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Chemo- therapy

The thin light of morning streamed in the porch window. I was pushing myself from the warmth and comfort of a night’s bed into another day. They had all become distressingly similar, roll out of bed to a throbbing headache, and then head for the toilet, where I would spend the first 15-30 minutes of the day vomiting and dizzy. This was not at all how I had envisioned the life of a research and development chemist. When I was in school, surrounded by safe, properly maintained equipment and watchful instructors, I had envisioned my clean, well-kept lab with its desk just so and my references handy on a neatly kept bookshelf. It was here I would develop syntheses for marvelous substances. Very different from what my reality became. As a student and parent, I faced challenges for my time. Just being in school was a difficult and interesting blend of tutoring and stealing classes by just showing up and sitting in the back quietly, hoping the instructor would not notice the longhaired addition to their class. I would also tutor the “ Jocks and Docs”, the athletes and premedical students, in chemistry for ten dollars an hour. One of the pre-med students happened to be the younger sister of a family who owned and operated a chemical company specializing in, chemicals known in the industry as, coupling compounds. Substances which when combined form dyes. Well to make a simple tale of it, they convinced me to come to work for them with promises of great financial gain pending the synthesis of an esoteric class of chemicals. These compounds, known as “Diazos”, are highly reactive nitrogen compounds with extremely toxic intermediaries. They are all highly unstable and have spontaneously decomposed, in the past, releasing toxic vapors during transport.

I saw only a way off the oilfield’s morning towers and away from the trust fund privilege I had been tutoring with resentment. Away from the spoiled children of wealth and athletics I tutored, and into the “proper” lab doing “proper” work just as I had planned. Pentachem, the company I went to work for was very different from my neat little vision of my “proper” lab. Every reaction vessel in the place leaked and many of the reactions involved heating solvents and acids to high temperatures. This would at various times make the production area a sleeping death zone filled with the highly narcotic and liver toxic ethylene dichloride, methanol, combined with sulfur dioxide and hydrochloric acid, occasionally both. The area during production literally smoked due to acid vapor. Our only solution for the heavy choking feeling from the acid vapor we called the “ Fat Lady” (the sensation of a great weight on ones chest) was to run for concentrated ammonia to neutralize the acid scarring our lungs. Our joke was to get to the ammonia before the “Fat Lady sings” meaning you did not get out in time and it was over, literally. My lab was a short step up from a backwoods trailer for making meth. I had an ancient refrigerator for my reagents and precursors and a Rube Goldberg fume hood for doing reactions. In spite of the “rustic” conditions, I was able to produce all three of the principle syntheses desired in the first six months of my 2-year sentence. However, after the first year Pentachem’s true nature had become clear. Employees were expendable resources. I wiped the vomit from my face and used Listerine to wash the foulness from my breath, “ Lori? Where are my car keys?” I asked my now ex-wife. “ In your pants from yesterday” she sleepily replied. She had grown accustomed to my morning ritual of

vomit and retching and by now, over a year, had grown dissatisfied with my poor health and lack of energy. She had already broken our marriage with an affair and there was little compassion for my daily “disturbance”. For me the relationship was like the home you grew up in having become dilapidated and been condemned, you know you have to move but the memories of past happiness have tendrils wound around you holding you in the ruins. “Which pants?” I asked with the weary tone of a man who hates his life. “I’m sleeping dammit! Just go to work!” I hear from the bedroom in a harshly bitter tone. So I go through the piles of laundry she seemed so fond of accumulating and found my keys. I wandered into the kid’s room where my stepdaughter and son slept and mumble something about seeing them in the evening. As I get into my aging but reliable little Toyota I vomit a last time and make my way the 20-minute drive into town. By the time I reach Pentachem, I have smoked a joint and have stopped dry heaving. This was of my first real realizations of the medicinal value of Cannabis. It stopped the vomiting that my constant exposure to chemicals had induced. As I pull in and park, I wonder once again, why and how my life had come to this point. If I had only stayed with school another semester, I would have had my degree and a real chemists job. I walk in the door and am greeted as usual by the brother Arlen and sister Gwendllyn Van Draanen, owners of Pentachem with their older brother Mark. “Morning Jim, I need those lab results of run 306 ASAP,” said Arlen. He always opened the day with some petty request he could easily fulfill himself. I did not like Arlen; he was a pushy, greedy man with no chemistry knowledge and a flash temper. His sister Gwendolyn was having and affair with the production person named Mark also and constantly coming into the production side to “talk” to him. The oldest brother was well along into alcoholism and

