The Practical Importance Of Chemistry

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 21, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

Many of us grew up believing that the essence of education is “reading, writing, and arithmetic,” and, in many ways, it still is. But as we understand the phenomena of the world better and better, and as our sciences have become more and more advanced as the years roll by, we realize the need for other major components in education, such as chemistry. Did you shudder? Many folks shudder at even hearing the word, “chemistry.” In most of my undergraduate college classes, I made an “A’ or “B,” but in the case of my chemistry class, I thanked God for the “C” I received.

            However, chemistry has been around for a long time. In Dime Box Rural School, either my 4th or 5th grade year, my one teacher teaching all our subjects introduced us to something amazing which she called “chemistry,” and she galvanized our attention by performing some really clever chemistry tricks. When you add this to that, why does it change into something else? We had the same teacher for both the 4th and the 5th grades, and she opened such education doors for us as geography and chemistry. Geography was easier for us to understand than chemistry, even on its most basic, elementary level.

            Only one of us in our class, as far as I can remember, became a chemical engineer, but many of my classmates would eventually take over the family farm; and, in many ways, they needed as much knowledge of chemistry as a chemical engineer, — think fertilizer, weed control, plow blades, salt blocks for the cows, etc.

            This week, the understanding of chemistry was made real for me. My wife was taken to the emergency room for what the EMS thought was a stroke. After tests, it was discovered she was suffering from severely low levels of sodium. When your sodium level drops below 135, medical experts want you in the hospital immediately, as the consequences of a further plunge are dire. When sodium was slowly dripped into her body, she recovered little by little, eventually acting like her old self. Her potassium and magnesium levels were also low, and the medical personnel began putting those into her system.

            Now just think about how awful it would be if chemistry had not produced this knowledge. How many folks know our bodies need sodium, potassium, magnesium, and a lot of other chemicals?

            Chemistry, whether it’s biochemistry or the chemistry of metals, is endlessly fascinating. For example, there are certain organisms that emit light, such as an organism like bacteria, whereby you see the organism’s glow on dead fish. There is a chemical reaction in the organism which produces radiant energy without giving off much heat! I think an enzyme is involved in this process, but don’t quote me, because I made a “C” in chemistry. Most of these light-emitters are marine organisms. Amazing, isn’t it?! Not that any of us will remember this word by tomorrow, but the chemical process involved here is called “bioluminescence,” according to the dictionary.

            If a chemical reaction can cause a one-celled organism to emit light, think of how many chemicals and what all they do in the multi-celled human body! Like sodium, potassium, and magnesium!

            Back to the classmates studying chemistry with me in elementary school; some are still farming successfully today. For the 21st Century farmer, it’s certainly necessary to know about cutting equipment, such as plow blades and various kinds of shredders. Before a famous chemist by the name of Henry Bessemer came along, cutting tools were made of cast iron and wrought iron until chemists learned to create slag-free steel. Bessemer discovered how to remove excess oxygen from the metal. I’m guessing that it was the oxygen which caused cast iron to rust. My own experience with pocket knives over the years taught me that some steel blades can be sharpened keener than others, and some won’t hold a sharp edge at all. This is chemistry worth knowing by a farmer!

            Reading, writing, arithmetic, and the list goes on. Recent experiences cause me to want to put chemistry right up there at the top.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, is a published poet and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Texas Proud To Have Smart Pecan Trees

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 14, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            My friend from Simonton told me this week his pecan tree was budding out, but, after a quick look in our backyard, I must report that neither our native Texas pecan nor our hybrid is showing any sign of leafing out. Of course our fig tree is already covered with leaves in a reckless early Spring abandonment of its senses. As I told my friend, my mother always said that we could still have a freeze before Easter until the pecan trees bud out, that the pecan was the smartest of the trees and bushes, having a lot more sense than fig trees and peach trees. So what’s the problem here? Do I have smarter pecan trees than he does?

            The pecan tree is not only our State tree, but also it is impossible to grow in many parts of the world. Native to North America, pecan trees grow naturally in northern Mexico and the southern United States. There are no pecan trees in the United Kingdom nor in many other countries. You can plant them there, but they won’t grow well, and often not at all; they grow best in warm zones.

