Do you know what an amalgam is? Neither did I until I read one of those adventure books designed for fourth grade boys. As a child, I devoured the Hardy Boys, Mike M.A.R.S., Rick Brant, and Tom Corbett. In one of them, the hero was held captive by the vaguely Russian bad guys. I can’t remember which hero it was, or even why he had to be locked up, but I vividly remember that he was being held in a jail that was equipped with aluminum bars.
I’m fairly sure that you will find such a jail only in fiction, since aluminum will bend with a hard look and succumb to metal fatigue fairly quickly. Never mind, my hero was going to escape with his brain, not his muscles. On the wall of the cell hung a cheap thermometer, which the boy-scientist dismantled and used the mercury to eat through the aluminum bars. I was fascinated—mercury would dissolve aluminum?
Actually, yes, mercury will dissolve softer metals and the resulting mixture is called an amalgam. During the Spanish colonial period, the fastest and cheapest method of refining silver ore was to mix the crushed silver ore with mercury. The silver would dissolve out of the ore and the amalgam could be heated until the mercury would boil off leaving the silver behind. Technically, this is known as the Amalgamation Process, but in the New World, they called it the Patio Process since Indians would mix the mercury and crushed ore together on bricked patios. It was cheap and effective-as long as you ignored that that contact with toxic mercury caused the natives to die fairly quickly—and horribly—of degenerative nerve damage. Even the fumes are deadly.
Which brings us back to the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when mercury was pretty easy to come by. I remember a field trip during elementary school when my third grade class visited a manufacturing plant and we were encouraged to see how much of the heavy liquid metal we could hold in our hands. Even the cheapest thermometer or thermostat was filled with the stuff and as children, we played with the fascinating stuff fairly regularly. In retrospect, this may explain the music of the 1970’s.
Where was I? Oh yes, my hero had just dissolved the aluminum bars of his prison with mercury and had made good his escape. As soon as I read that—I just knew I was going to try this experiment. And it didn’t take me long to break a thermometer and liberate a little mercury. My home, however, was curiously short of aluminum bars for my experiment. Was aluminum more expensive back then? Harder to work with? I have no idea, but I couldn’t think of anything in the house made of aluminum. Finally, I remembered that my mother had just bought one of those new frying pans that were being advertised on television. The Miracle Aluminum Frying Pan covered with DuPont Teflon©.
While I was confident that my mother would not want to stand in the way of scientific research, I damn sure didn’t ask permission. No, I just spirited the pan to my bedroom, turned it upside down and applied a generous drop of mercury. It is amazing to think that by today’s standards, my bedroom was a toxic ecological disaster site eligible for EPA superfund status. This would not have been surprising to my mother, who frequently referred to my room as a disaster. Fifty years later, it turns out that once again she was correct.
I can reliably report that the experiment was a complete success. The mercury ate a hole through the center of the pan about the size of a dime. I was elated—perhaps for a whole day. Foolishly, I did not publish my results in a major scientific journal. Nevertheless, the results were soon noticed by the administration of my research center. Let us just say that my mother was not impressed.
That frying pan instantly became the spanking implement of choice at our house. Whenever my mother got angry—such as when she remembered her new frying pan—she could get that pan to whistle through the air. Every time she used that pan the hole in the bottom left a dime-sized blister on my backside. Eventually, my ass was quite literally saved by the breaking of the cheap plastic handle.
My mother was not permanently unarmed: she soon found a replacement implement. Someone gave me a toy—one of the bolo paddles with a long rubber band fastened to a red rubber ball. The idea was that you could endlessly smack the rubber ball away and the elastic string would return it so that you could whack it again. For some reason, this was supposed to be fun.
Was it fun? Of course not. Who in the world wants to spend an afternoon beating a rubber ball with a paddle? This is almost as stupid as that crazy playground toy where you sit on a spinning metal contraption until either the centrifugal force throws you into the gravel or you throw up. Or both. The sadistic bastard who designed such implements of child torture was probably previously employed as a designer of men's underwear.
It took about a day for the rubber band to break—and about half that time for my mother to realize she had a replacement for the frying pan—after all, they did call it a paddle. That little wooden paddle was terribly effective.
Eventually, inspired by the broken handle of the frying pan, I figured out a method to dispose of the wooden paddle. The kitchen stove had a pilot light under the white enamel surface. While there was no open flame, that point on the stove was too hot to touch. At night, while my mother was asleep, I left the thin wooden paddle directly over that hot spot. Within days, I had baked the wood in that paddle until a hard wave through the air would have broken the wood.
It didn’t take long; within days I did something that probably more than deserved a paddling. When my mother swung that paddle at my backside, it broke immediately. I screamed and launched myself straight up in the air like a missile. When I landed on the floor, I writhed and tried my best to demonstrate that my back was broken. My mother was horrified, and immediately cancelled the current spanking. While I can’t say I was never paddled again, I think that was the last of bolo boards.