rarely sober. Pentachem was a genuine chemical soap opera on a daily basis. “Alright Arlen, I’ll get them to you as soon as I get there. Remember, we are still working on run 304, 306 isn’t scheduled for three weeks” I replied to his out of touch method of authority, like I said I had begun to dislike Arlen. ”Well God damn it get me 304 then!” By now I had had my fill of that attitude and retorted “I don’t know why you want the data on just another failure, you don’t even understand what your reading half the time. I’m going to work now, I’m busy today” Arlen replied, “ Because I want to make sure your doing your work” To which I said “ I’m not doing MY work I am doing Yours. Perhaps if you would listen to me we would have more success. Is that not why you hired me? Because I am an excellent chemist?” I entered my dilapidated lab that I had inherited from another chemist who had worked on the diazo group for two years and had decided to quit in depression and failure. I had worked it into some semblance of order, but scheduling of one reaction after another left little time to analyze the data, so I usually had unwashed glassware stinking in the sink. I usually started by cycling some glass through the dishwasher. Then began setting up the glass for another series of experiments in an elaborate transparent habitrail of glass tubing and rubber hose. I had done this 304 times before and it had become an automatic act. Except today I would be setting up a double set of glassware On this day, Arlen was in a particularly anxious and micro managerial mood and came into the lab to discuss our lack of success. “Jim, I need to know if you are setting up correctly. These failures are not even getting us close to a direction to pursue.” “ Yeah, Arlen, I more than anyone feel the frustration over being close but not even getting hints of success. Look, I know you have had Dr. Chapman working on the protocol, but we

are getting nowhere. Let me run my protocol simultaneously. He stared at me almost in anger and said, “ I am having doubts about your technique running one reaction Jim, and you want me to let you run two?” I looked at him biting back the insult to my ability to do the same damn thing repeatedly 300+ times. “Whatever Arlen, like YOU could do better? Dr. Chapman is going to observe my technique today for you and I want to discuss my protocol with him anyway. He will tell you if I am screwing up on my technique” I hated the over my shoulder inspections I was about to receive and made it very clear I did not believe the problems were on my end. Dr Chapman was a retired PhD organic chemist who had taken up the diazo problem. He had developed the protocol we were using of multi-variable matrix analysis. I did not know if it worked or not I only knew I was getting static for it NOT working, but I had seen him in the lab and he had great technique. I prepared my chemicals for both reactions that were the same until the last several steps. I was easily keeping up with monitoring both reactions and they both reached the phase which failure most likely occurred. It was then I got out the key to my first successful synthesis of p-diazo-morpholino-diethoxybenzene, dry ice, and zinc powder. While the other reaction, Chapman’s protocol, I was preparing to add Hydrazine (an highly explosive and carcinogenic substance used as a rocket fuel). It was this step, which would fill the lab with noxious vapors, and have me running for air. Well rather than today evacuating the lab, it merely decomposed to a tan tar, one of the more common results, which ruined the glassware until I did a solvent bath. However, the other reaction, my protocol, was sitting in dry ice and being reduced by a slow trickle of

elemental Zinc and was already precipitating the long needle shaped yellow crystals we were looking for. The excitement in the lab over success on the first run was not all benign. Dr Chapman was chagrined that an upstart would succeed where he failed, and Arlen while excited about the value of the new product was already reminding me of Pentachem’s rights to my intellectual property developed for them. “How did you come up with using Zinc?” Chapman asked. Well I had taken some documents originally in German and had a student I had tutored translate what he could. This gave me some hints on using an alternative to the industry standard of hydrazine. Nevertheless, I could not resist “Well Dr Chapman it is patently obvious that Zinc provides a preferred pathway to the desired product than the highly unstable hydrazine”. I was holding back a most unbecoming superior grin as Arlen said, “ I want you to design an optimized synthesis ASAP” and walked into the office to spend his newly created potential income from this new product. I mumbled something along the lines of “Kiss my ASAP Arlen!” as he walked away, much to Dr Chapman’s delight. He then confided to me that Arlen had confined him to techniques under development by their father before he died .I believe he had gotten over his disappointment and was genuinely pleased with my accomplishment. If so it had been the only kudo I would have received while working there. . A group of employees closed Pentachem led by the chemist who took over my job after I quit in protest over my exposure to chemicals in inadequate protective gear. This had most of us former employees cooperating with the EPA and local authorities for several months. The constant threat by the local DA that “You all can be included in the criminal charges if you decide to no longer cooperate” put a tremendous financial burden

on all of the cooperating employees, this as we were trying to reassemble our health and lives. The building remained empty for several years then became the Food Bank of Santa Barbara County. Ironic isn’t it? How we believe we are doing right in our personal and professional lives and act accordingly but the outcome seems to turn back upon us. Man plans, God laughs! Is the thought that was central to my entire life at this period. The chemical burns have healed and my liver has recovered, with damage, and if not knowing the day of the month is all the brain damage Pentachem did to me then I am lucky. My failed marriage slowly degraded into a hateful divorce and my first attempt at conformity to the American Ideal of wife children, job, and home evaporated like the solvents at Pentachem, leaving a noxious cloud behind in my life.