Tag Archives: Secret Ink

From Secret Ink to Memories of My Father

The latest in my quest to do all the challenges in The Dangerous Book for Boys with my sons in a year … After our last episode in The Dangerous Quest, I asked my sons what they most enjoyed about creating invisible ink. Gabe said it was being able to write a message in urine. Hank said, “You get to burn stuff.” Fortunately, as I noted in my post (see Fire! Flying Urine! Our Most Dangerous Quest Yet), one of the things we did NOT burn down was the house.

After I nearly started a fire by waving a match too close to the paper with the secret writing on it, I remembered an incident from my childhood when I was home with my brodelmar-closeupther and father. I was twelve, my brother fifteen, and my dad was less than a year away from dying. He was ill with diabetes and related problems, which forced him to retire in his mid-forties as managing editor of the Hayward Daily Review. This was why he was home with us while my mom was off at work. She had returned to her job as a social worker to help pay the bills because my dad couldn’t work anymore.

My dad was fixing hamburgers for us in the kitchen, and I guess the grease from the burgers caused the skillet on the stove to burn. My dad then did the exact wrong thing, sticking the skillet in the sink and turning on the faucet. The water splashed onto the sizzling grease with a hissing sound and burst into flames and smoke. The fire jumped from the skillet onto the kitchen window curtains. While my dad tossed water on the fire, he told my brother to call the fire department. Not having a job to do, I ran down the stairs and out of the house into the street in panic.

My dad succeeded in putting the fire out, but they sent a couple of fire trucks over from the Fairview Fire Station anyway. The trucks sounded their sirens of course, which drew onlookers from all around the neighborhood to see what was the hubbub at the Nelson house.  Kids and adults were crowded around the fire trucks, one parked in our driveway and one in the street out front, when my mother drove up. She had come home on her noon hour to have lunch with us.

I’ll never forget the look on her face when she got out of her car. She thought something awful had happened to her husband, and this was why the fire trucks and all the people were there. Finding out the real reason didn’t make her feel that much better.

I thought about this story after the fire incident with my two boys. I told them about it, leaving out some of the personal stuff about my Mom and Dad and focusing on the fire safety lessons. But this is another reason why, despite considerable resistance on my part to the idea of this quest, I’ll continue on with it. It’s helping me brush some of the dust off my childhood too.


Leave a comment

Filed under Hayward, California, Parenting, The Dangerous Quest

Fire! Flying Urine! Our Most Dangerous Quest Yet

match-under-paper For this challenge, we finally put the “Dangerous” in The Dangerous Book for Boys.

As many of you know, for the past couple of months I’ve been doing activities with my sons from The Dangerous Book for Boys, a bestselling manual written by a pair of Englishmen on what every boy should know as part of his youthful education. Mostly I’ve chosen to do the easier challenges to allow me to warm up for the tougher tasks ahead (shooting a rabbit, making a bow and arrow, learning grammar).

It would not be accurate to describe this challenge, “Secret Inks,” (p. 149, DBFB), as particularly hard, but it did prove to be a dangerous one because I nearly set the house on fire while doing it. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but not completely. Let me tell you the story:

You can make invisible ink by using milk, lemon juice and yes, urine. Just in case someone thinks I’m making this up, let me quote directly from the book that has sold hundreds of thousands of copies around the world: “Milk, lemon juice, egg white and yes, urine will work as a secret ink.”

As you might guess, the possibility that Hank and Gabe could write on a piece of paper using their own pee immediately captured their interest, although I was a little skeptical about the whole thing. “What’s the point of secret ink when no one writes letters anymore?” I asked the boys.
“It could be for a secret club,” said Hank, speculating that its members would need to write in secret ink in order to enter the club. Gabe added that it “could be for summer when we make our clubhouse.” (He had to remind me: Building a tree house is another of the challenges from the book that I’m regarding with dread.)

