THE OLD MAN AND ME: BOOK II - CHAPTER 14b
Hiram College Sophomore Year
My sophomore year I finally escaped the drudgery of all-required-courses-all-the-time. Although I still had to take a math qualifier, I could fulfill that with a course in logic. The course and the instructor were actually fun much of the time. But young Dallas Greene got me in the end.
Most classes were scored either on the straight point system, or against a “Bell Curve.” If every test was 100 points (finals might count twice), adding all the scores and dividing by the number of tests given produced a numeric score that was also a percent. An “A” was 95 – 100 correct, a “B” was 85 – 94 and so forth. If you scored anything over the high score of a range, like say-y-y... 94.3, it was considered a “minus” (as in A-minus) and rounded up to the full “A.” If a teacher graded “on the curve,” the top score in the class established the high score "tail" of a two-tailed curve. The rest of the grades in the class were then ranked and mathematically fitted to a curve in which both “tails” of the curve shifted to match the high score. In both systems, teachers who graded homework or gave quizzes made up their own rules for including those scores, but all was explained in advance.
Of course, there had to be the occasional oddball. And Dallas epitomized that. He graded on the thousand point scale, which meant he didn’t average. He also didn’t do “minus” scores. My grade for the semester was a “B.” My score was 949. If I had only missed one less 3-point question, or lost one fewer point on the multi-point essay questions, or... The problem I had with the whole thing was that some of his questions could only be judged subjectively. Somewhere in an entire 23 week semester, he had misgraded me by one point on an arguable answer. I was sure of it. But, of course, there was no arguing with him. He “logicked” me straight under the table in less time than it takes to tell it. The "B" stuck. I might as well have relaxed and taken a score in the eighty percent group.
What really ticked me off was the secondary distribution. There were about thirty-five students in that class, of whom only one earned an "A," only one. That student scored less than 960. There were more than a half-dozen students who earned a "B," but not one aside from me broke 900. There were about as many students who earned a "D" as earned "A" and "B" together. The rest earned a "C" for their sins. No one flunked.
But there were other professors I enjoyed. The Psychology prof was eighty-something, retired from prison psychology and just a little strange. During exams he walked the aisles between desks moaning, “Life is ha-a-rd. Ha-a-ave a piece of candy,” while he pulled last year’s (unwrapped) hard candy from Christmas out of a brown paper lunch bag and laid pieces on everybody’s desk. During one such event, he staged a robbery. Two men, one of whom had survived the worst acne attack ever (or smallpox) and the other of whom had a knife scar from the corner of his eye to his earlobe... which was missing, came through the classroom with guns showing during a full-period exam. They ordered everyone to place wallets, rings, watches and cash on the desk in front of them, and they began cruising the room. All went well until they came to “The Marine.”
I don’t remember his name, but “The Marine” stood about six feet three and he looked like a body-builder with a flat-top. He had spent two enlistments in the Corps (the first enlistment is four years, but I think the reenlistment term is two), saving every dime. His last post had been Washington, D.C., as a member of the multiforce Honor Guard. Everybody liked or feared The Marine. When the bank account was big enough, for some reason he chose Hiram College for his undergraduate work. This day, he, along with the rest of us was taking the psych exam... well, he had been. At the moment he was staring calmly at the pock-marked robber with the pistol that looked like a pocket blunderbuss.
The robber walked directly to The Marine’s desk and announced, “Flat-Top, if you don’t start filling the top of this desk with everything you have on you, I’m gonna shoot you square in the face!”
Whip fast, The Marine reached out and wrapped his hand around the hand holding the mini-blunderbuss. Twisting the business end of the ugly little gun upward and backward by the simple expedient of twisting the hand farther than it was ever meant to go, he asked casually, “With a banana?” And then he sque-e-e-ezed. Squished banana popped out of the end of the “gun,” and the man holding it said, “O-ow-ww-w... Hey!” His erstwhile partner was doubled over, laughing so hard I thought he’d vomit. That ended when two of us grabbed him, hauled him upright by the hair, by his yelping we guessed it had been a fairly painful procedure, and I took his zucchi... er-r-r – gun.
The professor called the two men up to the front of the room and told the class to forget the test. We’d passed the real test. “Whutinell did you think you were doing?” The Marine was not amused. “I could have hurt him.”
