The picture to the left is not the Philadelphia Art Museum. Rocky is not going to be running up these steps. But I use to run up these steps with a great deal of glee and anticipation. This is the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia just off Logan Square. It is full of science. I was quite serious about science as a child. I was doing my entomology collection, better known as insects in cigar boxes. I was studying herpetology for the fun of it. Herpetology is the study of reptiles; I especially liked snakes. I was not putting together a snake collection in cigar boxes. My grandmother and mother were not as fond of the creatures as I was.
My mother and grandmother took me to the Franklin Institute for my birthday. Electric trains and their accessories were on my annual Christmas List. Museums were my birthday wishes. Every year they took me to the big city for my birthday. We did all the museums. all fun to me from the Academy of Natural History (right) to the Egyptology Room of the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania.(left)
Philadelphia is full of such places. They were
The Egyptology Room was so cool. It had mummies.
I added another piece to my science repertoire after a visit to the Fels Planetarium – astronomy. I bought a book on the constellations and a small telescope and spent some nights peering at the heavens.
There was chemistry too. I was on my second ChemCraft set by the end of Fifth Grade. It was one of the larger kits. It even included experiments in Atomic Energy. Recently I saw on TV that the ChemCraft Atomic Energy set is considered the absolutely most dangerous toy ever sold because it contained real uranium. I never started glowing green as a result.
It’s a wonder I didn’t blow up the house.
Some of my friends took an interest in chemistry. Dave Fidler and his younger brother were two. The younger Fidler fiddled around a bit too much on one visit when his older brother wasn’t along. When he left I discovered some of my things, including some of my chemicals, were missing. I decided I didn’t want the younger Fidler visiting anymore.
But Dave (right) was a different story. He and I would try different mixtures together. The set came with an instruction booklet, a recipe book for budding young chemists. We grew tired of following these. We began to gather various products from about my home, cleaners, medicines and any old chemical in a bottle. We would mix these together in various ways just to see what would happen. This is a very dangerous practice. Many household products are toxic to begin with and some can be very dangerous if combined with others. We even occasionally heated our concoctions with wooden matches. We didn’t burn the house down, but we did discover “solid liquid”. That’s what we called it. I can’t remember what we mixed together in that test tube, but we got an odd result. It was a liquid; at least it looked like a liquid. It was yellowish in color, but you could see through it just like water. If you shook the test tube it swirled or splashed about like water, too. When you poured it out…well, you couldn’t pour it out. You could turn the tube upside down and shake, but the contents would not come out. It was as if it had solidified tightly inside the glass. Turn it right side up and it would shiver and shimmy like water again. We had to throw the tube away because we couldn’t get it out. It was like real magic.
This chemistry set came with a booklet called Chemical Magic. Wow, I was thrilled. Magic was another of my passions. I liked to watch magicians, but I was never satisfied being mystified. I wanted to know how they did it.
It wasn’t all that easy to find out. There was no Internet in those days and magicians guarded their secrets. I had to start small. I started early, too. My first step into this art was the Howdy Doody Magic Kit.
You could get this kit by sending 3 Three Musketeers candy bar wrappers and some money to Howdy.
The kit was made of cardboard. You punched the various pieces free and put them together. I could have used some magic to fit Tab A into Tab B, to tell the truth. It is probably no surprise, but one trick made three tiny boxes of Three Musketeers appear and disappear.
I practiced and put on a couple shows in the living room to a captive audience. Here I am, the Barefoot Magician performing the rabbit out of a hat trick. This is a very rare photo, not because it shows me performing, but because it is one of very few of the interior of 417 Washington Avenue.
The camera is looking from the living room toward the dining room. I am standing between those two rooms. The doorway behind me leads to the kitchen. To my left are the stairs upstairs. My mother collected salt and pepper shakers. She displayed them in the built-in case fronting the steps.
The chemical magic allowed me to add some neat tricks to my act, such as turning water to milk or wine and back.
I would not have recommended drinking that milk or wine, however, or the water at the end.
I was convinced I was going to study science when I got to high school, especially chemistry. My teachers knocked those ambitions out of me. I think the school system destroys more children’s brains than it educates. If I truly had a magic wand I would change the whole education system from kindergarten through college. But I don’t and so our children remain victims of the teacher’s union, politicians and puffed-up pompous professors.
I eventually gave up on chemistry and science, but not on magic. Magic remained a lifelong hobby and I gathered a lot of books on the subject and sometimes performed tricks for people, especially card tricks.
One of my favorite tricks was very dramatic. I take a deck of cards, spread it in my hands and ask someone to pick a card from it. I lay the deck on the table and tell them to look at their card, remember what it is and place it back atop the deck. I pick up the deck shuffle it, lay it on the table and cut it.I then ask another person to pick up the deck and begin to deal out the cards in a random fashion atop the table. I say deal out a dozen or so and just fling them face down here and there. Once this is done I take a knife, wave it over the cards and then stab one of the cards. I tell the first person to lift the card thus stabbed and tell if it was their selection.
Of course it is.
Well, actually, my execution wasn’t quite as dramatic. Once you stab a card with a knife that card is ruined. I couldn’t afford to keep buying decks so used a pencil and stabbed the card with the eraser end. I’d hold the pencil against the card until the person picked it up.
When they came back I told each to open the envelope and pull out the slip of paper inside. On each slip of paper was the name of the card they had picked.
Both of these tricks look amazing and puzzle the participants, but they are both quite simple. I’m not going to tell you how, though. Magicians don’t reveal their secrets.