Lawrence Bartell experienced many strange events over the course of his long life, at least partly because he deliberately strayed far from the beaten path in science. While it might not have been the most efficient way to gain a reputation in his field, it was more fun.
In his memoir, he presents a collection of entertaining, sometimes bizarre stories collected over a lifetime. Bartell chronicles a wide variety of experiences, such as his predisposition to indulge in childhood pranks, his arrest as a possible Russian spy, his work on the Manhattan Project, his entry into the Guinness Book of Records, his stint in the US Navy during wartime, and his appointment as visiting professor in Moscow during the height of the Cold War. As he recalls the curious-and often bizarre-true stories he acquired over a lifetime, it soon becomes evident that scientists are just as human as anyone else and that beer really can play an important role in preparing one for a PhD thesis.
True Stories of Strange Events and Odd People shares details from a scientist's one-of-a-kind journey through life as he observes the world around him, tests his theories, and learns valuable life lessons.
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TRUE STORIES of Strange Events and Odd People
By Lawrence S. Bartell
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2014 Lawrence S. Bartell
All rights reserved.
Angell school 75th anniversary
In 1999, my grammar school, Angell School, celebrated its 75th anniversary by having a reunion of all classmates who were interested. In the letter of invitation, it was suggested that old-timers bring photographs taken in the early days of the school. We were also asked to write short accounts of our recollections of Angell School. I did submit some pictures and did write up some stories of school days. When I got to the reunion, I found that not many ex-students had submitted either stories or pictures. The pictures I submitted were duly displayed on the walls and the stories I had written were enormously enlarged and posted on a wall, extending from near the ceiling to the floor. What I had written was:
* * *
When I first went to Angell School in 1928 (kindergarten) the building struck me as being perfectly enormous! Now when I go there to vote it seems tiny.
When I was in kindergarten we were given milk and graham crackers every day. After we finished our refreshment, a pair of children, a boy and a girl, were assigned the job of going somewhere (I didn't know where) to rinse the bottles. One day I was chosen, my first time, but since no one had ever told me where the bottles were supposed to be rinsed, I simply followed the little girl who obviously did know. What I didn't know was that the place she went was the girl's bathroom. So I got scolded for my blunder.
Miss Buckley, our old ogre of a principal, once slapped me for no good reason (making me admire Peter Olmstead who once kicked her. Peter, who has since mellowed, was hell-bent for trouble back in those days). My crime that caused Miss Buckley to wallop me: We were rehearsing a play (I think it was a Christmas play) and I had been given the role of a crippled beggar with a wooden leg. The person who made this wooden leg - a leg that was strapped onto one of my shins - made it very badly. I was supposed to hobble around, a very tricky undertaking because the wooden leg and its strap were so flimsy and unstable. Once when I was passing a piece of scenery - painted paper covering the side of a table - the damned leg twisted around and I fell. It hurt but the real trouble was that the leg slipped under the table and tore the scenery. Miss B worried a lot more about the scenery than about me and came over and smacked me hard. Of course, I never forgave her.
On the west side of the ground floor there was a room with many caged snakes. I always found the snakes interesting to watch and usually took a quick look at them when I arrived at school. One day when I went in I found some rascal had opened the cages and most of the snakes were slithering all around the room. It struck me that the responsible thing to do would be to catch the snakes before they escaped into the rest of the school, and to return them to their cages. The snakes were harmless so I wasn't afraid of them. I did manage to catch all of them but it took awhile, so I was late to my room. The teacher was too impatient to listen to my excuse for being late so I got roundly scolded for my good deed.
I got scolded a lot. That wasn't all bad. It prepared me for marriage!
Of course, I did quite a few things for which I deserved to get scolded, and often escaped the scolding. For example, when walking to school I found that I could often catch bees sitting on flowers. I'd catch them between my thumb and forefinger, usually without getting stung, Once I'd caught a bee, I'd take it to school and put it into the desk of some unlucky girl. Happily, I don't recall a single time when the little girl got stung.
When I was 10 I won a model airplane contest for contestants under 12, sponsored by Fiegel's clothing store. My airplane was a scale model of the Supermarine S6B racer, the plane which permanently won the Schneider trophy for England. My prize was $3.00 (worth perhaps $50 in 2007 dollars). Mother "persuaded" me to invest my prize in a blue sweater- hardly my first choice for indulging my new won loot on. My teacher asked me to bring the model to school for all to see. When I walked with it down the ramp to the school door, some bigger boys taunted me and one threw a rock which smashed the model to pieces! Sad, how rotten some children can be.
