As a boy growing up in Chile, I wanted to be just like Pelé. Among my friends, nobody thought of being an astronaut, or a fireman, or even a rock star. Nothing but a football star would do — soccer to Americans. That included everyone I knew, and that I recall, there were no exceptions, not even the Catholic priest that gave us lessons in catechism, who also played with us and was really good. The only catch … you had to be great. And not just incredibly great, but one in a hundred million great. Saddened but undaunted, my next immediate goal was to be a tennis star, only there was another catch: You had to start playing at the age of 3, not 13. After that came good coaching and natural ability, which, as you can surmise, is granted to one person in a hundred million or thereabouts.
Then came career day in my high school, the day I knew exactly what I really wanted to be: nothing else but a top-paid welder. And not just any welder, but the kind that went deep inside a ship transporting gasoline or diesel fuel or some kind of highly explosive liquid: the person who got to dive down using special equipment, find the leak and weld it shut. But there was another catch: You had to get your parents’ permission. My dad’s face said it all. You guessed it: not even for a hundred million. At the time and at that age, that number seemed to hound me.
But not to worry, I had the optimism of youth, misplaced as it might be, and wasn’t about to get stuck on any one little road bump. Soon I became interested in astronomy. I had seen pictures of Edwin Hubble smoking a pipe while looking through a telescope, and that seemed an easy career choice. Plus, I had lots of questions, I always have. For instance, it was said that our nearest star was Proxima Centauri, a measly 4.24 light years away. “How can they know that?” I asked myself. What if Proxima is super bright, and another star, a closer, dimmer, poorly lit one is fooling everyone? I aimed to find out.
Accordingly, and after getting a pipe, a Meerschaum as I recall, I signed up for freshman astronomy. On the first day of class, I realized that a trip to the observatory was years, if not decades, away. Astronomy, I soon discovered, was not about looking through a telescope; it was all about math, tons of it. I stayed in class long enough to learn that a hundred million of anything in the universe, not unlike in government, is only a drop in the bucket. Somehow that was comforting, as before it had seemed such a huge and insurmountable obstacle.
Then I got the gold bug, so I studied geology with emphasis on delta systems. Old maps enchanted me, so for a while I learned cartography. Philosophy seemed a good way to justify my classy pipe, so I spent years reading Nietzsche and Spinoza, as well as Dylan Thomas, a Welsh poet and not really a philosopher, but pretty close. At the time I thought I understood them, and perhaps I did a little.
Entomology was next, with an emphasis on ants and termites. History, mainly naval, caught my fancy, then etymology, as well as biology, particularly ponds, swamps and rivers. Then, I discovered Jacques Cousteau, so oceanography followed, and I have him to thank for finally becoming a diver. Chemistry, art, drawing, physics, you name it — the list is long, and although it was an effort and for sure it was random, somewhere along the way I got an education.
Lucky for me, formal schooling did not interfere for too long, as most of the effort was my own, and I got to study what I wanted. You might notice that missing from the list is English and English lit, something I didn’t really study, except for the basics, but learned researching everything else — without much effort, I might add, or even realizing it.
It’s ironic to think that English, the one thing I never paid much attention to, turned out to be the one thing in my life that has helped me the most. Communicating, after all, is what people are supposed to be good at, as opposed to the rest of the chumps in the animal kingdom. All one has to do is read the daily Twitter wars and observe the current mess in Israel to make that abundantly clear.
I only wish our fearless leaders were better at it. But like I learned before, you can’t always get what you want.