I had the unfortunate distinction of following my siblings George and Ann Marie in the classrooms of TJ High. Not to mention being the older and less brilliant sister of Libby. Goodness, talk about pressure! The thing that made things troublesome was that Mom had us so close together. We were the second batch of kids. I was so inattentive it did not even occur to me that some of my siblings had different last names than I, which would mean we were technically half-siblings. The first batch, Sherry, Sue and John, were the children of Cy Davis, Mom’s first husband; the one she married at seventeen. He went off to war for four years. Mom said when he came back they were both different people. I can’t imagine having a big horrendous war hovering over a marriage for four years and not ending up being different people. After their divorce Mom either fell for Dad or made him fall for her and she had four more children in five years: George, Ann Marie, me and then Libby.
I got this all the time: “Oh, you’re the sister of George or Ann Marie Hansen? I expect an A from you!” Their voices would rise in that smug teasing sort of way, like they thought they were giving me a compliment for belonging to a genius family. If Mom had given herself a half dozen years to rest before she had me, the teachers might have forgotten my brilliant brother and sister.
George gets a big kick out of repeating a story about a faculty room conversation where the Chemistry teacher reportedly commented that he had the smartest student he’d ever had and the not-smartest student he’d ever had from the same family. Don’t you think that’s kind of a rude story to be repeating? Seriously.
Anyway, I have learned to live with it. I don’t hate myself. I know I hear different drums. I am not wholly uncomfortable being around brilliant people. I married one after all.
My genius brother, who I might add has his own flaws which I will not mention here, is one of those rare breeds who can understand complicated things on paper, but can also translate them into every day layman’s terms. He is as much right brained as he is left. Good logic; and strong creativity. He was artistic and ingenious as a kid. His favorite toys: the erector set, the chemistry set, plaster of paris and gauze, wax, and a set of paints and brushes. He plays mandolin and guitar very sweetly and has a lovely baritone voice. Well, let me recant that last phrase…he occasionally has a lovely baritone voice. Sometimes it is booming and over enthusiastic, usually followed by a rolling belly laugh and a witty little phrase or disclaimer like a curly Q at the end.
George is a chemical engineer. He practiced for this his whole life. Ask my mom. When he grew up he was torn between becoming a Geologist or a Chemical Engineer. Lib tells about being in Brother Bissel's Geology class at BYU. He read the roster the first day of class, last names first. When he got to Hansen, Elizabeth, he looked up from his paper, lowered the glasses to his nose and searched for her raised hand.
“You related to George Hansen?”
Lib nodded her head. He looked her over, took note of her sable colored hair, just like George’s, lifted his glasses back up to the top of his head, made a mark on his paper and said:
“You get an A.”
My brother George created this process by which he coats fabric fibers with nickel. Something like that. It’s a really cool thing, especially if you are into that kind of stuff. He worked for a large corporation in Colorado and then moved to Utah. He and Cyndy built a beautiful home up in Midway, gathered enough volcanic pot rock to cover the whole of their house themselves…one rock at a time. They both know and love the earth. Both are hard workers. Good solid people.
George rented a large warehouse in North Salt Lake and set up his Laboratory so he could produce nickel coated fibers. I drove Mom down I15 one afternoon to see what he was up to. What we saw was straight out of a Jerry Lewis film. Long church banquet tables lined the length of the warehouse, zig zagging like a crossword puzzle in this large high topped structure. George’s booming voice echoed his excitement to see us.
“Come on in!” he said, opening the glass door. He had two or three fellas working for him at the time, one in a lab coat, one in the front office crunching numbers or elements from the Periodic table or something like that. George called out to someone to turn off the gas for a sec while he showed us through. Nickel Carbonyl is highly poisonous. We would later almost lose my brother when there was a leak in that lab and he went back in to turn off the valve so the city would not be contaminated. They had to fly in an antidote from England to save him. He is the only living person on the earth to have survived Nickel Carbonyl poisoning, so I am told. He has a perpetual headache. I think it’s the nickel. But I am not…I repeat NOT… a chemist, remember.
Walking behind him in his place that day felt like someone got the chemistry lab and the Home Ec lab mixed up, like they ran out of stuff to use in Heslop’s AP Chemistry classroom so they borrowed some things from the Home Economics room. Atop the layout of long banquet tables were various crock pots, fry pans, teapots, and Bunson Burners under Mason jars with foil wrapped around the tops, an eternal roller coaster of tubes connecting them. You could see vapor rising; fluids flowing through the snakes of tubing between the various small appliances. Some mechanisms were behind glass shields, others hissed in the open air. We followed the tubes like we were in a game of Chutes and Ladders, ending up at the end, looking at a spool of thin threads the color of graphite.
“All this… for that?” I thought. But that’s not what I said.
“Amazing!” is what I said. And I was right to say that.
A few years later George sold the rights to his process to the world’s largest nickel company (something like that) and he took his family over to Wales for a year to oversee the building of a large factory which would officially manufacture those coated fibers.
Fast forward a bunch of years; a bunch of joyfulness and some piercing agony, and we are suddenly at today. His company, Conductive Composites, is his own. No more warehouse in North Salt Lake. He has his own official lab in Midway. This week I understand they are closing on a large piece of property on the banks of the Green River in Central Utah. They will build a much larger lab there. One with official machines designed just for them. They have in place contracts with entities I am not permitted to mention here. There are defenses and technological advances that are incorporating his genius in their upcoming products; things that will protect and prevent disasters we average people haven't thought about. It all has to do with how electricity travels or doesn’t travel. Like I said…it’s beyond me.
By the end of the year George will be addressed as Dr. Hansen, as will his son Nathan. They will wear those thick heavy royal robes and flick the tassels on their caps and hang gilded diplomas on their office walls. But I can tell you that this did not begin like chemistry teachers like to think genius begins. Nope. It began on the living room floor, with a set of gears and some wooden rods. It was poured down the kitchen sink, after which Mom had to unscrew that thingy and remove the gooseneck, cleaning out all that melted wax plugging things up. It bubbled over on her kitchen stove, and then again on the old church banquet tables in his first official lab.
Here’s to the mothers of Geniuses, and their blessed tolerance. And here’s to the Brains themselves; for making things happen in un-ordained places and in unorthodox ways. If we all waited for the perfect tools to make our magic,…well, where would the magic be?
Today, when I was wiping down the kitchen counter after browning the meat for dinner, I watched the steam rise from the little release valve in our rice cooker.