It Takes All Kinds

a Few Stories and Profiles by Erik Hedegaard
mainly from inside the pages of Rolling Stone
(with additional commentary and folderol provided by the author aka Charlie, sometimes)

My Calculating Life

Posted on | September 27, 2008 | No Comments

Living by the Numbers The first time I saw a pocket calculator, something shifted inside me. Those plastic buttons and tiny lights seemed to hold all of life’s answers. Then my delight in the damn things took me to a darker place.


Down in my basement, packed away in 27 numbered boxes, moldering and waiting for eventual disposal, sits my collection of about 550 handheld battery-operated LED pocket calculators from the 1970s. I used to visit them more frequently than I do now. I’d go down there, open up box number seven, poke around inside, retrieve my prized Victor Comptometer Tallyman, and turn all moony. Despite its fancy name, the Victor is a chunky light-blue plastic rectangle that can perform only the four basic functions: +, -, x, and ÷. But how it looks when you slip in a few AAs and give it some juice is something else again. It lights up before your eyes, the numbers flaring forth, almost clearing the room of shadows. I could sit there for an hour, turning the machine on and off, on and off. And I’d leave the room in about as blissed out a state as I ever get. What I’ve never totally understood, though, is why. What leads a man down the road to possessing what was probably at one time the third- or fourth-largest collection of pocket calculators in the nation? I suspect it mainly revolves around my lifelong unwillingness to face such nonmathematical, fuzz-inducing questions as, Should I be doing something else with my days and nights? What do the women in my life want from me? And why do I often feel so blank? When thoughts like these float to the top of my brainpan, I have found it best to submerge them by heading to the basement and gloating over the width and breadth of my hoard. It’s a great escape. It makes me feel chesty. I mean, I own an RMS International Zeta 5, a pocket calculator with a handcrafted wooden case, the only example of it known to exist. I own it. Me. One thing I love about collecting is, of course, the hunt. Whenever I travel to a strange town, I get right on it and hit all the Salvation Armys, Goodwills, Church of the Holy Redeemer thrifts, and Betty’s Second Hands I can find. At one charity shop, I found a whole pile of Hewlett-Packards, including two HP-65s, which were the ones used by astronauts on at least one mid-1970s Apollo space mission. As soon as I saw them, I began trembling. I took them up to the counter lady. She wanted $22 for the lot. “You have got to be kidding!” I barked. Then I patiently explained to her that calculators such as these ran on sealed rechargeable batteries and might not even work, and in fact, probably didn’t work, but you couldn’t tell for sure without a charger, and no chargers were back in that mess. I offered her $10. She sighed–no doubt she’d met lots of collector freaks like me before–and said $15. I turned sideways, mulling over the probable true worth of these babies, maybe $500 to $900, and countered with $12. She shrugged okay, and by the time I got to the car, I was nearly in tears. The first one I ever saw belonged to Johnny Buckthal, a fellow student at Washington & Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia, in 1974. Johnny Buck was an economics major from the oil fields of Texas and knew that a calculator was the exact right tool for where he was headed in life. I myself came out of the suburbs of Chevy Chase, Maryland, and aspired to a higher calling such as nookie-hunting poet-in-residence on a populous stretch of Delaware beach-town boardwalk. But the second I saw his calculator–I believe it was a Texas Instruments SR-10–I felt something shift inside me. Looking back on it, I think maybe it had to do with the miracle of the thing, the sudden realization that fingers dancing across rows of plastic buttons could instantly result in unequivocal answers to certain questions that had troubled me my entire life. All I really know is, you’ll never see me more intense and almost in anguish than right before I fit fresh batteries into an old calculator–Is it alive? Is it dead? If it’s dead, can I bring it back to life?–nor more content and peaceful than after an old calculator lights up. The collecting part started around 1999, when I was eBaying off some “treasures” I’d inherited from my grandparents. In a junk shop, I came across an interesting-looking battery-operated calculator, in its original pox, with a hard leather case, for $7. On a whim, I bought the thing–it was a circa-1973 Hewlett-Packard HP-80–and eBayed it for $82, which meant a profit of 1,071.4285 percent. After that, I started searching in earnest for old calculators and soon became hooked, not as a seller, it turns out, but as a buyer. I’d caught the fever to see those crazy LED lights light up. In California one time, circumstances conspired to put me at a lunch table with actress Tori Spelling. Tori and I were getting along famously. She was a delightful, flirtatious companion, and though our meeting was strictly business, business in Hollywood isn’t the same as business anywhere else, and who knows where the afternoon might lead? Toward the end of our meal, Tori said, “What shall we do next? Do you want to go across the street and–” “Well, I can see no reason for that,” I said. “I mean, I’d love to, but I can’t.” She looked pretty startled, but I had no time to waste, because I was already 15 minutes late for a meeting with some chip-toothed, beret-wearing guy I had met the previous day. He’d said he had a pile of old LED calculators he might sell. I had to go, I absolutely did, I had to go now. So I ditched Tori and sped on over. Roger was leaning against his car. “Whaddaya got?” I asked him. “What I’ve got is about 150 of them,” he said and popped open the car’s trunk. “Sweet Jesus,” I said. He wasn’t kidding. One hundred and fifty at least, all of them individually wrapped in plastic bags. I could feel my knees buckling. I saw Bowmars, Corvuses, Commodores, Adlers, and Leisurecrafts. I moved to pick one of them up, but Roger blocked the way. “Nothing doing, man,” he