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Science Comes Calling

by Charles C. Cole

A crowd had gathered in the high school gymnasium on a hot Saturday in early June. The doors were propped open to the sticky air. Many adults were wearing their Sunday best, mindful of the opportunity to have their photo taken with the celebrity commencement speaker.

The somber seniors entered last and sat quietly in the front three rows: future model citizens, not a drunk or class clown among them, no beards or ponytails on the boys and no brightly dyed hair or heavy makeup on the girls. The town hadn’t been this excited in fifteen years, since the Qualeys returned from the hospital with blonde, blue-eyed triplets.

The orator, Dr. Parker Dundee, was an astronomer and television personality. He had responded to the invitation from the class president by asking for three thousand dollars up front, to be donated to the town library for science books.

In the back of the gym under the bleachers, two drop-outs, cousins of the class president, were scheming.

“How’d Keplar hook the scientist into coming?” Les Salva whispered to Arnie Baptiste.

“He told him the truth: in a school poll, a majority of sixth-graders thought the Sun circled the Earth.”

“Even I know that’s not true.”

“I think he felt sorry for us.”

Dundee removed his sunglasses and gazed out over the proud, earnest faces and shook his head, smiling. They smiled back and chuckled, knowing there would be a disagreement before long. Here was a secular scholar touring the Bible belt.

Some came to see Dundee make a fool of himself before the ever-smiling principal Reverend Ciampi, sitting only twenty feet away. Some came because, love him or hate him, he was a sweet-talking national presence with a former swimsuit model for a wife. A few came because his wife Daisy, also in attendance, had lost little of her former figure.

Dundee waved gently at the murmuring crowd, trying to settle them down so he could start. “Quiet down, y’all,” said Reverend Ciampi. “Let’s give Dr. Dundee our attention, so we can continue on with the graduation. He’s come a long way to talk to us today.”

“Thank you, Reverend Ciampi. Friends, before we get swept away by differences of opinion, before you run Daisy and me out of town in the bucket of a John Deere tractor, let me tell you a story.

“There once was a blue dot, a mere point in a vast cosmos, host to a billion different voices, some of them shrill. The loudest of these, because it left them feeling good, declared with unwarranted confidence, ‘I know there’s no life in space because God created only one earth.’”

“Amen!” shouted Reverend Ciampi, patting his hand over his heart.

“People will do that, paint themselves into a corner with their own concentrated efforts, then ask for a helping hand to pull them free when they realize the consequences of their actions. How many of you have run out of gas at the side of the road when your parents or your spouse warned you about watching the gauge?”

Ciampi shrugged. People laughed.

“An educated man once said, ‘There is no evidence for life beyond Earth.’ Many sighed and were relieved because they had been reassured of being the only chosen ones in the universe.”

“Decades later, in this day of economic instability, when the government takes thirty cents of every dollar I earn, I’d give almost anything to be visited by exquisite extraterrestrials made more of ether than chemistry, to be distracted from worldly woes by otherworldly others. But this is optimistic science fiction, like the bald notion that the Pride of Slippery Rock College could ever beat the mighty Fighting Irish of Notre Dame on the gridiron.”

“Go, you Irish!” someone shouted. A few laughed.

“We emerge today, brothers and sisters, from our private place in the galactic boondocks, in the full, bright glare of science, rubbing our bleary, doubting eyes and massaging our stiff, overused joints, with a new appreciation for facts and technology.”

Reverend Ciampi began to fan himself with the program. He yawned. Some snickered.

“When you exclude the possibility of magical thinking, when you boil away extremist imaginings, you never know where the search for organic molecules will take you. That’s right, complex microscopic architecture is no longer uniquely earthborn. Having begun existence as microbes in primordial muck, mere random and disinterested atoms of carbon, we now embrace adequate cosmic evidence from the vast Great Dark. NASA’s newest planet-crawler, Sojourner Truth, has sent back vivid, incontestable pictures of minute life struggling in inhospitable terrain.”

“Sounds like a certain scientist in a certain town I know,” whispered Les.

“Let’s end this,” said Arnie.

The two boys pulled their Army surplus gas masks over their faces and rolled their homemade smoke bombs down the aisle.

Smelly black clouds billowed above the crowd. Somebody screamed.

Reverend Ciampi stood and grabbed the microphone. “Attention, everyone. Looks like someone disagrees with our guest’s politics. Please proceed to the exits in an orderly fashion. Those who did this will be found and dealt with. Absolutely no running, y’all. Our apologies, Dr. Dundee.”

* * *

Later, Daisy and the scientist, who had never finished his speech, drove away from the small town.

“I thought they were very nice people, most of them,” said Daisy.

“Who threw smoke bombs.”

“Two juvenile vigilantes. I thought Reverend Ciampi would give us the cold shoulder. Instead, he gave us a box of his wife’s homemade cornbread. It’s really sweet, and not too crumbly.”

“I imagined they’d be angrier. We brought proof that life exists on another planet, punching a hole in their precious view that Earth is the sole center of creation.”

“They’ve adjusted,” said Daisy. “Reverend Ciampi told me God probably seeded Mars to give us a hospitable place to expand to. He called it Genesis, the Next Generation.”

“I hadn’t considered that.”

“At least they believed you. You didn’t expect that. It’s a sign.”

“Go slow,” he said. “Work ahead.”

“Merge when ready,” she said.

Copyright © 2014 by Charles C. Cole

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