The very first time I ignited a bag of popcorn in a microwave oven was in 1979 when I was fourteen years old. At the time I had glasses and braces on my teeth, and I was as socially awkward as a young boy fed on Monty Python and Dungeons and Dragons could be. But I wanted money. I wanted to be able to buy junk food and science fiction books and go to a movie now and then. I wanted to achieve some measure of independence from my parent’s purse, however symbolic in nature.
It would not have occurred to me at the time to spend money on a girl. It would not have occurred to me that any girl would have been so desperate for money. My self-esteem was reasonably propped together with the spit-and-duct-tape comraderie of my brilliant and erudite buddies, and I wasn’t ready to risk its teetering collapse by wandering far from my gibbering adolescent herd just to “chase skirt.”
The microwave oven in question was mounted in a cabinet in the break room of my mother’s office building. She worked as an editor on trade publications with such racy titles as “Solid Waste Management” and “Elastomerics.” These were full color glossy periodicals revealing the news, rumors, and innuendos of arcane occupations populated by engineers and balding scientists, the kind of adult I was destined to be when I grew up. I had never known such magazines existed, but I intuitively guessed they would not be found on a newstand or in a doctor’s office.
Once a year these magazines would put out an industry directory, a yellow pages of sorts with every entry crammed under a single, unpronouncable category. My mother’s job was to assemble and edit these directories, painstakingly assuring that every single name, address, and phone number was spelled correctly. It was an ideal job for a woman who, after twenty years filled with nothing but cooking and cleaning for her family, continued to cook and clean for her family after work and on the weekends. It made housework seem positively exciting and exotic in comparison.
The CEO of this company had a side business all his own, a business that, like chlorine factories or water treatment plants, we all knew had to exist somewhere but never expected to see. He sold cheap plastic toy soldiers, the kind sold in the back of Archie comic books in between the advertisements for Acme whoopy cushions (“A riot of laughs, guaranteed!”) and Charles Atlas weight lifting programs (“I’m sorry Jim. I love you, but I can’t be seen on the beach with someone who lets sand get kicked in his face.”)
The soldiers were inch-high, molded green plastic figures on flat plastic stands. Compared to the meticulously-painted, collector-item, pewter figurines sold for large sums in hobby stores todays, these were primitive Neaderthals still dripping with primordial slime. But they sold like hotcakes and probably cost less per pound.
They arrived in large carton boxes from Taiwan, and they seemed to multiply in the darkness of the basement. I never saw the truck come, but every once in a while I would arrive in the workroom and find that the shrinking stacks of boxes was now precariously stacked up to the ceiling again.
My day began in a windowless, florescent square of concrete floor near the loading dock, with a new list of address labels and a pint of Coca-cola – this was Atlanta, GA on the cusp of the eighties. My job was to sort, count, and repackage the soldiers into smaller boxes with individual labels which were sent to young boys and girls (though admittedly, mostly boys) in all fifty United States and Canada.
Between 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM, my nostrils would fill with the smells of petroleum plastic, and my fingers would get increasingly tackier with label glue. I spent the intervening hours dreaming, dreaming endlessly about how I would spend my money, about whether I would become a rock star or mercenary adventurer, about which girl at school I currently and secretly liked the best, about what treat I would buy from the vending machine at break. Much later I would manage to rope some cash-strapped friends into joining me in the dungeon, but until then my only companion was a non-descript office wall clock that took sadistic pleasure in watching me count the hours and minutes until my next break. I had possibly the only job in the building more tedious than my mother’s.
Every once in a while something novel would come along to revive my fluttering pulse. An address label directed to exotic Hawaii or Alaska. Or the resourceful but mutilated soldier that had managed to escape the Quality Assurance gulag in Taiwan. I had a small collection of these on one of the metal shelves that housed my technical work gear – a pair of scissors and a roll of clear scotch tape. But the most exciting days, the miracle days that seemed to arrive randomly because I could no longer keep track of the endless days melding into one another like warm plastic soldiers on a hot summer dashboard, were the days when the vending machine upstairs was restocked.
There would often be something new and interesting to eat that might divert a full five minutes downstairs depending on how slowly I ate. I wasn’t particularly gluttonous, but food was definitely my main diversion those days, and now that I was earning my own paycheck, it was my privelege to waste a certain share of it however I pleased.
