Thunder in the groves of academe
"If history is deprived of truth, all that remains is an idle tale."
In May a university student's fancies drearily turn to thoughts of final examinations.
The parched month of May, 1965, on the campus of Giddapelt University was particularly bad for that, especially for a dreariness that was beginning to simper into incipient unrest. This borderline condition, verging on the thresholds of foment, had come of an accumulation of blatant [quoteright]disagreements between the Department of History And Philosophy and the Department of Fundamental Baptist Studies. There had been year-long debates on the merits of Creationism in the light of Evolutionism, and Evolutionism in the light of Creationism; and so much polemical light had enveloped faculty, administration, and student body in an oppressively hot darkness.
The materialities that had gathered in thousands of human brains opposed on the contentious subject were obviously approaching mass criticality, and to reduce the associated tensions the administration had decreed a final debate between department heads. Professor Webb Prescott of History would joust with Reverend Graham Dunker of Religion — as the two departments were known in campus parlance. The dignified president of Giddapelt, Dr. Samaritan, called the two men to his office for a pre-debate consultation, and advised that heatedness must be avoided. He emphasized the need for congenial differences, level-headed disagreement, nebulous assertiveness, hazy certainty, philosophical confusion, pithy non sequiturs, and a strong implication that proof resides only in the experiences reflected in the phrase, Qui docet discit, "He who teaches, knows." The debaters were adjured, ordered, to bring out the fact, somehow, that only Dr. Prescott taught the history he taught, and, therefore, only he could know what he was talking about. Conversely, only Reverend Dunker taught what he taught, and only he could know what he was talking about. Since the students taught nothing, it was to be illustrated that they could not possibly know anything; nor could it be expected that they should know what either of the debaters were talking about. Hence, since subject matter was obviously so privately sequestered, no one could really know anything about anything. Since this was true, no one could possibly know anything to disagree about, which rushed to the cleansing Q.E.D. that disagreement could not exist, since no one among the students knew enough of anything to tell whether he was in agreement or disagreement with anything else. All through the arguments and rebuttals there was to be assuring epigrammatic statements about how astuteness derives from formidability in stress, especially the meteorological stress of scorching May temperatures at Final Exams time.
Dr. Prescott objected that such an approach implied too strenuously an idea of dependence upon a blind faith that university attendance was meaningful where not enough could be known even to develop the uncertainties of at least two opposing ideas. Reverend Dunker objected on the grounds that the God of the Baptists was self-evident, and therefore very knowable, and that the approach required by Giddapelt's estimable president was really a form of methodology in disguise — wherein a mathematical model of variable reduction systematically moved toward the quantitative statement, zero equals zero. As president Samaritan had hoped, the debate raged around his desk. He leaned back with an air of academic objectivity and watched the letting of steam and intellectual blood, his face a study of alert interest, while his thoughts roamed pleasantly over the lay of the sand-traps and the dog-leg approach to the 15th hole at the Country Club. St. Augustine was flung against Roger Bacon, Bacon's remains were hurled at St. Thomas, John the Baptist was proposed as the saving intercessor who submerged Cyril was reviewed as he might have been had he studied one day with Hypatia; Thaïes suffered at the hands of Luke; Peter was humiliated by Socrates; Aristotle ravaged Matthew, but in turn was excoriated in a comparison with Barabbas. Multitudes of the saints of each side swung in columns and colliding and retreating, surging and wheeling, Hosanna! and Eureka! smashing together again and again.
Four hours of footnotes and cross-referenced riposte and rejoinder later, the college president threw a combination of oil and ambrosia on the disturbed waters of that part of academe lying within his office. He was somewhat distraught to see that neither of the adversaries showed the least sign of fatigue. He himself had run through every pitfall of all 18 holes of his favorite golf course, and was ready for the clubhouse. Desperately, he exhorted for fifteen intense minutes on the necessity for tranquility, imploring nearly to the toppling of the dignity of his position for much less pyrotechnicality at next evening's open-air encounter in the football stadium. The mention of fireworks drew a comment about Gehenna from the Reverend, while the professor contented himself with an allusion to Prometheus.
