“What’d I miss?” he asked, sitting down and sliding my can of Fresca over to me.
“Not much,” Homicide said, taking a sip of his coffee. “Hey man,” he grimaced “What the hell? You know I don’t take sugar.”
“Aw, I forgot. You want me to go get you another one?”
“No, I’ll go get it myself,” he said as he got up and headed toward the door. “You carry on with your story, honey. I won’t be long.”
“No problem.” I looked at Thunder Mountain. “So, Michael had to go to his first Boy Scout meeting the night he moved in next door to me. Little did he know that he and the Boy Scouts were going to get on like a house on fire. Two years later, he was on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout.”
“What’s so special about that?” he asked.
“It’s the highest achievement a Boy Scout can attain,” Homicide said, as he walked in holding a fresh cup of coffee. “Only four percent of Boy Scouts ever achieve this rank and it usually takes years to get get there. The fact that he was on his way in only two years is pretty impressive.”
“Exactly.” I said. “So, he was a model Boy Scout. It turns out that scouting was his parents’ worst nightmare. It was full of science and technology type merit badges, including the Chemistry merit badge and the Atomic Energy merit badge, both of which he more or less could’ve earned in his sleep. For someone as adept at chemistry as he was, the requirements were a joke. He had been performing complicated experiments for years and they wanted him to do some lame brain experiment with an onion. It was kid’s stuff.
As for the Atomic Energy badge, that was a joke as well. They wanted him to build a model of a reactor. He thought he could do them one better.”
“Is that where the idea for the reactor came from?”
“Maybe initially. It was a long time coming, I think. You see, he was really good at the scouting stuff, but it wasn’t always so good to him. He caught a lot of flack for being a Boy Scout.”
Homicide leaned in. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that kids can be cruel. Michael was really proud of all the things that he was doing in the Boy Scouts. For the first time in a really long time, he felt like he had a place where he belonged. He wanted to share that. He made the mistake of being too enthusiastic about it, I guess. One time, he did a speech at school about what it meant to him to be a Boy Scout. The kids in the class, mostly the other boys, were so heartless about it - they wouldn’t let him live it down. He even wore his uniform to school that day, so the teasing was incessant.”
“Sounds rough.” Thunder Mountain mused.
“It was hard on him, but I guess the benefits of being a Boy Scout outweighed the costs for him and he stayed the course. Maybe it was sheer will and determination, but he wasn’t going to let the kids at school dissuade him from the one place he felt like he could be himself - the one place where people weren’t looking at him like he had three heads when he starting going on about science and chemistry.
It wasn’t only that though. Michael was surprisingly good at leading the younger boys. He was very good natured and the younger boys just loved him. They thought he was so cool, which was awesome for him, since no one his own age thought anything of the sort.
Back to the reactor though, I don’t know that in the end it was all about the Atomic Energy badge. It may have begun there, but there were more things going on than just a boy wanting a merit badge.
“What do you mean?” asked Homicide.
“Well, for one thing, Michael Spaulding is probably the kindest, most altruistic person I’ve ever known. I think that once he got the idea in his head that he could build a nuclear reactor, delusions of grandeur took over. Then it was a breeder reactor. Then he was going to help the community with his reactor. Then he was going to help the whole world with it. But underneath all that, I think that he was just interested in finally proving to his parents that he could do more than blow things up. They never really got over the whole fireworks thing and even though his grandmother was supportive, his mom and dad would have loved nothing better than to have seen him leave chemistry behind him for good and instead foster a love of biology or astrophysics. They wanted a doctor for a son and got a mad scientist instead.”
“What makes you think this?” Thunder Mountain asked.
“Just little things. I’d see literature from pre-med schools in his room. ‘What’s that?’ I’d ask.
‘Oh, just something my parents dropped off,” he would say. Then, “How many hospitals do you think we could run with one reactor?’
You know, little things”
“So, what did he actually do to get the Atomic Energy Merit Badge?” Homicide asked.
“Well, there are several requirements to get any badge. I’m sad to say that I know all of this just from hanging around him for as long as I have. For that particular one, hmm, what all did he have to do? He built the model nuclear reactor, which like I said, was kind of a joke considering. Umm, he had to build a 3D model of an element from the periodic table - he chose Uranium. I helped with that one.
Uh, gosh, I don’t remember everything, it’s very involved, but he did all of it like it was Mickey Mouse stuff. It just wasn’t an issue. He had a harder time earning his swimming merit badge to be honest. Couldn’t manage the backstroke for the longest time. Worked at it all summer one year until he finally got the hang of it. I swear we all had fungus growing in our ears from spending so much time in Lake Stella that summer.”
“Why didn’t you all just go to the YMCA if Michael was the pool boy?” asked Thunder Mountain.
I looked at him incredulously. “I’m not the type of person who gets a YMCA membership.”
“What does that mean?”
“You want me to spell it out for you? My family is too poor.”
“I though the YMCA had need based scholarships.”
“Yeah, well we’re just poor enough to not be able to afford it and just well off enough to not qualify for need based assistance. That sort of thing is based on TANF eligibility, which we don’t receive.”
“You’re awfully articulate for a 15 year old.”
“I have to be. Anyway, I thought you guys were the FBI, not HRS and that we were talking about my relationship with Michael Spaulding, not my socioeconomic status.”
“Okay, sorry. Please, continue.”
“Like I was saying, getting the Atomic Energy badge for Michael, was a cake walk, but as far as the Boy Scouts went, it was a big deal. Apparently, he was the only person in a several hundred mile radius who had even attempted the thing, much less gotten it, so he was kind of a big deal in the Boy Scouts afterward. That didn’t interest him though. He was interested in whether or not he could actually build the real thing. The model had been easy enough after all. And it wasn’t like he didn’t already have a little bit of radioactive material he could work with.
For reasons I will never understand, he got it into his head some years ago that he wanted to collect a sample of every element of the periodic table. I mean, every last one. Even the highly unstable ones. Even the radioactive ones. At one point he had a can with a lump of sodium in it. Do you know what happens when sodium meets air? Kaboom! So, in his quest for the elements, he’s managed to amass more than a little radium, some thorium, and a little bit of yellow ore, otherwise known as uranium ore. This was enough to get started with the process anyway."
“Where does a 17 year old kid get radium?” asked Thunder Mountain.
“Well you know where we got things later on, but as for what he had to begin with? For starters, he was probably 13 or 14 when he first started collecting the stuff and he got it from scraping the paint off of old clock faces. You’ve perhaps heard of the Radium Girls?”
Thunder Mountain gave a perplexed look. Homicide decided to chime in.
“Radium Girls: factory painters from the late 1910s, early 1920s who contracted radium poisoning from licking the paintbrushes they used to paint the faces of clocks with luminescent radium paint.”
“Exactly. You can still find some of these clocks in antique stores. Michael would buy them and scrape the paint off into a little jar.”
“Sounds dangerous.” Thunder Mountain said.
“He always used a mask, but yeah, it probably wasn’t the brightest idea.”
“What about the thorium?”
“Camping lantern mantles.”
“Yeah, they’re coated with it or something, so he’d process the stuff back out until it was pure thorium.”
“I don’t know. A lot of fire? He wouldn’t really let me be around when he was working on that sort of stuff.”
“What about the uranium ore?”
“You’d be surprised what you can buy through a mail order catalog. Why are you guys so worried about this stuff anyway? He obtained all that stuff completely legally. On the up and up. Anyone, anywhere, any day of the week could do what he did, if they had the know how and the wherewithal.”
“Jalisco, is it just me, or do you find that notion particularly disturbing?”
“Most people wouldn’t want to, Martin.”