by Hap Rocketto
It was towards the end of a quarter and I was conducting a review for my junior Physics class. There are two types of science; qualitative, which is the science taught to elementary school-naming the season or the planets and quantitative that which requires numbers and measurements. I was teaching a quantitative course and wanted to insure that they new the proper units.
I would call out a question like, “Name four units of linear measurement.” The class would chorus back, “Millimeter, centimeter, meter, and kilometer.” I went through area, volume, mass, force, pressure, work, heat, and power. The terms newton, joule, calorie, and watt echoed off of the cinder block walls and I was getting confident that they had it down, well, “Pride goeth before the fall” as the good book says.
From the dark recesses in the far left hand corner of the room, a location to where both light and education seemed incapable of penetrating, came a wet sucking popping sound. One of my reluctant scholars had stirred. The sound came as he pulled his face from the puddle of drool that had accumulated there as he lay slack jawed with ennui. A grunt punctuated the quiet room as he heaved his hand up into the air, an unaccustomed physical act on his part that signaled to me danger. The kid, Shawn by name, was both a culinary arts student and a member of my rifle team. He wasn’t bad; he was just undisciplined in a lovable Saint Bernard puppy kind of way. A situation that I happily found rifle shooting was putting to an end. However, he was still in a transitional state and there was no still telling what was going to issue from his mouth.
“What about Scoville Units?” he rather complacently asked, trying to trip me up with his nonchalance.
“Well, Shawn,” said I, “A Scoville Unit, as you so very well know, is a measurement of the heat of a chili pepper. It was named after pharmacist Wilber Scoville who developed a test to measure Capsaicin, the compound that gives chili its fire. His original test actually relied on tasting diluted mixtures of chili and water but a more sophisticated test, High-Performance Liquid Chromatography, has been developed that does everything chemically, in a quantitative way. The term Scoville Unit has been retained in his honor just as we honor Newton, Joule, and Watt, and other famous scientists by naming units or elements after them.”
“A sweet green bell pepper,” I droned on, “has a rating of about 100 Scoville Units while pure Capsaicin rates about 16 million units. A really hot Jalapeno runs about 2,500, while the hottest pepper known, the Habanero, rates 300,000 Scovilles.”
Seeing an opportunity to get a little extra education in, as well as some revenge for being set up, I commanded “Slothful Shawn” to research Tabasco brand pepper sauce and tell me how this hot sauce related to his hobby of rifle shooting. He didn’t seem too happy about the idea but he wasn’t going to do anything to upset me, it wasn’t in his nature. He groaned, pulled out a pen and scribbled the subject and due date on the back of his already crowded hand. A week later, on time, he showed up at rifle practice with a crumpled sheet of paper carelessly torn from a spiral bound notebook clutched in his hand to give his report. How he was able read it through the crossed out words, doodles, jelly smudges, coffee cup rings, and the other unidentified indelible stains I will never know.
On the due date he stood he stood awkwardly and uncomfortable in the dim light of the rifle range and woodenly read, “The McIlhenny family settled on Avery Island, Louisiana after the Civil War and began producing a pepper sauce made from locally grown peppers from seed brought from Central America, salt mined on the island, and imported French vinegar.” As he read from his tattered and grubby notes his stiff stammering and stuttering was a sure sign that my assignment had made its point. He had learned a lesson and I need never fear his interrupting my class again with an obtuse question.
“Walter Stauffer McIlhenny was born in Washington, D.C. on October 22, 1910 and entered the Marine Corps Reserve in late 1936 when he earned a commission as a second lieutenant. He shot on the Marine Reserve Rifle Team at Camp Perry and earned his Distinguished Marksman’s Badge. He was called to active duty to serve in World War II where he fought in the Pacific and was awarded the Navy Cross and the Silver Star for gallantry in action. After the war he returned to Avery Island where he stayed in the reserves, retiring as a general, and ran the McIlhenny Company that produces Tabasco Pepper Sauce. He died in 1985.”
Shawn had done a fair job of research and even passed Physics on his way to graduation and membership on the All State High School Rifle Team. A few years later he returned to the school as a teacher, having earned an MBA as well as a Distinguished Badge along the way. As a fellow faculty member it is interesting to note that the saucy lad, now well seasoned, will not tolerate behavior or academic sloppiness similar to that he exhibited as a student in my class. Perhaps more than one lesson was learned that day?