1980’s when he became Director of Clinical Research at the Community Research Initiative in Manhattan at the height of the AIDS crisis in this country.
These are stories of a painful childhood, a struggle for survival, a hard road out, and the freedom to which John Fahey won through. In these first pages, John describes his growing love affair with science, his discovery of a gay community, his acceptance of the tremors in his hands and the scars on his face. Already this new book holds out hope on many levels. It is a story of success and happiness. It is a story of the road out.
John has trusted me with the first fifteen pages of the new book, the second volume of what is intended to be the narrative of a painful childhood, a hard road, determination, intelligence, purpose, and peace at the end. Today, I received an email from John telling me that he would be spending the day in his gardens.
Arrival: Chapter One
“I knew my flight to New York was to be a one way journey. I was leaving England behind, putting an ocean between me and my father, taking my memories with me, reflecting on this sudden change in my life, wanting so much that I’d find what I was looking for. As the TWA flight lifted from the runway and I saw the ground fall away beneath me I took a deep breath and slowly let it out. I was not on a coffin ship with cholera aboard and sharks following the sails across the Atlantic for the dead bodies thrown overboard. That much was certain. Though as the plane broke through the clouds and sunlight came in the windows I thought of my cousins who had never been born, more than a century past, resolving to myself that I’d treasure this opportunity I’d been given. I’d do my best with this chance to do well.
I was relieved that Patricia was safe with Billy, though still living dangerously close to our father, sadly still suffering the daily tensions and anxieties of memories of Derby Street. We both needed to continue in our path combining work with night school, constantly learning, trying to recover, with the knowledge that Mary and Tom and Terry were still back there. We had to show them the way to escape. We had to convince them keep reading and keep hope for a better future as part of their lives.
It was a TWA flight direct from London. I felt a happy elation that I’d made it this far, constantly looking at and reading over and over again the letter offering me the position of Assistant Scientist at the Warner Lambert Research Institute in New Jersey. I kept shuffling it with my Irish passport and the temporary green card authorization, as if I let them out of my sight they would vanish. At my interview in early December I’d been nervous that they could tell I was working class, from a slum, and had escaped to St. Andrews University after my father battered me and raged that he would stop me. But somehow they had not seen that in me. Dr. John Shavel had been much more interested in how I’d combined night school with work for Imperial Chemical Industries in order to pass the examinations to get me into the chemistry B.Sc course of study. He’d been intrigued that my third class Honours degree was not good enough to get support to do a doctorate. He had amazed me when he offered me the job and an enormous salary, telling me I could continue night school for the doctorate while working for them and it would all be paid for.
I still had problems. My head and hands would tremor under stress. The scars on my face from my teenage road accident still troubled me. But I was coping well enough with them. I knew a couple of pints of beer in the evening would suppress the tremor. My new American friends who I’d met in Amsterdam the previous summer had assured me that in America I’d be viewed as having rugged good looks. I also had to deal with the fact I was entering a virtually unknown world. I hadn’t even met my first gay person until Amsterdam. I didn’t know anything about that world, only that British newspapers and magazines had shown me a horrible world, of blackmail, and jail, and suicide. I had a lot of things to learn, changes in my opinions on learning new facts, a perilous path ahead. I also had to deal with the fact that Arthur wanted me to be his lover. He wasn’t the Hephaestion I’d been looking for, he was ten years older, but he had a car and could drive, had furniture and knew how to get a flat. I smiled to myself at that thought. I’d have to adjust to calling a flat an apartment.
The stewardess came around and I took a beer and stopped worrying. There would be time enough for that. I picked up my science fiction book and began to read.
I’d thought a lot about what the American girls had told me on the flight through Iceland to New York when I thought I was only going for a holiday; that England and America were two countries separated by a common language. I was familiar with the power of words, knew the phrasing of a sentence could change intent, that select tenses and adjectives could carry emotion. During my short holiday in New York I’d eagerly soaked up American words for familiar things. At that point I’d thought it would be a relatively easy task to learn and substitute alternate words for those things. What I didn’t know was that it would take me on a journey of reflection in the decades ahead.
