FOND MEMORIES of feckless youth: first girlfriend, first car, first chemistry set. First chemistry set, yes.
Long before video games, radio-control racing cars and funny-looking bikes with sissy bars, a chemistry set was every kid's dream. Every (well, nearly every) red-blooded American youngster wanted to find one under the Christmas tree or wrapped in festive paper for that special birthday.
They still hold considerable fascination, as I found out not long ago. But let me digress for a moment.
My own first chemistry set arrived on a birthday in the mid-'50s. It was a humdinger -- a top-of-the-line Chemcraft, chock full of test tubes and reagents with exotic names like phenolpthalein solution and sodium ferricyanide, all packed in a dangerous-looking red wooden box.
Be still my heart! The possibilities were endless: explosives, stink bombs, smoke pots and rainbow-colored water-pistol ammo.
I soon found out that the folks at Chemcraft were prudent enough not to include chemicals that actually went "bang!," although a clever kid could cook up noxious brews redolent of skunk, and "volcanoes" that spewed weird orange gunk and purplish smoke.
One day, in an effort to make human blood or something, I fired up a batch of chemicals in a Florence flask out on the front stoop of my parents' apartment house in Brooklyn. When the stuff began to boil over, I headed for a curbside drain posthaste. But a co-conspirator -- his name was Fat Tommy -- stuck a sneakered foot in my path, and the flask crashed to the sidewalk in a swirl of glass shards and dazzling blue glop.
I last visited the old neighborhood in 1985. Boarded-up storefronts and burned-out apartments lent a South Bronx ambiance to my old turf; even trees were stripped of their bark. But that stubborn blue crescent remained, faded a bit after 30 years but still tenacious and defiant. I had found an old friend.
Back to the present.
When a colleague's son celebrated his 10th birthday recently, the old chemistry set fever recurred. Would a kid of the '80s have as much fun playing lab technician as I once had? I was pleased to find that the answer is an unqualified "yes."
Today's chemistry sets are a bit more high-tech than they used to be, with a modular plastic rack replacing the old wooden box. The Chemcraft people have become even warier, and no longer include even moderately dangerous substances such as copper sulfate -- the result, no doubt, of a more litigious society.
But young Boyd Cook of Alexandria, having nothing to compare it with, thinks the set I got him is just fine.
"Hey, look at this . . . ," he says enthusiastically, as we lay out the contents on a newspaper-covered kitchen table, "changing blood to water. Can we do it?"
Boyd plops five measures of sodium carbonate into a clean glass, as per the instruction booklet, and 10 drops of phenolpthalein solution in another glass half full of water. He mixes the contents of the two and stirs with a pencil. The liquid turns bright red.
"Look . . . it turned into bloody," he says.
"Is it real blood?" chimes in his seven-year-old brother Andy, who has been kibitzing.
"Naw. It's a trick," Boyd replies.
Kids these days -- they're so literal.
Boyd next mixes sugar, cobalt chloride and sulfur and heats the mixture over an alcohol lamp, which the lab booklet promises will produce "snakes." The actual result is a bubbling, blackish amoeba-like thing that evokes a "yuck" and a spate of giggles from both Boyd and Andy.
Next on the agenda: ammonia gas from ammonium carbonate. A success; we all wrinkle up our noses at the satisfactory stink.
Mixing ferric ammonium sulfate and sodium silicate in a test tube produces a repulsive orange jelly that for some reason tickles the kids' fancy. But a silicate-bisulfate mixture that promises to congeal into "ice" at room temperature is an unqualified flop -- it splats onto the table when Boyd turns the container upside down.
"Well, that's why it's called an experiment," I say consolingly.
And so it goes.
Finally, Boyd concocts a mixture of sodium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium sulfate that blossoms into a vivid Prussian blue liquid so reminiscent of my childhood discovery.
"Know what you can do with this?" he asks earnestly.
"Hmm," I reply, looking at a pale grey stretch of concrete driveway just outside.
"It's ink! You can really write with this," he says, interrupting my train of thought.
Boyd squeezes the ink into a plastic cartridge pen and writes his name in bold blue letters on the back of an envelope.
"It really works!" he says proudly. "Did you ever make anything like this?"
I look out at the driveway again and smile.
"Sure did," I reply, "but you did an even neater job."
Chemistry sets can provide real hands-on experience for youngsters grown accustomed to video arcades, TV game shows and other mindless abstractions. They are relatively inexpensive, ranging from about $10 to $35.
The cheapest sets present chemistry as a sort of "magic show" -- changing water to wine and so on. More advanced varieties provide useful instruction in the science and include high-school-level instruction manual. Some sets now highlight agricultural and ecological studies. These feature seeds, fertilizers and tests for air and water pollution.
Although manufacturers make sure that explosive and highly toxic chemicals are excluded, parents should be aware that some of the substances commonly found in chemistry sets can be harmful if ingested or misused. The use of an alcohol lamp or other source of flame also is required for a number of experiments; proper supervision is needed.
Chemistry sets generally are not recommended for children under 10 years old.
Bill Sautter last wrote for Weekend about sporting clays.