One thrilling day, my heart was sent skipping at the sight of, oh joy, popcorn! Popcorn had come to enliven my dreary days! Popcorn was a rare treat, something we got at the movies and did not make often at home. I did not even look at the other options but pluncked my money in the slots and pushed the buttons, salivating at the Pavlovian whir of the spiral loop as it rotated and pushed the bag over the edge of its shelf. I reached in, thinking for thousandth time how I wished I had rubber arms like PlasticMan and could reach anything inside that glass-fronted machine my jaded heart desired.
I held the bag of popcorn in my hand and instantly thought, “Wait, this is wrong!” The bag felt cool to my touch, and I felt a shiver of anti-climatic revulsion. Cold popcorn! Popcorn was meant to be hot, covered in butter and salt and other heart-clogging, blood-pressure-elevating delights. Cold popcorn did not interest me anymore than cold pizza or warm soda. There was a moment of keen disappointment, of ironic and lesson-learning waste, and I knew I would be throwing this bag away unopened (how prophetic!), a sacrifice to my greed and stupidity.
And that is when I saw the microwave oven.
Please note that this was 1979. Microwaves ovens were still something of a novelty and “microwavable popcorn” as such had not been invented. This was a bag of plain old regular run of the mill popcorn. But before you judge me too harshly, allow me a little historical aside in my defense.
The microwave oven was invented as a by product of radar research. In 1946, Dr. Percy Spencer, self-taught engineer who never completed high school, was testing a vacuum tube at Raytheon Corporation, when he noticed that the candy bar in his pocket had melted. I love this particular detail – even in 1946, engineers were clearly junk food addicts. Dr. Spencer, being an inquisitive scientist, next placed popcorn kernels near the tube, and they began to pop.
Dr. Spencer later went on to create the first microwave ovens, though it would not be until the 1970’s that they were be cheap enough for the average household. The point to note here is that popcorn was the very first item to be deliberately heated with microwaves, and this event actually predated the invention of the microwave oven itself. So the brilliant idea that came into my head in 1979 was neither new nor particularly risky or innovative. I was merely following in the footsteps of the great Dr. Spencer himself. In a strange way, this was even more true than I knew, for in his very next experiment Spencer tried to heat an egg which subsequently exploded in his face.
I had, of course, been thoroughly trained in the use of this particular microwave oven. Early techno-geek that I was, I was quite comfortable and familiar with its knobs and buttons. I put the bag inside, set the dial for sixty seconds on maximum power, and turned to get something to drink from the fountain across the room, gleefully humming some rock-operatic tune by Queen. I did not get very far, not even to the point when Freddy Mercury hits one of his sold-my-soul-to-the-devil sopranic notes. I heard a dreadful noise, worse than fingernails on a chalkboard, as if a beloved family feline had been sucked into a vacuum cleaner but was still alive desperately clawing its way out.
[At this point, let me note that if my daughter Rose could read this, she would look at me with tear-moistened eyes and tell me in a voice as cold and serious as the grave, “Papa. That was NOT funny.”]
The microwave oven was filling with sparks and smoke and zapping like B-movie lightning striking the corpse of Frankenstein’s monster and bringing it to life. The panic hormones surged and, without thinking, I opened the door of the microwave.
What was I thinking?! In an instant, too late to turn back, I had irradiated my entire body with a fatal dose of gamma rays. I was sure I had contracted leukemia, the kind where the sores start appearing under your armpits at noon and before you can punch out at five, you’re cold on the slab. And if by some miracle I managed to survive the lethal bombardment? Well, of course there would be no super-human, crime-fighting powers, not for this scrawny white boy from New Jersey. I would never, ever be able to sire children, no sir, at least not any human children. Not that women were lining up to have my babies, but that was very besides the point. The point was I had irrevokably damaged my DNA, and even worse, mortally embarassed myself in front of strangers.
It was the lunch hour and the room was full of editors, copywriters, and graphic artists. There were a few gasps and some relieved snickers. A kind soul, noting the foil bag of popcorn in my hand (was it glowing? or was that my radioactive body?), managed to tell me without laughing that I should never put anything metal in a microwave oven.
You are probably wondering, and the answer is no, I did not eat the little charred lumps of popcorn inside that bag. I had already had enough cancer-causing radiation for one day and I wasn’t about to ingest something I had just impregnated with a five-hour nucleus-deteriorating half-life. I threw it away directly and left the room before anyone could dock my pay for the expensive appliance I was certain I had just destroyed. I wasn’t stupid.