One thing I was quite sure about. I did not like to be identified by a common word; I did not like to be given a label. With the same instinct that was within me I knew without doubt that my father was indeed my father as he battered me throughout my teenage years, calling me a bastard, giving me every reason to wish another man my father, to want it to be the Norwegian man my father accused my mother of causing her pregnancy, during the time he had gone missing, being brought back when I was over seven months old. My father was my father. His father in Ballybohan, Roscommon, was my grandfather. Though now my grandfather was long dead his love of me burned within my heart, his words and memories of him sustaining me, giving meaning to my life.
Even though I loved Ireland I’d had a strange feeling living in England, during my teenage years, on Tees-side, when the English labeled me ‘Irish’, as though that defined me, gave them reason to like me or scorn me. I only wanted to be known as a Fahey, my grandfather’s true eldest grandson, of a proud lineage. It was to be decades before I was to find out what he told me as a child, warmed by the turf fire, within his arms, after the rosary had been said for the poor hungry children of the world, was indeed my identity, needing no label, nor scorn by others. And though I did not know it then, tradition records that the Fahey were the last of the Gaelic clans of Connaught to submit to the Earls of Ulster; with centuries of conflict, and seven hundred of the clan killed at the second battle of Athenry, on the tenth of August in 1316. That was who I was. That is what burned in my heart; that is all I needed.
So in that sense I wasn’t comfortable with the label ‘gay’, didn’t like it, just because it so happened I wanted to be in love with another lad. The love I wanted was the love of Alexander and Hephaestion, of Achilles and Patroclus, a warrior love, holding honor and dignity, learning, guiding others, and bringing great works to life, as my standard.
The week before I was to report to work was a hectic daily confusion of activity. Arthur had already packaged a lot of belongings into boxes strewn around his apartment. He had maps and train schedules and had worked out that it would actually be easier and more comfortable to commute to work on Wall Street from Morris Plains in New Jersey than his current place in Elmhurst. There was a train service from Morris Plains to Hoboken and then a short subway ride under the Hudson River to Wall Street. He explained to me he was a broker’s assistant and worked two evenings a week in Macy’s on 34th Street selling LP records. That pleased me. He had ambition. We talked constantly, getting to know each other, and I shared with him my dreams of fidelity and achieving many things, of honor and looking to a better future.
The most immediate task was to get an apartment in Morris Plains. So that first Saturday morning we set out in his Chevrolet car, through the Lincoln tunnel, with me marveling at the length of the tunnel and the lights overhead, thinking of the men and machines that had built such an engineering wonder, then out on Route 3 west. It was a cold day with light snow but there was a lot of traffic and the road was clear. The journey took only about an hour after we passed through the tunnel, switching to Route 46 at one point which was to take us almost all the way to our destination. We laughed and talked all the way. I was giddy with excitement, calling out the names of towns we went by, knowing they would become familiar to me. Dr. Shavel had told me I would be able to find a flat near the research Institute, grinning in friendship at me in using the English word. He was right. We found a really nice one bedroom apartment In Mount Pleasant Village, high on rising ground, told it was high enough that a person could see the Manhattan skyline on a clear day. It was called a garden apartment though I saw no gardens and it certainly wasn’t my idea of a village. They were long tidy brick buildings with a front door for each set of lower floor and upper floor apartment, stairs ascending to the upper apartment with its own door. We had been given several choices by the man from the rental office. Lucius Beebe was his name and he was very pleasant, giving us plenty of time to choose. We picked an upper floor apartment at the edge of the ‘village’, looking out over trees descending down into a broad valley that reached outward toward where I estimated the Warner-Lambert Research Institute was located, about a mile away and I thought would be a nice walk. Arthur had told me he would teach me how to drive but there was time enough for that.
