The Common Good
July-August 1996

Fun With Batteries...

by Ed Spivey Jr. | July-August 1996

Don’t try this.

Don’t try this.

I’m driving along the streets of Washington, D.C., dodging potholes recently sharpened and deepened by conscientious road crews, when it suddenly occurred to me that my lap was on fire. This doesn’t happen much—in fact not at all—unless you count our family Advent ritual: Dad’s yearly “Spilling of the Hot Cocoa” after cutting down a Christmas tree. It’s a picture-postcard scene: the tree tied to the roof of the car, kids bundled against the brisk winter air, their faces wreathed in the warming steam from Mom’s thermos, and Dad running around in circles yelling “EEECH! OOCH! IT’S HOT!” as a spilled cocoa stain spreads over his pantlegs.

But this was not steam filling up the inside of my car. This was smoke. It was coming from my right pocket, which was also oozing burning liquid onto my leg (like in the movie Alien where somebody foolishly tries to cut off a tentacle from one of those little monster guys and this acid gunk gushes out and almost burns its way through the spaceship. It felt exactly like that, except Sigourney Weaver wasn’t in my car to help me. Although a friend told me once that Alien wasn’t a true story.)

No stranger to crisis decision-making, I knew that quick thinking was required. In rapid-fire sequence my mind raced through the measures needed to resolve your typical burning pants emergency:

  • First: Buy new blue jeans. (No, wait! That probably comes later.)
  • First: Pull over, cursing loudly, and try to put out the fire.
  • Second: Ask forgiveness for cursing.
  • Third: Pull out burning contents of pocket and fling it on the floor, which I did, immediately burning my hand on an acid- dripping AA battery and a bunch of hot, smoking coins.

Apparently, I had missed the high school chemistry class where the teacher touched nickels to both ends of a battery. (It might have been the same day I got such a bad haircut at lunchtime that I didn’t go back to school. The vice principal later called this action “immature,” “intolerable,” and other things that I didn’t hear because I was transfixed by the large facial mole that pulsated when he got mad.)

So anyway, I missed a science lesson that most of my classmates have never forgotten, because it probably ended with the teacher standing beside a petri dish containing the smoking remains of a battery and saying: “People, never ever put batteries in your pocket. It would be bad.”

This class I had to miss? I never missed a day of geometry and I haven’t used it once. Or, for that matter, English literature: “Never put the complete works of Shakespeare in your pocket. It might not burn, like a battery, but it’s too big anyway.”)

You get the idea.

The battery was still smoking and crackling and I remembered reading once that batteries can sometimes explode. Not wanting the phrase “exploding batteries” to be in my biography (title: He Shouldn’t Have Put Them In His Pocket), I gingerly scooped up the smoldering Duracell and tossed it out the window.

Crisis over. My adrenaline finally returned to normal levels and, as I sat there, a deep sense of peace spread through me. I knew that the hand of God had reached out and saved me from serious harm. (Of course, the other hand of God was stifling a big, God- sized laugh. The Almighty probably couldn’t wait to go tell it on the mountain that I looked like a real doofus trying to find a parking space in the smoking section.)

When I recounted the experience back at the office, my colleagues at Sojourners were visibly concerned. OK, not at first. But after they stopped laughing they were visibly concerned.

Naturally, my family was more sympathetic. When I told the story at the dinner table that night, a look of anxiety crossed the face of my youngest child. I was deeply touched by Kate’s reaction so I squeezed her little hand and assured her that I was OK.

“But Dad...you littered.”

“Excuse me?”

“You littered, Dad. You threw the battery out the car window and you littered. It’s trash and we’ve got to go back and find it, and dispose of it properly.”

My supportive wife wondered out loud why she married Lucy Arnez. And then she asked whether I had intentionally set my pants on fire to get material for this column. I indignantly shot back that I would never manipulate reality for such a purpose, unless I was on deadline and had no other ideas. But I do. See, here’s one.

This Is Also Absolutely True...

Last year, “H’rumphs” won first place for humor from the Associated Church Press. I wrote a column about the award and that column has won this year’s second place award. Which leads me to the following thoughts:

  • I DEMAND A RECOUNT!
  • Should I be proud of second place, or is this just another sign of my middle age slide? (Like last week when I tried to make a helpful comment at my daughter’s gymnastics class, and the teacher asked if I was going to finish stuttering soon, or should he tell the other parents that class would end late?)
  • Second place is OK. But I know I’ll do better at the Evangelical Press Association competition. (Editors’ Note: Wrong. Fourth place.)
  • What was the question?
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