Grassroots Budd Davisson. January, 1995

Carbon Tetrachloride and Other Excuses

"I think I can blame mine on carbon tet and negative G, what about you?"

That was in response to Norm Howell's question, addressed to no one in particular on the ramp at the fly-in, as to what makes us like what we like and do what we do.

Having returned from a harrowing hour flying around backwards during which Howell had been trying to keep me from wrecking the Berkut, he apparently was in a philosophical mood. Fear has a way of doing that to a person. You know... questioning the meaning of life and all that.

We were in the process of trying to come up with an explanation for the wrinkle patterns in our own particular brains that explains our affinity for unusual airplanes when I suddenly flashed on to an almost complete explanation for my own behavior patterns. At the same time, I had an experience of satori (some sort of near-east religious experience in which total understanding flashes up on the big drive-in screen in our head) in which I saw parallels that explained so much else in our aeronautical lives.

In my own case, what many view as less than logical behavior patterns, such as an unhealthy level of interest in teaching others to land blind, unforgiving airplanes, can be traced back to the free afternoon I had off in fifth grade in preparation for back-to-school night.

We were sitting around with nothing to do when a little friend mentioned he had heard that during the civil war they used carbon tetrachloride as an anesthetic during surgery. There was one of the old pump-type carbon tet fire extinguishers hanging in my friend's basement, so, you guessed it: We saturated a wad of cotton and put it over my mouth while I laid obediently on a work bench playing civil war casualty.

It didn't knock me out completely, but I spent most of the afternoon stumbling around like Boris Karloff with a hang-over. That night, about halfway through my teacher's presentation to a classroom full of parents, I stood up, walked to the back of the room and deposited my entire day's food intake in my father's lap. I was the hit of the evening.

Knowing what we now know about carbon tet, I know for a fact I'm damned lucky to still be here. But now I wonder what part of my brain was pickled and hasn't made the trip. That carbon tet slam-dunked a whole bunch of neurons and probably altered some major circuitry up there. I believe the technical term is brain damage.

This explains a lot.

Okay, lets move ahead about 20 years and strap into my favorite kind of bird. Now I'm an adult... sort of... and my chosen form of entertainment consists of cramming as much blood as humanly possible into the aforementioned damaged brain. Is this good or bad? Or does the activity itself bespeak of behavior fitting someone with less than normal mental capacity?

Who knows? But it's possible the carbon tet and negative G have added a few wrinkles of their own to my way of thinking. Maybe not.

I know a lot of people with "interesting" personalities and avocations. Why? What's their excuse?

When it comes to seeking explanations for what appears to be edge of the bell-shaped curve behavior, society may be looking in the wrong place. The Freudian approach may have some import, but there's also the probability a lot of over things overruled some folk's toilet training and fixation with Barbie Dolls.

Our brain wrinkles may be the result of random personal happenings (like landing on our heads), social pressures (being brought up as a Hells Angel) and environmental exposures (like spending lots of time in Southern California).

Now, I don't want a bunch of letters from So-Cal saying I'm picking on you. It's just that the area which gave us Micky Mouse and canard aircraft popped to mind first. As a first step, I'd like some one to come up with an explanation why so many folks in that area spend their afternoons paddling around in tubs of resin building airplanes, about half of which fly backwards? Or don't mind waiting in long lines for Tommy Burgers. Or get off on green skies?

Also, why is it so many new ideas, trends, fads and generally wonderful outrageousness first happens in California?

We'll get to other parts of the country in a second, but let's seek an explanation for southern California first. It's important we attempt to understand our neighbors on the other side of the Sierras so we have a better understanding of so many of the social phenomena which have shaped our lives and wrinkled our brains. Like movies. Or the canard. Or the surf board. The last two may actually be related, since the shape and materials are identical. Only the axial orientation of travel differs. Think about it.

There are several theories as to why Californians generally differ from normal folks, in say, Nebraska. One is that prolonged exposure to smog may have caused an internal chemical interaction which has produced a new natural enzyme which bears a striking resemblance to lysergic acid (LSD). Another is that a similar change has taken place as the result of the interaction between smog and commonly used aircraft resins. The result is an overwhelming desire to dress funny and create machines that fly. Some of which have noses like hammer head sharks.

It is assumed the general disorientation accompanying such broad based chemical interference with normal brain patterns is what causes otherwise normal appearing individuals to hang the propellers on the wrong end of the airplane.

There is also the theory that surfboards and foam picnic coolers exert such a pervasive influence early in most California childhoods that the concept of building things of materials such as steel or wood never develops in the young mind. That being the case, we owe most of composite technology to picnic coolers and Hobie Alter's early surfboards. An interesting, if somewhat frightening, concept.

But what of other behavior patterns and other parts of the country? Is the Nebraskan tendency towards black and white morals and social behavior due to an overpopulation of skunks (I'm from Nebraska so I'm qualified to ask that question). Or does a diet of meat and potatoes tend to bring everything down to either-or types of decisions?

Is the mid-western predilection for biplanes an aeronautical expression for their frustrations with having to make either-or decisions in other phases of life? Not willing to go high or low wing, we tend to go for both at the same time?

There are lots of facts in our aeronautical lives that have dark, unresolved causes we can only guess at. But it is healthy to look deep into our own backgrounds for explanations. My are carbon tet and negative G. I suspect Norm's involve being dropped on his head. But at least he is facing it. What about you? Or are you afraid to ask the questions?