I was beginning to realize that generally speaking Americans were a very friendly and helpful people, having no pretensions or putting on airs. I detected none of the code words or phrases denoting class or social status that I had been accustomed to in England and Scotland. I’d already noticed that in the shops the person serving me almost always had a big smile and cheerful greeting. That was a refreshing change from the preponderance of shop assistants in England who ranged from unsmiling efficiency to downright supercilious attitudes. But then in England my voice gave me away that I was working class, north east England working class at that. In America that didn’t seem to matter. On that alone I’d begun to love this new country I was to live in.
On my first day of work I awoke to a warm feeling of belonging and walked out into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, looking around at the furniture, out the large picture window in the living room, seeing a blue sky and promise of wonders to come. The move had been accomplished easier than I’d thought it would be, with a huge rented moving van and many of Arthur’s friends giving helpful tugging and lifting heavy furniture, carrying many filled cardboard boxes, helping with laughter and teasing and joking.
After we had each taken a shower, and I was getting used to that luxury, we had a breakfast of bacon and eggs with toast. Arthur had a monthly commuter ticket, the lease on the apartment was for two years, we both had good jobs; it was still so new and amazing to me that at times I’d stand still and draw a deep breath, thinking of my brothers and sisters, wishing I could project my thoughts and feelings across the Atlantic, letting them know I was happy, I’d arrived, I was alright.
It was only a ten minute drive to the laboratories. I walked up the short driveway to the reception lounge as Arthur continued down the mile to the train station. I assured him I would have no problem walking back to the apartment at the end of the day on the path through the woods we’d found the previous day.
Dr. Raymond Wittekind came down to get me and took me to the laboratory to meet my co-worker Tom Capiris who had a Masters degree in Chemistry, and Nelda who was the woman who washed the glassware. There is always a lot of glassware in use in a chemistry laboratory and scrupulous gleaming cleanliness is very important. I’d never had anyone to clean my glassware and that was a step up in my life. I set to work exploring the cupboards beneath my lab bench, cleaning the fume cupboard to the right of my desk, shelves above, the door to the corridor to my left, Dr. Shavel’s office across the hallway. Tom offered to help me but I told him no need, I knew what I was doing, I had lots of laboratory experience. I felt ever so comfortable that morning, immediately liking the people I was with, liking the fact that Nelda was an integral part of the laboratory, included in conversations, treated with respect.
As I was to learn in the years ahead there are good and bad people to be encountered in life, puzzling me why they would be so, wondering if it was my growing awareness of the world around me, if perhaps my own determination to survive the battering from my father obscured observation of other people. I could only rely on my instincts. Dr. Wittekind, or as he told me later that day to call him Ray, Tom, and Nelda were kind to each other, very much as I was to find in many of the Americans I was to meet. I liked them.
That first day was to bring back memories of my first day as a child in Ballybohan, and the first day when I was sixteen and starting to work for Imperial Chemical Industries in Billingham, that in meeting kind people with gentle voices, would make me feel the daylight was clearer and the air fresher, my senses and feelings responding to them, making me stronger and happier.
Later that morning Tom took me down the hallway to the personnel office to complete employment paperwork. The lady helping me fill out the forms was an middle aged woman but gave me the impression she was much younger, telling me I reminded her of the Beatles with my long hair and accent, seeming to be in delight with me, not at all serious with me, giving me advice. At one point she pushed a cheque across her desk at me. Later I was to learn to spell it check but it was the same thing. I looked down and was stunned to see it was for about what I’d calculated would be my first month of salary. As I stared at the amount, confused, I heard her say “this is for your first month, for a motel, while you find a place to stay”. I looked up and felt myself flush and pushed the cheque back across the desk telling her I already had a place in Mount Pleasant Village and had moved in. She pushed the cheque back toward me and put her hand on top of mine and smiled and said “welcome to America”. I was overwhelmed with gratitude, still flushed, feeling my heart beating, falling in love with America even more. The rest of the time was for me to fill out medical insurance forms and to have my photograph taken out in the hallway for the company newsletter.
