Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mercury Playdough

A lot of things were used in excess in the 70s. In fact, some call it the decade of excess. I was, unfortunately, too young at the time to enjoy the forbidden fruits of the time. Yet, looking back, I see the 80s as the real decade of vulgar, over-the-top,Geckoist greed and gluttony. The one 70s excess I can recall taking part in was freedom, which peaked, ironically at about 1976. Freedom went out of style the moment we designated a spot for the TV remote. It was the burning bush. The building of a temple for the Holy of Holies. The new god was not TV or celebrity or money. It was the mind numbing dogma of being “protected”. These are the subtle changes in society that you have to always be on the lookout for.  Forget draconian laws or the vanishing of manners. At that point it has already gone too far. The moment we, as a society, felt there was too much risk walking our butta from the sofa to the dial of the TV we were doomed and our slavery to the abuses and misuses of technology and media would begin.
            When I was a kid, I thought TV sets came with pliers. I’m not sure why, but our knob was always broken. You needed something to flip through the six available channels since the little metal nub was impossible to get a grip on, so a pair of pliers did the trick.  We had six channels, so it wasn’t that much work. There was 2 (CBS) 4 (NBC), 5, 7(WABC),  9 (WOR), 11 (WPIX) and Public Television (13). That was it and that was plenty.
            I guess there were dangers involved in getting up, walking across the room, picking up the pliers with the red rubber handle and turning the channel selector. My father could have slipped as his slippers (thus the name, I guess) lost all connections to the forces of friction and gravity. My little sister could have inserted the pliers into the electrical outlet (I guess that’s why my father chose rubber handled ones). Worm holes have a nasty habit of opening up at the most inopportune moments and swallowing up pets, parents, pens and single socks. The Universe is not only stranger than you can imagine but it’s a frigging dangerous place. If science has is right, the Universe began with an explosion. A clear message from square one- it can be hairy, this thing called existence. Keep your eyes open. But chill out and live with a certain amount of abandon. Who the hell knows? Maybe creation itself was an act of terror? So be it. Life includes dangers. Over protective shielding protects no one. Having said that…
            We played with liquid mercury as kids. There, I confess. We did.
            Sharp, pointed corners on toys? Pishaw! Small parts that look like gum balls we put in our mouths and forced our parents to dislodge as our faces turned blue? That’s for sissies. We played with blobs of the liquid quicksilver risking the health of brains and livers. It came in our toys! Who cared? The stuff was so cool looking. I distinctly remember a plastic maze game. It was clear plastic and lined with fuzzy indigo material and a single ball of mercury sat inside to guide through the maze like some chrome mouse. Naturally we had to break it open so we could roll the little ball of deadly metal around our palms. There was something almost erotic about that shimmering, warbling sphere of liquid mirror riding the ridges of your hand, the reflection of your ironically deformed face staring back.
            Those were honest times. Hell, if mercury could be dumped in our oceans, lakes and streams and turn our fish into little swimming disease bombs, why not just stick the crap in kid’s toys? And we had no clue. Dangerous? Lighting eight ounce bottle rockets horizontally on the sidewalk was dangerous (and fun). Silver balls of rubbery metal? How dangerous could it be? We were clueless.
            I prided myself as a young mad scientist. I was always mixing liquids and powders in an attempt to invent secret formulas. What these formulas were to be used for were irrelevant. They were secret! That was all that mattered. I alone held the formulas. I would use these concoction to…I haven’t a clue. Well, actually, once I tried to create a soap bubble mix that would form bubbles that could not be popped. Little crystal spheres. Transparent Christmas ornaments. Ones you can hold between your fingers and juggle. At the age of five, as I recall, this would be a very important cultural development. Soap bubble technology peaked with the Wham-O! zillions of bubbles wand. It needed something new. I will reveal to you some of the ingredients (although at risk to my person from fellow alchemists who may kick me from the society) as I recall. There was a splash of dish soap, a few drops of invisible ink (which came in little plastic squeeze bottles from Scottie’s candy store on Pleasant Avenue) and some powdered candy and a spray of underarm deodorant (we cannot have smelly, sweaty bubbles). Once these were mixed in a little plastic cup (along with other ingredients long forgotten by the winds of time) I set the mix to set. But it had to be covered. I was smart enough to know about evaporation and the dangers of ultraviolet light on such a volatile mix. The cap from the deodorant can was the perfect size and shape to keep my ultra secret, (hmm, isn’t there a deodorant with that name?) billion dollar bubble mix in just the right laboratory conditions. In those days, that particular brand of anti-perspirant came with a chrome-like, half-spherical cap. It looked high tech enough to work. In fact, the cap looked just like…

