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Chapter I - Geyser in the Teacher's Inkwell

t was Parents' visiting day at Larry Hammond's school in the Rue d'Assas on the Left Bank. L'Ecole Alsacienne was in 1905 becoming one of the most distinguished schools for boys in Paris. About once a month the parents were invited to attend class, at which the schoolmaster took pains to show what a skillful teacher he was, and how well the children of the visiting mothers were learning. The boys, ten or eleven years old, in jackets and short trousers, long stockings and bare knees, filed past the tall desk of the teacher on their way to their desks, with the teacher bringing up the end of the line and beaming at his visitors as he came.

On the desk was an enormous inkwell that must have held nearly a quart of ink. In the moving line was Larry, a charming, attractive boy, a little taller than most, with brown eyes and dark, wavy hair. His mother was not one of the visitors that day. As he went by the teacher's desk, he casually raised his hand and surreptitiously dropped something into the small mouth of the enormous inkwell. None of the grown-ups noticed his offhand gesture, and his face and bearing looked as innocent as any choir boy's at Vespers.

Before the boys could be seated, things began to happen. The ink, reacting violently to the calcium carbide, began to boil and gargle - then spurt in three-foot fountains, which fell back in ruinous cascades over the schoolmaster's papers and books. A horrible stench spread rapidly through the room and made the ladies cough and gasp. Then, as the chemical assumed full force, the inkwell emitted a phllumb! phllump! As great geysers of the dreadful-smelling black fluid shot to the ceiling and fell back all over everything, amid the screams of the visitors - and to the fascination of the boys.

The schoolmaster shouted to get the concierge, who rushed in with a bucket of water with a broom, and maneuvered the belching inkwell into it - but thus only made the carbide more explosive. He finally carried the whole volcano out of the room.

"Qu'on ouvre les fenetres!" the choking ladies were shouting, and boys willingly flung open the windows. A bitter gale swept through the room with chilling intensity. "Qu'on ferme les fenetres!" shouted the shivering women. Again, boys obligingly responded; the windows were slammed shut. The stench took over again, some began to cough violently. Open the windows! They cried. No, shut the windows! Cried others. Pandemonium reigned. The mothers had to be ushered out of the room till the atmosphere became bearable and the ceiling stopped dripping ink.

After the schoolmaster finally got through that class, Larry was summoned to the Principal's office.

"Hammond, you are expelled!"

o grown-ups had seen him, no other boy had peached on him. They had absolutely no evidence of any kind. The faculty just knew it couldn't have been anyone else. They didn't need any evidence. Apprehension vied with an outraged sense of injustice as he walked home - a bit slower than usual - with a slip of paper addressed to his mother, notifying her that her son was expelled.

"Why Larry, what awful thing did you do?" his mother asked. So he told her the story. Although she adored her only son, Idea Strong Hammond was not usually one to spare the rod. But Larry's flair as a raconteur was evidently already well developed, for as he told his mother everything in full detail -just as vividly as he could - she found herself shaking so hard with laughter that she couldn't punish him. Well, she was already planning to take her four children out of school early for a long summer at a villa on the Costa Brava she had rented for a song. And next fall - she always paid her bills; she felt confident she could persuade L'Ecole to take him back - which, in fact, when the time came, it did.

With hindsight, it is not hard to recognize in this boy the Laurens Hammond who became an accomplished magician at 17, and was called a "Houdini" in World War II by the Army Brass, who can spellbind his friends in recounting his escapades, and whose experimenting and resourcefulness led to some tremendously successful inventions.

Chapter II - Larry's Mother and Three Older Sisters    Index
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