An Occurrence at Chemistry Lab (or maybe Physics)


I spent a week in high school waiting to crash back-first into a cinderblock wall and die.

It was a particular wall into which I expected to be slammed: that of the lab for my Physics class. Maybe it was Chemistry; I never really paid attention in either of them. Same teacher and lab in either case. Absolutely the same hard wall.

Being a fan of the works of both Edgar Allen Poe and EC Comics, it was inevitable for me to come across Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge.” For those who haven’t read it, it’s available for free from Project Guttenberg — directly and through Amazon and iTunes. Go. Read. Seriously, it’s good stuff.

The idea of experiencing desperate escapes during the few seconds before death has become fairly common, especially in science fiction and horror. “Jacob’s Ladder” is a particularly good cinematic example of the conceit. It and “Occurrence…” tend to be considered horror, I believe because the thought of having your survival be nothing more than a fantasy is frankly terrifying.

It is. It’s a horrifying feeling. Every so often, I’d stop what I was doing and wonder when I’d feel the wall. Would my head strike first? My back? Would I even know, or would everything go dark in the middle of “The Cosby Show”? Then I’d pretend I didn’t know that I was milliseconds away from death and get back to drawing dungeon maps.

At the time I was acting in an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” for our one-act play team. I was Old Man Warner, for the simple reason that when asked to read for the part I forgot to hunch over and adopt a raspy, high-pitch voice. I’d been allowed to keep my big 80s coif, but I had to undergo special training to transform my gangling limp into an elderly shuffle.

The week before performing our play for competition (yes, we acted competitively), I was worn out and numb from all the rehearsals. I cling to that as the reason I didn’t try harder to preserve my life in Chemistry. Physics, whatever. It’s that or admit that I lacked quite a lot of sense, which would beg the question of whether I’ve actually gained any in the past few decades. I have enough self-doubt without bringing facts into the equation, thank you.

Anyway, I sat with my back to the cinderblock wall. There was another lab table between me and the wall, but movies had proven to me that nearly any injury would induce high-velocity backward flight. Across from me sat my friend Paul, looking innocent as he always did. Between us, an outlet box jutted from the lab table.

Maybe he was bored. Maybe he thought I wasn’t entirely stupid. I certainly hope that he wasn’t actually hoping I’d die. In any event, Paul had found a bit of copper wire left over from another class, and he bent the wire so that the ends were roughly half an inch apart.

Then he handed it to me and said “Stick it in the outlet.”

I did.

Splatted on the Physics Lab Wall

Some part of me still expects that I'll hit that wall any time now.

Please remember that I was tired from rehearsals. Yep. So very tired.

There was a blinding flash and the sound of Mothra hitting a bug zapper. All I could see was a splotchy green field. I waited to feel the hand of authority on my shoulder.

“Mr. Frost,” I would hear in icy tones. “Come with me.”

Instead there was nothing but stunned silence. I heard what came next, but I had to get the visuals from Paul. The teacher had been reading a magazine and seemed uncertain as to who had done what. He stood up, got red in the face, and instructed us (with no small irritation) to stick to lab procedures. Then he sat down and went back to the magazine.

I guess I can thank Tesla for alternating current, but for the next week I fully expected to abruptly discover that my idiocy had done me in.

Incidentally, my performance as Old Man Warner that weekend earned me an acting award. All the rehearsing and training had paid off. Or maybe I displayed a convincing understanding of the closeness of death.

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