Archive for the ‘Life’s Lessons’ Category

Like so many other college students having little direction in life, I decided to take a course in philosophy my freshman year in college back in the summer of 1965 and I’ll never forget the first day’s lesson. As a  footnote, that day was not only my first day in college but the first day Ball State Teacher’s College proudly displayed its new moniker  — Ball State University.

Professor Dudley: Good morning. (Then pausing for but a few seconds to  gaze about the room as if taking mental attendance.) Okay, let’s get started.

At that moment a few students just sat back to listen, others — the academics — dutifully reached for their notebooks and a pencil.  I was a member of the former group and I’m certain of that because the only reason I was in college at all was to avoid the draft.  So having no real academic purpose it just seemed like a good idea to take a course  in philosophy so, if I ever ran into John Lennon, I’d be able to carry on a fairly intelligent conversation.

Professor Dudley: (Walking to and pointing at each object in due course.) This isn’t a blackboard, it’s a lemon. This chair isn’t a chair it’s a cactus  and this door isn’t a door but a window.  He then paused to gauge the confused looks on everyone’s faces.

Professor Dudley: Questions?

The class as a whole was a bit slow to grasp the question but a tall student dressed in hippie gear and headband finally raised his hand and the professor acknowledged him.

Student: (Stepping to the front of the room, books in hand.) Let me get this right. That isn’t a blackboard, it’s a lemon. That  isn’t a chair it’s a cactus  and that isn’t a door but a window. 

Professor Dudley:  (With an all knowing smile on his face.) Yes.

Student:  (As he opened the classroom door to exit.) Then you’re not a professor, you’re an idiot.

Professor Dudley: (Smiling broadly.) Well done. Class dismissed.

It took a few days (if not weeks) for me to comprehend the point he was trying to make (he never elaborated), but I must say the lesson was by far the most thought provoking one  he taught all semester.

For me the lesson was simple. You don’t learn much if you check your brains at the door.


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The night before I departed for college back in June 1965 Dad handed me the following poem which Rudyard Kipling wrote as a gift to his son to commemorate his birthday 101 years ago. He told me that he had strived all his life to live up to the principles it contains and suggested in his quiet manner that I would be well advised to do the same.

I offer this then not only for your consideration but as a long overdue acknowledgement that my father clearly understood a great deal more about living than I really ever gave him credit for.  While falling short of these ideals on far too many occasions myself, I have often found solace referring back to them when life fails to live up to my — more often than not — unrealistic expectations.

Attempting to embrace these ideals throughout my life, it dawned on me several years ago that while its tenets focus on the importance of emotional stability and endurance, no mention is made of love which I think explains to some extent the origins of my general sense of detachment.


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting to

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

– – Rudyard Kipling, 1910

That night Dad also explained how important it would be for me to learn how to control my emotions. “Life is like a roller coaster. If you allow yourself to focus on the highs you will find yourself experiencing equal or greater lows so in part the key to happiness lies in making sure you control your excitement,” he said.

To emphasize his point Dad opened a folder he had brought into the living room and set on the coffee table. He then proceeded to open a large worn map of the U.S. where he had highlighted a score or more locations and an extensive, handwritten list of names each accompanied by a sizable dollar amount. “This is a complete list of all of the people in this country who do what I do. Next to each name is the salary they are being paid,” he said.

Closing the folder it was apparent he had no interest in discussing details. “I just wanted you to know that I am proud of the fact that I am the second highest paid man in the United States in my given profession. The only individual earning more than I am is my boss and I was offered his job but turned it down because I didn’t want to assume his responsibilities,” he said.

It’s important to note that the disclosure was delivered as dispassionately as one might report the accomplishments of some individual you might have just been introduced to in the fruit section of the corner grocery store. He never again spoke to me about his achievements.

I wonder what happened to that folder. I also wonder if he ever shared that information with my older brother, Richard.

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College life was just a continuation of high school for me but there was a great deal more at stake. A half dozen of my high school friends and acquaintances had had the misfortune of being drafted into the army to fight in Vietnam so I think the only reason I ended up attending Ball State is that Dad didn’t want to me get drafted.  There had been no discussion of the hazards of military service before I arrived but I’m hard pressed to think of any other reason because I certainly hadn’t in any academic sense earned the right to go on to any college.