            “Pecan” is an Algonquin native American word, a term like “squash” that we borrowed from the Amerindians. Only hazelnuts, chestnuts, and walnuts grow in the United Kingdom, and I have never eaten a chestnut in my lifetime; likewise, there are folks in England who have never eaten a pecan. That’s not a big deal, except if a Brit would ever eat a luscious piece of Texas pecan pie, he would immediately move to the country that grows pecans!

            We Texans, however, can’t go so far as to claim the pecan as our own, because of all the native pecan States, Georgia produces the most, with Texas coming in second. But we produce about 60 million pounds of pecans a year, worthy of some bragging. There are only 13 other States that grow pecans, — Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and South Carolina.

            There is no German word for “pecan,” so when many of our German ancestors came to Texas from Germany in the 1800’s, they called this strange fruit of the tree, a “Nuss,” German word for “nut.” I don’t think the word “Nuss” lasted very long, because it is pronounced just like the Texas word “noose,” and it makes a big difference as to which one is hanging from a tree. I might also add a strange fact I just discovered: the pecan is not truly a nut, but a drupe, and a member of the hickory genus. You’ll have to get a horticulturist to explain what a “drupe” is, because I don’t have a clue!

            My maternal grandmother inherited a pecan grove somewhere between Lincoln and Lexington, Texas, from her mother; and back in the good old days, we would spend one or two days harvesting pecans in the late Fall. I have written about our annual pecan harvest about four or five times during the 25-plus years I’ve written this column for the Tribune (and later, the Express), so I don’t think any of my readers would care to hear yet another pecan-harvest story. Not only did Grandma’s land produce an abundance of pecan trees and pecans, but also copperheads, so some of my stories were a little scary.

            My parents had two native pecan trees when they lived in Giddings, and a half dozen in Dime Box, not to mention the trees the rest of my family had, more than enough for pies, pralines, and all the snacks you could want; consequently, my grandparents would sell all the “Nusse” harvested from the pecan grove. By the time my wife and I moved to East Bernard, my grandparents had sold the land with the pecan grove, so I had no access to it to transplant any of those natives in East Bernard. I did bring a small 24” native pecan tree in a bucket here from Giddings, before my parents sold that place, and today that Texas native stands proud and way taller than the house, and keeps our squirrel population so fat they can hardly walk, much less run!

            My native pecan has never budded out before a freeze since 1975 when we planted it, so I think it’s safe to say the squirrels will have plenty to eat again this year. They’re lucky I have such smart trees!

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, is a published poet and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

What Happened to Phil and Bob’s Early Spring?

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 7, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

The month of March has brought winter back to us in spite of the fact that both Punxsutawney Phil and Bee Cave Bob did not see their shadows in February, an omen indicating an early Spring. Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, seeing or not seeing his shadow in Pennsylvania has been an American tradition for 120 years and has this year predicted an early Spring. Realizing Pennsylvania weather and Texas weather were drastically different phenomena, Texans began their own separate tradition with Bee Cave Bob, the armadillo living near Austin, making that determination for the Lone Star State.

            So, if neither Phil nor Bob see their shadow, by March, an early Spring should be here! Not so! Obviously! It’s not surprising, however, because, according to the Groundhog Club, Phil has made his prediction for an early Spring 19 times since 1887, and 103 forecasts for more winter, and has been wrong 61% of the time. I don’t know the stats for Bob, but he got it wrong for Texas this year too.

            As I am writing this, a freeze warning has been issued by Wharton County for tomorrow morning, forecasting a low of 30 degrees, even lower in other parts of Texas; it is snowing in New York, where tomorrow’s lows are predicted to be a single digit and it is sleeting right now in Dime Box, Texas. The Midwest is being hit with more snow and ice and the forecast of another Arctic front following on the heels of this one. Currently, it is 9 degrees in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota, and 15 in Illinois. When you read this, later in the week, it should still be very cold (if the weather forecasters are more trustworthy than Phil and Bob).

            One of the advantages of being old is that you have seen early Springs, late Springs, extreme weather patterns of all sorts, before, so nothing surprises you. I can remember when I was a child, and we would have sleet many times during a particular winter, some of the younger adults would be convinced that the world was experiencing the beginnings of a New Ice Age But my wise old grandfather would say, “No, you should have seen the sleet storms we had when I was a kid! This is nothing compared to that!” With Australia’s severe drought and extremely high temperatures this year, many were ascribing such a dryer-and-hotter-than-usual phenomenon to Global Warming. Maybe. Maybe not.

