Claude Rains is a name you probably don’t know. But, he was my hero for a brief moment in my early life.
He was The Invisible Man in the 1930s movie of the same name. True, the horror movie reruns I saw in the ’50s and ’60s showed that the serum he’d developed not only achieved the desired vanishing effect, but drove him crazy.
But, I figured, that really was no big deal, since my parents were already driving me crazy at the time, alternately ignoring me and giving me crap. Not much to risk, or so I thought.
It seemed to me that invisibility was the solution to a good many of the problems faced by high school freshmen, and certainly that included my own. I wanted to be in control of my image: seen when I wanted to be seen and transparent all the rest of the time. But, mostly what I got was others’ awareness of me when I least wanted it; and total anonymity to the point of disappearance when I hoped for someone to pay attention.
The potion I sought would, for one thing, allow me to pass through the awkward stage my mom said I was going through without being noticed. By that, I took her to mean that I was no longer the charming, attractive kid she’d given birth to, but someone she wanted to trade in for a newer model and another chance.
Tact was not her strong point.
The “blending in” I desired would allow my body, my facial features, my acne, and my psyche, all to resolve themselves without anyone having to see me in the various humiliating stages of transformation. Since mom was also an amateur barber, her occasionally ruinous haircuts would also go undetected by my peers.
Today a kid might consider cosmetic surgery as a partial remedy. But even if I could have paid for all this, I actually didn’t want to miss school. Moreover, I realized that if I were in the hospital it would give my family the chance to pack up everything and move to another city without my knowledge. No, I needed a solution that allowed me to foil any such attempt on their part.
Indeed, part of my invention was intended exclusively for school and those moments when you had to do something you were uncomfortable doing, like giving an oral report or answering a tough question in class. With a fast-acting invisibility serum, these problems would be easily solved. I’d be there one minute, gone the next.
First I persuaded my parents to buy me a chemistry set. I set the chemicals up in the basement. All the vials and test tubes and Florence flasks and Erlenmeyer flasks were carefully arrayed. The subterranean chamber was not just out of my parents’ way, but literally beneath their possible oversight.
All the oils and liquids would be burned in my unstinting effort; even the proverbial midnite oil. Nothing could stop me now.
After several weeks of frustration and failure, I managed to create a solution that would make ink disappear. This proved a problem when I accidentally obliterated a paper I was writing for history class. Still, if I could make my writing go away, true invisibility of its corporeal author wouldn’t be far off.
Finally, I had something that I thought would work, but I had to try it out. The place to start was clearly in the kitchen, where mom was preoccupied with cooking.
I walked quietly upstairs on tip-toes, so as not to allow her to hear my approach. Then I stood immediately to her right, just inches away as she struggled with the frying pan and what was to pass for dinner on one of the stove’s burners.
Cooking was always a losing battle for her, causing home-cooked meals to become more a necessity than a pleasure for the rest of us. I passed my hand in front of her face. She didn’t look up — didn’t seem even to take notice of me or turn in my direction, instead keeping her eyes on the spattering, blackening scene of her daily defeat.
So far, so good.
Then I walked to the living room, where dad was engrossed with a Chicago Blackhawks hockey game and reading the newspaper simultaneously, quietly steeling himself for the teeth-grinding effort he would soon have to make in order to down my mother’s culinary preparation.
I walked in front of the TV back and forth — same result.
It could only mean one thing. I was invisible, undetectable to the naked eye!
The next day I went to my morning English Class, taught by Patricia Daley, daughter of the great (but now late) Richard J. Daley, then Mayor of Chicago. Interestingly, that day she was talking about civic responsibility, not English. The moment of truth arrived when she asked whether I could name my congressman.
My usual thought would have been, “why me?” Of course, at 14 I had no idea who my congressman was. But this was the chance I’d been waiting for, a test of the invisibility serum out in the real world.
I reached into my pocket, pretended to cough and took a swig out of the vial that was hidden in my fist. “Give it a few seconds,” I thought to myself.
“Please stand up, Gerald.” Miss Daley always asked us to stand whenever we answered questions orally. I dutifully complied. I knew that I probably needed a little additional time for my concoction to work.
A few more seconds passed.
What was happening? Had the vanishing juice failed me? I was totally humiliated in the face of my tittering classmates. I could only state that I had no idea of the correct answer. Not only didn’t I have a response to the question, but the kids were amused by my struck-dumb silence.
As I sat down I looked at my hands on the desk. I couldn’t see them. Was it my imagination that light passed through me or the blinding glare coming from the wall of windows on my left?
Back home later in the day, I again tried the experiment of the night before. Mom and dad both ignored me once more. I didn’t even eat the food she prepared, figuring that would probably get her attention. Mom watched only my dad, as the lava flow of his catsup bottle made a pork chop resemble tomato soup. No, nothing was said to me or about me. Dad simply poured the catsup all over his meal as he always did, trying, as he delicately put it, “to kill the taste.”
I racked my brain to figure out the contradiction between what happened in class and what happened at home. I could be seen in the school room when I wanted to vanish, but not in “the friendly confines” of our house where I wanted to be noticed. What was the deal? Another day of school would soon be upon me. What could I do?
Finally, the answer came to me. I thought back to the old movie and Claude Rains. He realized that in order to be utterly undetected, he had to take off all his clothes, otherwise people would know he was present by seeing the headless figure of his wardrobe walking around, as in the drawing at the top of this page.
At least, that is what I told the arresting officer the next day when I showed up at school naked!
The above image is a comic book cover of the Classics Illustrated version of H.G.Wells’s The Invisible Man published on June 14, 1942. It is sourced from Geoffrey Biggs at Wikimedia Commons.