As far as academic memories go, the one that really stands out was Dr. Mayfield’s Early World History course but not for the reasons one might imagine. What impressed me about his course wasn’t that I had an interest in history but that, as a survey course presented in a large assembly hall to incoming freshmen, he made it clear that he was too busy to waste time taking attendance and that that our grades would be wholly based on our scores on the mid-term and final exams.

Well, I decided to take advantage of his good nature and skipped his lectures giving no thought whatsoever to the natural consequence of such a decision.  As one might guess, I flunked the mid-term but it wasn’t until a week before the end of the semester — when I learned that if I failed to pass the final exam I would be kicked out of school and that meant that I would lose my draft deferment. It was then that my nonchalant attitude turned to fear for I knew that the military, unlike Dr. Mayfield, would be keeping daily attendance.

Talking with a history major down the hall in my dormitory, I learned that Dr. Mayfield’s tests were derived from a paperback history book that contained a comprehensive outline of human history up to the American Revolution. “If you are familiar with that, you won’t have to worry about passing the test,” he said.

Seeing the writing on the wall, I immediately went to the bookstore, bought the aforementioned book which was printed in an inordinantly small font and was about three times as thick as your typical paperback. Buying a large bottle of NoDoz, the over-the-counter drug of choice when students burned the midnight oil back in the 60s, I studied that book night and day for five days straight and in the process ended up creating and memorizing an extraordinarily detailed chronological outline that ended up being about 50 narrow lined, notebook pages long.

The morning of the final I remember taking a seat in the front row and being the first of a hundred or more students to hand it in. I also vaguely remember stumbling back to the dorm and immediately falling into a deep sleep, that one might rightfully compare to a coma.

Much to my chagrin a few hours into that sleep, I was rudely awakened by my roommate who told me that I had a telephone call and that I’d best get up and take it because it was from Dr. Mayfield’s office. When I picked up the receiver and identified myself, the woman on the other end of the line informed me that Dr. Mayfield needed to see me in his office, immediately.

“Why?” I asked.

“I’m afraid I can’t go into any detail but I can tell you Dr. Mayfield wants to talk to you about your exam,” she responded.

When I hung up the phone, I started to think about getting dressed but quickly realized that I hadn’t bothered to take my clothes off when I returned to my room, so I was good to go.

Fifteen minutes later I arrived in the history department and introduced myself to the secretary seated at the desk to the left of the entrance to Dr. Mayfield’s office. She picked up the phone, announced my arrival, and then instructed me to go right in.

“Dr. Mayfield will see you now,” she said.

Barely getting my foot in the room, the first thing to strike me was that Dr. Mayfield didn’t invite me to sit down. Instead, he ordered me to take a seat and that immediately eliminated a thought that had  briefly crossed my mind that I might be in for an award or something.

“Where did you get my exam, Mr. Scott?” he asked.

“What are you talking about,” I responded as I struggled to keep my eyes open.

“You missed one question on this final exam and there were only four other students who scored any better and they aced the mid-term. What’s more, I can honestly say that I don’t recognize you,” he said.

“Are you suggesting that I cheated,” I asked.


“Well, I didn’t.” I said.

Dr. Mayfield then proceeded ask me a series of questions to find out just exactly what I did know about early world history and after I answered them correctly, he leaned back in his chair and shook his head. “Okay, I’m fairly convinced you really did study for this exam. Why did you fail the mid-term?”  he asked.

I went on to explain what had led me to skip class all semester as well as what finally led me to apply myself.

“Well, Ron,” he said. “I’ve got some good news and bad news for you. First, the good news. I’m going to give you an A on the final.”

“That’s great,” I said thinking that the battle had been won. “What’s the bad news?”

“I’m giving you a D for the course,” he responded.

“But I earned an A,” I retorted in an indignant voice common to teenagers who feel they have been cheated.

Standing to let me know the meeting had come to an end, he closed with the following advice. “While the D will keep you in school, I hope it will also serve as a reminder to you that you don’t get paid a week’s wages when you choose to limit your work to the final hours of a Friday afternoon.”

Eventually I came to appreciate the lesson he’d taught me but it took some time.