Of course, I remember the kiddie choruses for the nearly week-long May festival. We would practice singing the scheduled songs for several weeks, and then perform. I believe on the Sunday afternoon program. Some of the songs were the Blue Danube and Voices of the Woods (Melody in F). We shared the stage at Hill Auditorium with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Rosa Ponsell who must have been less than thrilled by her competition. Many years later the kiddie chorus was cancelled, perhaps because the hundreds of kiddies would get bored and restless and distract the audience. Later the whole May Festival was canceled because it had become too expensive to pay a first-rate orchestra for so many performances,
Another thing I remember was that, however rowdy the children at Angell School were, they had mostly been trained to be civil. On the whole they were nice, well scrubbed kids. There were few bullies or serious fights. Then, when I graduated and went to Tappan Junior High School (now Burns Park School) I encountered my first rough-neck classmates from "the wrong side of the tracks." There were many bullies and I was beaten up regularly until I learned to take care of myself. It first I was totally shocked, unprepared, and intimidated because children at prissy Angell School just didn't behave that way. It took awhile to learn how to cope and to learn how to fight effectively. These were lessons that prepared me well for the real world later on.
* * *
When I got to the reunion, I was dismayed to find that those in charge of the displays had had the gall to censor my stories without even asking me! They displayed my stories in a greatly enlarged version exactly as I had written them except that they deleted the lines: "I got scolded a lot. That wasn't all bad. It prepared me for marriage!"
Junior high school bullies and a rotten teacher
As mentioned in the reminiscences about Angell School, when I graduated and went to junior high school (grades 7-9) it was a very rude shock. Both my twin sister and I had gone to Angell School, whose pupils were all from fairly well-to-do families and pretty well trained to be civilized. My sister and I were separated at the 7th grade. She went to University High School (7th to 12th grades) whereas I was enrolled in Tappan Junior High School. The students in University High School were either of the same sort who went to Angell, or from outlying farms (since tuition for them was cheaper at U High than at Ann Arbor High School). In any event, the students were, for the most part, well-behaved. Not so at Tappan where a fair fraction of the students were from "the wrong side of the tracks." That meant prissy little Larry Bartell soon found himself set-upon by bullies and suffered greatly until he learned to fight.
But there was another troublesome problem at Tappan. I was unlucky enough to have Karl Karzian for social studies. He had been born in Armenia in awful times but was rescued when he was a child by an American couple who adopted him and brought him back to America. Somehow he felt that because of his education and intellect, he deserved better than to teach in junior high school, and he took out his resentment on some of the students, including me. I admit I wasn't always as well behaved in class as I should have been. After all, I despised the man. He didn't hesitate to scold me when I misbehaved. One day he perceived that I had done something that required him to discipline me even though, that time, I had done nothing wrong. So he kept me after school, Because he had to leave for some reason, he tied me to a chair so I couldn't escape. Imagine what would have happened if that beyond-the-pale action had taken place today! Karzian might well have been fired! Actually, I never even told my parents what happened. To me it was a situation between him and me.- - a pretty uneven contest! Much later Karzian was promoted to teach in senior high school where he continued to have problems. After WW II he served on some veteran's counseling service. Curiously, my wife Joy found a position in the same service after she immigrated to America. She began to notice that Karzian was embezzling whenever he had the chance. At first she said nothing because she didn't know what was appropriate to do. Finally she went to Karzian's superiors and told them. They said they were aware of Karsian's dishonesty but his tenure was nearly over so not to worry. I'm not sure what, if anything, was done to bring Karzian to justice. I tell the story to confirm that I was not the only one to feel that Karzian was not a very nice person.
On the intelligence of animals
One often reads books or articles in which examples of supposed animal intelligence are given, often with an apology for making it seem as if the animals used intelligence when it is known to self-important academics that only humans exhibit rational thought. This was the "expert" point-of-view that Jane Goodall suffered after the first of her famous studies of chimps in Gombe. Fortunately, it is becoming more and more recognized, even by academic scholars (who are often the last to understand reality) that animals DO have real intelligence. One example is provided by Bobby, the little black cocker spaniel I had when I was a boy. He had long ears, ears which sometimes got infected. When this happened we would take him in our car to Dr. Adams, a veterinarian who lived across town. Bobby hated to have his sore ears treated and, so, hated to have to get in the car to go to the vet. One day, Dr. Adams called mother and told her that Bobby had come to his door and scratched. He had an injured paw. First of all, how Bobby got across town on his own without being run over and how he found the veterinarian hospital without ever having had the opportunity to walk there before is a bit of a mystery. But, never having wanted to go there before, yet recognizing that Dr. Adams was a doctor for animals, a person who could treat sick or injured animals besides just treating sore ears. That recognition took reasoning and intelligence. There is no way this can be denied!
On the other hand, when I was a teenager, I went walking with my two best friends, Walt Stampfli and Bob Kasurin, and with "Bear," Walt's huge Airedale pooch. We stopped at a fence to rest. Bear lifted his hind leg and peed right on Walt's trouser leg. Somehow that didn't strike me (or Walt) as a very intelligent act!
An undergraduate prank
Leigh Anderson was Chairman of the Department of Chemistry for many years, including the time I was a graduate student (late 19461951) until beyond the time (1965) when I joined the faculty. He was an organic chemist whose specialty was rubber chemistry. On the second floor of the chemistry department was a large display cabinet in which Anderson displayed many different kinds of rubber products. Well, when I was a student, it struck me that there was one very important rubber product which was not on display. The cabinet was locked but, somehow (I've forgotten how) I was able to insert an example of this product. It stayed there for months. One day a number of industrial chemists visited the department, so Anderson took them to see his prize exhibit. I am told he nearly had apoplexy when he saw what was in that display! And if he had known who put it there, I never would have been invited to join the faculty at Michigan! Anderson was a very straight-laced (though entirely decent) man. That was one prank I played that I never mentioned to anyone until now when it doesn't matter any more.