It wasn’t until Ray and Tom took me to the company cafeteria for lunch that I found out why I’d had to fill out such complicated medical insurance forms with choices to make. I was shocked and horrified that such a modern advanced country would have a health care system based on what you could pay. I could hardly believe my ears when they told me that people without medical coverage had to go into debt or on charity or even not get medical care. It caused a gut wrenching feeling in me, losing my appetite, pushing my plate away from me with food still on it, a rare thing for me. I felt like crying when I asked them what would happen if a young lad was injured and went to an emergency room by himself and couldn’t get a coherent answer to my questions. I was thinking of my trips to the Bowesfield Lane emergency room after my father injured me and the care I got at Middlesbrough General Hospital after I was hit by a car. I explained about the National Health System in England and my accident, the hospital, and visits to the doctor on Norton Road and the UV radiation treatments and the ointments and how it didn’t cost anything. I didn’t tell them about the emergency room after my father injured me. They didn’t seem to understand the point of my questions and left me with an uneasy feeling for hours afterward, a feeling that would grow more intense in the decades ahead, that such a wonderful country with such kind people would be so blind, would be so unfair, would help the better off with good jobs, would inflict such cruelty on the poor and impoverished.
It was to be another influence on my life, just as much as when Patricia and I sat on borrowed bikes on Mile House Road, looking up at the grey ominous fever hospital, knowing we were too young to be let in, told by our father that our little sister Mary was going to die of scarlet fever, anguish and unshed tears, determination that one day I would find out some way to fight back against such a foe; now this cruelty would be a problem I would take on as an enemy.
Our parents had not gone to visit Mary. She did eventually recover and was brought back to Derby Street. She was always there for me, looking out for me, thought of that grim fever hospital giving me reason to keep reading, keep learning, trying to forge weapons for my fight against disease.
That afternoon, my laboratory bench and fume cupboard clean and ready for me, my exploration of the glassware in the drawers beneath the bench complete, I sat reading the research papers Ray had given me. He had explained to me my assignment was to synthesise compounds that would be analogs of a well known antihypertensive agent called Clonidine. It was also known as Catapres. Scientists in other companies had made hundreds if not thousands of Clonidine analogs, alterations in the molecular structure, seeking more potent, better, more precise biological activity. Their work had been published in scientific journals. Now it was my turn. Ray had explained that Clonidine had numerous side effects and that was why Dr. Shavel and his superior, Dr. Robert Meltzer, head of the research department, had decided a project to synthesise more analogs, looking for one that would not have, or at least have fewer, side effects would be a practical use of my time.
The afternoon went by quickly, sunlight slanting in the windows, Tom busy on his side of the laboratory, Nelda washing glassware, Ray working on paperwork in his office. Apparently only Tom and I would be working making new compounds. By the time came to go home my head was filled with lots of thoughts about what I was reading and I wanted to keep reading, many research publications as yet unread, so I asked Ray if I could take some ofthem home with me, assuring him I’d bring them back to work with me the next morning. He wouldn’t let me do it, telling me to think on what I’d read and come back the next day refreshed and ready for more reading.
There was a small narrow stream running along the back of the research buildings. It was just a stride to cross it and I was on the track through the woods toward Mount Pleasant Village.
It was a cold day, drifting clouds overhead, fallen autumn leaves on the dirt track through the woods. I was glad Arthur had bought me a down jacket. I was in a good mood as I walked, thinking of the research papers I’d read, looking at the trees I passed, some bare of leaves, others a deep green of fir and pine. I wanted to know the names of the trees. I wanted to know everything. The sounds and flights of birds and the occasional scurrying of some small animal running from my footsteps made me feel as though I was at one with nature, a peaceful feeling, an awareness that this was such a new country, a country that had accepted me. I reflected that I’d have to learn to call autumn the fall. Several times that day I’d used words that caused amusement and questioning, needing explanation, my wanting to talk like them causing merriment. It had been a good first day.
