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Beyond book learning

Posted: June 12, 2014 12:17 p.m.
Updated: June 13, 2014 5:00 a.m.

One of the many pleasures in life is watching the skills and talents of other people, sometimes seeing things you’d never expect.

And doing so -- observing ordinary people doing amazing things -- proves over and over that what used to be called  “book learning” is only a small part of real-world intelligence.

Take D J., for instance.

On the Maine island where Wife Nancy and I spend time, D.J. works on vehicles. He’s a classic shade tree mechanic -- no shop, no overhead, tools tossed helter-skelter into the back seat of his ratty car.

I’m in the outdoors business there, in Acadia National Park. We run a fleet of what’s commonly known as “outfitter buses,” which is a euphemism for “old, beat-up school buses that have been put out to pasture, only to be resurrected by kayaking and rafting companies.”

Chances are good, if you’ve driven through the mountains of North Carolina, you’ve seen these brightly painted vehicles shuttling customers back and forth to whitewater rivers.

Outfitter buses leak oil, have stubborn transmissions, rattle, heave and sometimes leave you by the side of the road when you least want them to.

Enter D.J.

He has a couple of snaggle teeth, a crust of week-old beard and linguistic patterns that would leave Queen Elizabeth shaking her head in puzzlement that she and D.J. could possibly be speaking the same language.

But once D.J. pops a hood, the guy’s a genius.

Last week I watched him take a shaky old bus that was lurching and wheezing,  pull a computer out of the engine, tear the computer apart, clean it and put it back together, and re-install it.

He turned the key, and the engine purred to life.

My gosh, a happy motor, I mused.

You think a Harvard economics professor could do that? Of course not.

D.J. can’t quote Shakespeare, and he’ll never win a prize for intellectual vigor. But he’s a smart, smart man.

And consider Billy, who recently retired from the transfer station, which is a polite name for the town dump. He hung around garbage and its attendant odors for decades.

Not exactly a job the average guy would jump at.

Billy’s a mountain of a man. He rides a rumbling Harley hog, and knocks down his share of cold ones at the Thirsty Whale tavern. He’s not the type of guy to take guff from anyone.

I ran into him at the post office last Friday, the day before the Belmont Stakes. He was discussing horse racing with a woman I’ve met but don’t really know, telling her why California Chrome wasn’t going to win the Triple Crown.

Billy launched into this complex but logical theory of horse racing that left me bedazzled.

He wasn’t doing it in a braggadocios, know-it-all way, and he wasn’t obnoxious about it. He was just explaining things about the racing game to this woman.

I don’t know much about horse racing, but I know enough to tell when someone’s knowledgeable, and Billy knew exactly what he was talking about.

I stood there on the perimeter of their conversation, and I was thinking, “How does he know all that?” I never would have thought Billy was a guy who would have mastered the intricacies of something as complicated as why a particular horse might have trouble at the two-furlong pole.

You could tell it was something he had meticulously studied, and that he took joy in, and I was thinking, “Of all the times I saw Billy raking rotten lobster guts and empty beer cans into that garbage dump, I never thought I’d be listening to him postulate on why some horses run better in mud than others.”

Book learning? There’s nothing wrong with it. But there’s joy in seeing guys who might not set records in academics but who understand quite well, thank you, how to get along in life.

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