Cold panic proves best motivator in science

Nov. 3—It was late Sunday afternoon when the Boy walked into the house. As he met me in the kitchen, a curious expression suddenly crossed his face.

"Oh, yeah," he said, "I have a science project due tomorrow."

He looked expectantly at me as though I would rejoice to hear the news.

"What is your project on?" I asked, gritting my teeth in woeful anticipation of what, in my heart, I already knew the general reply would be.

"We should probably make it something about science," he said, evoking what I knew was not the royal "we" and turning to walk away. "I'll do it later."

"No," I said, calling matters to a halt. "There isn't any 'later' left. Get your science book and notebook and come sit at the kitchen table. We'll figure out something to do."

"We don't have a science book," he said, "we have..."

"Get whatever you've got right now and bring it here," I interrupted, then took a deep breath.

He clomped away up to his room in a huff.

I remained patient because, as I well knew, I had zero grounds to complain. I was simply paying it forward.

My own first science project was assigned to the class on a whim one Friday afternoon in second grade. I can't remember what I had for supper last night or the name of the person I met two minutes ago, but I remember with great clarity the page in our science book that had a photo of a kid winding up to throw a homemade parachute into the sky to demonstrate whatever science from such a second-grader might learn.

"Everyone make a model parachute to bring to class Monday," our teacher had said. "We'll go outside and throw them, and you'll get an A, B, or C depending on how well it works. If you don't do it, you'll get a paddling and a zero in the grade book."

I made a mental note to build a parachute at home that very afternoon or, at the latest, the next morning, then promptly blocked it from my mind. It resurfaced during my weekly Sunday night anxiety attack, wherein I combed through my coming week class by class to see what I could find to worry about.

My Sunday night bedtime was 9 p.m., and I announced my project at 8:58.

Luckily, I did have my science book with me. In those days, teachers believed in education through osmosis, so we carried a hardcover text book for each class at all times. We took them home every night, including on the weekends. We were backpackers before backpacking was cool, herniating ourselves with the burden of all the world's knowledge.

I dragged the book out and found the photo. The picture was a wide shot of a kid wound up to throw and didn't have any detail useful for replicating a parachute, but it at least let me pass along to the authorities a word-for-word description of what we'd been assigned to do. My dad questioned me for a while, then retired to the storage room where he kept his tools. A short time later, he reappeared with the finished product in hand. He'd scanned through our gravel driveway until he found a figure-8-shaped rock in a size that would fit a child's palm. From somewhere he had produced a big, blue bandanna I'd never seen before and tied its four corners to the rock with expertly-knotted lengths of waxed dental floss. He then coached me through how to fold the parachute so it would have time to fly high on a throw, then billow softly open at the highest point to float gently down. Once I'd learned how to fold the parachute, the apparatus was put into my backpack and I went to bed, solemnly swearing never to wait until the last minute ever, ever again. And I meant it, too. At the time.

Meanwhile back in the present, the Boy's search for his science class stuff seemed to be taking him throughout most of the upstairs area of our home. I looked up at the ceiling and listened to him stomp around with the grace and stealth of a 500-pound one-legged gorilla.

My second grade parachute had proved a great hit. Two other people also brought a parachute but, in each case, theirs was a pre-existing army-man toy that didn't fly nearly as well as the model I shamelessly turned in as my own. Everyone else had ignored the assignment and didn't get a paddling or a bad grade, of course. I never waited until two minutes before bedtime the night before a project was due again, but I never started too long before that, either.

Subsequent projects had included floating eggs in salt water, packaging eggs to fall from a great height, building a bridge from match sticks and creating a Rube Goldberg device to put out a very small, strategically-located fire. I'd received great assistance on all of these. I now lamented the loss of each completed project to the ravages of time. I would, without hesitation, have turned them in again.

"We could do a project on skunk trapping as a way to help ducks raise more baby ducks," the Boy said, looking at a Delta Waterfowl magazine as he returned to the room, "or we could make a volcano that erupts purple lava and has a speaker that rumbles like thunder."

"I've got a better idea," I said. "Go get a bandanna and some dental floss. I've got to go outside and find a rock."

Kevin is the weekend edition editor for the Daily Journal. Contact him at