I had almost an hour to watch television before Arthur arrived home. The apartment was clean and tidy. The news channel I switched to was disturbing. America’s war in Vietnam had taken a bad turn. During my final weeks in England, busy getting myself ready for leaving, excited at what was ahead for me, I’d read in newspapers about events in Vietnam but it had little impact on me. Now, waiting for Arthur to get home, steaks defrosting on the kitchen counter, a hot cup of tea on the coffee table in front of me, I realised that two weeks before my arrival a devastating military offensive by the North Vietnamese army and Vietcong against towns and cities in South Vietnam had stunned the American and South Vietnamese armies. It was the Tet offensive, started on the Vietnamese New Year, January 30, 1968. I watched the news channel with a chilling foreboding. I needed to learn about this. I wanted to know everything. My head was filled with images and thoughts, imagining burning towns and bombs and people fleeing, horrors that raised an anguish in me. I didn’t know the history that led to this. I turned the television off as soon as I heard Arthur come in the door. I already knew he didn’t want to talk about this. He was a veteran. I’d not asked him about his time in service. I didn’t want to upset him. Our relationship was too new; we had a lot to learn about each other. I had to deal with that as well as the problems I had and objectives I was accepting, tasks I wanted to achieve or fight. I’d been given great opportunities. I had to keep looking into the future, using my experience to make the world a better place.
We watched movies on television after dinner, my mind still occupied with burning towns, companionship and being tender toward each other. I won’t dwell on after we went to bed since I thought then, and do now, feel it to be unseemly to write or talk about the most private of intimacies between lovers. It’s sufficient to say that we were both vigorous and red blooded, hot with passion, warm with body heat, holding each other gently and with care, exploring the intimacies that we found comfortable. I fell into a deep sleep afterward and didn’t wake until the alarm sounded in the morning. In those early exhausting nights of our lovemaking my nightmares seemed to be gone, replaced by deep untroubled sleep. They were to return later but for that first year I had relief from my memories of Derby Street.
The next morning was again cold and sunny. As we had breakfast Arthur explained to me that we had to go shopping for winter clothes for me. I was intrigued with the thought that people had to have different clothes for winter and summer. In England the temperatures didn’t change that much and all winter meant was putting on an extra layer of a sweater and a coat. Apparently in New Jersey that was not sensible. I’d thought the green down jacket he’d bought me was enough. He laughed at my innocence and told me we couldn’t do it that night because it was one of his late nights selling LPs in Macy’s but the following night we’d go to the shopping mall on Route 46 where we would have fun.
On the drive down into Morris Plains I talked to him about the research I had been assigned. He smiled and let me talk, clearly not understanding but very affectionate in listening to me. I’d have to cook dinner by myself and he told me he’d call sometime in the evening from work just so that I wouldn’t feel too lonely.
As I sat down at my desk that second day to read more research papers on Clonidine syntheses I felt a tremendous sense of pride that I knew what I was doing, that it seemed so familiar to be in a laboratory again, planning experiments. Dr. Wittekind, Ray, had ordered bottles of the particular chemical compounds I’d need. Throughout the day there were constant interruptions of scientists from other laboratories in the corridor wanting to be introduced and welcoming me, even young women sent by the personnel woman from the offices, giggling and laughing at my accent, all wanting to give me advice and help adjust. I let it all flow by me. I couldn’t possibly remember it all, especially since so much of it was connected to locations and shops and how to say things. So we just laughed and talked as I wanted to get back to my desk and continue reading, thinking it would take at least another day of reading before I could set up my first experiment. That was something I was looking forward to, doing what I knew best.
By the end of the working day I’d already written out the first steps, taken from the experimental sections in the research papers. I’d have to react an imidazoline with methyl iodide in isopropanol to produce the substrate that I would be reacting with primary amines. It looked very straightforward and the reported yields were high. The reaction would be the new research.