At the debate the next evening it was not long before the two advocates resumed the flaming cannonades which had been interrupted in the president's office. The president watched the growing restlessness of the student body, arrayed History on one side of the stadium and Religion on the other, proportioned about equally. He scanned nervously with binoculars from his pressbox vantage. As the faces of the intellectual warriors grew redder and redder, his grew more and more blanched. The students, placards pumping up and down with growing frenzy, looked like two tidai waves rushing together, or wanting to. The campus police were scattered near the exits, where they perceptively remained, since they realized that saving themselves would be an accomplishment in itself. They knew when students were unstoppable, and these of this evening were the most unstoppable — going by the rapidity of the emotional buildup — they had ever seen. Most of the nervous gendarmes were running over ideas they might present to the Grand Jury that was sure to be formed especially for the ultimate outcome of this debate, which had become extemporaneous and Ciceronian, the moderators not daring to precipitate an outspilling from the stands by moving to seek a return to format. Inspiration alone held sway, and must run its course.
Inspiration has many strange avenues. It was inspiration that had moved Jupiter to re-enter the time warp he had abandoned long ago — just in time to see the debate coming to a boil. He looked down in amazement from the vicinity of Antares, and recognized again why he had abandoned this time warp for the sanity of the one he now habited. The inspiration that had brought him was simple curiosity, and the curiosity was quenched almost instantly by the spectacle throbbing in the Giddapelt football stadium. If the 486 eons of his absence had been unable to develop any better way, there was no use. He began to prepare a thunderbolt of black light, an instrument that would arrive unseen and unheard and vaporize everything it touched, starting with the calamity in the stadium and pulsing from that epicenter to circle the planet and put it at peace for once and forever.
But inspiration had also long possessed Professor Vladamir Parnasso Uberuski, an inspiration as Olympian as any ever energizing Jupiter. He sat in his laboratory domain in the physics building on the Giddapelt campus and scanned the image of Jupiter that had appeared on the video screens of the phalanx of his instruments, just as he had predicted. Of course, the prediction had been only to himself, for he was the only person within the radius of googles of light years who knew what he was doing. He had made the rooms where he now flitted between consoles inaccessible to all but himself. As he had always hoped, it was just between Jupiter and his own uncanny skills. He never tried to explain to anyone what he had accomplished, what he had predicted. The astonishing results of his other research kept the world busy enough. But he had done it. And there was Jupiter, preparing the invisible thunderbolt as anticipated.
Jupiter reared back hundreds of light years to gain the thrust he wanted for the thunderbolt. His movements passed through agonizing splashes of time in milliseconds. From Antares to Giddapelt stadium would require less than two seconds. Then he loosed the monstrous force and watched eagerly for its impact. One hundred feet above the stadium the horrendous spear was met by a thunderbolt from Uberuski's electronic machines, and both forces were silently reduced to one fluffy particle of volcanic ash. The startled Jupiter comprehended it all instantaneously. Before the thought, "An earthling has duplicated my thunderbolt prowess" had formed completely in his mind, he had vanished from the time warp containg Earth and was moving so rapidly he passed completely through his own and into a third he had not known about. He has been wandering around in confusion, trapped there, for some time now.
The fluffy little volcanic ash floated down and down, and found a resting place right in one of the debaters' eyes — no one remembers which debater nor which eye. The other debater was aghast at this intrusion upon the person of his adversary and rushed to his aid. It was clear to everyone in the stadium what had happened, what was happening. Unbelieving silence replaced the rippling roar. Stillness replaced the mindless agitation of heads, appendages, placards.
The vascular juices infected with a suffusion of the chemicals of combat, coursing through those thousands of mutable bodies, underwent strange recombinations. With yet the impetus of fever-pitch pungency, a single thought was driven into the cortical cells of reason in every brain beholding the sight of Prescott helping Dunker, or vice versa. "One is helping the other," the thought said.
!n the pressbox, president Samaritan watched in wonder. Seized by inspiration in his turn, he grabbed the PA microphone and entoned over the stadium, "And that concludes our pre-exam debate and I am happy to say that the power of each point is well taken. Exit quietly now, and good luck on your exams tomorrow!" With only studious murmurings the students filed out.
The next day Prescott and Dunker were walking together near the library when they ran into Uberinski, who exclaimed, "By Jove, that was a marvelous debate last evening!"
"Well," replied Dunker with a smile, "I guess we each have our share of thunderbolts!"
"They did precipitate a little ash from heaven," Prescott added.
"I was glad to see them strike together so effectively," the physicist said, passing on toward the Biology Labs, where he wanted to ask Professor Dnaskow some pertinent question regarding DNA.
Poet and essayist WES HIGHT was a winner in the American Poetry Association contest, and has been frequently published elsewhere. He lives and works in San Antonio, Texas.
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