During my schooling and beyond, I had a strange association with numbers. I loathed arithmetic, detested fractions, lost my place adding columns of figures (no calculators then), and long division was a downright annoyance.
When the teacher wrote a long-division problem on the blackboard, I dreaded being selected to go to the head of the class to solve it. I would get up there with the chalk in my hand, wishing I was someplace else. I would become nervous and forget the whole process.
The class would have a laugh at my expense, and I would be sent to the principal's office because of a numbers block.
But during this time I noticed something else. I could remember numbers without effort, like a computer: dates, amounts, numbers of miles driven to various locations, the year a movie came out, changes in speed-limit signs. I was "on line" decades before anyone.
One day I came home from school and discovered there was a new license plate with a new number on our family Packard. I came in the house and asked my father what became of BC-9430. My father asked what BC-9430 was, and I replied that was the old license number on the car. My father had never known that. He and my mother exchanged peculiar looks.
My folks began to see me as a telephone and address book without pages. I still remember our telephone number from 40 years ago, Endicott 4-5362. Along with their delight, my parents wondered why I had trouble with long division and lost my place adding columns of figures.
Numbers would enter my consciousness and stay there. I would remember bits of table conversation, and use it later. I would say to Dad, "The next time you talk to that man, don't be so polite. After all, he does owe you $600." I was reminded that that conversation was not meant for my ears.
THIS retention continued into high school, not just for numbers, but for facts. One day an English teacher asked our class, "What can you tell me about Eugene O'Neill?"
Students detested these kinds of questions. I could see the dislike on their faces. There was a good deal of "Ummm" and "ahhh," and some of the students tried to change the subject by garnering laughs. "Eugene O'Neill, didn't he manage the Brooklyn Dodgers?"
But these types of answers make teachers frown and sorely test their patience. Ours went through every member of the class. I was the last one asked this question.
"Eugene O'Neill was a successful playwright who authored the play 'The Iceman Cometh,' among others. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1936."
The teacher was absolutely stunned. (The picture of her surprise still lingers in memory.) I had been looking in an almanac the year before, for some other information about history, and had just happened to see information about Eugene O'Neill. I retained it, without effort. It began to dawn on me how infinitely important reading was. One could not predict when stored information could be useful.
The teacher knew that asking questions about literature bothered the class. She asked us to name an author and tell something about him or her. The class fidgeted, wanting to be somewhere else.
I knew what authors teachers liked to hear about. The school did not like us discussing pulp fiction or its authors, or doing book reports on such material. I liked Jack Kerouac, but this Beat novelist was one of those who was not appreciated by the English literature department.
When my question came, I chose John Steinbeck, who wrote about California and its people. His first novel was "Cup of Gold," 1929; some others were "Of Mice and Men," 1937; "The Grapes of Wrath," 1939; "East of Eden," 1952; and "The Winter of Our Discontent," 1961. He won the Nobel Prize in 1962. The teacher liked to save my answers for last because I could throw in some dates for authenticity.
Some other students thought I had assistance answering literary questions - that I had 3-by-5 cards up my shirt sleeve. I laughed at such an assumption. I'm glad I didn't discuss John Creasey. He wrote more than 300 paperback mysteries. That's a lot of 3-by-5 cards for one little shirt sleeve.
Such a gift for numbers has been celebrated in films. In "Saturday Night Fever," John Travolta's character comforts a sad friend played by Karen Lynn Gorney by discussing the Brooklyn Bridge: the center span goes up 690 feet, the bridge and on-ramps are 2-1/2 miles long, three quarters of a million yards of concrete were used in its construction, and so on.
Sometimes remembering numbers causes bumps in relationships. "You never remember my birthday," said my mother. I pleaded guilty to the accusation. My Army number was US51731703. My first month's pay as a soldier was $94.
Some years ago I made an improper turn in traffic and was stopped by the police. I had forgotten to bring my license after I had changed trousers. But I rattled off my license operator number to the patrol car computer, which paused for a few seconds.
"No previous offenses" said the monitor screen. But the patrolman wasn't impressed. I still had to pay the $25 fine.