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Chemical Eye on Dodgy Leapfrog
by Preston MacDougall


January 23, 2006

If the Guinness Book of World Records contained an entry for the decade with the most entries, it would have to be the 1970s. I recall a peak period where newspapers and television had almost daily updates on record-breaking anatomical anomalies. And although I haven't checked into it, I would wager that the expression "get a life" probably originated at about this time.

Shortly before I got a life - marked by the moment when I fell in love in Grade 12 French class - I was recruited by the organizer of a fundraising event for cystic fibrosis that was to be held in the jam-packed midway of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. The idea was to charge a nominal fee, which would go to charity, for a shoeshine - breaking a world record along the way. There was a stage, colorful signage and uniforms, and an official observer. Even an old timey carnival barker exhorting folks to "step right up!"

jpg Toronto City Hall

Toronto City Hall

All four of us "shiners" were squash players who had very fast hands, and there were hordes of people lined up to help set a world record while raising money for sick kids. Here's what happened.

We started off like gangbusters - wax on, wax off, NEXT! After an hour or so of getting to know the lower extremities of many interesting people, we were told that our pace was too slow to break the world record. So we did what some South Korean stem-cell scientists did when they came from behind and claimed the lead in key stem-cell technologies - we cheated.

We took shortcuts. Shoes that might have started out fairly shiny, ended up with smudges. And if you are among the nice people whose brown shoes were made blackish, I am really sorry about that. The end result was that my name would not live on in shoeshine infamy.

I don't remember the end as well as the beginning, but I wouldn't be surprised if the number of volunteers dried up when passersby saw what happened to one's shoes as we went for a world record. That's the funny thing about competition, too much of it can be counter-productive.

Believe it or not, that wasn't the end of my attempts to get into Guinness. The next time I teamed up with several of my fraternity brothers at Lorne Park Secondary School, which, according to MapQuest, is 18 miles and 26 minutes (by car) from Toronto City Hall. This assumes that one takes the freeway, called the Queen E, into the city.

There are signs mentioning a law restricting un-motorized vehicles and pedestrians from this highway. Although we didn't seek a legal opinion, we assumed that this applied to leapfroggers, which is how we proposed to get to the toadstool-shaped building that is part of City Hall, and into the Guinness Book of World Records as well.

Instead of raising money on behalf of a poster child, the beneficiary was our own "foster child", who was living in poverty somewhere in Central or South America. As the Corresponding Secretary of our fraternity, it was my job to send the monthly checks and to respond to his letters. I recall that I greatly enjoyed doing so, but am embarrassed to say that I cannot even remember his native country, let alone his name, even though I so wish that I could.

Perhaps this is divine punishment, since in our zeal to break a world record, I cheated again. It started out as before - like gangbusters - brother hopping over crouching brother. And we had an unofficial observer driving a station wagon, stocked with refreshments for along the way (and for the celebration in Toronto).

Reality struck much sooner this time. Not long after we had lost sight of our waving girlfriends (mine too, as I had got a life by this time), the data from the car's odometer and clock, not to mention our aching knees, told us that we weren't going to make it if we stuck to textbook leapfrog.

We would have to sell a lot of chocolate bars if we bailed out, but the main thing pushing us was our pride. Here's what happened.

The distances between leaps gradually lengthened into jogs, and the station wagon soon carried more than Gatorade, sandwiches and beer. (Note that the drinking age in Ontario was 18 at the time, and high schools went to grade 13. No further questions please.) There were, however, always brothers on the road, occasionally stopping and crouching so that they could be hopped over. Several hours later, and totally exhausted, we made a show of leapfrogging into Nathan Phillips Square.

We collected our money, and I had quite a story to send along with the next check for the foster child. But we knew that we had not set any kind of world record, and did not submit any such claim.

In science, as in life, competition and personal pride can be complicated forces, sometimes leading to dodgy behavior. I'm not sure if there is anything more to learn than that, either from my escapades in Toronto, or from Dr. Hwang's stem-cell lab in Seoul.



Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

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