*     *     *

I am reminded that a few months later I received still another call from a school official summoning me to his office, but this time it came from the President’s office. I won’t go into any great detail but Dad had apparently run into the President, John R. Emens, at a conference in Indianapolis. In the course of their conversation, he apparently made mention of me and when Dr. Emens returned to campus he took the initiative to look me up. Reflecting on that memory makes me realize how committed my father was to my welfare. He was always there, I just didn’t realize it.

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One of the things I tried to instill in my students was a simple idea that I took away from a class I took one summer back when I was teaching at St. Mary’s in the late 60s. The summer session course, presented by Dr. Alfred DiVito and underwritten by the National Science Foundation, not only taught teachers the scientific method, but, more importantly, the inherent value of curiosity.

The first day of class Dr. DiVito divided the class into groups of four and then handed each group a cigar box that had been taped shut. Returning to the front of the room he stepped to the blackboard and turned a poster around that had been standing in the chalk tray. It read as follows:

The Scientific Method

Ask a Question

Do Background Research

Construct a Hypothesis

Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment

Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion

Communicate Your Results

He gave a brief introduction to the scientific method and then explained to us that science in its entirety is completely dependent on Step 1. Steps 2 through 6 have no meaning or purpose if they are not preceded by a question. He then asked us to consider the box we had before us and prodded us to start asking questions. Two obvious ones came to the forefront.

“Why are the boxes taped shut?” one student asked.

“Why do you think they’re taped shut?” DiVito responded.

“What’s inside the box?” asked another.

“Apart from opening it, how might you go about determining that yourself?” he responded.

It was only natural for everyone to feel a little discomforted by Dr. DiVito’s evasive responses but it soon dawned on everyone that all he was really doing was motivating us to not only ask questions but find ways to answer them on our own. As the exercise progressed we all found ourselves asking even more questions.

  • Did the object make a discernible sound when the box was shaken?
  • Did the sound of the object reveal anything about it?
  • Did it’s movement tell us anything about it’s shape?
  • Did the object slide?
  • Did it roll?
  • Did it do both?
  • Did the sound tell us anything about the object’s weight and/or density?
  • Did the angle of the box affect the speed at which the object moved from one end to the other?
  • Did the object’s movement tell us anything about its length and/or width?

In the end almost every group succeeded in identifying the various objects in their boxes doing nothing more than asking questions and then, using the power of observation, answering them.

The primary lesson I took away from the course is one that I took to heart. Learning is best derived from one’s own curiosity.

Later in life, after years in the military, private and public sectors, I also came to the conclusion that apart from politicians and old money the people who continually ask questions are the ones who eventually rise to the highest positions of legitimate authority.

Put another  way: The people who rule the world are those who pursue the answers to their own questions, not the people who waste their lives answering someone else’s.

*     *     *

Twenty some odd years later when I taught 5th and 6th grade at Hyatt Elementary in Riverside, California I tried to instill that sense of curiosity in my English and math classes.

As a matter of routine, every day opened with a half hour writing exercise. I’d give the kids a topic and then stand in front of the room answering the questions they would have about spelling, vocabulary, and usage. I had only two rules. The first rule required them to do everything in their power to minimize the use of the forms of the verb be, i.e.,  is, are, was, were, be, being and been. The second was that if they did not know how to spell a word, they were to ask and I would write the word on the blackboard.

As days turns to weeks, and weeks to months, the quality of their writing improved exponentially and the quality of their questions morphed from simple spelling to a myriad of language related issues, e.g., synonyms, antonyms, acronyms, tense, declination, and a vastly expanded vocabulary. It was immensely satisfying to see that when a question was asked and answered, a good share of the class would not only attend to what was being discussed, they’d incorporate what they’d just learned about in their own writing for the day.

Even more gratifying was the response I’d get from my students in math classes when I’d present activities designed to generate curiosity. As an example, I’d break the class into groups of three and hand each group a piece of paper containing a price list of ten items for sale at the local grocery store. The list was followed by the following limiting factors.

  • To get to the store and get home they would have to ride the bus and a bus ticket cost $1.50 each way.
  • Each student would be given a $20 bill.
  • They would be charged a 10% sales tax on all purchases.

Their task?

  • As a group, you have 30 minutes to generate as many questions as you can related to the aforementioned list using the three limiting factors.

