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Candidates at the United States Army Field Artillery and Missile Officer Candidate School spend a good portion of their day in the classroom in order to gain a mastery of trigonometry. Briefly, “Trig” is a complicated mathematical science which deals with the angles of triangles and the lengths of their sides. In the case of artillery, one corner of the triangle is the location of the “gun”, the second corner of the triangle is the location of the target and the third corner of the triangle is the location of the “observer” –usually a second lieutenant with a map of the area, a pair of binoculars and a radio operator to transmit his observations concerning the precise location of the “target” to the fire direction control center. 

Each eight-inch howitzer round weighs 200 pounds and is packed with a great deal of explosive firepower. Artillery rounds are large dumb metal objects, which come in various sizes. They are packed with high explosives and once expelled from the barrel or “muzzle” of a canon, will fall to earth under the force of gravity, with potentially deadly force at a point predetermined by “elevation” and “deflection” settings which are “set” on the howitzers by the “gunners” turning dials and knobs on the “guns” or “howitzers”, the things a child playing army might call “cannons”. These crucial settings are usually transmitted by field telephone or radio from a remotely located “FDC” (“fire direction control center”), usually a well-fortified bunker, far back from the line of battle and containing highly-trained officers and men equipped with maps, slide rules and a thorough grasp of trigonometry. 

To be able to “put your balls where the queen wants them” it is absolutely essential to have a good grasp of math. My grasp of math could best be described as a tiny baby trying to hang onto a beach ball by his fingernails. But I had lied my way into the artillery and once there, I was determined to try to learn everything I could, as I was painfully aware that my life and the lives of others, depended on it. Our gunnery instructor was a very trim-looking captain in a starched tan-colored Marine Corps dress uniform. He spoke English, I could hear him and see him quite well. I sat on the front row and looked him right in the eye as he explained sines, co-sines and tangents. When he mentioned the “hypotenuse of a right triangle”, I felt my mind suddenly break free and begin drifting away, like a small boat might drift away from a dock in a swiftly-flowing river, had the rope attached to the mooring suddenly and inexplicably become loose. For a little while, as I drifted downstream in the afternoon sunlight, I could still see his lips moving, and hear the sounds they formed, but, alas, he was speaking a language that I did not comprehend.

Soon, my boat had drifted far downstream, and our instructor had become a fading figure, barely distinguishable from the pilings on the dock.

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