Three Stories
by Ken Young

I remember being in awe and more than a little afraid of "Uncle Otto's room." I am a nephew, sixteen years younger than Otto. My mother Viola was his sister. In 1935, following the death of her husband, she brought me and four siblings from Buffalo to live with her parents in St. Louis. I was five years old. We lived upstairs, above the wallpaper and paint store, warehouse, dentist office and several other rooms. One of these was know as Otto's room. It was kept closed and always seemed dark and mysterious. Occasionally he let us inside and there were books, bottles, gadgets, boxes, and equipment of all kinds from floor to ceiling, filling the shelves and cluttering the room. One wall had all sorts of electrical connections fastened there. Otto loved to turn off the lights and throw a switch. A brilliant bolt of blue, orange and yellow electricity would then arc and sizzle several feet through the air. We were simultaneously mesmerized and reminded to stay out of his room when he wasn't there.

A favorite Otto story is his own report of an adventure of his under the kitchen table when he was eight years old. (I had my own adventures under that same table.) He had a "lab" there. His brother, Frank, ten years older, had talked about stimulating muscles by electricity. A family acquaintance occasionally brought rabbits for the family's dinner table. A relative would skin them and leave them on the table for the housekeeper to prepare and cook. Carrie Schnell was her name. Otto had obtained an auto spark coil and rigged up a wire connection to one of the rabbit carcasses. Unsuspecting Carrie came into the room. Otto pushed the key and made the connection. The rabbit jumped and so did Carrie!

In early January of 1950 I was completing my fourth year in undergraduate social work at Washington University. I took a course on Interviewing that involved conducting an interview with someone who frequently did interviewing, then writing a report on qualifications, techniques, etc. Otto and Viola were visiting over Christmas and so I interviewed him. I still have a copy of my report. He was a helpful as he could be and impressed me a great deal and gave me all sorts of ideas. My report contains the following interesting paragraph:

"The thought occured to me during the interview that interviews in which both people are equally interested in observing the other become almost a contest and perhaps ridiculous. My thought became a reality soon afterwards when he commented that many interviewees are a bit sheepish and giggle in a silly way during the interview. I laughed a little and as I did, thought that I was doing just what he was talking about. I was right for he added, "Just like you're doing now." Consequently, though much of the interview I felt as if I were the one being interviewed."

My report also notes that I "was very conscious of the fact that I was talking with someone who was by far my superior in intelligence and experience."

Submitted by Ken Young

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