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ORDINARY FORKS AND ORDINARY FOLKS
By Melissa Draper
A chemistry major discovers that—in things and people—there’s often more than meets the eye.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay won second place in the 2005 BYU Magazine student essay contest.
“Do you have a pickle?” I asked as my next door neighbor opened her door. Like an echo I could hear my roommate asking the same question three doors away. “We only need one,” I continued in the same breath, hopping back and forth from one foot to the other to keep my bare feet from going numb on the cold cement. As my neighbor rummaged through her refrigerator, images of warm, fuzzy socks raced through my mind.
My roommate’s voice rang out from down the street: “I’ve got one!”
“Never mind,” I blurted. “Thanks!”
My neighbor laughed, shaking her head. “What did you want it for?”
Already racing toward my apartment, I called back, “We’re making it glow!”
Glowing pickles: I had mentioned the idea to my roommates and, after discovering a pickle famine in our own apartment, we had embarked on a spontaneous pickle hunt. Now I stared down at the jumble of components for our experiment accumulated in our kitchen. The warty pickle was dripping yellow juices onto the counter alongside two dingy dinner forks and a stripped extension cord revealing tiny copper tongues.
For a senior in chemistry, making pickles glow is far from a new trick. But I always got a kick out of it, maybe because it reminded me of my freshman year.
Being a first-year college student is like being a baby, with everything new. Whether it’s discovering manna in the form of Marshmallow Mateys or finding just the right place to take a nap under the Benson Building display cases there’s something to
learn every day. Even now as I get ready to graduate, my brain crammed with chemical constants and facts, I realize that the most important lessons I learned at BYU were in Carroll Hall my freshman year.
The first time I ever made a pickle glow was in our little freshman kitchen. Clark and Nathan were decapitating Rice Krispies snowmen, while Liz and Susie lounged on the couch, giggling about plans for the upcoming Christmas break. Smiling at the thought of going home soon, I wrapped the copper ends of the extension cord around the handles of two forks and sunk them into a pickle.
“OK, everyone—LOOK!” I plugged in the extension cord, then jumped back. After a second of sputtering, the pickle began glowing an eerie yellow-orange color, the consequence of exciting sodium atoms. Everyone laughed, ignoring the faint stench of burned pickle.
I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but I must have become distracted. I do remember thinking that the forks looked very ordinary, though. Maybe I expected forks with 120 volts between them to look different, but they didn’t. They looked like normal flatware. Somehow I ended up close enough to touch one of the forks.
“I can’t let go!” I tried to scream, as fingers that had only brushed the fork suddenly clamped around the handle.
“I’m going to die.” The notion punctuated a murky swirl of thoughts as I realized I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, couldn’t hear. Everything looked strange—like a mirage. My chest felt funny. No finals; no going home for Christmas, I thought.
Suddenly the forks clattered to the ground, and I stumbled backward, gasping for breath. Circuit breakers are wonderful things!
“You’re green!” one roommate exclaimed, coming back in from the lobby where she’d run for help. “Are you OK?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I muttered, shaking.
I reached out a tremulous hand to pick the forks up from the floor. Just ordinary forks. Just normal flatware.
“And it’s really going to glow?” My roommate’s question brought me back from freshman-year memories. I nodded, looking hard at the fork tines as I eased them into the back of the pickle. Ordinary forks.
Those freshman forks taught me many things. Along with causing me to be more careful with electricity, they got me thinking about many of the ordinary people I’d met during my years at BYU. Despite appearing completely normal, many of these people have concealed within them breathtaking power to affect me and other people. Like forks in a pickle, in my college experience, it was sometimes the seemingly least spectacular person who influenced me and acted as a conduit to bring out hidden color and unexpected light into my life. There was the Relief Society president who came to our aid when our apartment flooded. Or roommates who laughed and listened. There was the professor who let me join his lab group, deepening my love for chemistry in a million ways. There were the friends who smiled and didn’t get discouraged as they stood on the sidewalk watching their apartment disappear in flames. There had been so many ordinary friends, teachers, and leaders who have deepened my BYU experience without ever expecting plaques and praises in return.
“Ok, everyone—LOOK!” I plugged in the extension cord, then jumped back. After a second of sputtering, the pickle began glowing an eerie yellow-orange color, filling the room with light.
There’s no such thing as ordinary forks—or ordinary people.
Melissa Draper is a chemistry major from Chanhassen, Minn.
Copyright 2011 by Brigham Young University.