Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

My dad was the strongest, handsomest, smartest guy in the world; not just to a small boy growing up but also to a young pre-teenager. He was so smart he could teach me to be better than him. He did it with ping-pong (table tennis) and he did it with chess. He knew how to play just a little better than me until I got a little better, and then ratchet up his game a bit more until I got better than that. Eventually I was standing back a few feet from the table slamming the balls toward any edge or corner on his side that I wanted. Same thing happened in chess. He’d make the best move on the board but he didn’t think ahead any moves. I started making some good moves and then he thought ahead one move. Then I started thinking ahead a move and he started thinking ahead two moves. Like ping-pong, after I won my first game of chess against Dad, I never lost another game against him. Boy, was I proud of myself, but I realized how I got that way and whose debt I was in.

I didn’t read a book until I was 12 years old. I read comics voraciously, but books were too slow and … they didn’t have enough pictures in them. One night Dad and Mom entered my bedroom and gave me a book. “Here, give this a try,” Dad said. He handed me “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Hordes”. I never realized that a book could generate pictures in my brain more vivid and multi-dimensional than any comic book. After I finished Genghis Khan I tried Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” Same impact on me. From then on, it’s been a love affair between books and me. I even ended up writing a few, myself. Actually, I write what I’d like to read, but can’t find.

I wasn’t very good in school. Up until seventh grade, my grades ranged between average and poor. I wasn’t good at anything, except ping-pong, chess, and drawing cartoons. The cartoons probably came from my comic book phase. Mom and Dad decided to buy me a clarinet and pay for music lessons for me. I joined the marching band at Eastmoor High School and, later the concert band and the dance band. I also learned to play tenor saxophone along the way. Of course I learned to read music. Later I began to write music too.

Back to the seventh grade, I had received a “D” (Poor) in geometry class. I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it, but I didn’t do too well in Algebra either, or Arithmetic the year before, or anything else for that matter. My teachers didn’t even write in the comments next to my grades, “he could do better.” I remember a light bulb turning on over my head while I was cracking the geometry book in my bedroom during the second six-week grading period that year. I received my first “A” (Excellent) ever in Geometry the next grading period. Suddenly all my grades became A’s. I didn’t study any harder. It just came to me. The point I want to make is that I had no idea I might be intelligent. Once I got that grade in Geometry, I knew I might be and a whole new dimension opened up for me. I’ve often wondered how many children could be “made” smart just be telling them they’re smart. That’s what I told each of my sons and all of my grandchildren, but they might have been smart anyway. I didn’t run a controlled experiment.

I wasn’t very popular in school. I never had more than one or two friends at any one time, and they were usually misfits like me. I wasn’t what you’d call a good-looking kid. I was skinny, easy pickings for the Dick Hamiltons of elementary, junior, and senior high school. I had my eyes and heart set on the Laurie Mantells and Linda Sanders of high school, but they had their eyes and hearts  pinned on the Steve Howells of the varsity team. It was a matter of survival. I couldn’t rely on my good looks or my physical prowess. The only things I might have been able to rely on were my cartoons, later my drawings and paintings, and after that my stories, music, and poetry. Maybe “they’d” let me survive, if I were good enough. Maybe the girls would look my way. I would have to say that my creativity was most probably a compensation for my lack of physical advantages. I know I would have given them up for those physical advantages in a heartbeat back then. I suppose wisdom had not graced my forehead yet.

In college I took a course in boxing and then judo. After that I never had another problem with personal survival.

I thought it might be better for my social life if I were in the company of intelligent people. I had heard about Mensa, a society of geniuses (see http://www.mensa.org/). All you had to do was pass an IQ test in the top 2 percent of your country. That meant an IQ of 148 back in the late 60’s when I was at Ohio State University. I took the test and missed it by two points. Hence the title of this post: Almost only counts in … “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades.” I always thought that intelligence was a continuous rather than a step function, but I guess you have to draw the boundary somewhere.

Actually I wasn’t very good at horseshoes or hand grenades. Somewhere between 20 and 22, I developed a bit of a tremor in my right hand. I no longer could control the ping-pong paddle like I once had done. When I’d toss a horseshoe, it would land anywhere but the stake. When I was in basic training at Fort Campbell Kentucky, I warned my drill sergeant not to make me throw a grenade. He thought I was kidding. Later, in basic training south of Beer Sheva in Israel, I had a similar situation and the same look of disbelief from that drill sergeant, but this time I was luckier.

It didn’t affect my drawing or painting though, the tremor. I guess it’s like the proverbial stutterer who sings without stuttering.

I wrote a paper for a course in psychology on the subject of whether intelligence was a function of personality or personality a function of intelligence. I think that the questions I raised were more interesting than the answers I came up with at the time. Was there such a thing as an intelligent personality? Could an intelligent person have a stupid personality because the culture in which he or she grew up did not value intelligence? During the Cultural Revolution in Communist China, Chinese citizens who wore glasses were rounded up and summarily shot because neo-Maoists believed only intellectuals wore glasses and intellectuals were a risk to the Middle Proletariat. How many times have we heard, “don’t you get smart with me, Buster”? Could a person adopt a personality to suit his needs or desires?

Dad’s intellectual capacity diminished significantly during the last seven years of his life. It was painful for me to witness it. So much for the wisdom promised us at the end of our lives. It’s a long and slippery slope. I can feel my own intelligence waning. I’m probably down to around 128 or so now, give or take a couple of points.

These days, the question that interests me most is how a person can be aware of his own diminishing intellectual capacity when his intellectual capacity is precisely what he needs to be aware of it. Kind of like the age-old philosophical problem: if you went to bed and the universe increased or decreased by a factor of 10,000 while you slept, would you be aware of it when you got up the next morning?

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Filed under about writing, Essays, Dilemmas, & Philosophy, Prose

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