Research Day: Pee-Chees, Exploding Soda, and Bad Bad Leroy Brown

Do they still make Pee-Chees?: Last night I told this story to a group of friends:

When I was in elementary school I didn’t really listen to music, but I knew that liking all the cool bands was essential to popularity. So I used to secretly copy the band names other kids had written on their Pee-Chees onto my own.

One day I somehow wound up talking to this girl I liked, and at some point she zeroed in on one of the band names I had on my Pee-Chee. “Oh, do you like INXS?” she asked. Unfortunately, I had no idea who she was talking about, because she pronounced the band name correctly, as “In Excess.” So I tried to bluff. “Yeah, In Excess is okay,” I said, but then tapped the “INXS” on my Pee Chee and added, “But the band I really like is Inks.”

This story got plenty of laughs, but at all the wrong moments. It was supposed to be a charming illustration of what a dope I was as a kid, but judging from the way everyone burst into guffaws every time I said “Pee-Chee,” it was taken more as an illustration of what a dope I am now. Afterwards, everyone was all, like, “what the hell were you talking about?”

Here’s the thing: mention “Pee-Chee” to people of my generation who grew up in Seattle, and they immediately know what you’re referring to: those goldenrod folders with all the sports figures on them. In fact, at my school, we said “Pee-Chee” to mean any folder, in the same way that people say “Q-tip” or “Kleenex.” The Pee-Chee brand was so popular that it was even able to stave off encroachment of the cooler-than-cool “Trapper Keeper” for a while.

Anyhow, that got me to wondering if kids today still use Pee-Chees. And the answer appeared to be “no.” “The folders are no longer made today,” according to this article.

But I had a hunch this wasn’t true — after all, I imagine the entire Washington State education system would implode in a abscence of Pee-Chees. So I did some actual non-sitting-on-my-ass-using-Google research: I went to my local drug store and perused the stationary aisle. And sure enough, there were the Pee-Chee folders I remember from my childhood, shelved with all the other “essential school supplies.”

Incidentally, I took a very informal poll, and it seems that everyone who grew up on the West Coast knew what a “Pee-Chee” was, while those who grew up elsewhere did not. So although my friends were snickering at my usage of “Pee-Chee,” in truth I should have been laughing at them, because their unfamiliarity with the term was outing them as a bunch of non-natives, Pacific Northwest poseurs.

Why do bottles of carbonated drinks explode after you’ve shaken them: This is one of these things I’ve always taken as a given, without ever reflecting on it: you shake a Sprite, it blows all over your kitchen when you open the can. But only recently, after I had a two-liter bottle of Talking Rain go all a-bomb on me after it had rolled around in my trunk on the way home from the store, did it ever occur to me to wonder why. Obviously the contents are under pressure, but does agitating them somehow increase the pressure? I though the only way to could increase the pressure of something was to reduce its volume or raise its temperature.

According to Ask Science Theatre, the pressure in the bottle does not increase when you shake it, but is still to blame for the phenomonon. In an unshaken bottle, soda occupies the bottom nine-tenths of the container, with a pocket of gas siting on top; this gas escapes with a pfffffft when you open the bottle, leaving the soda undisturbed. When you shake up the bottle, though, some of that carbon dioxide is mixed into the liquid and forms tiny bubbles. The gas still wants to escape when you open the bottle, though, but now has to muscle its way up through the soda toward the spout. In doing so, it pushes the liquid upwards, causing it to gush out of the bottle. The more you shake the bottle, the more thoroughly the carbon dioxide mixes with the soda, the greater the subsequent explosion.

Update: A couple of readers are callin’ bullshit on this explanation. I did a little more research and came across this page which provides three answers to the question, all of which are different from the one cited above and, exasperatingly, subtly different from each other as well.

But Richard Shaffstall sent what I find to be the most believable of all the theories. “Soda is carbonated; it has dissolved gasses in the liquid. The bubbles in the liquid that get put there by shaking allow the dissolved carbonation to separate from the liquid [by virtue of being “nucleation sites”] and become a gas. Gasses take up more space then liquids, so suddenly, explosively, the soda/gas mixture takes up more room then the container can hold and boom …

“This is the same explanation for how gunpowder works. Burning the gunpowder causes gasses to form. The gasses take up more space then the gunpowder un-burnt takes up, pressure goes up, and if it doesn’t have anyplace to go (as in a bullet cartridge) it builds up until the container cannot hold it and boom.”

What was Encyclopedia Brown’s first name: Considering the sheer number of Encyclopedia Brown books I read as I kid, you’d think I’d know this off the top of my head. But when I tried to remember Encyclopedia’s real name the other day, all I could come up with was “Leroy Brown” — and I knew I was just confusing the pint-sized sleuth with Jim Croce’s classic song Bad Bad Leroy Brown. So I plugged “encyclopedia brown” into Google to see if I could find out.

