This week I saw something on the web that—almost—made me want to pass it along. It was one of those inspirational quotes, the “feel good” sort that show up as posters on bulletin boards and open-office landscape partitions. The thrust of it was upbeat: limiting the negativity in our lives, surrounding ourselves with love and support, avoiding the drama queens (and kings) because life is short and the dessert course can’t come any too soon.
If it could only be that tidy.
I’m writing this with the TV as background. It’s five days before the election and every channel is crabbed with campaign spots that defy logic and challenge credulity. My eyes and ears are assaulted by infomercials that make shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater tantamount to clearing your throat. In years past, I have withdrawn from the world, posturing as the inoffensive eccentric academic. My public pronouncements have been limited to the obscure, the obtuse and the quaint; I have lived on life’s periphery—and barely there. With time running out, however, there is still enough to change my course.
Yes, I enjoy the company of a handfull (meaning ten or fewer) friends. Facebook implies otherwise, but you and I know better. I had an exchange yesterday afternoon with someone who is closer to friend than acquaintance—I thought; a conversation about our candidates for the presidency. And I was shocked at the narrowness of his vision, his centeredness on self, a bottom line drawn just above the total of his tax liabilities. Arguments on nation-building, on social welfare, on “them” and “us” in addition to “me” were lost on him. Or, perhaps, more correctly, they delineated the gap between our views of the world. He, no doubt, did not appreciate what must have seemed my confrontational negativity. Though I will say this: if there is a barrier between us, it is one he has built. It is, I hope, still possible to disagree without being disagreeable.
A favorite author James P. Carse writes about the binary pair theater/drama, and there is certainly much of that afoot these days. In my view, one of our would-be presidents is being a candidate—dramatically—while the other is simply playing the theatrical part and, at that, appears to have flubbed his lines more than once. His script is in constant re-write for an off-Broadway production that may never see the Great White Way. At least I hope so.
I write this as prelude to a piece Howard has in the works: a trial that took place in the Fennimore County courthouse in the very hot summer of 1925; a trial primed but overshaddowed by another courtroom confrontation of ideas in Dayton, Tennessee that same week
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
One hundred years ago tonight a child was born a dozen miles southeast of Agincourt—closer to Nimby, actually, which may account for the ripples that spread from that small event. Cable Gaines began his midwifed life, the second of three boys born to Sarah and Abijah Gaines, on a rural farm of fading fertility. Under other circumstances, we would note Cable’s name for nothing other than it’s curiosity: a misprint for Caleb, never corrected. Public records have a way of institutionalizing accidents.
I can’t speak with authority on Cable’s early years. The two-room schoolhouse at Nimby. Church in a Pentacostal congregation at the intersection of two county roads. The rhythm of plowing, planting, harvest and hibernation until it began again. A world designed by “Nature and Nature’s God.” Thomas Jefferson’s world—with the significant absence of Jefferson himself.
Events conspired to change that world dramatically. Following her third pregnancy, Sarah Gaines went to an asylum, a victim of hysteria, that 19th century catch-all invented by men to label the women they chose not to understand. The Gaines’s third son died before his first month. The first son was crushed in an agricultural accident. No wonder farm families were large. That rhythm might have gone on, uninterrupted, until Cable’s death. Or until the summer of 1925.
An unexceptional, ordinary globe filled the corner of his seventh-grade classroom. But to young Gaines it was heresy. His world of rectangular fields stretched to the horizon, to the four corners of the Earth, the Pillars of Hercules. How could such a pattern wrap a sphere? It defied common sense—and the Bible. Emboldened by the Scopes trial, Abijah Gaines filed suit against school authorities on his son’s behalf.
A Biblical Earth was flat. Everyone knew that. But our “Creationist” trial drew little attention and only local, at that. Without Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan; without the notorious ACLU; without the carnival depicted in “Inherit the Wind,” Judge Eaton dismissed the suit while our attention was diverted to Tennessee. He’d have no circus here.
The consequences for Cable? Who knows. He inherited the farm (if not the wind) but never married. He never flew in an airplane. He never owned a television. There is no record that he exercised his franchise. He rarely left the county.
In 1964 Cable Gaines died; he was fifty-two. A quilted counterpane barely contoured the wasting body in his deathbed. Its rectangles of faded fabric stretched to the bed’s horizon and draped into an abyss where Columbus and Magellan should have died.
This is gonna cost me.