Mixsonian Larry

Lab Helper

At the time the Soils Science Department was in Newell Hall, a very old building built in 1919.  The interview was with Dr. Eno, the head of the department. It turns out that I knew Dr. Eno’s son, Chip as they lived on the same street as Betty and Billy, one street over from Mom and Dad’s.  I had met Chip a few times but didn’t know him all that well for he went to P.K. Young high school which was only open to the children of University’s facility.  The interview went well, and in early May of 1971 I started working as a Lab Helper making a $1.73 an hour, a whole 10¢ more than I was making as a computer operator.  Although the Newell Hall was the official home for the department, many of the professors, labs and classes were in McCarty Hall which is where I would be working.

As a lab helper I did laboratory work for graduate students working on their PHD degrees in soil science. One PHD student named Mike was studying the effects of boron on the growth of pine trees.  Pine trees are big business in Florida with millions of acres of slash pine trees planted mainly for the pulp wood used for making paper so much of the grant money the Soils Department received came from the paper and lumber companies.  

As a lab helper I performed analysis of boron in pine tree needles.  The Mike had collected needle samples from plots of trees and brought them back to the lab where I would perform the analysis to determine the amount of boron in them. The amount of boron was miniscule and measured in parts-per-million, or PPM.  It was a complex process; needle samples were placed in special boron free crucibles which were then place in a high temperature oven turning the needles to a few micrograms of ash. I would then use a pipette to first add sulfuric acid, then phosphoric acid to the sample.   After sitting for several hours, I would then use a method called titration in which, one drop at a time, a chemical would be added to the test tube until the color changed and I would record how many drops it took which determined the amount of boron in the sample.  I could only process a dozen samples at a time which took a couple of days for each batch, but I would have several batches in different steps, ash, acid, titrate.   After a few weeks and doing dozens of samples, I asked the grad student about the accuracy of the process, and he told me he had rerun several of the same needles to see how close they were. He said he had found them to be very close and that I was doing a good job.   I processed hundreds of samples over the next few months.   Several years later I heard that Mike found that boron had little to no effect on the growth of pine trees.  A thesis is a thesis, even if the results were not significant and Mike got his PHD degree but evidently it found it so depressing that he committed suicide.

I enjoyed working as a lab helper in the Soils Department, working with chemicals, doing scientific studies, it fit right in with my childhood dream of becoming a scientist.  I worked with a very nice group of people. My boss was a woman in her mid-thirties who was the Manager of Labs who I got along quite well with.  I became friends with the PHD student who I was doing the boron tests for, he was Jewish and had a wife and a baby and invited me over to dinner at their house once.  There was another grad student who was from India whose name started with a “J” and was twenty three, unpronounceable characters long, but everyone called him Jose.  Jose and I became friends and would on many days go to the Student Union, which is right next to McCarty Hall, for lunch.  Jose and I both brought our lunches in brown paper bags, and we would go to the Student Union to eat, often watching Jeopardy which was on TV in dining hall.  We kind of looked like Mutt and Jeff with me being over six feet tall and with Jose barely five feet.  Often, we would eat our lunch quickly and then play table tennis they had at the Student Union.  Jose was very good and would always beat me, but he also had patience and taught me how to play, how to serve and how to add spin to the ball.  I don’t think I ever beat Jose, but I did get better over time.  Like Mike, Jose also had a wife and child at home which one time he invited me over for dinner.  I had never had Indian food before and found it very good.

Interesting enough I found that Dick McCurdy worked in the Soils Department as a senior lab technician in their electronics and supply room.  I had first met Dick back in 1966 at the Chemistry Department when Dad took to me see him for electronic parts.  Dick was at least ten years older than me, but he seemed to enjoy having me around often teaching or explaining things to me.  He had had moved up from his room at the Chemistry department, that wasn’t much bigger than walk-in closet, to a good sized room that had shelves on all the walls which were filled with all sorts of scientific equipment which fascinated me.  It was Dick that explained to me how computer memory and program arrays worked in such a way that I really understood it.  I will always remember him explaining how computer memory was like the wall of mailboxes at a post office, each had a letter for the row and a number for the column that specified box location in which something could be stored.

It was Dick and Marsha that introduced me to marijuana, or pot as it was mostly called at the time.  Marsha was the administrative assistant for the professors in the Soils Department office in McCarty Hall.  She was very attractive, in her late twenties and blond hair and was always very friendly. I worked in the main lab and about the only reason for me to go to the office was to pick up my paycheck, so I seldom saw Marsha which was probably good for I probably had puppy eyes looking at her.  Dick and Marsha were friends and they would often go out to lunch together when one day Dick asked me if I wanted to go with them and I said sure.  With Dick driving, Marsha in the passenger seat me sitting in the back we drove to the Arby’s on 13th street where we ate lunch.  On the way back, Dick lit a joint and took a hit then passed it to Marsha.  While Marsha was taking a hit, Dick asked if I had every smoked pot before and I told him no.  I had never even smoked a cigarette much less a marijuana joint, so I wasn’t so sure about it, but Dick said I might like it but to only take a small amount.  Marsha passed me the joint and I took about the smallest drag I could and immediately broke out coughing and passed the joint back to Dick.  I didn’t feel any effects at first so when the join came around to me the second time, I took a slightly bigger hit and only coughing half as much.  I passed on the third round and Dick and Marsha finished off the joint before we got back to work.  By the time we were getting out of the car and walking back to McCarty Hall I was really feeling it. My thoughts were racing a hundred miles an hour and everything I looked at seemed interesting as we entered the building.  Dick returned to his room, Marsha returned to the office, and I returned to the lab where my head started spinning and I immediately threw up into the lab sink.  The lab manager was a motherly woman and was concerned and I told her I wasn’t feeling too good, that it was probably something I ate, and she told me I should go home which I did. When I got home, I laid in bed with thoughts streaming through my mind before falling asleep.

Updated: 12-08-2022

Computer Programmer