For Skagit Valley


There was a lot of pressure on me when I began my first day as a freshman in 1966 at Mt. Vernon High. After all, Time magazine was asking if God was dead and wishing that LBJ was; I was still embroiled in a war with my parents as to whether my bangs should touch my eyebrows, and a nasty flesh-eating disease had attacked all the males enrolled at Mt. Vernon High. In addition to all these pressures, I had two further strikes against me: (1) I was tall and had refused to go out for basketball (tall is ball, man! Tall is ball!), and (2) I had purchased my first pair of bell-bottoms. If I stood sideways, my silhouette looked like a broom.

Mt. Vernon was a small town, the three-man city council lying and claiming that we had 6,000 people but you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a hundred at the Skagit County Fair in June. The high school, by default was rather small, too. The basic courses, Math, Geography, and English were all taught in the three-story brick main building, and the ones the counselor called “our choices” were taught in one of two modern modular rectangles that had been added on sometime in the last decade. I had choices to make: it could be Auto shop or Home Economics, Typing or Chemistry. I gave my future ten minutes of thought and chose Home Economics because Home Economics meant girls and girls meant Shelley Hays (who let me kiss her once in the eighth grade), which is why to this day I can’t find the oil dipstick on my Camaro but I can tenderize a flank steak like nobody’s business.

My other choice was a disaster. I could have used typing skills forever in my future life but I chose Chemistry because I had an advantage over most of the kids who would be in the class: I had owned the Mr. Wizard home chemistry set when I was ten and I had already put in my post-graduate work on stink bombs, ice crystals, and nasty concoctions that foamed green all over mom’s good hand towels, the ones only used for company.

The first day of Chemistry was a voyage of discovery. Before the teacher even arrived there was much discussion about the quality of the wiener-winks at lunch, who actually took a baseball bat to all those mailboxes during the summer, and where you stood in the Beatles-are-best/Dave- Clark-Five-are-best debate.

Mr. Thompson was our Chemistry teacher. I strongly suspect he was Abraham Lincoln’s chemistry teacher, too. Mr. Thompson was semi-living proof that there was no mandatory retirement age for teachers in Skagit County and he must have been tapping the upper seventies easily. Due to his age and probably a little Glenlfiddich, Mr. Thompson’s gait was a slow snail-paced rhumba that took him about twenty minutes to traverse the fifty yards between the Teacher’s Faculty Lounge and the front door to Chemistry 101. The housing for our class had enormous glass windows that faced the main building and genuine wood-veneer paneling for the remaining walls, so the students who got to class on time could gaze out of the windows and see our teacher huffin’-and-a-puffin’ like a choo-choo off in the distance as he made his way across the grass concourse. (I think I can! I think I can!)

Once he had finally made it to class, we were introduced to the scientific materials that we would be handling throughout the school year and the Mt. Vernon school district had spared no expense. We had Bunsen burners, a crude centrifuge, and dozens of complex glassware that spiraled and twisted more than the roller coaster I had ridden as a child at the Seattle’s World Fair. Mr. Thompson’s favorite scientific item was also the most dangerous one: Three one- gallon jars filled with bars of pasty-grey/white Sodium, immersed in some oily liquid that looked like butter after it’s been in the sun too long.

Mr. Thompson was very explicit: Under no circumstances were you allowed to handle this substance with your bare hands because any contact with water, even the sweat from your own hands, could cause this material to catch fire and explode and all hell would bust loose.

We all thought this was a cool thing.

As we passed by the first day we all discovered that our teacher’s advanced age had an interesting side effect: Every day at 2:15pm was…nap time! Once he had assigned a chapter of the textbook to read, Mr. Thompson would allow us to begin reading while his chin slowly, slowly, slowly slid down to his chest and his eyes closed. The first time it happened we all took bets on whether or not he was dead but he had a re-enforced habit of waking up five minutes before the bell without being aware that the hour had passed. Over the course of a few days we discovered that his sleep was so deep that somebody (who shall remain nameless) started moving objects around on the somnolent teacher’s desk and pretty soon the teacher would awake to find an eraser in his briefcase and all of his pencils stuck in the soundproofing on the ceiling.

He never said boo.

The back side of the Chemistry building butted up against Mt. Vernon Cemetery and if you were ever going to skip out a little early on your Chemistry class, the route through the cemetery made a fine path out-of-view of the rest of the school.

It had to happen. It had to be. Call it destiny, or fate, or kismet…whatever you want, but someone (who shall remain nameless) had to figure out that those three one-gallon jugs of trapped Sodium could be liberated from the class and stored temporarily behind one of the taller cemetery headstones, knowing that none of the people there getting their eternal rest was going to tell a soul, so to speak.

Like I said, there were enormous pressures on my generation back then. Gas had just gone up to 34 cents a gallon and the price of a hamburger at the Kow Korner had mysteriously gone up to the same 34 cents. Forces were aligned against us! In that kind of pressure-cooker situation it seemed only natural to want to blow off a little steam. So…somebody and a few friends (who shall all remain nameless) decided to retrieve the purloined Sodium at dusk and drive down to the little foundation road next to nearby Skagit River. Standing on the bank, the flat land belonging to Burlington was on one side of the river, and the other side held a small amount of houses, the cemetery, and Mt. Vernon High.

Hidden beneath a group of trees, somebody ever-so-carefully unscrewed the lids on the three jars and…threw them in the river. It was just getting dark enough that they thought there was no chance of discovery. The Skagit River, which is only seventy-yards wide at the most, travels so slowly that no one bothers to take an inner tube and ride it in the summer months.

At first there were only little pimples of water on the surface and everything seemed calm. Then, a strange glow began shining from below. All of a sudden there were one, two…three globes of orange light getting near the surface. Without warning, several orbs of fire shot up high into the night sky and miraculously fell back into the water without hitting the nearby houses. Within seconds, all that was left was a quarter-mile long cloud of smoke and a squadron of dead mosquitos that floated on the still, green river.

Folks around Mt. Vernon are the hearty sort and not prone to panic or hysteria so news of the event never showed up in the Skagit Valley Herald but I know many, many people who witnessed what could only be described as a probing attack by aliens to test our defenses.

Rest assured that if aliens ever get it into their slimy green heads to mix it up with the citizens of Skagit Valley, I know a sure-fire formula for a hellacious stink bomb that will drive them back to Uranus or X105A or wherever the hell they came from. But don’t thank me.

Thank Mr. Thompson.


Created by Daryl Buckner

Copyright 2013 © Daryl Buckner All Rights Reserved

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