Spontaneous catastrophe: Notes from a recent ‘Bakken Evening Out’

Behind the thick stone walls and arched windows of an impressive 25,000-square-foot home on Lake Calhoun, one might expect to find fine wine and food, enlightened conversation, entertainment and music. And one would find all of these things in this beautiful structure, mingling with some lunatic dressed as Ben Franklin, a machine that electrocutes you, strange fish, Frankenstein’s monster and a little miniature house that explodes. Welcome to the Bakken Museum, second Tuesday of the month.

The home sits tucked away on the west shore of Lake Calhoun, almost out of sight from those touring the lakes by bike or car. No extravagant sign marks the spot, although being a museum of electricity, the proprietors could surely think of something to grab the attention of passersby. Maybe a giant Tesla Coil could shock anyone who came within 50 meters, and an attendant could run out and steal the $7 admission price from the unfortunate’s body and drag him inside, where the real magic happens. Although “magic” isn’t exactly the right word to use around a staff bent on educating the visitor that it is not magic so much as science — often still considered magic by those who do not understand it — but they’re not fooling me. I know magic when I see it, and free cheese and booze do not form a hypothesis I haven’t already tested and proven.

The second Tuesday of the month is a special occasion at the Bakken. It’s called “Bakken Evening Out,” and it’s billed on advertisements as, “A great happy hour alternative. Sample wine and food …” No need to read on. I’ll show up to just about anything where I’m offered something for free. This is America, after all. Home of the free. Land of the cheese … something like that.

Wine and voltage
Electricity has always fascinated me, and it seemed like mixing wine and voltage would be a recipe for fun no matter who the crowd. Considering it was also advertised as Ben Franklin’s 302nd birthday, I figured that fact alone would lend the possibility of a spontaneous catastrophe. I like anything that gets out of hand rapidly, and Ben Franklin, from most of what I’ve read about him, struck me as a guy who could make that happen. In addition to standing around trying to discover the nature of electricity by flying a kite in an electrical storm, he was widely known to lounge around on his porch naked, using a technique called “airbathing” to dry. A fancy word for “I don’t think I can bring myself to wear pants today.” I know the feeling.

But I put on pants and made the trip Jan. 8 if only to see the beautiful insides of a home I would not otherwise be allowed to set foot in. The castle-like mansion was built by William E. Goodfellow who had made quite a bit of loot in real estate, various financial investments and by selling his dry-goods store in 1904 to George Dayton (of Dayton’s department stores). Goodfellow called his home “West Winds” and built it to woo a woman who accused him of being cheap, and who afterwards dumped him anyway.

But Goodfellow’s project wasn’t all for nothing. In 1975, Earl Bakken, inventor of the first cardiac pacemaker and founder of Minnesota medical technology giant Medtronic, purchased the mansion to be a monument to the role of electricity in life. Inside is a treasure trove not only of 11,000 rare books (including an 1831 edition of “Frankenstein”), but 2,500 scientific instruments ranging from an eye magnet, which looks like a large metal frosting applicator for cakes, but which was actually made to suck iron out of people’s eyes, to a theremin, a musical instrument that can be played without being touched, but by waving your hands around two metal antennas to create eerie sounds not unlike a whale being sacrificed with an eye magnet. It’s difficult to play well, or listen to any number of these songs where professionals use it in popular music.

After a little music, it was time to find the food and wine, and Ben Franklin, whom I had met minutes earlier demonstrating, typically, how to play crystal glasses with a wet finger, was already on the case. At age 302, he was looking dapper in his period attire and was in the middle of regaling the guests around the cheese plate with a demonstration of his invention the lightening rod. I grabbed a glass of wine and watched as Ben set up a little house for some sort of show. In the process, I spotted a kindly woman distributing samples of chicken potpie, of which I am quite fond, and she, all too eager to please, let me indulge myself with several. By then, Ben had his little house set up and was holding a small bottle of liquid, which he turned a static generator against to build up an electric charge. He then touched the bottle to the little home’s lightening rod, and the charge was safely distributed into the ground. He then did the same thing without the lightening rod and, as the room hushed in anticipation, I thought back to science class and drained my wine. I finished exactly as I heard a bang and saw the roof of the little home fly off and hit the 12-foot decorative wooden ceiling of the great hall. A cheer went up among the crowd. I thought I heard someone yell “Magic!” and quickly ducked out to get more wine. This was shaping up to be my kind of party.