Ray and I sat and talked in his office before I left for my walk through the woods. He was surprised that I knew how to properly lay out an objective in a notebook, heading it with the objective, the structural reaction written beneath, molecular formulae and molecular weights below the structures, then the procedure section where I’d write the details of each step, making sure I wrote in a verb tense that something was done and observations were made. We talked about the work I’d done in my years at I.C.I. and the research I’d done for Dr. Kathleen Watson at university and by the time I walked out the back of the building and stepped across the brook for my walk through the woods I had a feeling I’d impressed him. I wasn’t a regular young scientist just after graduating. I had experience, years of experience, knew how to do and record experiments and keep records.
I decided to have another breakfast for my dinner. I thought it too extravagant to defrost a steak. So I made bacon and eggs with baked beans on buttered toast. In England I’d have walked down the road to a fish and chip shop. Arthur had taken me to a fish and chip place just before we moved to New Jersey but it wasn’t the same. The fish was alright but it didn’t taste like the cod I was used to. As I finished my meal I was still hungry for the taste of cod and chips, with salt and vinegar, knowing I’d have to get over it. I’d been almost six feet and 10 stone eight before leaving England. They didn’t use the stone measure in America so I’d have to get used to thinking of it as 148 lbs. I felt sure the steaks and the pizzas would put some weight on me so I’d have to watch that.
I’d begun to watch the news channel on television, all about the war in Vietnam, when I was startled by knocking on the door of the apartment. That shouldn’t be so. The downstairs door needed a key as well.
I’ve been fortunate to live in different countries, in different cultures, speaking English of one kind or another, observing how people use language, reflecting on how some words can amaze me. The knocking on the apartment door opened up another learning experience. There were two middle-aged well dressed women with straw baskets on their arms filled with colorful leaflets, bright cheerful smiles, eager and friendly. “We are the welcome wagon,” they declared, almost in chorus. I was nonplussed. I didn’t have a clue what to say. I had visions of the covered wagons I’d seen in cowboy films on television when I was in Scotland. Soon my hands were filled with leaflets and they were gone.
I sat looking at the leaflets, still watching reports on the war, thinking with wonder of the generosity of America. One leaflet promised a 30% deduction on a first purchase at the local Shop-Rite supermarket. The women had told me to make sure I made a large purchase, stock up as it were.
When Arthur got home I was excited to share news of my visit with him. Though we both had good jobs I was still frugal and wanted to be careful with money. He was in a good mood and had brought several Beatles LPs for me, told me he got a discount at Macy’s from his part time job. He laughed at my enthusiasm and pointed out that that most of the leaflets with Free prominently displayed actually meant a second one free. So the hamburger place on Route 10 would give a second hamburger free if you bought the first one. That didn’t mean free to me at all. Half off maybe or half price but certainly not free. And the ones that had Save in large letters was not my understanding of saving. I wasn’t going to be putting money in the bank with those leaflets. I was going to be spending money.
So I added those new meanings to my vocabulary. We had a late night dinner and a talk show and went to bed, enjoying the pleasure of passion and talking of plans and intentions, falling into a deep and untroubled sleep.
And so my life settled into a routine, walking back to the apartment through the woods at night, seeing the trees begin to leaf out, hearing the scurrying of small animals as I walked, wondering and thinking all the time of this new country I was living in. Tom Capiris became a good friend. On days when there was snow or rain he would drive me back to Mount Pleasant Village. One sunny cold lunchtime he asked me to help him as he did something to the engine of his car. He sat me in the driver’s seat as he opened the hood. He had laughed as I called it a bonnet and told me the American word was a hood, pointed out the gas pedal and told me to step on it when he called out. That was another word I’d already added. As a chemist I knew what a gas was and the petrol I’d seen Arthur put into his car was certainly no gas. As he called out now I put my foot down on the gas pedal and the car roared with power, Tom yelling out stop. I was shaken as his face appeared by the window. That was how he found out I didn’t know how to drive a car. I pleaded with him not to tell the other people in the laboratories, telling him Arthur was teaching me on the roads in Mount Pleasant Village, feeling ashamed I could not drive, thinking it identified me as coming from working class poverty, never having even thought I’d drive a car let alone own one. He was amused and agreed. I thanked him and he said “you’re welcome”. That was a phrase I was beginning to adopt, finding warmth in it, friendship, unlike the thank you in England which could be genuine or indifferent or even sarcastic, dependent on social status.