said. “I’m in a hurry. Here’s the thing: They’re all LED, and there are plenty of HPs.” “Do they work?” “How would I know? I’ve had them a long time. One hundred and fifty of them, $15 each. Take it or leave it.” “Ten dollars each.” “Like I said, take it or leave it.” Roger was a real hard case. But I grew up in Chevy Chase, so I know how to handle guys like him. “Will you take a personal check?” “But of course,” he said. It was the single biggest score of my calculator-collecting life. And fairly soon, it would hasten the end of my already-rocky marriage. Have you ever felt that maybe you were insubstantial, a tiny integer in the great calculation? My grandfather Franklin Floete never felt this way. He grew up in Iowa, survived being mustard gassed during World War I, started his own land-and-lumber company in Iowa, opened Iowa’s first Ford tractor dealership, in Des Moines, drove a canary-yellow Lincoln Continental convertible, had his home splashed all over an issue of Better Homes & Gardens, and rose up to become an assistant secretary of defense in the Eisenhower administration. A few years ago, I went to Des Moines and stood on the land where Grandfather Floete got his start. The wind whipped at my trousers and chilled my legs. I rocked back and forth on a pair of crummy Jack Purcell sneakers. I’d evidently spent some time here as a kid, but I couldn’t remember any of it, nor much of the rest of my childhood for that matter. I stood around for a while longer, until my toes and fingertips were numb, and then drove back to my hotel, ripped out a few pages from the phone book, and spent the rest of the day in thrift shops, looking for old calculators. I couldn’t find a single one. The way I am, I operate mostly on the surface. I’d like to be able to dig more deeply into matters of substance, but it just doesn’t work for me. Around thinkers, ponderers, intellectuals, and leftists, I tend to keep quiet. My daughter Eliza, though, sees all, knows all, and has no problem speaking her mind. One day during my early years as a calculator collector, I pushed open the door to her bedroom to tell her about this fancy orange Omron I’d just won. She looked up from her homework. “Couldn’t you knock?” she said. “It was almost open,” I said. “It wasn’t almost open. It was almost shut.” She paused. “So what’s going on?” “I just got in an eBay bidding war on a calculator. Won. But paid more than I wanted. A lot more. But I won. Whew!” I said, sort of wiping my brow. She looked at me blankly, as she so often does. “More calculators, huh?” she said. “Don’t you have enough hobbies that cost us money? I mean, fishing, radio-control gliders, and calculators?” “What’s a life without hobbies?” I asked nervously. “A better, richer, more productive life,” she said, and I backed out of her room, not wanting to hear more. Until recently, I didn’t give a second thought to what she said to me that day. Instead, I kept on buying all the calculators I could find. I’d spend hours laying thin coats of Future acrylic floor wax into scratches on their screens. I’d buff them up endlessly. Corrosion on a battery terminal would cause me deep consternation. I bought sniping software so that I could better my chances of winning on eBay. Not that I really needed it, of course. I usually set my bids so high that I couldn’t lose, and sometimes I’d get five or six calculators a day in the mail. On those occasions, I’d try to meet the mailman at the door and scurry upstairs with the packages before my then-wife saw them. She’d about had it with me. But I’d just about had it with her too. “You know that wall in the living room where the cow painting is?” I said to her. “What I’d like to do is take down the cow and replace it with a display case. I mean, it wouldn’t be too much larger than what’s–” “No. The cow stays. And your calculators stay in your office.” “Okay. But surely there’s no harm in one or two on the coffee table. They’d really add to–” “No, no, and no. And you know what? You’re pretty selfish to even ask. I mean, how many of them do you have, for Christ’s sake? Too many. Do we have the money for that? And what about me? What about the things I want? Do you ever think about that?” And so it went, day in and day out, over the course of a year until both of us were exhausted. We took a short break and then, after two more years, called it quits. Along the way, the joy began going out of calculators for me. For one thing, once eBay caught on with the general public, the market was flooded with calculators, and the value of my collection, except for the Hewlett-Packards, quickly dropped to 0, thus reducing to <0 my once-burning ambition to become the world’s largest collector of handheld calculators from the 1970s. And what sort of ambition was that anyway? It all started to become an embarrassment to me, and, little by little, I began packing my calculators into boxes and moving them to the basement. After that, I lugged them with me during four different household moves. Some of the boxes have been crumpled by movers. These days, I can’t bear to look inside. Also, I try not to talk about my calculators at cocktail parties anymore, unless I’m down in the dumps already and want to bang a nail in my coffin. Sometimes, though, I do think about what my daughter said to me. She’d said that my life would be richer and more productive without a hobby like calculator collecting in it. Certainly, it had cost me money, it had cost me time, and it had cost me a good part of my marriage. So I tend to believe she’s right. Plus, at various moments, I think my collecting habit was more addiction than passion, which as we all know is just another way to avoid the hard questions–and the hard answers–in life. I’m not sure if that’s exactly me or not. But when I think about my failed marriage and a few of my life’s other heartaches and deep-rooted losses, I also think of myself sitting with a calculator and staring at its LED screen, turning it on, then off, on, then off. I derived a lot of pleasure from those moments. But at this point in my life, with so much time already past, certain things are probably best left in the basement and rarely visited again, if ever at all.

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