Learning Through Experience Can Sometimes Be Rough

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Here's my favorite Chinese proverb: Experience is a comb which nature gives us after we are bald.

Leave it to the Chinese. There's a proverb, which in addition to being funny, carries the unmistakable ring of truth.

Years ago, I picked up a little something about learning by experience from a young Pakistani named Hasan Asghar Kazmi, but for once, happily enough, I was not the one who had to go through the learning experience. It was the man I was replacing, whom I remember only as Murray. I don't remember his first name.

Hasan worked in our office, the Military Airlift Command Liaison Office in the American Embassy in Karachi, at that time the capital of Pakistan.

Hasan was a clerk, and though he spoke perfect English, Murray had failed to realize just what that fact implied: Namely that Hasan was a bright young man.

Hasan and I got along famously. He was very helpful and I was someone who needed help in getting to know his country and its customs. But Murray treated Hasan like an idiot, even though he himself was as dumb as a rock. And believe it or not, while I was trying to learn my new job, which was no small task, Murray was at my elbow trying to get me to waste time in the office playing cards or checkers, or, of all things, penny pitching.

I finally got so tired of Murray's irritating ways that I decided the only way to get rid of him was to trounce him so thoroughly in front of Hasan that he would quit wanting to play games and go hide in a corner with the rest of the roaches until he departed in a matter of a few weeks.

I knew I couldn't do it with cards or checkers, but since Murray's penny pitching allowed the use of a token instead of an actual coin, I thought that I could perhaps devise some high-tech token that would put him to shame.

I worked at it on and off at the office whenever I had a few minutes and finally came up with a thing devised of a rubber band, a large paper clip, and some cardboard.

The idea in penny pitching is to hit the wall and rebound, staying as close as possible to the wall. Hasan, who somehow divined what I was up to, watched me as I worked, testing and perfecting my crazy gadget, which did fairly well.

Then came the big day.

We had an hour before we had to go out to the military airport to meet a cargo plane. Murray, as usual, challenged me to a game of my choice. I selected penny pitching. We began tossing, but my plot failed.

I won some and I lost some.

Hasan watched.

Then, just as Murray was about to toss a coin, Hasan said, "May I join you gentlemen?"

Murray answered, as he always did when he spoke to Hasan, in a sarcastic, demeaning tone, "If you want to lose a week's pay."

"I will bet you my week's pay on one toss," was the reply. "But if I win you must agree that Garrett Sahib may in future do his work without being troubled by you."

Murray frowned. He was not the type to turn down that kind of challenge.

"Let's see your money," he said, looking angry.

From somewhere, Hasan came up with a large pile of 10 rupee notes.

"You may throw first, Murray Sahib," he said.

Murray took his time, made two or three tentative passes with his hand, and released.

His coin, a silver 50-cent piece he always used, hit the wall and rebounded less than a quarter inch. He turned and grinned.

"Beat that," he said.

Hasan reached out across his desk, picked up an ordinary penny box of matches, and casually walked up to the wall. He didn't even bother to kneel down.

He just bent over and tossed the box toward the wall. It struck with a click.

There was a tiny second click as the matches, forced to the back of the box by the motion of the throw, slid forward, hitting the front of the box and pressing it tightly against the wall. It stayed there.

Until he left weeks later, Murray stayed in the staff house during duty hours, having lost the bet.

He wasn't missed.

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