I’d made several hundred grams of the methylthioimidazoline hydroidide using the procedure in the research papers and stored the yellow powder in a large amber glass bottle in the refrigerator. The next stage of reacting small amounts with a primary amine had to be set up in my fume cupboard where the ventilation fan would suck away the methanethiol gas given off in the reaction. At that time, as I reached my 24th birthday, venting the gas off into the atmosphere was not considered a bad thing to do, seeing that it was a fairly innocuous gas that would quickly dilute into the air and decompose in sunlight. It did smell though, not too unpleasant, a persistent thiol smell, which could cling to my hands and clothing so I did what I could to minimize any gas escaping outside the fume cupboard.
I’ve found it difficult in my life to explain the sheer joy of seeing a new compound come into existence, a molecular substance never made before, an advance in knowledge, produced with a plan and careful attention to every detail. I have conveyed that joy and love of organic chemistry to many since but at that time the joy was mine alone, done with my hands and seen with my eyes.
I set up the apparatus. The reaction vessel was a three neck round bottomed glass flask which could contain fifty milliliters to be half filled. A magnetic stirring bar, buried in a half inch white oval non-reactive polymer coasting, placed at the bottom of the flask, would stir the reaction mixture. It is a tactile pleasure to handle such glassware, precisely made with the neck joints able to exactly connect to other glassware. In my work as a laboratory assistant in the Standardisation Laboratory at Billingham Imperial Chemical Industries Mr. Redman and Dave Nicholson had trained me, a young teenage boy from the slums of Stockton, to keep my glassware scrupulously clean, sparkling clean, and to be particularly precise in measuring solids or liquids. I thought of them as Nelda gave me the clean glassware. I saw she had done a good job as I held them up to the light to check. I’d calculated, based on their molecular weights, a reaction of the methylthioimidazoline with the primary amine on a one to one basis. I folded a small glassine sheet into a ‘boat’ and weighed out the several grams of the methylthioimidazoline I’d calculated, precise to a milligram, and tilted it into a glass funnel fitted into the central neck of the reaction flask, falling to the bottom of the flask.
At that point I was in a world of my own, totally focused on my work. In the following steps I removed the glass funnel and replaced it with a three foot reflux condenser, water running through the coils for cooling, top open for the ventilation exhaust, placed a dropping funnel in one neck for the introduction of the primary amine, a gas bubbler in the other neck that would dip below the reaction mixture to help expel the methanethiol gas with a flow of nitrogen. It was a very modern fume cupboard with a tap connected to a nitrogen line at the back. I’d set up the entire assembly on a stand with clamps, the reaction vessel partly submerged into an oil bath set on top of a squat wide metal stirrer hotplate. I was ready to begin and I drew in a few breaths. I looked around me, the sunlight slanting in the windows, nobody watching me, everybody busy, Tom with his own experiment, Nelda at the sink near the windows, Ray on the telephone in his office, and I triple checked everything I’d done and my molecular calculations. I was confident and careful, putting fifty milliliters of isopropanol in the reaction vessel through the dropping funnel, turning on the hotplate, starting the stir bar rotating the mix of substrate and isopropanol, watching as the temperature rose, looking for the point at which the substrate was dissolved, as I weighed out the precise amount of liquid amine into a small beaker.
At that point I poured the amine into the dropping funnel, adding a couple of milliliters of isopropanol to the beaker and pouring that in making sure every milligram was transferred, doing it twice, then opening the tap on the dropping funnel so a stream of the amine fell into the stirring solution. I added more isopropanol to the dropping funnel. Again twice to make sure every milligram of the amine had reached the reaction mix, equimolecular with the substrate, I turned the tap closed on the dropping funnel, turned the heat up on the hot plate, began nitrogen bubbling through the solution, watched until it began to reflux up into the condenser, adjusted the heat so that it was refluxing only to the lower part of the condenser. I didn’t want to lose any reaction mass, just wanted the methanethiol gas to be vented off.
