And now you know

Here’s a story about why you shouldn’t say “I know” when you, in fact, do not know.

Back in the day, my father was a grad student in history at Unseen University (“Where history doesn’t repeat itself, but the historians do!”) Among the faculty was one professor who always knew everything, and if you knew something, he knew it better than you did. Every university is blessed with at least one of those. If the grad students and staff are especially blessed, they have two, in which case be certain to seat them beside one another for an interesting dinner party. But I digress.

My father and a few other wiseacre grad students (is there any other kind?) were studying in the department’s grad student lounge one day. Enter Professor Knowall, military historian.

The grad students had been discussing the Dutch navy, and been joking about how every one of their admirals had a name that began with “van.” My father, ever the punster, mentioned van der waals forces and invented one Admiral Van der Waal, the man in charge of these forces. Professer Knowall had entered just as the students started laughing about this, and of course he wanted to know what was going on.

One of the grad students helpfully explained, but made it sound completely serious. And other students added their own tidbits of information about the great Admiral Van der Waal, and the terrifying naval might of Van der Waal’s forces.

The professor agreed, mm-hmm, of course, very good, very important to study that. Because, of course, it would be galling if six grad students — some of whom weren’t even specializing in military history — knew of a major player that he didn’t.

As it turns out, my father does know about van der waals forces, but he also knows when to keep his mouth shut, something the professor apparently did not know. My father said the grad students here ventured into territory so dangerous that even the mighty Admiral himself wouldn’t have gone in. By this time my father was struggling very, very hard not to choke on his coffee. The professor was sitting there humphing and agreeing to all of this historical “fact.”

That’s when they really went out on a limb, and talked about one of Admiral Van der Waal’s most important strategic victories. Off the coast of Madagascar, he  instructed his ships to encircle the enemy so they could fire their cannons into the center.

“And that,” one of the grad students said with an awed tone, “was the birth of the Van der Waal Wheel.”

The professor agreed with them, that this was one of the most important developments in naval strategy. Ignoring for the moment what would happen if any one of those ships missed the target, right?

The students managed to keep the farce going until the mighty Professor Knowall exited the grad student lounge.

And then higher education at Unseen University ground to a halt for about an hour as the students laughed themselves senseless. My father says that whenever they’d begin to pull themselves together, someone would choke out, “Van der Waal wheel?” and set them all off again.

The finest thing? They’re not sure if Professor Knowall ever realized how badly he got snowed, or whether Admiral Van der Waal didn’t show up as the bonus question on some exam somewhere.


  1. Mrs. H

    I absolutely love it!!

    I would love to have a story like that to pass on…


  2. Jason Block

    The Van Der Waal Wheel is called something else in less polite circles…its called the (insert ethnic group you want to insult)firing squad. Still funny.

  3. ladyknight

    My only question is: Did your father ever visit the Librarian of Unseen University with a banana?

  4. philangelus


  5. ivyreisner

    You know, I keep coming back to this and thinking of Galactor goons aiming at Joe and shooting each other instead. In ancient warfare you did want to encircle the enemy. If you could keep the phalanx in front and managed to get your cavalry around for a charge from the rear, you’ve pretty much won the fight. Alexander the Great pulled that off a few times.