Some more numbers

The year 1959 was the final year of my formal education.

How little I really knew about what I would need to learn !

What I would be drawing on from my pre-school childhood was
just THIS —an easy familiarity with numbers and their meaning.

Here’s how that began :

Not being born in the summer like my brothers, I didn’t begin  school until I was nearly seven. But I was interested in keeping up with the two of them (much easier to do in a one-room schoolhouse). My family had an advantage in that we had a dozen books beside the family bible, and my mother’s sister kept sending magazines and novels. Dad (a subsistence farmer) subscribed to the Family Herald. I could READ before I started school.

My early understanding of numbers and their usefulness came from playing checkers with my uncle. He would often let me win a few times and then he would open up the mail order catalog.

“Jerry, we want to order one of these and two of these. How much money do we need to send ? “

Never mind that my family couldn’t afford to send for any one item; I had to calculate in my head — how much ?

Also , he introduced me to the economics of money : “Which would you rather have, Jerry, a nickel or a dime ? “

When I said “a dime”, he suggested that if I would say “a nickel” — more people would ask me !

When i did get to join my brothers in the mile-and-a-half hike to the one-roomer, I caught up quickly by listening to the next grade’s lessons, completing the eight grades in six years. By then my parents had figured out how to send one brother for more education. He was to board at the nearest high school in a village 12 miles away, and return home on weekends. (the extra $1 wasn’t available.) I joined him two years later and took seriously the opportunity that no one from our tiny community had ever been able to even consider. By graduation my grades were tops.However, Grade XIII was only available at a greater distance and required my brother and I to share the chores on a large dairy farm within walking distance of the school. Our principal there taught the three math courses and I excelled. He even graded out of 100! Not so the other courses where 80 would often be the highest mark in the class. Such numbers are crucial when you want to proceed to college or university. My getting admitted to Cornell would have been impossible without the recommendations by professors that knew me from having me rough-dress and ice their fish while they enjoyed my mother’s cooking. They explained that I was worthy of a tuition scholarship, and that I was as motivated as those New York applicants with much higher marks. Getting admitted and being granted free tuition was the essential first step.What remained was the matter of room and board, books and fees. With the war ending there was no market for the milk from our ten cows. The meager wood supply was running low and the neighbours were giving up and moving out. The few summer tourists had plenty of other lakes to choose from.

My father was well into his seventies.There would be no financial help from home. A guy named Joe, a farm supply salesman from Ithaca New York had bought a rocky piece of land on the North shore of the lake. He kept coming to his modest camp every year to fish and to praise my mother’s cooking. Joe and his wife Ellen made me an offer !  Though they lived 8 miles from the Cornell campus, if I cared for their family of four kids (one a baby) by cleaning , cooking, and washing, Ellen would be able to teach a Home Economics class at a high school in Ithaca. I was to commit 28 hours a week. Here was an offer I couldn’t refuse ! I wasn’t thinking then  that I was investing , but that’s how I’ve come to understand all human endeavours. We get to INVEST our mind, our muscle, and our money …..whatever is available to us. That is how I worked my way through college and how, as my Dad put it “college worked its way through me “. My thumb muscle was my means of transportation. The rest of my body and mind were usefully invested in summer work at the Cornell dairy. ($1 / hour plus milk and ice cream consumed on the job.) The next summer I hitchhiked  across the country and flew to Alaska expecting to find construction work at $2.95 / hour and pay for my junior year’s books and fees. Not that easy !. A shipping strike stopped all construction and I could only find work in a restaurant and the local bus line. By the time the strike ended and construction resumed, most of us “gold brickers” had returned to stateside. I hung in for an extra week of construction work. The overtime pay allowed me to fly to Chicago instead of Seattle, and I hiked to Ithaca just one day late for registration. By living with an uncle and aunt in Rochester, working 40 hours weekly in construction and some evenings in a convenience store, my third summer was both enjoyable and profitable. For my final year I could afford to live on campus, make my meals at the cooperative, and have time to study.

The results were ….well, spectacular in comparison to years two and three. And I was choosing courses I was vitally interested in  –for future work in farm economics. The agricultural college at Guelph welcomed me and I followed up my master’s degree there with a year of helping farmers establish and maintain their business accounts to better understand their very own numbers. I think my uncle would have been proud of his instructive lessons many years before.

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