Summer Afternoon, America, 1980


Jean Lorrah

"Johnny! John-nnyy! You come up out of that cellar this minute!"

"Aww, Mom--!"

"I mean it! Get on up here. It's a beautiful June day, all the other kids are out playing, and you're in the cellar tinkering with your chemistry set."

For the thousandth time, as he clumped up the wooden stairs, Johnny corrected her. "It's not a chemistry set. It's a biological laboratory."

"Yes, and if any of those mice get loose in my clean house, there'll be hell to pay, young man!"

Johnny looked at his mother, who was cleaning the kitchen stove. Then she would scrub the floor again. It was a daily routine. He didn't understand why she kept cleaning and cleaning a house that wasn't dirty, her mouth setting more and more each day into lines of disappointment.

He knew he disappointed her, and Dad, too. Oh, they liked the fact that he made straight A's in school, but they'd rather he were a B student like his sister Charlene, and had more "outside activities." Charly was a cheerleader, and had been secretary of the junior class. Everybody said that next year she would be Prom Queen. Right now, Charly was off on a canoe trip with the Girl Scouts, and she would come home only for a day or two before she'd be off to work as a counselor at Camp Kiddi Watchi.

Johnny had detested camp the one year his parents had forced him to go. They trapped him there a full six weeks, and at the end he was no less awkward, no more skilled in sports, and no less the object of the other children's scorn. He was, however, much more withdrawn within himself than he was in school, where he could excel academically. Therefore his father had not made him go to camp again.

That was two years ago. He had grown since then, shooting up in height. His father had put up a basketball hoop last fall, and really tried to teach Johnny how to play. But he had nothing but the height for it. He tripped over his feet, he dropped the ball, and even on free throws he couldn't seem to hit the backboard, let alone the basket. Eventually even his father's patience wore out, and Johnny was free to return to his cellar laboratory.

That was where he was happiest, performing new and better experiments all the time. He knew one day he would be a scientist, a biologist. He wanted to make people better, healthier, but his aims were not to be a doctor. His mother would have liked that, but Johnny didn't want to use what other people invented to cure people. He wanted to invent the cures!

"You want some cookies?" his mother was asking.

"No thanks, Mom."

"You're so skinny! Here, at least have a glass of milk. No wonder you've got no strength."

An unwanted glass of milk in his hand, Johnny went out and sat on the front steps, but his mind was on his experiments. He wanted to get into genetic research. Even though he would only enter tenth grade in the fall, he already knew his life's work: to rid the world of people like himself.

He figured he would get his training just in time. Biologists could already do genetic scans and abort fetuses that were mongoloid, or had other defects that would prevent them from living normal lives. That would be routine by the time he got through college.

His dream went beyond the prevention of crippled or retarded babies. His reading told him that it was not possible to engineer the structure of chromosomes, to combine only desirable traits.

It was hot out. He took off his glasses to wipe the sweat from his forehead, and the world became a blur. He'd like to have perfect vision--better than 20/20. He hated being dependent on glasses for something as vital as sight.

Susie Swindon from next door zipped by on her skateboard, deliberately keeping her eyes straight ahead when she passed him. Susie never made above a C in anything, but she had perfect balance. He'd like that, too, and Burke Jones's speed at running, and Mo Henderson's strength, and . . . the way his sister Charly got along with people, as if she always knew exactly what they were feeling. Was that a genetic trait? Their Dad had it; that was what made him a super salesman.

Yeah, in a perfect world those ideal traits wouldn't be doled out one to each person. They could be combined, so that one person could have not only intelligence but grace, balance, speed, strength, the ability to understand others . . . .

He was shaken out of his daydream by Mr. O'Leary, the mailman. "Hi there, Johnny. Insured package for you, young man."

Johnny's heart leaped. It was here at last!

"What in the world are you getting from . . ." Mr. O'Leary squinted at the return address on the small package, "Bio-World Laboratories?"

"Restriction enzymes," Johnny replied, scribbling his name on the yellow form.

"And what might that be?"

"They're used to . . . . to cut apart DNA molecules," the boy explained. "With this I can do recombinant DNA experiments right in my own laboratory!"

"Ah! You young people today," said the mailman. "So much smarter for your age than when I was a boy."

It was clear Mr. O'Leary hadn't the faintest notion of what Johnny was talking about, but he didn't care. Tingling with excitement, he hurried back down to his laboratory and opened his package. At last! The key to a future in which there would be no more misfits like himself!

Hours later, his work was interrupted again. "Johnny! Johnny, didn't I tell you to go outside and play? You come up out of that cellar--it's almost time for your father to come home for dinner."

Reluctantly, Johnny left his work, knowing he would not be allowed to return until the next day. As he passed his mother in the kitchen she was muttering, "One-track mind, just like your father. Tell me, Johnny Farris, what am I going to do with you?"


Copyright © 1980 by Jean Lorrah


This story was inspired by WHO SHOULD PLAY GOD? by Ted Howard and Jeremy Rifkin (Dell 19504). The book is a sensationalized account of genetic experimentation in America in the 20th century, and the authors have clearly slanted it in the direction of horror tales to create a best seller. Nonetheless, it is full of documented facts. Perhaps the most chilling of these facts is to be found on p. 34: restriction enzymes, the tools used to produce recombinant DNA, can be purchased by anyone! Laboratories advertise them in science magazines. "Most biologists agree: Any high-school student can do it."


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