“All right,” the professor was a little contrite, “let me explain. I put you under stress and made you concentrate. Meanwhile I wandered around with candy as if I were your slightly demented grandmother, keeping you off balance. Then I invited our guests in. How many noticed that?” He looked around the room. No one, not even The Marine, raised a hand. “Look at your desks.” We all looked, and then we looked around. Only one desk remained uncluttered. ”Until Mr. Marine here put a stop to our little robbery, and that’s only the second time in many years that’s happened to me, you were all fooled.”
Fear and confusion – always a good combination... for the bad guys. But The Marine was trained to ignore fear and confusion. The professor said as much, “Your hero,” he patted The Marine on the shoulder, “assessed the situation, realized the “gun” was a painted banana, and deliberately drew the robber to him. Training can often overcome our more primitive instincts, as it did for him, but not always. The final part of the equation was that my friends here looked like robbers, or what we tend to think robbers should look like, thanks to television and Dick Tracy. We think robbers look mean and ugly. That discouraged most of you from taking a closer look.” While he spoke, the two men had been transforming themselves into ordinary citizens. The scar and the lesions peeled off in sheets of rubber cement and make-up. Two fresh-faced young men, about the age of The Marine stood in front of us, one rubbing his hand and wrist.
We spent the rest of the period discussing the event. The Marine kept telling the blunderbuss guy he was sorry, without meaning it. The would-be actor kept telling him it was OK, but he didn’t mean that either.
Then there was Professor Hoffsteader, our European history professor, who would spend fifteen minutes before every class outlining the day’s lecture on the blackboard, using an outline that perfectly followed the text. I learned early to do two things to pass his class: 1) show up early and copy that outline verbatim, and 2) pay special attention and write down everything he said when he talked about the Roman Catholic Church’s role in European life and politics in pre-industrial Europe. He despised them more than the Old Man did... a hard thing to do. It meant he ascribed all of history’s evils to the Church.
As a freshman, I sat through a basic biology class that was devoted almost entirely to the concepts of probability and geologic scales of time as they applied to the universe as a whole. It was unendurably boring, and I had a terrible time. My parents couldn’t believe I’d gotten such a poor grade in biology, my supposed major. There were discussions I wasn’t privy to between parents and faculty and parents and administration. My grade didn’t change, but I was told the next semester’s class was about biology.
I attended the Chemistry for English Majors that every freshman had to attend, taught by a man we called Steady Eddie. Dr. Ed was our Ben Stein, but with a rolling deep baritone that never could have put the whine in “Beu-u-uhler?” that Ben Stein did. As a monotone capable of curing the worst insomnia, Dr. Ed broke the bank. Keeping his freshman chemistry class awake held no evident interest for him. Given the chance Dr. Ed could be entertaining, albeit inadvertently. His everyday dress for class was a hound’s-tooth sports jacket with leather elbow patches, and he smoked a flat Oom-Paul pipe, made to be slipped into a jacket pocket. Unfortunately, Dr. Ed was also absent-minded. He would drop the pipe into his pocket with only the most cursory attempt to tamp the cherry on the ash. Throughout his lecture he would pull out the pipe and draw on it a couple of times, occasionally relight it, and drop it back in his pocket. We lived for the day we would be the first to notice the flames that periodically graced the right-side pocket of that jacket.
I also discovered two things, related to each other only by the students who embraced both. The first was Contract Bridge. For those readers who don’t know this game of cards, understand that Contract Bridge and its precursors Auction Bridge and prior to that, Whist, literally destroyed fortunes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We, however, played only to count coup. Highest score won, and there were a limited number of hands for each scoring set. It’s a highly stylized game that is played by two sets of cross-table partners, it uses all fifty-two cards in a deck (holding all thirteen of my cards was a real challenge for this ol’ poker player for some time) and it demands intense concentration on both the bidding (something like the bidding in Euchre) and the play.
The second was a place... a small coffeehouse in Cleveland called La Cave (pronounced la cahv), that catered to college students and rising stars in the folk-singing world. By the time I became a part of the Bridge “family” many of them had made a regular thing of Friday night pilgrimages to La Cave to see and hear the latest new singer or group. Since it wasn’t a bar, no one cared if the management let people stay past closing, so we often did. I met a lot of people who never became “somebody,” and a few who did. People like Gordon Lightfoot would come to La Cave after a gig at a “real” club, sing a couple of songs sitting next to his coffee at a table, and then stay ‘til daylight just talking and playing cards. Some played Bridge and some didn’t. Some played poker, but the management said, “No money!” and they meant it.
By the time we were done for the year, I was on academic probation and, I feared, unlikely to survive more than one semester in the coming year. But Giles, my “kid” brother, saved me. He took us both into the Army that August.