The year was 1964, and I was in high school. I had an adventurous friend named Dan, an older brother Mike who thought pornography might broaden my education, and a dangerous love of chemistry.
The chemicals obviously affected our minds… (Actually, we’d discovered a trunkful of antiquated menswear)
Dan and I were in the same chem class and decided what we needed most was a first-class, personal laboratory. You know, the kind of place where enterprising chemists could risk life and limb in the pursuit of scientific experiments forbidden in any school environment. His father Mel agreed to our using the attic room above his garage for our experimental facility, so we started moving things up the narrow staircase and under the sloping roof. At one end two metal lockers supported a large concrete tabletop. We hauled up a creaking armoire to hold our stock of chemical reagents and outdated chemistry manuals. And then we conned—er, convinced—our chemistry teacher to allow us to take home leftover chemicals at the end of each school day in return for washing up the school’s lab equipment. A win-win: he avoided doing the dishes, and we had open access to a wide selection of dangerous chemicals and elements. Brilliant, no? No.
Wearing long rubberized aprons, elbow-high gloves, and protective goggles purchased at the Army/Navy outlet, we got to work using an old chemistry manual. For starters, we produced a compound which, as it dried, became very volatile. A slight wind could set it off, sending any large glass beaker flying into the neighbor’s back yard in a loud and purple explosion. Placed strategically under a gym toilet seat and left to dry out on its own, this compound was reputed to create quite a surprise when someone sat down. And leave a lasting purple stain. Or so it was said.
Another experiment was creating red fuming nitric acid. A single spilled drop proved capable of burning clear through the linoleum flooring and the wood sheathing beneath, and piercing a 2”x8” wooden joist, leaving a nice peep-hole from the lab to the concrete garage floor ten feet below. You get the idea. Dan and I weren’t perhaps the most sane chemistry students in school, but we certainly were the most creative. And before long our lab was as well-equipped as the best professional lab. Starting with a few beakers, flasks, glass piping, and a Bunsen burner, we eventually scrounged from second-hand stores miscellaneous lab gear designed to risk the lives of the experimenters as well as the neighborhood.
So along comes World War I. Or rather, that was the subject matter in our history class, and Dan and I volunteered to make—as an extracurricular project, of course—a slideshow of the final battle of that war. Our tabletop diorama featured genuine toxic gas clouds, actual explosive landmines and shell blasts, and toy soldiers and tanks. We also had flaming Fokker and Sopwith Camel airplanes suspended from monofilament lines, set afire, and dripping toxic melting plastic and paint on the display below. Snapping photos left and right while holding our breath as we filled the attic with poisonous gases, we got the shots we needed, then fled down the narrow stairs in a desperate attempt to avoid being belated casualties of WWI. We collided with Dan’s dad. who was rapidly ascending with a fire extinguisher in a rush to save his garage from extinction as smoke and gas clouds billowed from the attic windows.
So now comes the porn part. My elder brother Mike was a fraternity man, and had laid his hands on some porn movies from the 1940’s. “Trip to Ma’s, Part One and Part Two.” Yeah, that’s what they were labeled. We assumed Ma’s was a bordello. These were 16-millimeter, black-and-white finds accompanied by a noisy projector of the same vintage. The lot had been purchased from some cop who had confiscated them in a raid. Now please keep in mind that these were different times, when porn hid behind closed doors. Not like today when it pops up on computer and movie screens at an accidental keystroke. In fact, in those days porn possession was illegal. Yeah, I know, hard to believe.
One afternoon Mike asked if I wanted to look after the movies while he sought a suitable buyer. His fraternity had moved on to other sources of entertainment. I agreed without hesitation, as any cooperative younger brother would. Our chem lab now became a covert movie theater, as well. When no showing were schedules, we stashed the reels and the projector in one of the lockers, well out of sight of prying eyes.
Now, just to be clear, these movies would hardly raise an eyebrow by today’s standards. No soundtrack, shaky title cards, and less-than-stellar acting. The male lead wore dark socks, slicked-back hair, a pencil-thin mustache, and an inflamed pimple on his right butt cheek. One female star was a forty-something peroxide blonde who obviously didn’t care much for physical exertion. The other female was a twenty-something with pin curls who endured the man’s frantic efforts with an unchanging expression of boredom. For a contemporary image, picture the woman checking text messages during sex and you’ll have the idea.
So one day Mel comes in from the garage as Dan and I have just finished scrubbing honey from the wall paper. (I suppose an explanation is in order: We’d been snapping wet dishtowels, and Dan’s cloth sent a big container of honey flying, its tip spreading a ribbon of sticky honey all around the kitchen.) Anyway, in walks Mel, pours himself a cup of coffee, joins us at the table, and says: “Those are quite the films you boys have up there.”
Dan and I exchange looks of terror and mumble incoherent nonsense.
Than Mel continues: “Those photos look like actual WWI battle scenes.” He smiles smugly and takes his coffee mug into the living room, whistling. And Dan and I release a mutual sigh of relief.
Now in retrospect, I know that Mel was pulling our leg. He knew. He wasn’t admiring our 35-mm slides up there. He was talking 16-mm. But, what the hell, right?
So then I hide the movies and projector in the trunk of my car, and drive around for months wondering what to do with them. Concerned about a traffic stop, arrest and imminent incarceration, I drop by my brother’s place to give the whole kit back. He and his wife are out, so I put them in the bottom drawer of an old dresser in the garage, hidden way in back, and promptly move on with my teen life.
A couple of months later Mike asks about the movies. Ever the entrepreneur, he had found a buyer. “But wait,” I say to my brother, “Didn’t you find them in the garage?” But now it’s dawned on me that I never told him I’d hidden them there, and recently-married, he and his wife have moved in the meantime.
So that night, under cover of darkness, the two of us sneak up the driveway of his former rental, trying not to wake every dog in the neighborhood along with the new renters, enter the garage from the unlocked side door, and rescue the porn from certain oblivion. Or at least from discovery by the wrong people. And Mike has his sale.
And there you have it. I ended World War I. I nearly blew up a garage. And we saved porn for the world. Well, maybe not that, but two out of three’s enough, right? After all, it was high school.
Copyright 2015 Patrick W. O’Bryon