In bold letters beneath the tasking read:


As time passed, I believe the kids became far more engaged in mathematics because they not only found the idea of asking questions invigorating, it eventually lead most to want answers which was the unstated objective of the exercises in the first place.

I have to wonder what the state of education would be if educators were trained to spend less time asking questions than answering them.

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When I upgraded from the right seat (navigator) to left seat (radar navigator), I found myself struggling to deliver weapons on target. The typical Cold War mission profile we trained for required us to deliver four weapons on four separate targets at low altitude within roughly a five minute time frame.  The objective was complicated by the fact that we were flying extremely close to the ground (sometimes as low as 400 ft.) at a ground speed of 300 miles per hour. Since our target simulations were almost always missile silos that didn’t have surface profiles that would appear on a radar screen, we’d have to place our crosshairs on distant offsets which were usually some sort of land feature like a peak or the end of a ridge line.

I must have flown 30 missions dropping at least one theoretical weapon out in the boonies somewhere and the errors were erratic. On one run I might miss the first target and get the last three. On another, get the first, miss the second, and cash in on the third and fourth. Finally, the errors started getting to me and I started feeling like a failure. It was then that Lt. Col Pozas, the bombnav chief ordered me into his office.

“What the hell is going on with you?” he asked directing me to sit in the chair in front of his desk after he had shut the door behind us.

“I don’t know, Hank,” I responded head down and tail between my legs. “I guess I’m not cut out for this.”

“Cut out for what?” Hank asked.

“Being a RN,” I responded. “I can’t seem to get it right. I keep making stupid mistakes.”

Hank opened the lower left drawer of his desk and after a couple of seconds pulled out a folder with my name on it. Scanning the top paper inside and proceeding to a second, he nodded his head as though confirming an idea in his head that he intended to validate.

“Yup,” he said. “Looks like you’ve made just about every mistake in the book,  Ron. Get out your checklist,” he said.

I did as I was instructed and it was then that he handed me a pen and told me to write down the following series of letters at the top of the first page of the bomb run checklist. He waited a second or two until he had confirmed that I had recorded each in turn.

“L,” he said. [Pause]

“E,” he said. [Pause]

“A,” he said. [Pause]

“R,” he said. [Pause]

“N,” he said. [Pause]

“I,” he said. [Pause]

“N,” he said. [Pause]

“G,” he said. [Pause]

“What does that spell?” he asked.

“Learning,” I said with a puzzled look on my face.

“That’s right. I’ve been monitoring your progress these past few months and I haven’t been oblivious to the fact that you’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’m not worried about you because you aren’t repeating them,” he said placing great emphasis on the word ‘repeating.’  “You’re learning and that’s all anyone can expect of you.”

Hank went on to explain that I was perfectly capable of flying errorless missions. The only thing I had to do was continue focusing on not repeating my mistakes.

Taking his advice to heart, I refocused my efforts ignoring the natural tendency to get down on myself when I failed to meet my own unrealistic expectations. As a result, I quickly gained the confidence needed to do my job well and in the process came to be greeted by Hank every time I returned from a successful mission as “The Inferior Wizard.”

The lesson to be learned from this experience should be obvious. Never waste time getting down on yourself when you make a mistake. Just focus on not repeating it.

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It was back in early March 1980 when Bill, one of two master sergeants assigned to assist me in running and maintaining the T-10 simulator at Minot AFB,  introduced me to the then little known, over-the-counter silver market. His last name escapes me.

That day I learned that his father was an established coin dealer in Rapid City SD and was heavily involved in the silver trade, specifically the bundling and sale of bags of silver coins having a face value of $1,000.  I don’t know how the initial conversation got started but on the same day I learned that one of our contract engineers had purchased such a bag from Tom Fitzpatrick, the owner of Tom’s Coin, Stamp and Gem Shop in downtown Minot for $7,000.

At the time I recall expressing a mild interest but as news of the market was shared with me over the following weeks my attitude changed dramatically. It couldn’t have been a week after I first learned of this niche market that the price of those bags had jumped to $9,000. A couple of weeks later Bill shared with me that the price of silver on the commodity exchange had risen to nearly $38 an ounce and, as a result, the price of a bag had risen to a whopping $16,000.

I didn’t have the money to get in the market myself but in the course of our informal conversations I learned that Bill’s father was paying $1,000 to those who introduced him to new investors. When I heard that it immediately occurred to me that perhaps I could make a little money brokering a deal through a banker I knew downtown.