Sparks and shocks
All around, down long hallways and up winding staircases throughout the great home, different rooms held experiments conducted with the aid of eager volunteers. One girl touched a static device and her hair stood on end like she’d just seen ’80s band Poison in a wind tunnel while fighting a rabid wolverine. Another group formed an incomplete circle by awkwardly holding hands with strangers while a moderator cranked a wheel to charge himself and upon joining the circle sent a collective shock through the group. I approached one experiment where a staffer was advertising “electric punch,” and not exactly sure what she meant I took a swig and a spark flew to my lips, nearly causing me to spill my drink.
Feeling I needed some sort of excuse, now heading into my fourth glass of wine in a civilized setting, I asked if she could please electrify another sort of beverage and quickly gathered a glass in the name of science. Soon we had all kinds of people involved, and I was her greatest recruitment aid, convincing everyone to get a little taste of spark. I found out that, in fact, she was a volunteer — many of the staffers are, as the nonprofit Bakken has a robust volunteer program for anyone interested. I thought to myself that if they were ever to get that Tesla Coil going out front, I would gladly volunteer to take an admission fee off shocked bodies and drag them inside. I made a note to suggest this later, after more wine.

Feeling emboldened now, I returned to the lobby where I had seen a funny-looking contraption engraved “Electricity Is Life” — a shocker machine from the 1920s. The idea was to grab a couple of handles, not unlike bicycle grips, and turn one of them thus delivering a steady shock to the body which would increase in intensity as the grip was forced upward. An electrician friend of mine named Jerry grabbed hold and gave it a go, achieving 30 or 40 units of whatever it was — volts, perhaps — before he quit. It seems that through some sort of learned behavior, electricians have evolved an avoidance mechanism that causes them to shrink from electrocution.

As a writer, I had no such biological inhibitions and indeed thought that psychologically, the effects could only be beneficial. I read the directions aloud and recorded them for posterity. Then, I grabbed the grips and cranked the shocker to full power, sending my forearms quivering and my feet dancing as if desirous to run away from the danger delivered through my arms. Strange that the appendages on the same body could have such contrary interests. I then read the directions again (shock here), though this time much more quickly, almost with a sense of urgency, while at the same time laughing hysterically. The meter achieved 200 or more units of forearm quivering, and in the end I felt I had proven myself brave in a carnival sort of way, which is arguably among the most noble of ways to prove valor and bravery.

Interestingly, the next day, I was walking around and my arms were quite sore in the forearm area, and I couldn’t recall what I had done the night before to inflict the ache. Had I exercised at the Y or played a sport of any kind? And then I remembered: the shocker machine had given me a workout! It made me think of those infomercials where people hook their rather large stomachs up to electrodes and sit down to snack and watch TV while periodically shocking themselves. Thinking about Ben Franklin’s body type, I wondered why he hadn’t thought of this hundreds of years before, while airbathing on his porch. It was probably that he didn’t have a TV. Had he, Ben surely would have stayed in his house shocking himself into shape while watching reruns of the Boston Tea Party.

Contributing writer Adam Overland will come to your party if you offer free anything.

FYI: Bakken Evening Out

Where: The Bakken — A Library and Museum of Electricity in Life, 3537 Zenith Ave. S.

What: It’s a happy hour alternative for people interested in learning more about the electrical world. Adults can sample wine and food while checking out the museum’s exhibits.

When: Second Tuesday of the month

Next event: Saints & Scholars: “Green” Inventions, March 11 (6–8 p.m.) A celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and “green inventors.”

Cost: Included with $7 museum admission fee

Website: www.thebakken.org

Phone: 926-3878