Article — From the November 1998 issue

The Radioactive Boy Scout

When a teenager attempts to build a breeder reactor

( 2 of 6 )

You—Scientist!
—The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, Chapter 10

In The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes notes that the psychological profiles of pioneering American physicists are remarkably similar. Frequently the eldest son of an emotionally remote, professional man, he—almost all were men—was a voracious reader during childhood, tended to feel lonely, and was shy and aloof from classmates.

David’s parents, Ken and Patty Hahn, divorced when he was a toddler. Ken is an automotive engineer for General Motors, as is his second wife, Kathy Missig, whom he married soon after the divorce. David lived with his father and stepmother in a small split-level home in suburban Clinton Township, about thirty miles north of Detroit. Ken Hahn worked extraordinarily long hours for GM. With close-cropped hair and a proclivity for short-sleeved dress shirts, Ken radiates a coolness that, combined with his constant preoccupation, must have been confounding to a child. When asked about his undemonstrative nature, Ken attributes it to his German ancestry. Yet for all his starchiness, it was Kathy who was David’s chief disciplinarian.

David spent weekends and holidays with his mother and her boyfriend, Michael Polasek, an amiable but hard-drinking retired forklift operator at GM. Golf Manor is demographically similar to Clinton Township, but the two households could not have been more different emotionally. Patty Hahn committed suicide in the house a few years ago, but Michael still lives there surrounded by pictures of her. (“She was a beautiful person,” he says. “She was my whole life.”) He keeps five cats and a spotless household, and looks like a member of Sha Na Na.

Despite the fact that David was shuffled between households, his early years were seemingly ordinary. He played baseball and soccer, joined the Boy Scouts, and spent endless hours exploring with his friends. An abrupt change came at the age of ten, when Kathy’s father, also an engineer for GM, gave David The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. The book promised to open doors to a brave new world—”Chemistry means the difference between poverty and starvation and the abundant life,” it stated with unwavering optimism—and offered instructions on how to set up a home laboratory and conduct experiments ranging from simple evaporation and filtration to making rayon and alcohol. David swiftly became immersed and by age twelve was digesting his father’s college chemistry textbooks without difficulty. When he spent the night at Golf Manor, his mother would often wake to find him asleep on the living room floor surrounded by open volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

In his father’s house, David set up a laboratory in his small bedroom, where the shelves are still lined with books such as Prudent Practices for Handling Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories and The Story of Atomic Energy. He bought beakers, Bunsen burners, test tubes, and other items commonly found in a child’s chemistry set. David, though, was not conducting the typical adolescent experiments. By fourteen, an age at which most boys with a penchant for chemistry are conducting rudimentary gunpowder experiments, David had fabricated nitroglycerine.

David’s parents admired his interest in science but were alarmed by the chemical spills and blasts that became a regular event at the Hahn household. After David destroyed his bedroom—the walls were badly pocked, and the carpet was so stained that it had to be ripped out—Ken and Kathy banished his experiments to the basement.

Which was fine with David. Science allowed him to distance himself from his parents, to create and destroy things, to break the rules, and to escape into something he was a success at, while sublimating a teenager’s sense of failure, anger, and embarrassment into some really big explosions. David held a series of after-school jobs at fast-food joints, grocery stores, and furniture warehouses, but work was merely a means of financing his experiments. Never an enthusiastic student and always a horrific speller, David fell behind in school. During his junior year at Chippewa Valley High School—at a time when he was secretly conducting nuclear experiments in his back yard—David nearly failed state math and reading tests required for graduation (though he aced the test in science). Ken Gherardini, who taught David conceptual physics, remembers him as an excellent pupil on the rare occasions when he was interested in classwork but otherwise indifferent to his studies. “His dream in life was to collect a sample of every element on the periodic table,” Gherardini told me with a laugh during an interview at Chippewa Valley before his 8:20 A.M. class. “I don’t know about you, but my dream at that age was to buy a car.”

David’s scientific preoccupation left less and less time for friends, though throughout much of high school he did have a girlfriend, Heather Beaudette, three years his junior. Heather says he was sweet and caring (she once returned from a weeklong trip to Florida to find a pile of lengthy love letters) but not always the perfect date. Heather’s mom, Donna Bunnell, puts it this way: “He was a nice kid and always presentable, but [in the days before her second wedding] we had to tell him not to talk to anybody. He could eat and drink but, for God’s sake, don’t talk to the guests about the food’s chemical composition.”

Not even his scout troop was spared David’s scientific enthusiasm. He once appeared at a scout meeting with a bright orange face caused by an overdose of canthaxanthin, which he was taking to test methods of artificial tanning. One summer at scout camp, David’s fellow campers blew a hole in the communal tent when they accidentally ignited the stockpile of powdered magnesium he had brought to make fireworks. Another year, David was expelled from camp when—while most of his friends were sneaking into the nearby Girl Scouts’ camp—he stole a number of smoke detectors to disassemble for parts he required for his experiments. “Our summer vacation was screwed up when we got a call telling us to pick David up early from camp,” his stepmother recalls with a sigh.

Up to this point the most illicit of David’s concoctions were fireworks and moonshine. But convinced that David’s experiments and increasingly erratic behavior were signs that he was making and selling drugs, Ken and Kathy began to spot-check the public library, where David told them he studied. In variably, David would be there as promised, surrounded by a huge pile of chemistry books. But Ken and Kathy were not assuaged, and, worried that he would level their home, they prohibited David from being there alone, locking him out when they were away, even on quick errands, and setting a time for their return so that he could get back in. Kathy began routinely searching David’s room and disposing of any chemicals and equipment she found hidden under the bed and deep within the closet.

David was not deterred. One night as Ken and Kathy were sitting in the living room watching TV, the house was rocked by an explosion in the basement. There they found David lying semiconscious on the floor, his eyebrows smoking. Unaware that red phosphorus is pyrophoric, David had been pounding it with a screwdriver and ignited it. He was rushed to the hospital to have his eyes flushed, but even months later David had to make regular trips to an ophthalmologist to have pieces of the plastic phosphorus container plucked carefully from his eyes.

Kathy then forbade David from experimenting in her home. So he shifted his base of operations to his mother’s potting shed in Golf Manor. Both Patty Hahn and Michael Polasek admired David for the endless hours he spent in his new lab, but neither of them had any idea what he was up to. Sure, they thought it was odd that David often wore a gas mask in the shed and would sometimes discard his clothing after working there until two in the morning, but they chalked it up to their own limited education. Michael says that David tried to explain his experiments but that “what he told me went right over my head.” One thing still sticks out, though. David’s potting-shed project had something to do with creating energy. “He’d say, `One of these days we’re gonna run out of oil.’ He wanted to do something about that.”

More from Ken Silverstein:

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