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MATH TAKES A HOLIDAY

I stood there in the cold, nose pressed up against the store window, head cocked to get a better view, the window fogging from my breath as my mother tried in vain to tug me away. She wanted to walk to the nearby drug store to get warm and have some coffee and pie, and I wanted to stand outside and try to guess the number of marbles in a glass jar, the one beneath the sign that screamed, “Win $50. Guess the Number of Marbles.”

Fifty bucks? This was 1949, the age of penny candy, 5-cent coffee, fedoras, Hudson Hornets, and the Ben Franklin Five and Dime, a department store where you could actually go in with a nickel or a dime and come out with some candy and a harmonica.

Needless to say, a crowd had gathered, and between the pushing and the shoving and my mother’s steady tug, I was pulled away, my space quickly taken by another boy my size, who quickly and proudly proclaimed that he would win the fifty bucks.

Not if my math is correct, I thought. So in between bites of cherry pie and sips from a chocolate milkshake seemingly made in heaven, I worked the problem. This would be easy. It was just a simple math problem.

STEP ONE: Estimate the height and diameter of the cylindrical jar, and calculate its volume.

Okay, I didn’t know how to do STEP ONE, but my older sister did. She even had a book about it.

STEP TWO: Estimate the diameter of each marble, and then estimate the number of marbles that could occupy one layer.

Okay, same deal. Say, sisters aren’t so bad after all.

STEP THREE: Estimate the number of rows of marbles that could fit within the jar and make allowances for stacking variables.

My sister snorted at this one and said, “Stacking variables? Will you please just guess and leave me alone, so I can do my homework?”

Sisters!

The next day, sister in tow, or maybe it was the other way round, I pressed my nose once more against the glass, did the calculations, marched into the store, filled out my name, age, address, and phone number, and wrote in my variable-rich estimate of 678 marbles, just two short of the actual count of 680 marbles.

The day the contest ended, my mother took the call, letting out a high-pitched squeal that had everyone running to the phone. Winning fifty bucks? Amazing. Seeing the look on my sister’s face as my mother made the announcement? Yeah, you know.

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