The Radioactive Boy Scout

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 copyright © 2009 by Charles Glassmire

_________________________________________________________________

Dec. 13, 2009

 The Radioactive Boy Scout

      The day was June 26, 1995. Dottie Pease was a neighbor to the Hahn’s, and was calling her husband in a panic. She had looked out of her window and saw the Hahn’s yard filled with “…men in funny suits…” walking all over her lawn. The Potting Shed in the Hahn’s yard next door was getting a lot of attention, and another frightened neighbor told Dottie that at night she often saw the potting shed surrounded by a strange bluish glow!

     Next-door to Dottie, Michael Polasek and Patty Hahn lived in an upper middle class housing development named Golf Manor, which is located 25 miles outside of the city of Detroit. Patty was a homeowner, and had a live-in boyfriend. Michael operated a forklift at the local General Motors plant. They were described by the neighbors as a quiet middle-aged couple, not married (both had previous marriages) and sometimes happy together; Patty had a son by her previous marriage named David. David visited them on weekends and holidays, but during the week lived with his father, Ken Hahn, and Ken’s second wife, Kathy. Ken was a stoic crew cut  automotive engineer working for General Motors, where he met Kathy.  Ken and Patty Hahn had divorced when David was a small boy.

     David was not your typical teenager; although he played Baseball when growing up, by age 10 he was reading voraciously about Chemistry. He joined the Boy Scouts, and became fascinated with the Periodic Chart of the Elements. His passion was one day to collect a sample of each of the elements in the chart (including, of course, the radioactive and fissionable ones). Socially, he was described as “quiet”, but in reality he had few friends and found the social graces very difficult in getting along with others. He was a poor student, especially in spelling, and in his junior year had almost failed the state exams in mathematics and reading, which were needed for graduation. He “aced” the science exam though. (The wall of his lab carried a sign which read “Caushon”.)  He noted later that Science was a place he could go to stop the feelings of failure.

          As David became more obsessed with Chemistry and the Elements, he began to ignore the few friends he had. He held odd jobs after school which allowed the purchase of equipment to set up a home laboratory in his father’s house. He bought beakers, test tubes, flasks, hosing and the other usual tools for his laboratory. He quickly moved from making alcohol, to synthesizing rayon. By age 12, he was easily reading college level chemistry text books. At Patty’s house in Golf Manor, she often found him in the morning asleep on the floor surrounded by encyclopedias and chemistry books. At age 14, he did the typical teenage synthesis of gunpowder, but quite atypically, moved on to synthesize nitroglycerine.

          Explosions and chemical messes became rather routine at the Hahn’s house. When one explosion pock-marked the walls of his room and destroyed the rug, Ken and Kathy insisted he remove his experiments to the basement.

     He did have a girlfriend named Heather. She was three years younger than he, and described him as “sweet and caring”. Heather’s mom had a slightly different take: “He was a nice kid and always presentable, but we had to tell him not to talk to anybody [at parties]. He could eat and drink but, for God’s sake, don’t talk to the guests about the food’s chemical composition.”

          David’s adventures with the Boy scouts included his penchant for experimentation. He appeared at one scout meeting with a distinctly orange face. He had ingested a “tanning” chemical, to investigate artificial methods of sun tanning. At one summer camp, a group of scouts blew a hole in the main tent when David’s powdered Magnesium exploded. He had brought it along to make some fireworks. The Chemistry Merit Badge quickly pinned itself to his list of achievements. But there was another, rather newer badge called “Atomic Energy” which he was pursuing. The Scoutmaster observed no other scout in troop 371 had ever been awarded this badge. (The badge requirements were later rewritten by Scout Headquarters and re-titled “Nuclear Energy”).

     The Scoutmaster’s wife noted that a typical kid working on this badge goes to a hospital and asks about x-rays. David decided to build a Breeder Reactor. This was perfectly logical to someone with a rather naive social awareness, accompanied by a passion for collecting all the Periodic Table Elements. Some of the elements David needed for his obsessive collection could only be created in a nuclear reactor. So why not build a (small) one?    

     Some of the man-made series had to be bombarded with neutrons to build higher atomic number elements. The process was called “irradiating”. David soon stated he wanted to irradiate as many substances as possible to produce new ones. How about building a Neutron Gun to do it?

     Some elements could be obtained from the splitting of heavy elements like Uranium into two smaller elements which were rare and unavailable otherwise. This “fission” process was accompanied by the appropriate release of quantities of energy. This was the same process which occurred during the detonation of an Atomic Weapon, but hopefully, on a much smaller scale. All David needed was a fissionable element like Uranium 235 or Thorium, or perhaps Plutonium.

     David wanted information from the scientists on a few questions he couldn’t answer. He wrote to government agencies, but they didn’t answer a simple inquiry. So he pretended to be a High School physics teacher, needing information on where to purchase fissionable materials for a classroom project. This wasn’t malicious on his part. It was just the next perhaps naïve, but logical step needed to get the information to fulfill his compulsive dream. They sent him tips on isolating certain radioactive elements. They send a list of fissionable isotopes. He wrote to a Czechoslovakian company which sells Pitchblende and Uranium Dioxide, and got sample quantities of both. He hammered the isotopes into powder, wanting to use an acid wash to isolate the Uranium. He couldn’t get Nitric Acid because it’s an ingredient for explosives. So David made his own. He heated saltpeter and sodium bisulfate, and bubbled the gas through water. But he couldn’t filter the Uranium out of the muddy substance which resulted.

          There were other problems. One evening Ken and Kathy were in the living room watching TV, when a large explosion shook the walls and floor of the house. Rushing down to the basement, they found David lying on the floor unconscious with his eyebrows smoking, and the basement strewn with broken equipment. David had been pounding a pyrophoric chemical with a screwdriver when it ignited spontaneously…

 (to be continued…)

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3 Responses to “The Radioactive Boy Scout

  1. Leon Katz Says:

    Chuck:
    No fair! To stop in the middle of a sentence, with the kid’s eyebrows smoking and the basement wrecked – no fair! This reader’s waiting with baited breath – needs the rest!
    L.

  2. Diogenes Says:

    This is a fascinating story. I think this guy should be recruited by anyone interested to apply his unique talents to developing clean nuclear energy.

  3. jane Says:

    Sounds like he might have aspergers

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