How 28 and 42 Became My Favourite Numbers

The number 28 became a favourite number for me in 1972. At school in England that autumn, my Junior Four teacher, Mr. Rintaahoo (I’m probably misspelling his name—he was from Finland), assigned me the number 28 to identify all my activities and belongings for the year. I suspect this was because I was the 28th student in his class roster, in alphabetical order by last name. So I saw the number 28 on my ruler, on my pencil case, on my homework, and associated with everything else about me that school year. And every Monday, when my parents gave me several pounds that I would pay to the school cafeteria for my lunches each week, I would always get 28 pence in change. The number 28 has come up for me repeatedly over the years (or at least I notice it when it does, and don’t notice it when it doesn’t). For example, I had a poem of mine chosen out of 3,000 entries for the 2007 “Poetry on Buses” program in Seattle, and a placard of my poem was placed in King County Metro buses for more than a year. Each placard was numbered, and guess what number mine was?

The number 42 became a favourite number later, but not because of its famous association with the book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. It became prominent for me because of how Lewis Carroll uses it in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (a favourite book of mine). In “Alice’s Evidence,” the last chapter of the book, the King tries to bring order to the courtroom by yelling for silence. He then says: “Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court.” The number 42 has come up in other important ways in the writings of Lewis Carroll (for example, the two Alice books have a total of 42 illustrations), and I recall that a few academics have even written summaries of his use of this number (in the Knight Letter published by the Lewis Carroll Society of North America and in Bandersnatch published by the Lewis Carroll Society in England, if not elsewhere). I once met Douglas Adams and asked him in person if Lewis Carroll’s writing was any inspiration for his use of 42, and he said it was not. He’s said and written numerous times that the number was purely arbitrary for him. One wonders, however, if the number 42 had entered Adams’s subconscious from Carroll’s writings, or if there’s something particular about the number that lends itself to absurd meaning. Or, you never know, maybe it really is the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

I also like the numbers 4 and 7, because those were the jersey numbers of hockey players I liked when growing up in Canada. I used to run out the battery of a little transistor radio (that cost me $4.44 at Canadian Tire) listening to WHA games at night, with the radio under my pillow so my mother couldn’t tell I was listening when I was supposed to be sleeping. Bobby Orr wore #4 with the Boston Bruins, and Bobby Hull wore #7 early on with the Chicago Blackhawks, although he mostly wore #9, so I’m not certain where #7 came from as a favourite number, but I’ve always related my liking of that number to hockey. Maybe it was because Phil Esposito wore #7, also for the Boston Bruins? Bobby Hull played most of his best years for the Winnipeg Jets, in the city where I lived after our family emigrated to Canada. I loved hockey in the early 70s (see Monsieur Joliat), but could never skate well myself. I was born in England, and had grown up there and in Ghana and Australia, so I never learned to skate at a young age like most Canadian kids. In fact, I couldn’t skate to save my life, which was very embarrassing for me in high school PE classes. But later I decided to conquer this little demon, took a skating class for a college PE credit, and finally learned to skate. I could finally do hockey stops and figure eights, and even skate backwards. I still put my skates on from time to time. If I ever skated for a hockey team (yeah, as if), I would be . . . number 28.

—26 October, 11 November 2009, 18 October 2010