Odd experiences in the US Navy
I was mustered out of the Navy two months after WW II ended, from a cardiac ward and classified as 100% disabled. I had caught rheumatic fever IN the hospital. I had entered (along with hundreds of others) only with scarlet fever. After the group I went in with had been assigned a ward, the Nurse (an officer - we were only enlisted men and therefore had to obey her orders) ordered us to start to clean up the ward, sweeping, mopping, and whatever else she deemed needed doing. It was heavy work - and as will be clear, just about the least cost-effective work that could be imagined. Many of the sick fellows dropped during the work - so they were shot full of penicillin and put right back on work detail. Since I felt stronger than many who dropped, I tried to work harder to take some of the stress off them. Soon we all developed rheumatic fever which rendered us totally useless to winning the war and expensive, too, since the 100% disability checks we got when we were mustered out weren't cheap. They put me through graduate school very nicely.
One funny story. Each day a corps wave would come around and ask "How many?" After I established that she meant how many BM's (bowel movements), I had to establish how many since the last time she'd asked, OR how many today. Was scolded into telling her how many today! Well my schedule was a bit out of whack, so mine were after her visit each day, so I always told her none! Then, one day TWO MONTHS after her first visit, I saw a corps wave come running down the corridor, armed with a glass of some horrible looking concoction. She told me to drink it. I refused, asking why. Well, it was some gawd-awful laxative! The nurse seemed to have thought two months without excreting was OK but two months and one day was more than could be allowed???? So of course I absolutely refused to drink the stuff. Therefore she went to get the nurse who was an officer who could order me to drink it. It was absurd how long it took me to get the nurse to use a little common sense!
About insubordination, not showing proper respect to officers in the hospital: (1) I was in a large ward with 74 other sick sailors. One night, well after lights were out, when most of the guys were asleep, a doctor, a woman, walked through the ward. One rather silly fellow made a Donald Duck quacking sound. The doctor took offense and, being an officer, wasn't going to tolerate such a sign of disrespect from an enlisted man. So she turned on the lights and started chewing out ALL OF US. This infuriated me so I started to chew her out for waking up 74 sick men just because of a simple ill-advised action of one man. I can't remember just what I said but I was steamed and obviously didn't show the proper respect an enlisted man was supposed to display to an officer. The other guys, not wanting to get busted by an officer, were quiet as mice. So this doctor ordered me out of bed and sharply told me to follow her to a vacant room at the end of the ward. After a few words she could see I was an educated person and that what she had done was at least somewhat unreasonable. We talked quietly for quite awhile. What amused me was that I faced the window while she faced the door. Pretty soon, unbeknownst to her, there were many faces peering in the window to see what was going on! After that incident I was hero for a day in the ward.
(2) A fairly attractive blond nurse (who was too well-aware of her rank as an officer) and I were in the galley of the ward dealing with the food of the day. I can't remember what senseless thing she did in showing a total lack of responsibility about the food. All I remember was making some comment and patting her on the fanny to show disrespect. What a colossally idiotic thing for an enlisted man to do to an officer an enlisted man only weeks away from discharge from the navy! I might be Court-martialed and have my discharge postponed for who knows how long! There was a very tense moment and I was too stupid to apologize for my inappropriate action. Finally we just parted, and she didn't bring charges against me. I was lucky!
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Table of Contents
Story themes in Chapters, xv,
Chapter 1 Angell school 75th anniversary, 1,
Chapter 2 Two disagreeable Russian agencies, 18,
Chapter 3 Bauer's unethical approach to science, 35,
Chapter 4 "Catalyctic plates" and the con-man who purveyed them, 44,
Chapter 5 Personal Accounts about events and people, 63,
Chapter 6 Two memorable experiences, 73,
Chapter 7 Work on the Manhattan Project, 78,
Chapter 8 Enlightening experiences in Russia, 90,
Chapter 9 On my move from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Ames, Iowa,, 104,
Chapter 10 Conferences, restaurants, experiences in China, 113,
Chapter 11 Brilliant colleagues and a moral, 126,
Chapter 12 Experiences while consulting, 140,
Chapter 13 My Mentor and academic experiences, 150,
Chapter 14 Absurd experiences in the US Navy (second set of stories), 159,
Chapter 15 Stories about scientists of great accomplishment and one of not-so-great, 168,
Chapter 16 A very strange Meeting in Moscow, 179,
Chapter 17 A greatly abridged version of stories too scandalous for circulation, 190,
Chapter 18 On words, 193,
Chapter 19 Serendipity, 205,
Chapter 20 Ted Kaczynski. the Unibomber, 215,
Chapter 21 On mentoring, 226,
Chapter 22 Memorable experiences in travel, 2007-2011, 232,
Chapter 23 A crook named Crook, 243,
About the Author, 255,