It was in Edgewood that Frank Zappa first inserted radioactive pellets into his nostrils. Now he’s being honored, sort of, with a 15-foot statue that was donated by his Lithuanian fans to the City of Baltimore. But why Baltimore? True, Zappa – the guitar-playing, anti-drug musician – was born in Charm City, but, as I’ve already mentioned, it was in Edgewood where he might have gotten off to his mind-bending start.
Let me get one thing off my chest from the get-go here, I’m much more a fan of Zappa’s story than I am his music. Blasphemy you say? Well, try to find a song of his that can compete with stories of his early life in Harford County. Zappa’s dad worked at what was then known as Edgewood Arsenal, but today is known as the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground. Zappa’s got some pretty good recollections from those days, including tasting DDT and wearing space helmets that left you to drown in your own vomit. Good stuff.
Here’s some of that story from Wikipedia:
Frank Zappa was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 21, 1940 to Francis Zappa (born in Partinico, Sicily) who was of Greek-Arab descent, and Rose Marie Colimore who was of three quarters Italian and one quarter French descent. He was the oldest of four children (two brothers and a sister). During Zappa’s childhood, the family often moved because his father, a chemist and mathematician, had various jobs in the US defense industry. After a brief period in Florida in the mid-1940s, the family returned to Edgewood, Maryland where Zappa’s father got a job at the Edgewood Arsenal chemical warfare facility at nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground. Due to the home’s proximity to the Arsenal which stored mustard gas, Zappa’s father kept gas masks on hand in case of an accident. This had a profound effect on the young Zappa: references to germs, germ warfare and other aspects of the defense industry occur throughout his work.
As a child, Zappa was often sick, suffering from asthma, earaches and a sinus problem. A doctor treated the latter by inserting a pellet of radium on a probe into each of Zappa’s nostrils. Nasal imagery and references would appear both in his music and lyrics as well as in the collage album covers created by his long-time visual collaborator, Cal Schenkel. While little was known at the time about the potential dangers of living close to chemicals and being subjected to radiation, it is a fact that Zappa’s illnesses peaked when he lived in the Baltimore area.
Here’s a fascinating passage on Zappa’s childhood in Edgewood from The Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa:
My Dad was employed as a meteorologist at the Edgewood Arsenal. They made poison gas there during World War II, so I guess it would have been the meteorologist’s job to figure out which way the wind was blowing when it was time to shoot the stuff off.
He used to bring equipment home from the lab for me to play with: beakers, Florence flasks, little petri dishes full of mercury — blobs of mercury. I used to play with it all the time. The entire floor of my bedroom had this ‘muck’ on it, made out of mercury mixed with dust balls.
One of the things I used to like to do was pour the mercury on the floor and hit it with a hammer, so it squirted all over the place. I lived in mercury.
When DDT was first invented, my Dad brought some home — there was a whole bag of it in the closet. I didn’t eat it or anything, but he said that you could — it was supposed to be ‘safe,’ it only killed bugs.
Sicilian parents do things differently. If I said I had an earache, my parents would heat up some olive oil and pour it in my ear — which hurts like a motherfucker — but they tell you it’s supposed to make it feel better. When you’re a kid, you don’t get to argue about it.
I spent the first five or six years of my life with cotton hanging out of my ears — yellow, from olive oil.
Along with my earaches and asthma, I had sinus trouble. There was some ‘new treatment’ for this ailment being discussed in the neighborhood. It involved stuffing radium into your sinus cavities. (Have you ever heard of this?) My parents took me to yet another Italian doctor, and, although I didn’t know what they were going to do to me, it didn’t sound like it was going to be too much fun. The doctor had a long wire thing — maybe a foot or more, and on the end was a pellet of radium. He stuffed it up my nose and into my sinus cavities on both sides. (I should probably check to see if my handkerchief is glowing in the dark.)
One of the other wonder remedies that had just come out then was sulfa. Winter was freezing cold in that house at 15 Dexter Street. The walls were so thin — it was like a cardboard house. We used to wear flannel trapdoor pajamas. In the mornings, to get warm, we stood by the coal stove in the kitchen.
On one occasion, the trapdoor on my younger brother’s pajamas caught fire. My Dad came running in and beat the fire out with his bare hands. Both his hands and my brother’s back were totally burned. The doctor put sulfa on them and neither of them got scarred.
My Dad used to help pay the rent by volunteering for human testing of chemical (maybe even biological) warfare agents. These were called ‘patch tests.’
The Army didn’t tell you what it was they were putting on your skin — and you agreed not to scratch it, or peek under the bandage — and they would pay you ten bucks per patch. Then they would take it off after a couple of weeks.
My Dad used to come home with three or four of those things on his arms and different parts of his body every week. I don’t know what the stuff was, or what long-range health effects it might have had on him (or on any of the children that were born after the time that they did it).
There were tanks of mustard gas within a mile of where we lived, so everybody in this housing project had to have a gas mask in the house, for each member of the family.
Mustard gas explodes the vessels in your lungs, causing you to drown in your own blood.
We had a rack at the end of the hall with a family’s worth of masks on it. I used to wear mine out in the backyard all the time — it was my space helmet. One day I decided to find out how it worked, so I took a can opener and opened up the filter (thereby ruining it). In any event, I found out what was inside it — charcoal, paper filters and different layers of crystals, including, I think, potassium permanganate.
Before they would squirt mustard gas onto a battlefield, they had some other stuff called chloropicrin, a dust that induced vomiting — they called it “puke stuff.” The dust would creep around the edges of the soldier’s mask, causing him to vomit. If he didn’t take his mask off, he could drown in his own spew, and if he did — to let the chunks out — the mustard gas would get him.
I was always amazed that people got paid to figure out how to do this stuff.
So now, about a week after Baltimore turned down honoring its own beloved former governor, mayor and comptroller William Donald Schaefer with a statue of his own, the city has accepted and will erect the 15-foot monument to Zappa. Perhaps this had something to do with Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon’s decision last summer to issue a proclamation announcing August 9, 2007 as Frank Zappa Day in Baltimore. Does Baltimore have a Willie Don Schaefer Day or is that an honor only bestowed posthumously?
At any rate, Havre de Grace has its statue of General Lafayette, Aberdeen has/had its statue of Cal Ripken, Jr., Bel Air has its strange, orange piece of New Age art outside Barnes and Noble bookstore, but what does Edgewood have? OK that was too much of a setup for too many punchlines, but wouldn’t a 15-foot Zappa look great on the side of Route 40 in Edgewood? I mean the guy has celestial bodies and a urinary tract infection named after him and a spider named in honor of his moustache.
For those who doubt me, behold:
– After his death, an internet campaign to the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center led to an asteroid being named in his honor: 3834 Zappafrank, the asteroid having been discovered by Czech astronomers in 1980.
– Another asteroid was named after him in 1996 (16745 Zappa).
– A number of animals have been named after Zappa including:
- – a goby fish (Zappa confluentus),
- – a jellyfish (Phialella zappai),
- – an extinct mollusc (Amauratoma zappa) and
- – a spider with an abdominal mark supposedly resembling Zappa’s mustache (Pachygnatha zappa).
– The ZapA gene of Proteus mirabilis, a microbe that causes urinary tract infections is named after Zappa.
It’s time to bring Zappa back where he belongs – Edgewood.