a bucketful of chlorine

Gas masks for everyone! Wait, wait. Not you, Frank.

I’ve been holding off on writing this one because it’s the very best of them all. It has everything:

  • Death by curiosity
  • Death by suffocation
  • Death by drowning
  • Death by chemical burn
  • Death by generalized 70s malaise
  • Death by miscommunication
  • Actual death (not mine)
  • It even has an actual birth (also not mine) mixed in just for fun.

    But, honestly, the primary reason I’ve been holding off on this one is that my poor mother comes off looking like an absolute dingbat.

    I always think my mother looks like Sally Field.

    Now imagine Sally Field … ditzier.

    No, not ritzier, with an R. I said, ditzier. With a D.

    There you go.

    Anyway, we have to start with a chemistry lesson.

    Over there on the right is a floating pool chemical dispenser, also known as a floating chlorinator. Unscrew the cap, drop in chemical tablets and throw it into your pool. Water flows in through holes in the side of the device, and the tablets slowly dissolve, keeping the water in your pool properly sanitized and preventing the growth of algae.

    With me so far?

    This is chlorine.

    It’s the crazy psycho bitch of the Periodic Table.

    Look, look at this freakin’ model.

    There are two electrons in the inner shell, and eight in the middle shell. That’s fine, but there’s only seven in the outer shell. That shell can take up to 18 electrons.

    But only seven means this atom is ANGRY.

    This atom is not going to be IGNORED.

    If you had eight electrons in that shell, you’d have argon, which is like a harmless, perpetually stoned college roommate. Argon is barely useful, unlike its other inert buddy neon, the one that makes the pretty signs. On the other hand, if your atom had 6 electrons in that third, outer shell, it’d be sulfur, which just smells like a skunk, but at least skunks are cute. And sulfur has other uses. It’s even edible. Onions? Garlic? Sulfur.

    But no, chlorine has seven electrons in that damn outer shell, which makes it as reactive as your crazy, pissed-off emotion-junkie ex-girlfriend. You know the one.

    Anyway, chlorine has its uses (just like the … ahem … crazy ex-girlfriend), one of which is making your pool sparkling clean. The tablets for the aforementioned floating chlorinator usually come in three flavors — calcium hypochlorite, trichloroisocyanuric acid and dichloroicocyanuric acid, which is just like the one before it, only with one fewer crazy bitch atom of chlorine attached to it.

    Now, I’m not really a chemist (unless we’re talking about alcoholic beverages, in which case I’m a goddamn Nobel Prize winner), but Google tells me that there’s a number of different processes in which these ingredients — along with water, sunlight and plenty of time — will eventually give you hydrogen chloride, a colorless gas that percolates out of water and replaces the plain-jane air that makes the floating chlorinator, you know, float.

    Hydrogen chloride is bad news. It’s just a jump to the left of mustard gas.

    … and a step to the ri-i-i-i-ight …

    All right, now that we’ve got the chemistry down, let’s time travel back to June, 1977. I’m 8 years old. I’m swimming alone in the backyard swimming pool.

    Swimming? Alone? Eight years old? Sounds crazy now, but remember, it’s 1977. We’re 15 years away from mandatory bicycle helmets for children in California, much less an understanding that swimming pools are statistically more dangerous than having guns in the house. You’re on your own, kid. I’m still Ray Liotta.

    I don’t know why this shot of Ray Liotta from Goodfellas is my go-to example of 1970s neglect. For some reason, it just works.

    Anyway, I’m swimming alone in the pool with the floating chlorinator…

    Now, if you Google the words “floating chlorinator,” some of the first links that come up involve child safety, with very specific warnings not to allow children to play with them, because they look like toys.

    Naturally, I was playing with ours.


    At this point, if we were around a dinner table, my mother would chime in and say she was a responsible parent that was always sure to take the chlorinator out of the pool when I was swimming and that I just a playful scamp and it was only this one time.

