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Column: Do the Math: War and Peace, and the Prouty

I recently spent six and a half hours on my bicycle riding in the 33rd annual Prouty, the fundraiser for the Norris Cotton Cancer Center.

I had ridden in it several times, but not since getting hit by a car five years ago. A painful recovery from a torn rotator cuff and the lingering effects of a mild traumatic brain injury took some of the fun out of cycling for me, so most of my riding lately has been shorter rides.

Although the Prouty does offer shorter options — from 20- to 77-mile courses — my ego was not damaged in the accident, so I haven’t been able to consider them. This year, though, I felt I needed to ride the 100-mile event. A sister-in-law, a former teaching colleague and a current teaching colleague were all diagnosed with cancer. My sister-in-law has been successfully treated, but my two colleagues had grimmer prognoses and one has died.

Since there are few things that I can do to fight this thief of life and ransacker of families, riding in the Prouty seemed important. I am a high school English teacher and not a scientist, so I can’t work on a cure. I am a high school English teacher and not a billionaire, so I can’t fund research projects (at least not by myself). I am a high school English teacher and not a Tour de France competitor, but I can ride my bicycle 100 miles. At least I once could, so this was the year to try it again.

When the day of the event came, I felt like I was in fair shape. I had trained on a lot of hills, but not on any really long rides. I hadn’t ridden more than 40 miles since the 2009 Prouty, a month before my accident. I was pretty sure that my legs were up to the task, but the thought of sitting in a bicycle saddle for six-plus hours concerned me. My “sitter” hadn’t been properly trained, something that only time in the saddle can do. Also, I was concerned about leg cramps. I had intended on taking a couple of long rides before the Prouty, but often the best of intentions don’t fit busy schedules.

From about 20 miles on, I was conscious of anything that might become a cramp. I felt a lot of phantom cramps, so from 30 miles on I grabbed a banana at each of the SAG (support and gear) stops. I figured the potassium would give me either protection from an actual cramp or psychological protection from a phantom one. It worked fairly well, and around mile 50 I was feeling OK. I had ridden farther than at any time in the last five years, and I was thinking that I might make the whole distance.

Around that point, the 77-mile ride breaks off from the 100-mile ride. As I approached the turn-off, I thought that this was my last opportunity to bail on the 100-miler. What would be the shame in doing 77 miles?

That would be an accomplishment, even if it meant that I would be riding the 77-mile route with a blue number bib that marked me as someone who had signed up to ride the 100. As I mentioned, my ego was not damaged in my accident, so almost before I knew what was happening, my bike turned right onto the 100-mile route.

The phantom leg cramps started up again once I made the turn, but I knew what they were and just ignored them. My butt, though. was another matter. There was nothing phantom about that pain; the only thing to do was to try to divert my attention.

It is interesting the things that catch your interest while spending hours on your bicycle. My bib flapped in the wind, since I had lost one of the safety pins, and I looked down at it. My number was 10347. Since I knew they were expecting about 4,000 participants, I wondered what had happened to the other 6,000 numbers. Then I started thinking about the number itself. I wondered if, for instance, 10347 was anybody’s favorite number. Then I tried to imagine what could possibly make 10347 someone’s favorite number. Finally, I wondered if it was a prime number. That was one I could figure out. I knew it wasn’t divisible by any even numbers or five, so that only left three, seven and nine. I started with nine and did the math. Nope. Then I tried seven. Nope, again. That left three. Three was an easy one. I remembered a trick from my student days. One plus zero is one, plus three is four, plus four is eight, plus seven is fifteen. Fifteen is divisible by three, so 10347 is divisible by three. I was disappointed. I wanted it to be a prime number.

With about 30 miles more of sitting on that saddle, I was going to need a more complex math problem. I had heard that the Prouty was expected to raise about $3 million for cancer research this year. And with 4,000 people participating, that meant that each averaged about $750. That made me feel a little guilty because I had raised only about half that amount. I never have liked fundraising.

Three-million dollars seemed like a lot of money, but curing cancer would take a lot more. I wondered how much money the federal government put toward cancer research. The nice thing about trying to find a distraction today is that smartphones provide hours of it. As I came up to the next SAG stop, at about mile 74, I got a banana, texted my wife to let her know that I was pretty sure I was going to make it the whole 100 miles (although it might be several days before I could sit again), and Googled government spending on cancer research. The answer I got was approximately $4.9 billion dollars. I figured out that it would take about 1,630 Prouty events to equal that amount.

A bit after that, a car passed me with a “Go Navy” bumper sticker. Suddenly, I had a thought. I stopped my bike — because it is not smart to use your smartphone while riding, especially when your smarting butt makes it difficult to sit on the saddle — and Googled the 2014 budget for military research and development. Between the four services it came out to about $60 billion. I got back on the road and decided to figure out how many Prouty-type events it would take to make $60 billion. I came up with 2,000. That would be the equivalent of holding one of these fundraisers a day for about five and a half years. One thing about doing math on a bicycle is that, with really big numbers, it’s easy to lose a zero. After checking my math, I realized that the number was actually 20,000. That would be the equivalent of holding one of these events every day for about 55 years. I’m 57 years old, so that would be one Prouty a day since I was 2. And that would just pay for the defense research and development budget for one year.

So what did this tell me about our real priorities as a country? All of these good people are giving their time and effort to a good and noble cause while having little say in where their tax dollars are going. How would it work if the shoe were on the other foot? What if the government spent $60 billion dollars on cancer research, a thing that can be conquered and would improve lives, and we had to have fundraisers for defense research and development, a thing that seems to grow bigger every year and is more concerned with destroying than improving life?

What if those 20,000 fundraisers would have to take place in one year to reach that budget? That would require 80 million people who felt that defense research and development is important enough. I feel safe in saying that it wouldn’t happen.

The overall military budget proposed for 2015 is $549 billion (excluding “war costs”). Using my Prouty event conversion, that would be over 500 years of daily $3 million fundraisers. According to a Program for Public Consultation poll, conducted in April 2012, 58 percent of Americans support substantial cuts in the military budget.

I don’t think it is a surprise that our national budget gives a skewed picture of our priorities. We continually demonstrate that people will turn out to fight cancer. What kind of turnout do you suppose we would get for the NSA and killer drones?

Skip Chalker lives in White River Junction.