A true story about a military buddy, fictionalized just a bit.
The bus ride had been long and bumpy. Occasional stops added passengers. I struck up a whispered conversation with my seatmate. Boarding at the last stop, he took the last empty seat, the one next to me. John was his name. We exchanged only a few sentences when the driver announced that we had reached our destination.
In the lobby, we lined up and approached a shabby front desk singly. The clerk recorded our names and handed keys to a staff member. We would be in quarantine for a while. In groups of three, we disbursed into various corridors. John was in front of me. The staff member motioned him into a room on the left, then me into the next one.
Hotels in this part of the world aren’t much. I got what I expected — a bare room with a bed, sink, toilet, small desk and chair, and one small window high up. A thin stack of writing paper and one pencil lay on the desk. The overhead light went out, ending my first day in this new world.
A light rapping on my wall told me that John was awake, and the humorous rhythm said he was in good spirits. I returned the knocks.
Room Service opened my door, without knocking, to bring my breakfast.
“Why am I in quarantine?” I asked.
“Disease,” he answered.
Exercise is necessary, so I began a regimen of pushups and sit-ups, starting with 25 reps.
I’m a pretty self-contained guy. I eschew groups, don’t need a lot of conversation, and don’t talk much.
“How long will this quarantine last?” I asked the dinner room service guy.
“Don’t know,” he answered. He was less of a conversationalist than I.
However, if this sequestration lasts, I need mental activity to defend my sanity. As I searched my brain, the light went out, and John tapped out a goodnight.
Days passed. Breakfast room service guy said nothing, and dinner room service guy spoke even less. The twice a day knocking between John and me was all my communication.
My greatest fear was succumbing to ennui. Mental exercise added to my daily pushups and sit-ups, now up to 50 reps each, needed to happen.
My background is pretty strong in mathematics, and I have always enjoyed arithmetic exercises and number puzzles. A magazine article where the author had developed a technique for calculating the nth root of any number by hand came to mind. I set myself to recalling and mastering that technique.
I started with easy ones that I could multiply, then work in reverse. For example: 3x3x3x3 = 34 = 81. Then I would use the technique as I remembered it to calculate the 4th root of 81 = 3. After many tries, I finally succeeded. This exercise consumed my meager supply of paper and reduced my only pencil to a nub.
“Can I get some more paper and a new pencil?” I asked breakfast room service guy.
I repeated the request at dinner.
I feared the lassitude that awaited me with no mental activity. Could I work with my new tool in my head without paper and pencil?
Days passed. Wall knocks in the morning and evening, two encounters with room service, periods of exercise, now 200 reps, and hours staring at the wall. Each day the same question: “When will this quarantine end?” and the same answer: “Soon.” But my ‘Roots’ project was succeeding. My visualizations on the wall were complete.
I moved on to larger numbers and higher powers:
Cube root of 3,765 = 15.557
Fifth root of 9,875 = 6.294
I could handle four-digit numbers, roots up to six, and answers calculated to three decimal places. I had no way to check my results, so maybe I’ll continue this when I get home. I almost didn’t want to go home. I had become a troglodyte, a complete recluse, lost in my mind.
I asked the question out of habit: “When does this quarantine end?”
“Today,” said the breakfast room service guy.
We gathered in the lobby, hugs and handshakes all around. I quickly found John and we exchanged thanks for each of us keeping the other going. There were many more of us than I had imagined. Buses were outside for us. Walking out, one of us spoke the name of the place. I was shocked. I had no idea Hilton had a hotel in Hanoi.
Word Count: 739