            Over the numerous years I have lived, I have seen a lot of Early Spring/Late Spring weather patterns, some here in Texas, others elsewhere. I remember walking in the snow to church on Easter Sunday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and looking at chunks of ice still in the creeks in June. I remember attending a convention in Ft. Collins, Colorado, in early April, and huge patches of snow where still on the ground. I remember driving in a blizzard on a highway in Ontario, Canada, on Thanksgiving Day, with locals saying, “It never snows in November!” I remember a winter so cold in Dime Box, Texas, that almost everybody’s water pipes burst, even those covered and the water turned off. I remember being in Mequon, Wisconsin in mid-summer, with the temperature 104 degrees and no air-conditioning (“Oh, it never gets hot in Wisconsin!”).

            Although, when you get old and nothing about the weather surprises you any more, you still hate those years when there are extremes, such as multiple hurricanes and repeated floodings, all in one season. Life-threatening events are terrifying and often end with tragedies, such as the horrendous tornadoes which hit Alabama, Georgia, and Florida yesterday. These unexpected storms were more devastating than the ice storms.

            It’s a given that sometimes weather predictions turn out to be right, and sometimes they don’t. I am writing this on Monday, and you will read it on Thursday; and no matter what the weathermen and Phil and Bob say, we live in Texas, and who knows what it will really be like in three days.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, is a published poet and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

The Need For Basic Geography

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for February 28, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

     For someone who has always hated to travel, it’s rather odd that not only did I travel quite a bit in my lifetime, but also that geography was my favorite subject in elementary school.

            Think about it. Here’s a kid attending Dime Box Rural Elementary School, who, in the fourth grade, had never traveled outside Lee County, Texas, except to Caldwell, which was just across the County Line from Dime Box. But because of the enthusiasm of my teacher, I loved geography and thought learning about the many places in the world to be totally exciting.

            Drawing, coloring, and labeling maps were more fun to me than diagramming sentences in my English class, and I loved diagramming! In the geography class, we learned to draw the continents and to identify the countries and major cities within each continent. Strange as it may now seem, my favorite continent to draw, color, and label was South America. Since age 8, I have known where countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, etc., were located, and could quickly find them on a map.

            So, it sort of surprised me when I taught English literature that high school and college kids did not know where London was located, or, for that matter, England. Perhaps, in the 1940’s, we were more interested in where places were located, because we were in the middle of World War II, and London was bombed, and, later, cities in Germany were bombed. My mother bought a globe, and we would look up these cities and countries on the globe, both at school and at home.

            There have been a number of countries in the news lately, — China, North Korea, Venezuela, Honduras, and Mexico, to mention a few. As I am writing this, the situation in Venezuela is very volatile and dangerous; the country seems to be on the verge of a civil war. People are hungry, and the President of Venezuela is not allowing humanitarian aid to be brought across the border from Columbia, resulting in confrontation and violence. He has severed diplomatic relations with Brazil which also borders Venezuela. The Vice President of the United States is flying to Columbia to meet with South American leaders.

            Because what happens in Venezuela has an effect on the rest of the world, us included, we need to know where it is. Because of studying geography in the fourth grade, I know where Venezuela, Columbia, and Brazil are located. When Pope Francis, who hails from Argentina, was elected Pope, I knew where Argentina was. When I learned that some of the greatest poets today writing in the Spanish language were from Chile, I knew where Chile was.

            We Americans worry a great deal about our children’s proficiency in math, science, and language arts, and those fields of study are indeed important; but we should also encourage our young people to study geography. Most people cannot afford to learn geography by actually traveling to many places, but anybody can afford to study maps as we did in the fourth grade.

            When large numbers of folks from Honduras travel to the Southern border of our country, because they want to live here and work here, it is reasonable to want to know where Honduras is. No, it doesn’t border Venezuela, because it’s not in South America, but in Central America, which is part of the continent of North America. Of all the countries in our hemisphere, we Texans probably know the geography of our neighbor, Mexico, the best, and have traveled to many Mexican towns and cities over the years, may even have relatives living there. What happens in Mexico can greatly affect us in Texas, both good things and bad things. My purpose in writing this is not political, it is not to argue for or against the Wall between us and Mexico, but to stress the need for knowing geography.

            As I said, we truly need math, science and language arts to even survive in the world today, but, as life becomes more and more international on this planet, we need also to know basic geography.

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Ray Spitzenberger, a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor, is a published poet and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.