Ironically, it was “Wikipedia,” the 21st century’s answer to the Encyclopedia that had my answer, and I’ll be pickled if I didn’t have it right the first time. “Leroy ‘Encyclopedia’ Brown lives in the fictional Idaville, Florida, where his father is chief of police. Whenever a case arises (often one that is stumping his father), Encyclopedia Brown swings into action, assisted in his investigations by his friend (and “muscle”) Sally Kimball.”

Wow, crazy. And check out the dates. The first Encyclopedia Brown book (“Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective”) was published in 1963, with “America’s Sherlock in sneakers” aged about 10 or so; “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” meanwhile, was released in 1974. So, conceivably, they could be about the same person. At some point in Encyclopedia’s teens, Bugs Meany might have convinced him to join The Tigers, and after that it would have he abandoned his career of do-gooding for the rough-and-tumble life on the streets. Maybe by the age of 21 he was six foot four, had moved to the ‘ole south side Chicago, carried a .32 gun in his pocket for fun, and was called “Treetop Lover” by all those downtown ladies.

It’s certainly possible. I mean, look at what happen to those kid actors from “Diff’rent Strokes.”

Was Encyclopedia Brown the basis for Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”? For the answer, turn to page 113.

60 thoughts on “Research Day: Pee-Chees, Exploding Soda, and Bad Bad Leroy Brown

  1. I remember Pee-Chees as having one of the Lockjaw forebears (usually featured in my annual graffiti), riding a ski lift. She must have been on the reverse.

  2. Follow up – My wife and I were watching a Freaks and Geeks dvd last night and in one scene a kid was walking down the hall carrying a Pee Chee. I told her that was a gaffe since the show is set in Michigan and, according to defectiveyeti, Pee Chee’s weren’t found east of Colorado. The wife pretended to be very impressed with my knowledge of retarded minutiae.

  3. Sorry guys, but kinetic energy of shaking has nothing to do with an outburst. The reason is entirely in the number of nucleation sites. See, when you open unshaken bottle, it starts losing dissolved CO2, but does it slowly, so that soda doesn’t get thrown out of bottle. Shaken bottle loses CO2 much faster because there are more nucleation sites and thus throws soda out.

    A little advice from the pro. If you have to open a bottle which you suspect to be shaken but not stirred and there is nobody who can do it for you, open the cap just a little bit… very very slowly, until you hear faint hissing sound. Wait until it stops, then open little more and wait again. This way you can safely open a bottle of any degree of shakenness.

  4. This is great.

    * One where Bugs claimed some special lamp broke when it fell out of the back of a truck when the driver stopped short. EB knew that Bugs broke it, because when a car stops quickly, stuff gets thrown to the front, not the back.

    * One where EB proved some chick was lying about being in the water (diving for golf balls, I want to say), but he knew she wasn’t because she was filing her nails, and EVERYONE knows that nobody files their nails right after being in the water.

    The ones that involved social norms (like the nail filing one above) rather than science were definitely rip-offs. Any nine-year-old who knows that men “always” sit with their back to the room needs some serious deprogramming.

  5. Since no one answered Chris’s question about grape soda, I will. Different kinds of soda have different carbonation levels. Fruit sodas are typically lower in carbonation than colas. That’s one reason that fountain soda tastes different from canned or bottled – all flavors will have the same carbonation level out of a fountain.

    (I’m a Chem Eng. too, but for some reason, my convenience store experience seems more relevant here)

  6. I read the Encyclopedia Brown series as a child too, and all this talk got me nostalgic. I went on Google to see if there’s a website that has a listing of all the EB stories with the answers to the mysteries. Although I haven’t found one (yet), I stumbled across a different kind of website.

    Modern Humorist has parodies of EB stories, using real-world events. An example is “Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Pirated Mp3s” (http://www.modernhumorist.com/mh/0005/encyc_mp3/index.cfm). In the story, Metallica hires Leroy to help them find out why no one is buying their new album, yet all their fans know the songs from the album. Check it out if you haven’t yet.

  7. I always thought I was a human…

    Oprah and I are the same age. I only say that to tell you all that I must be from another planet or an alternative universe. I have never heard of pee-chees or Encyclopedia Brown. Where have I been all my life?

    I have heard of Bad Bad Leroy Brown and soda spewing from a well-shaken can. Whew! Maybe I’m not from an alternate reality afterall.

    I was born and raised in Paradise (Florida, land of the hurricanes) and the only thing pee-chee here is the weather… or it was until about 6 weeks ago.

    But the hurricanes are gone for the moment and life is Pee-chee again.

    Pee-chee!

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