While reading the directions in the book, Hank noticed that the authors neglected to include a vital piece of information. “What do you write with?” he said. Good question. Seeing that the Iggulden brothers do not say, we improvised our writing instruments, coming up with a pen cap or lid, pencil, screwdriver and a nail. This last—a sharp, dangerous object that they could possibly stab themselves or each other with—interested the boys most of all of course, and is why this activity should never be attempted without adult supervision. (This proved especially true later on, when we started burning matches, at which point the thought occurred to me: Yes, but who’s supervising the adult?)

The pencil proved inadequate because the idea was for the writing to be invisible, and it wouldn’t do if one could see lead marks on the paper. That would be an obvious tip-off if the double agent working undercover tried to sneak a secret message past the bad guys to another person being held prisoner. (I talked a little with the boys about why one would need to write a note that certain people could see and others could not, and this was the scenario Hank came up with.) After the pencil, we tried the pen cap and the screwdriver, but the most effective instrument for writing an invisible message was, naturally, the nail.writing-with-screwdriver

As for the ink itself, we started with milk. Each boy dipped the nail in a little milk and wrote his message on a lined piece of paper. Then we cut a lemon in half, squeezed the juice into a small bowl and did the same with lemon juice. The messages weren’t long—a short sentence at most, and both boys experimented with how thick to apply the milk and juice to the paper. But all of this was just killing time, really, before we got to the main attraction: writing with urine.

One of the things I continue to be surprised by in this quest is how often I am surprised—that invariably, the things we set out to do (such as making secret inks) lead to discoveries that I never anticipated or intended. I had no idea when I started this challenge that my sons would learn how to pee in a cup. I gave them each a small plastic cup, told them what to do (“pee a little in the cup and the rest in the toilet”), and closed the door on them. Each in turn emerged from the bathroom holding his cup of pee, looking as proud and happy as a boy who thinks he’s getting away with something can be.

After carefully bringing their cups over to the kitchen table, our work area, they dipped their nails in and wrote their messages, not revealing what they were. To see what they had written, we needed matches. By waving a match under the paper, the heat produced a chemical reaction that made the invisible writing visible. Here was yet another unexpected opportunity to work on an essential life skill: being able to safely strike a match and hold the flame away from you so you don’t get burned. We used large Diamond-brand kitchen matches, and both boys practiced striking a couple of matches against the box with Dad guiding and advising them. But when it came time to put the match under the paper to see the invisible writing, Dad took over—and nearly started a fire.

burnt-paperI waved the match too close to the paper, and it caught on fire. I’m standing in the kitchen with my two sons, holding a burning piece of paper in my hand. Real flames are rising from the paper. Reacting instinctively, Hank and Gabe then grabbed the cups sitting on the table and tossed them on the flames, dousing the fire but covering me with piss.

Nah, just kidding. I made that last sentence up. The boys stood by as I blew the flames out, ending the crisis as soon as it started. Nevertheless it startled all three of us and led to a fire safety discussion: about how you never play with matches, how dangerous fire can be and how quickly it can get away from you, and how teenagers who are smoking cigarettes or whatever in a field can casually toss a match aside and the dry grasses can light and a very serious fire can spread and burn homes and hurt or kill people. And the most important safety advice of all: Never let your father use matches during a science experiment at home.

All I can say is, thank God the instructions didn’t call for the use of explosives. Amidst all the excitement, we did manage to complete our experiment. Gabe’s invisible writing came out the best. The heat turned his messages goldish-brown on the paper and you could read some of the words. One of his messages, in lemon juice, referred to the patriarch of the Simpson clan: “Doh,” wrote Gabe, “is Homer’s favorite word.” For some reason none of Hank’s secret messages was readable, and so I had to ask him what he had written in urine. He wrote, “I’m writing in pee.”

If you enjoyed this episode of The Dangerous Quest, you might enjoy this one as well:.


Playing Poker—and Dress-UpOne of the first things I learned about The Dangerous Book for Boys is that it isn’t just for boys. A friend of ours was visiting the other night, and so her six-year-old daughter Cielo pulled up a chair with my sons and me for a few hands of Texas Hold ‘Em….


Filed under Parenting, The Dangerous Quest