I was reasonably confident it would work. I’d followed the experimental procedures I’d read in the research papers with similar primary amines and now I’d have to wait to see what would happen. I let the reflux continue for two hours, turned the heat off and let the reaction flask cool. I turned the bubbler down to a slow rate, reduced the magnetic bar to a lazy rotation, watched it for an hour from my desk, reading more research papers, said goodnight to everyone, and walked home though the woods, my mind in a fervent of anticipation and hope that my experiment would work.
A light rain had fallen that afternoon so the wet autumn debris on the path and the occasional puddle I had to jump over made my walk less enjoyable than usual, mud splashing over onto my shoes, my mood descending into a gloom that was never far away, fight against it as much as I tried. The joy at working in a laboratory again had faded and I was thinking of my sister Patricia. She had always accepted me as her brother, ignoring my father’s accusations that I was a bastard sired by a Norwegian man, him vanishing when my mother told him she was pregnant. Patricia had been attacked and verbally abused too, accusing her of being a whore even while she and her boyfriend Billy kept their faith and were staying pure for marriage. Our father spewed lies and sowed doubts among our relatives and there was nothing we could do about it. The air was fresh with breezes shaking the branches of the trees I walked beneath, sometimes falling drips landing on me. I lifted my face to them as if the rain would cleanse away the damage on my face, would bring me relief. I wanted so much for the doubts of my heritage to be abolished. I imagined that one day definitive blood tests would prove my father totally wrong, that I might have documented proof on paper that I could give to my sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles. I just knew in my heart that scientific progress would get to that point and I’d just have to wait. My shaking under stress and the fear I had a mild case of Parkinson’s disease drove me to achieve as much as I could in the laboratory, making my own contribution to the progress of science, hoping I could bring that day closer, and if not arriving while I was still alive at least helping other boys in the future accused of being a bastard by their father.
As I reached the grassy slope I had to climb up to the concrete path along the front of the apartments. The setting sun had broken through the clouds, and as I looked back I saw a rainbow and the fringed and flaming colors of the clouds. I took that as a good sign and my mood lightened and I shook off my gloomy thoughts, abandoning them on the muddy path behind me.
I was slightly apprehensive as I saw a young couple sitting at the top of the two brick steps in front of the open apartment door, drinking beer out of bottles, then relaxed as I realised they must be the young couple who lived in the apartment below us. We’d nodded at each on mornings as we all left about the same time, walking to our cars in the parking lot about fifty yards away. I looked forward to having conversation with them. As we began to talk, I was offered a beer and the wife, Gwen, went back into their apartment and brought out a bottle of Coors beer, while her husband Bill was telling me he was a veteran recently back from Vietnam. His wife was a primary school teacher. I sat with them enjoying the setting sun and the fading rainbow and we got to know each other. They were both about four years older than me and were fun to talk with, laughter and joking, pleasing me that my neighbors were making me feel so comfortable. They were of English and Scots ancestry and looked it, asking me many questions about where I’d lived before arriving in New Jersey. I ached to ask Bill about Vietnam but didn’t ask, sensitive that it could be a troubling conversation, putting it off until a day in the future. As the sun set and we stood up I was invited into their apartment and was amazed to see a length of one wall caged off and a very small monkey inside. Bill brought the monkey out and explained how he had smuggled it back from Vietnam and built the cage to give it lots of room with climbing bars and water and food, thick newspaper along the floor of the cage. It was a very friendly monkey but I didn’t want to hold it, just stroking it tentatively, seeing their fondness for it, thinking it such an odd thing that people would keep a wild animal as a pet. As I went back upstairs I reasoned to myself that Bill had rescued it from a war zone. I’d not thought of that before, just thinking of the people fleeing bombs and burning villages, but now I added imaginary images of frightened and wounded animals in the fields, terrorized by fire. It raised incoherent angers in me and I didn’t put on the TV news, just played music until Arthur got home. He had an amazingly large number of LP albums.”