Slide Rule Revelation

By Sam Longo — August 06, 2013

AMU Chronicles

High school can be an intimidating and overwhelming experience of course selections and future directions, but with a little luck and intuition you stumble down the ideal path . . .

I am still not sure what possessed me to check off the box for Advanced Electronics on my Grade 11 electives sheet.  Perhaps because my father had been a television and radio repairman or possibly because I had excelled and enjoyed two previous years of wiring mock houses in Electrical Class 1 & 2.

The mere fact that Advanced Electronics was even offered was due to a lucky break on my part. I was attending a brand new high school that opened at the start of my Grade 11 year, right in my neighbourhood.  Stephen Leacock Collegiate was bristling with all manner of high-tech options, even boasting a state-of-the-art television production studio.

It was clear from Day One in Mr. Pfisterer’s class that Advanced Electronics would be a challenging learning experience. Our Austrian-born teacher was a stern taskmaster expecting nothing short of excellence from each of his students. Of course, we all thought he was a bit of a crazy old codger.  He was incredibly fit from a lifetime of skiing, and he often impressed us by walking on his hands around the classroom to relieve his boredom. Being a tech class, in those days, meant that there were no females in the group, which was probably a good thing, as he felt it necessary to provide sexual analogies to every theory he taught, always followed by his perceived reality that for young men of our age group, it would be the only way we would remember anything.

Besides building basic circuit boards from schematics and learning the resistor color code (“bad boys rape our young girls,” etc.) we all worked hard on our theoretical and practical assignments as the weeks progressed. Our class was always slotted in the last periods of the day and there were never any early departures. In fact, he would often select a small group of volunteers to hang around after class to help him get his car started. He drove an ageing VW Karmann Ghia coupe with a high compression Porsche motor shoe-horned into the rear engine compartment. As his diligent pit crew, we would push him down the parking lot, precluding the ear shattering bump start and his subsequent flamboyant hand-waving departure.

His other pet peeve (or passion) was the intrinsic value of mastering the art of the slide rule. Of course, for those of you weaned on modern calculators (or smart-phone apps) the slide rule was the hot ticket for all manner of math calculations back in the days before lithium-ion batteries and touch screens. Our Austrian commandant drilled us mercilessly until each one of us could glean complex mathematical solutions from our wondrous sliding sticks. Unbeknownst to me it would be a valuable skill in waiting.

After high school, a year of unloading trucks for the Hudson’s Bay Company gave me the necessary capital and added incentive to enrol in Centennial College’s Aviation Technician program in 1974. Of the two entrance tests required, my math results were a marginal pass, resulting in a consultation with the resident math teacher. He advised that I delay my start in the program and take a semester of math upgrading for fear that I might not make it through his course. My cocky 20-year-old smart-ass response was that if he was a good teacher, I would be fine. Waiting any longer to get into the course was not an option, and because I had actually passed, albeit marginally, he had no recourse but to let me continue.

My rather cheeky comment to him about being a good teacher was based on my sordid past math history. I had either excelled or failed miserably depending, it seemed, solely on the quality of my instructors. And so the stage was set for my jubilant upcoming triumph or catastrophic defeat.

In a rather miraculous twist of fate, more than half of the aviation math program was based on the intricate secrets of the slide rule. Mr. Pfisterer would have been proud as I “slid” my way to a final mark in the high eighties while simultaneously becoming the ace slide rule mentor to many of my confused and floundering classmates.

This “Slide Rule Revelation” was an interesting lesson from my fledgling ascent into aviation maintenance and my subsequent teaching career. Learning new things and acquiring knowledge is always a good investment. That pastime is paramount to future growth in any field of endeavour. Never reject learning on the basis of the adage, “I will never use that,” because the reality is, you just might. In fact, in extreme cases – as in the previous tale – it might very well make the difference between success and failure.

That old slide rule now collects dust on a shelf in my office. Its usefulness is now eclipsed by so many modern electronic devices. Still, I cannot bring myself to discard it. For sentimental reasons, it has become my talisman, denoting the discovery and delights of lifelong learning.

About The Author

Sam Longo

Sam enjoys life in Toronto, Ontario. For more published writing by Sam Longo, please visit www.samlongo.com

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