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Some time back we went over to our friends Tim and Mary’s for dinner, and the subject of weird injuries made its way into the conversation.

In fact, they started talking about someone they knew who knew of a guy who’d had his hand in a microwave when it turned on.

This got my attention just a little bit and so I started asking some questions…

“So, um, where did this happen?”

“The 7-11 down by SPU.”

“Really?”

“Any idea when?”

“Oh, years ago.”

I asked a few more questions – figured there couldn’t be TOO many of us who’d done that – and then I asked, “So, you wanna hear the rest of the story?”

They didn’t get it at first.

And then I got an idea and went all Paul Harvey on them, in large part because I knew “The Rest of the Story,” because the guy they were talking about who’d gotten his hand nuked in the microwave…

…was me.

See, I’d graduated from SPU, having developed some skills in photography, and one of the important things was the ability to have a darkroom. Understand, this was back when film was made of plastic with silver Jello on it that was developed with several poisonous chemicals that came in powdered form that you mixed with water and then soaked the film in…

Which I did in my kitchen.

In the sink.

With no gloves.

(yeah, think about that for a bit – but that’s what we did back then)

So it became obvious to me very quickly that doing food and photography in the same kitchen, while possible, was not advisable to do simultaneously. As a result, I kept the kitchen pretty clean for the most part, so that if I needed to print some photos, I could:

  • close the curtains (to change it from a kitchen to a dark room)
  • hang up the safelight (an orange light that wouldn’t expose black and white photo paper like white light)
  • hang up the fan (to suck out the chemical fumes)
  • clip the plywood shades into the two windows
  • attach the hose from the fan through the one plywood sheet to the outside
  • turn off the white light
  • turn on the safelight and the fan
  • take the cover off the enlarger
  • pour the chemicals

…and I was ready to go.

The building I called home was red when I lived there, not gray as it is in that photo link at left – but that’s the place I called home for a bit.

So the important thing to do here when printing photos for an assignment was simple: Do it quickly.

The reason for this was so I didn’t get hungry while I was printing – because then I had to make a decision between food and photos.

But – it turned out there was an alternative, namely God’s gift to college students, just a couple of blocks away.

And hey – it’s still there.

At the time, I’d done it often enough to where I could dig some money out from the couch cushions, walk down there, get a Big Gulp and a burrito for $1.38, nuke it, and eat it on the way back and then continue printing photos.

Hey – it worked on a bunch of levels. I got some fresh air. I moved around… I took a break, and I got some dinner.

What could possibly go wrong?

<crickets>

Ummmyeah.

So one night, I’m printing a big assignment. Understand, photos were not done electronically back then, they were real live 8 x 10 photos… printed on very nice, rich, contrasty black and white paper so they could reproduce in the magazines they were being published in, the works… They had to be dusted and spotted with some watercolor/ink and a little camels hair brush so that dust that had made it onto the film and thus onto the print was taken care of.  The photos then had to have my photo credit printed on the back with a rubber stamp, the file number of the negative, all of it had to be matched with the invoice, the whole bit.

It was a lot of work.

The burrito, and the Big Gulp, were essential.

But this time, I got to the 7-11, grabbed my beef and bean burrito, popped open the bottom of the two industrial microwaves that could take the burrito from frozen solid to beefy, beany deliciousness (remember, I was a college student) in 2 minutes flat.

And I discovered three things simultaneously.

1. There was a burrito on a paper plate in the microwave already.

2. The light inside the microwave had just turned on.

3. The fan was running.

Hmmm…

The only time I’d seen that before was when the microwave was on.

But microwave ovens are designed to be off when the door is open.

And I was hungry.

And my burrito was cold.

I slammed the door shut and reopened it.

The light came on again.

So I figured, “Well, I’ll just yank it out of there” and reached in to a feeling that can only be likened to pouring 7-Up through my hand. It felt like little bubbles were popping inside my right hand. I yanked it out, hoping I’d misread what had just happened.

Hesitating, one more time I reached in real quick – and sure enough, same thing. I slammed it shut and called the guy behind the counter, who’d been there as long as I’d been a student,”Hey, your microwave just nuked my hand!”

A cop who was standing there getting a cup of coffee saw it all and said, simply, “I’d sue ‘em.”

That thought hadn’t crossed my mind, I just wanted my burrito so I could go home and finish the dang photo assignment I was working on.

But I got the cop’s badge number…nuked the burrito in the top oven, ate it on the way home as usual, and noticed something strange…

My right hand felt weird, and later, when I got home, it felt like the tendons in it were made of cold spaghetti, like they’d pop apart if I tried to grab something too hard.

It started to swell a bit on top of it all, so I bought some Tylenol and some fingerless leather gloves just to hold my hand together because it really felt like the only thing holding it together was the skin, and when it didn’t get better over the next couple of days, I called the doctor.

I learned that trying to find a doctor who was familiar with radiation burns at that time was a bit of a challenge and got you talking to some very interesting people.  Eventually I ended up talking to a gal in the Burn Unit at Harborview, who, unlike everyone else I’d talked to, knew exactly what I was talking about. She’d been working a food booth at some kind of a fair that summer, where someone actually dropped the microwave they were using, and it cracked.  It still worked, but if you stood at just a certain spot – you could feel the radiation from the outside.

It also turned out there wasn’t really anything I could do other than just wait it out and let it heal.

Another weirdity was that my right hand stopped sweating after that – which meant that little film of moisture you’re barely aware of on your hands (the one that helps you grip things) wasn’t there anymore. I had to grip the enlarger focusing knob tighter to use it – or my hand would slip off. I also dropped the camera (a Nikon F-3 with an SB-16 speedlight on it) a few times (which cost a goodly chunk of money to fix), so in the end, I did go to a lawyer to see what the deal could be, because by this time, the Big Gulp and the burrito had cost a good bit more than $1.38.

The lawyer said if I had any kind of injury that was visible, even a scratch, that’d make a huge difference, but for now, I didn’t have that. Eventually I noticed that my right hand was colder than my left, and found a place in Ohio where I later went to Grad School that would do what they called “Thermographs.” They were basically photos that showed how hot each hand was, and the right one was definitely colder. This would have been good – had they not lost the thermographs before I could get them to the lawyer. Turns out he thought the case’d be worth about $65,000.00, which seemed like a lot of money, but would likely cost about that much to try because, he said both Litton (the maker of the microwave) and Southland corporation (parent of 7-11) were incorporated in Delaware at the time, and he figured they’d do what they could to make it hard for me, meaning after expenses, I’d walk away with having gained nothing and lost a bunch of time in the deal.

So, I ended up just letting it go. Really – at the time, there didn’t seem to be much of an option.

A year or so ago, I was telling the story to my friend Beth and her daughter who were in town, visiting, and figured, what the heck, why not go to that 7-11 and take a look, so we did, and (this may not come as a surprise) but the microwaves had been replaced (heck, it had been 30 years – even my Mom’s expensive microwave that dad had gotten her years ago had given up the ghost in that time). The new ones were much smaller. We thought of getting something to eat or drink – and then decided against it.

In fact, for the first time in decades, I walked out of that 7-11 without either a Big Gulp or a burrito.

And I was okay with that…

Oh – and as for Mary and Tim – they now knew The Rest of the Story.

Take care out there folks – and an unsolicited bit of advice?

Don’t stick your hands in rogue microwaves…

Trust me on this.  😉

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Tom Roush

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