When I told Bill that I might be able to find an investor, he agreed to split the referral fee 50/50. On nothing more than a handshake, I made a quick call and to my surprise, the trustee was not only intrigued by the idea but went so far as to express an interest in approaching a couple of farmers he knew who were always looking for a way to leverage their investments.

A week or so later the banker called to ask for a quote. While he was on the phone, Bill made a call to his father who told him that he had three bags, that the going price was $24,000, and that he would guarantee delivery if taken by the close of business the following day — Friday, March 28.  He added that he would be willing to fly into Minot and meet the buyers at their bank at 4:00 p.m. provided the bank faxed him a letter of credit and had enough cash on hand to consummate the deal.

It wasn’t a half hour later that I received a another call from the banker informing me that we had a deal. He explained that he had  called to get a quote from Tom’s. Fitzpatrick was out of town but had left instructions to the store manager not to sell a bag for less than $27,000. Passing that information along to his clients, the banker then told me that he had been authorized to order two bags and was in the process of faxing the requested letter of credit and an additional letter stating that the bank had more than enough cash to meet the need.

The next day Bill left the office mid-afternoon to pick his father up at Minot International and to drive him to the bank.  When they arrived the farmers (who it turns out were brothers) greeted Bill and his father at the banker’s desk. Following a brief introduction and a minute or two of chit chat, the banker/trustee poured the coinage into a machine behind the cashier’s window to confirm each bag’s contents.

Once validated, the trustee, accompanied by the branch manager and a clerk, walked to the vault to get the cash which, once  delivered, Bill’s father patiently counted. No receipts were requested. No receipt was given. Soon thereafter, Bill returned his father to the airport. Once he had departed, Bill took time to call the office to let me know that everything had gone smoothly.

Naturally, I drove home that night quite jazzed about not only making some easy money but also fantasizing about how much could be made investing in silver myself. As it turned out, it’s a good thing that I didn’t pursue that idea.

Unbeknownst to me (and I suspect Bill and his father as well), late the preceding day, Thursday, March 27th, it was reported that Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt, the sons of Texas oil billionaire Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, Jr. had been manipulating the world silver market. As a result, the following day (the very day the aforementioned sale was taking place) the commodity markets went into panic mode and the spot price of silver dropped from a high of $48 an ounce to less than $26. Naturally, the derivative market followed suit but since it is an informal, over-the-counter market the effect of this revelation didn’t really take hold until the following week.

Early the following Monday morning, Bill handed me five, one hundred dollar bills but that wasn’t the big news for the day. By close of business the price of a bag of silver had plummeted to a mere $12,000.

*     *     *

Thirty odd years later I happened to come across The Black Swan, a book written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who writes about the socio-economic impact of highly improbable events — events given hindsight that we convince ourselves were readily discernible but ignored.  Anyone interested in managing his/her own investments would be well advised to read that book before he/she invests money in (or for that matter, devotes energy to) any speculative endeavor.

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If local customs officials living in the State side community of Van Buren and the Canadian village St. Leonard were to be believed, Oscar just didn’t get it.

You see, Oscar was an aspiring smuggler. I say “aspiring” because every time he attempted to cross the US/Canadian border, customs officials would pull him over and, searching his vehicle, find his secreted contraband – usually a few bottles of hooch (when crossing into the US) and cigarettes (when smuggling in the opposite direction). Keep in mind that in 1931 Prohibition had yet to be repealed.

Oscar tried everything – different cars, disguises, diversions. In the latter regard on one occasion he even drove a bus to the border filled with a small group of kids he’d recruited to join him on a field trip. Customs pulled him over, confiscated a dozen cartons of Camel cigarettes and sent him on his way. Needless to say, it got to the point that the border guards took bets in anticipation of Oscar’s next visit.

It wasn’t until the end of 1932 that Oscar got the last laugh. It was then that he was finally arrested, not for smuggling weed and hooch, but for grand theft auto. For you see he had for a number of years maintained two highly profitable auto dealerships – one in Maine and one in Nova Scotia – and had made a very good living stealing cars on one side of the border and selling them on the other.

Just goes to show that one should always be mindful about drawing a conclusion, even when it would appear there is an abundance of data to support it.

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