Rodolfo Gurdian was one of Raoul Bott’s roommates when they were undergraduates at McGill. The imaginary chicken-stealing incident in this article is a reference to a real chicken leg incident they experienced together at Mont Tremblant, recounted in [◊].1
What follows is an account of some of the mischief that Raoul Bott and I carried out during our days at McGill.
I met Raoul in 1941, when we were in our first year at McGill University. Both of us lived in Douglas Hall, a student dormitory of the university, but we were in different apartments. He paid attention to me because I got a higher grade in trigonometry. He also noticed that I played the guitar, and I appreciated his piano playing.
The following year we shared an apartment, together with Frazer Farlinger, a student in medicine. Raoul majored in electrical engineering and I in chemical engineering. The difference among us was that Frazer and I had to study very hard, while Raoul didn’t. He used to say that attending the lectures was sufficient for him, since electrical engineering was a very logical subject. His marks were satisfactory but could have been much better if he had only worked harder.
I met Oskar and Celia Pfeffer, his charming stepparents. Realizing that they were not very well off, I called Raoul’s attention to the fact that, being so talented in mathematics, he could easily obtain a scholarship by studying just a little more. I think I influenced him, because he improved his grades and became one of the best students in the class. In his last years at McGill, I believe he did obtain a scholarship.
Rooming together, we became close friends. We loved to make mischief. On Saturdays we used to go to the movies, often to a theater called The System. Buying just one ticket, we could watch three movies in a row. Although the ticket price was low, both of us being broke, we found a “system” to sneak into The System without paying by taking advantage of the fact that only one person was in charge of the theater’s two entrances. One of the entrances gave access to the upper floor through a wooden staircase, and the other went to the first floor. The trick we devised was for one of us to talk to the ticket clerk, while the other would distract him by running upstairs and making a lot of noise. As the ticket clerk followed the noisemaker, the other one took advantage of the situation to sneak into the theater’s first floor. Of course, once we were in, it was difficult for the ticket clerk to find us, because we sat in the first available seats, feigning to be regular customers.
During the summer months every engineering student was required to work to get some practical experience. Since Douglas Hall was closed for the summer, we rented a room together near the university. Raoul was six foot two, and I just under five foot six. So you can imagine what a strange-looking pair we made! One summer Sunday we decided on a prank. Raoul put on his gray and red bathrobe and a turban and armed himself with a small dagger. I put on my red short pants and a green T-shirt and carried a tambourine. When Raoul went out to the street, I followed, playing the tambourine and dancing in circles around him. People in the street were shocked. Suddenly, Raoul approached an old lady and threatened her with the dagger. When she started screaming, we ran like hell, realizing that the joke and the fun were getting out of hand.
We used to talk about our future careers. I told him that, due to my facility with money, I would dedicate myself to business, which, in fact, I successfully achieved in life. He joked that, since I would become a wealthy man while he, as a professor, would be very poor, eventually he would be forced to come to Costa Rica to seek my help. Our first meeting would be in the backyard of my house, where he, out of hunger, would be stealing my chickens. Finding a thief in my backyard, I would come out with a gun. Upon seeing me, Raoul would shout, “Please, Rodolfo, don’t shoot. It’s me, Raoul, your old friend.” By that time, I would have become an insensitive wealthy man, so I would shout back, “Of course, I recognize you,” and would shoot him dead anyway. One reason we became good friends might have been that, during our childhood, we both engaged in similar mischief. Moreover, Latin Americans may have more in common with Europeans than with North Americans. So we enjoyed making pranks together.