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Peterson: Respecting the awesome power of bleach

I don’t allow myself to play with chemicals. Not since I turned on the spigot to the anhydrous ammonia in science class my junior year in high school. It about knocked me out of my chair.

I’m not sure why each of the lab tables came equipped with ammonia; I didn’t take chemistry in high school to find out. I waited until college, and the huge lecture hall was not equipped with them.

The only really dangerous chemical I work with on a regular basis – weekly – is bleach. And I am using more bleach than normal because we are in the middle of a War Against Fleas, and more loads of wash are being treated with bleach to kill the vermin.

My history with bleach also goes back to my days in high school. I learned about its potency in much the same way I learned about the potency of anhydrous ammonia.

I had bought a pair of blue jeans, which I haven’t done for going on 11 years because my parents bought me a pair of black jeans as a gift, and I decided then – after 30 years in blue jeans – that only cool people wear black jeans. People like Johnny Cash. I might not actually be cool, but my jeans would be.

But that pair of jeans was new and stiff and really blue, and that just wasn’t the style. And style meant you tried to fit in, not so much that you were styling. I had worn clothing that wasn’t styling, and I paid the price for it: incessant teasing. I’ll never forget that first day of school at Central High School in Argyle, Iowa, just after winter break in January 1973.

I found out right off that you don’t wear tan elephant bells to school. You wear blue jeans. The stares and the snickers and the taunts left an impression.

I had heard the way to break in new jeans so they looked like old jeans was to add bleach while you washed them. Mom did all of the laundry, and we children really were not supposed to go messing in her domain. We’d break it. Or something.

It was the “or something” that I got caught up on.

I knew you needed plenty of detergent to do the actually washing, and I guessed that once the machine filled up with water, you poured the bleach on top. Wait a while, and soon you would have stylish, broken-in blue jeans.

The first problem was the amount of detergent used. It was foaming out of the top of the machine, and I was scooping the suds as fast as I could into the tub sink next to the washer. After panicking and scooping, I got the suds situation under control. No one would be the wiser; Mom and sisters were out of the house.

But the bleach did not work as planned. Instead of evenly fading the color of the blue jeans, the legs were splotched with large white marks. The bleach had ruined the jeans.

When I poured the bleach in what I thought was a machine full of water, the bleach must have settled directly on the jeans. I was crestfallen. And I learned a lesson about the potency of bleach, a chemical not to be trifled with.

Now, whenever I use bleach – washing machines now have a drain to pour bleach into to dilute it in the water – I hold the bottle of bleach at arm’s length and ever so slowly pour in the bleach, making sure not to splash or dribble, and I replace the cap with the bottle still at arm’s length and put it back where it belongs.

For many years, those precautions have been successful.

In the midst of this War Against Fleas, I have been going to the coin-operated laundry to wash all of the extra clothes and bedding to kill the fleas in hot, bleach-empowered water while I fogged the house.

And I let my guard down. Not in pouring the bleach into the machines, but in moving the bottles of detergent, softener and bleach. The bleach must have dribbled down the outside of the bottle without me noticing it.

When I got home, I noticed the definite markings of bleach on my favorite black Village People T-shirt. It was just a tiny amount that had moistened the bottle, and I apparently held it against my body as I moved it from the laundry to the car.

I’ve ruined the shirt. Chemical collateral damage in the War Against Fleas. Dang.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate. He is a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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