    And if you believe that, I refer you to the name of this series of essays.

    Oh, I clearly remember us taking the chlorinator out of the pool AFTER the soon-to-be-detailed accident occurred. Barn door, horse escape and all that. But I also remember that, even after the Great Chlorine Caper, I was the one that took the chlorinator out.

    “Hey kid. Remember that thing filled with deadly poison you shouldn’t ever touch? Yeah, you know, the thing that almost killed you? Go get it for me. I’m Ray Liotta.”

    So, there I was. I’m cannonballing the thing. I’m dunking it. I’m whooshing it. Heck, I’m pretending it’s Stromberg’s secret ocean lair.

    You remember? That thing from this movie?

    Finally, I pushed the chlorinator underwater, flipped it over and let the “air” bubble to the surface.

    Tiny bubbles.
    Filled with mustard gas.
    Headed for my face.

    How did it feel to breathe that shit in?

    It felt like someone painted the inside of my mouth, nose and lungs with napalm.

    Here, let Wikipedia tell you how it feels:

    Hydrogen chloride forms corrosive hydrochloric acid on contact with water found in body tissue. Inhalation of the fumes can cause coughing, choking, inflammation of the nose, throat, and upper respiratory tract, and in severe cases, pulmonary edema, circulatory system failure, and death. Skin contact can cause redness, pain, and severe skin burns. Hydrogen chloride may cause severe burns to the eye and permanent eye damage.

    Imagine snorting a fine aerosol of essence of habanero. Only the burning never goes away. It just KEEPS ON BURNING. And then your chest feels heavy, as every cell in your respiratory tract decides to vomit up every molecule of fluid it owns.

    … ain’t no party like a pulmonary edema party, because a pulmonary edema party don’t stop …

    I instantly knew something was desperately wrong, and as by far the nerdiest 8-year-old at Jackson Elementery, I had pretty much correctly processed what had happened. I had just breathed in, more or less, chlorine gas. And the pain in my chest and foam spittle now leaking out of my mouth were Signs of Very Bad Things Happening Inside Me.

    I jumped out of the water. In retrospect, I could have passed out and drowned right there and then. Swimming, alone, remember? But thankfully, I was in the shallow end of the pool, standing on the steps, actually. Fortune favors the dumbass.

    With my mouth retching, I thought to take a drink from the garden hose, thinking that maybe I could wash away whatever was now painted inside my mouth. No luck.

    My wife: “Wait, you drank straight out of the hose?”
    Me: “Yeah. Why?”
    Her: “Your mother didn’t send you outside with, like, a bottle of water?”
    Me: “Bottled water? In 1977, bottled water was a punchline, not an actual thing. You have to wait until the 90s for the hydration gods — Evian, AquaFina, Brita — to show up.”

    Next, I did what all soaking wet 8-year-olds do when they realize they’ve become the victim of a chemical burn.

    Knock on the back door of the house.

    Her: “Knock on the back door? They locked you out?”
    Me: “Sort of. You see, the rule was, if you didn’t have a towel, you couldn’t track water into the house. I’d get in trouble. Sure, you’ll die on the doorstep. But at least you wouldn’t be in trouble.”

    My mother came to the door. What is it, honey?

    Now, the next few seconds are burned into my memory. Burned in. Right up there with name, rank and serial number. “My name is Frank, I live on planet Earth, and this is exactly what my mother said in the purest moment of crisis I’ve ever experienced.”

    Anyway, this is so, so not an exaggeration.

    “Mom, I need to go to the hospital. I just inhaled chlorine gas.”
    “Don’t worry, honey. The dog drinks it all the time.”

    Actually, no. I have no idea what she just said, either. And I really am Sally Field.

    Here’s what happened.

    I said this:

    She heard this:

    And yes, we had a dog which drank water from the pool. All the time. Now if only that dog had a set of car keys and directions to the nearest hospital, we’d be getting somewhere.

    Hop in, Frank. I totally got this!

