My high school history teacher, Cecil "Orb" Coad, took his nickname from Lucius Orbilius Pupillus (112-17 B.C.), a severe grammarian known for beating lessons into his students, and also from the fact that Orb's bald head resembled a polished sphere. Thanks to Mr. Coad, who was a devout believer in memorization, I still remember invaluable nuggets of historical importance such as, "Northern and Southern Egypt were united around 3200 B.C., probably, by a man named Menes."
In addition to teaching history, Mr. Coad delivered occasional homilies designed to keep us boys on the path of virtue. I still remember one of them because it involved a coup de theatre. As he stepped to the podium, Orbie suddenly wheeled and threw a tennis ball in the direction of a large target. The ball flew wide of its mark and careened off the auditorium wall. The soothsayer then turned to face us and bellowed: "Why did I miss? Because I didn't aim."
If memory serves me, we received this as a gift of profound wisdom, and didn't crack up. There must be some truth in it. But what if you're at a stage in life in which you have no target to aim at? Or a galaxy of competing targets? What if your hand-eye coordination is lacking?
I thought of Orbie's words the other day when I was trying to swat flies in the kitchen. There had been prodigious hatch of these foul members of the order Diptera, and every time someone opened the door, a dozen flew in. I chased them all over the house, swatting like a madman and : let's just say that my swatting average hovered around 100. I aimed, but all the same, I missed.
My daughter's boyfriend took a turn with the fly swatter. He couldn't miss. After dispatching some 20 flies, his average hovered above an unbelievable 900. His technique was exemplary. Silently, stealthily, he approached his quarry, pulled the swatter back by its flexible shaft and lightly flipped it on the target. The secret was in the restraint, the cool efficiency. When swatted, I was always trying to hit a homerun. My swats were violent, spastic swats. My misses measured in feet rather than inches. The boyfriend didn't go for a kill. He was satisfied with merely stunning the fly and following it up with a piece of tissue paper for the coup d'grace.
It wasn't just impatience and lack of discipline that was keeping my average down. An obsession with wiping out flies was overwhelming my common sense. My battle with house flies was becoming a jihad against flies in general. I was on the verge of running outside with my swatter and waging holy war against an inexhaustible race of Muscidae.
Here seemed to be at least as rich a vein for wisdom as there was in Orbie's "aim-at-the-target" theme. The world would be a better place if we kept our extremist impulses in check and pursued attainable objectives as opposed to unreachable ideals. Our survival depends on self-restraint, compromise and common sense. We should be content with decimating our enemies, rather than insisting on their total extermination. On the other hand, it has to be added that, from our point of view at least, the world would be a better place without flies.
By the way, one of my classmates, who was unprepared for Mr. Coad's final history exam, conceived a bizarre plan. He and three other recruits wearing red sweaters were to lie in wait the morning of the exam. When Orbie appeared they would roar up in a fire engine red convertible with the top down, come to a screeching halt, jump out and shout, "Hi, Orbie!" If all went according to plan, Orbie - who had made it well known that he suffered from a "bum ticker" - would have a heart attack on the spot and die. The exam would be postponed, or better still, forgotten forever.
So much for the virtues of having a target and aiming at it. Fortunately, the plot was foiled or died of the weight of its preposterousness. But it's kind of shocking, isn't it, that even in the halcyon '50s, young middle-class boys were capable of plotting cold blooded murder just for fear of getting an "F."