“Hey! Everybody, look at this!” my sister announced to her friends, all gathered on our stoop.
It happened in slow motion. I saw the gang of kids turn to her as she stepped from the doorway, something in her cupped hands catching brilliant beams of sunlight.  It was a sphere of the alchemical quicksilver of old. The largest blob anyone in East Harlem, maybe the world, had ever seen. The Holy Grail of mercury blobs. All eyes bugged and mouths dropped open. There was a rush—as if the tomb of King Tut was about to be open. Legs clashed and arms pushed. A cacophony of OOHS! And AHHS! They raced for a closer look—or perhaps a touch of the magical metal.
I knew better.
“My experiment!” I screamed from the sidewalk. 
            By the time I pushed through the gawking crowd, her friends had realized they had been duped. The trick had been revealed. Moans of disappointment bounded across 118th street. She held up faux mercury blob; the silver cap that moments earlier guarded my valuable recipe. I jumped up and snatched it from her and raced up the steps.
            My experiment to created popless soap bubbles was not a success, although it did coagulate into a nice thick gunk. Perhaps it needed further work. As they say in the alchemical craft, the snake needed to devour itself or the King needed to be slain and his blood drained or some other esoteric process. Whatever. I went on to other secret formulas. Hell, I even had a chemistry set. I went about mixing chemicals that today would be locked up far away from overprotected kiddy hands too busy holding joysticks and playing with virtual dangers.  For better or for worse?
            Kids are curious by nature. Although, on occasion, curiosity kills the cat, more often than not, it makes for a better human. In these days of less personal responsibility and freedom, I fear we are losing our creative edge. Or, sadly, lost it. Even though I confess it was stupid to play with mercury.
            Ah- but it was fun in those days called the 70s. 

Mike DiCerto's first kidlit novel series, The Adventures of Rupert Starbright: Book 1: The Door to Far-Myst will be out soon from Zumaya Publications's Threshold imprint. Stay Tuned!


  1. Oh, yes. The good old days when kids could be kids and have fun. We invented our own games because we didn't have computers and all the toys kids have today.

  2. Nah, the 80s were the best. I did most of my partying during this time. Everything was big, including the hair and clothing. Even the music was the best.

    Though I do agree with Bev on the game thing. Right now it's summer and there isn't any kids outside. None. When I was a kid this was the time of year we loved. My mother would shoo us all outside and we'd only come in during lunch and when it was time for dinner. Now it's hard. I have to sign son up for camps so he can be around other kids otherwise I have to entertain him and that's not fun for either of us.

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  4. Kim- oh I loved the 80s too- thats when I was a teen. The 70s was kid time. Yeah- I think it is TRAGIC that kids do not play outside because of media/gov created paranoia about pervs and kidnappers. Yeah they are out there but they have always been. I still say life in the city is safer than the suburbs.

  5. I was in college during the 80s. My room mates and I would 'sneak' over to the Star Palace in Provo, Utah at least 2xs a week to dance at the disco. So much fun. Crazy times!

    Yes, on the media thing. It's just so sad as I have to call around to find kids for son to play with. One reason I ended up signing him up for art classes and soccer camp. Kind of pricey but he needs to be out with kids and playing and I need the time too.

    For me kid time was the later 60s and 70s. It was a fun time of make-believe and just playing. Summer was the best time of year for me then. Kind of sad my own son doesn't get to experience that too.

  6. Your post brought back a ton of memories, Mike. My siblings and I should have died about 20 times over with the mercury, metal play equipment on concrete playgrounds, and serious mold growth from Mr. Potato Head parts stuck into real (and macerated) potatoes, not to mention unsupervised treks to the shore of Lake Michigan. I grew up in Chicago and we learned early on what was fairly safe and what was just stupid. Glad I grew up when I did...