    The next few minutes were bizarro-world. I knew I had to go to the hospital (have I mentioned the napalm?), yet my mother kept trying to second-guess me. You’re fine, she says. I’m throwing up more foamy spittle. It’s just water, she says. More foam spittle. This really hurts. Oh, relax.

    She calls my uncle Frank. I mentioned my amazing uncle Frank before.

    “How are you feeling?”
    “I’m feeling like I need to go to the hospital!”

    The three-way argument continued for a few minutes. And if you want to know what a three-way argument looked like in my family…

    After about an hour of this, Mom finally relented and we got in the car. I calmed down a bit. In the car. Driving. Hospital. Yes, this is how it’s supposed to go.

    Now, the first thing they do for a person that walks into an ER with this kind of issue is a gas mask of fresh, clean, cool 100% oxygen. I had the window rolled down and was sucking down a bit of the fresh air, and while that wasn’t 100% oxygen, I was feeling like I wasn’t going to die right that very instant.

    Mom looks at me. Again, this is an actual conversation.

    “How are you feeling?”
    “I’m … I’m OK.”
    “Then why am I driving you to the hospital?”
    “Just … drive.”
    “Do you want to get some ice cream?”
    “Just … drive.”

    Eight years old!

    We get to the hospital and talk to a nurse.

    “What’s the trouble?”
    “He drank some pool water.”
    “I inhaled chlorine gas from a floating chlorinator.”

    The color drained from this woman’s face. The room exploded into activity. Mom got a cosmic-level comeuppance. At this point, I’m sure she was horrified, finally grasping the enormity of the situation. But in my 8-year-old brain, I’m thinking, “Hah! I really am sick! See? SEE?!?!”

    I spent six days in intensive care.

    It was one of those big open rooms with an open-plan nurse’s station in the center. This was my first trip to Extreme Makeover: Hospital Edition. The highlights:

  • This was the first time I ever had blood drawn. Vampires woke me up every two hours to monitor my blood chemistry. DUDE.
  • The first night, I couldn’t stop vomiting. Emesis basin? Please. I’m gonna need something more, shall we say, robust. They gave me mop bucket.
  • The second night, they rolled in a woman that had just given birth. She looked like she had gone a few rounds with Muhammad Ali. Wiped out. The doctor told her everything was fine, the baby was OK, had all its fingers and toes. That was kinda cool.
  • Kinda not cool was the third night, when the old guy across from me up and freakin’ died. Middle of the night, I awoke to the rustling sounds of activity. Fifteen feet away was my very own live episode of Grey’s Anatomy. The flatline “EEEEEEE!” alarms, 100cc’s of adrenaline, the paddles and everything. “CLEAR!” After a while, they just kinda stopped trying, flipped the alarms off and walked away. I fell back asleep. When I woke up, the bed was empty.

    Hey, you think the kid saw any of that?
    Who cares? It’s 1977.
    You sound like Ray Liotta.

    * The respiratory therapist had a T-shirt with a screenprint of human lungs. That was cool. He offered to bring me a Playboy. That was weird. Children’s Hospital, this ain’t.

    * Family came to visit me every day, one at a time because of hospital policy. Dad dropped in and provided his usual heavy dusting of you’re-doing-it-wrong-they’re-turning-you-into-a-wussy. My grandfather was sweet and kind and at a loss for words. My grandmother threw dirty looks at the nurses. Mom and Uncle Frank rotated in fresh comic books. His wife, my aunt Patty, frantically waved at me through the window in the door to the ICU. She seemed so excited, it was like she got a glimpse of the Beatles or something.

    Honestly, at the time, I recall thinking that the worst part was that I couldn’t watch TV. There were no TVs in the ICU, and finally, on the last day, they sent me to a regular room with a TV.

    I’ve never been so happy to see a trucking school commercial in the middle of the day during Donahue. I swear, just as soon as I can breathe normally again, I’ll start a new career…