Nothing to bandy about

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THE little dingus I have on my desk, my only condescension to the computer age, is pretty good for estimating loose hay in the mow, but I don't seem to get accustomed to the way it lops off zeros. Dollars and cents. Well, four times $1.25 comes to $5.00. But my little dingus brings that off as just $5, so the two zeros representing no-no cents remain somewhere in the incredible innards of the computer. It should not be so, and I speak from a position of strength. I learned early that zeros are nothing to bandy about. There was this professor of mathematics . . . . I owe that professor more than I can ever express, because alone and single-mindedly he weaned me from all interest in his subject, until I came through college serene and pure to step into the world and amount to something. I rejoice that he spared me a mathematical life. True, I can do a few simple things, like estimating loose hay in a mow (handy once a year at Candlemas), and sometimes I can make sense out of the grocery tab, but figuring a transit of Venus is beyond me and I am glad. I remember that professor gratefully and shall speak about one of his oddities.

The class I had with him met three times a week, on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 8:30 a.m. We in his class, most of us, would come from (then) compulsory chapel and arrive at the classroom building in a group. But he would come from his home, walking through a grove of pines, to arrive by a back door, so that when we came in from the front he would be arriving at his desk. Now, it happened that a man from the village who was employed by the college as a janitor would park his automobile on the edge of this grove, where it was out of the way, almost out of sight, but on the path this professor followed. So as he came along with his head down, probably pondering on Fermat's Last Theorem, he would step aside, walk around the parked automobile, and return to the path.

But this chap who parked his automobile in that spot didn't work on Saturdays. And on Saturdays, when there was no automobile to walk around, this professor would come along with his little green bookbag to turn aside and step around the automobile just as if it were there. When I discovered this I mentioned it to classmates, who didn't believe me, so the next Saturday we gathered to watch.

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One morning this professor gave us a quick quiz. He put two problems on the blackboard, told us to choose one, and put the answer on a sheet of paper. I selected the first, and after a few interpolations and a lot of guesswork I came up with the answer -- zero. I put 0 on my sheet of paper and laid the paper on his desk. Back at my seat, just for the fun of it, I tackled the second problem and found that while it called for a different method, the answer was the same -- 0. This amused me, but not very much, and thus I was on my way to becoming an accomplished mathematician.

Zero was the right answer, all right -- to both problems -- but this professor didn't give me any credit for the 0 on my sheet of paper. This was because I neglected to jot down if I was doing Question 1 or Question 2. You see, he had no way of knowing just by the answer. I readily understood that, and there was something about it that gave me pause. I realized I was not by temperament adjusted to the pursuit of mathematics, and from that moment on I gave my attention elsewhere. I can estimate loose hay in a mow all right, but I don't go out of my way to step around something that isn't there.

I hope, too, that I have explained why I miss those two little no-no zeros when the dingus on my desk drops them from my ciphering, and for $5.00 I get only $5. Mathematically, two zeros mean only zero, but philosophically I cherish a memory, and I appreciate that lesson inculcated so long ago -- that if I had only been able to tell one 0 from another 0. . . . I have been more fortunate than some. Candlemas Day, Candlemas Day, Half your wood and half your hay.

If, at Candlemas, you need to know if you have enough hay to carry your cow through to green grass, find the number of cubic feet in your mow, and divide by 500 to arrive at tons. (10 x 20 x 30 feet equals 6,000, or 12 tons.)

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