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Chemical Plants

Memories of the chemicals of childhood.

When I was a boy I lived in West Chester, Pennsylvania, near a number of chemical processing plants. A few blocks from my home was Wyeth, a massive factory with hundreds of huge, block-long white pipes. The pipes ran into giant metal domes, these domes labelled with large blue numbers. Wyeth had a fetid smell that I was told was a by-product of the manufacture of penicillin. Other, smaller plants had been erected nearby, each with its own odor. I assumed that huge chemical plants were part of regular life, because factories had been there for the duration of my memory.

There was a company that specialized in fire-retardant chemicals, which the bus passed every day on the way to and from school. One afternoon, coming home, I saw a man in a moon suit entirely engulfed in flames, like a sun: the flames rose two feet over his head, and poured from his fingertips. He scorched the dry ground where he walked. He walked slowly, ominously, moving towards a man with a fire extinguisher. The bus turned the corner.

Perhaps a year later, men came to the house in tinfoil clothing, and asked us to leave for a while. They gave no explanation, but no one disagrees with a man dressed in a protective tinfoil suit with plexiglass face shield. We went over to my grandparents' for a few hours.

Another night, another year, our neighbors called us at 4AM. The smell of rotting eggs was moving through the town. Those who inhaled it suffered sore eyes and a sick stomach, and many had gone to the hospital. The source of the stink was only three blocks away, but the wind had been blowing the other direction.

I was asked to dress quickly, and we got into the Dodge Dart and went to the Denny's a few miles out of town, the only restaurant open. I don't know what my neighbors did. At Denny's, the nighthawks must have been curious to see a 9-year-old boy with his mother and father (was my brother along? or in college?). I was allowed to order what I wanted, and dove into my pancakes in excitement, already thinking about who would want to hear this story.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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