My childhood world had walls and a roof. I entered my pre-teens having crossed the Delaware River only once in my life, on a trip to Columbus, Ohio when I was almost a year old. My parents tell me I took my first steps at the home of a relative in Lyndhurst, Ohio, but I certainly do not remember the event. Dad drove us out to Delaware Water Gap in the ’37 Ford a couple of times, but we did not venture across the river. We journeyed north into Connecticut to visit relatives, slithered through the Lincoln Tunnel to see the Rockettes at Radio City, and once forged eastward to Long Island to have dinner at my Dad’s employer (I have a story to tell about that trip). My Uncle Dutch hosted me for two wonderful summer vacations in Vermont: on Lake Dunmore, near Brandon, and on the working farm of the Newcombe family in Westminster West, where, not quite ten years old, I heard the church bells echo across the hayfields with news of Japan’s surrender, and felt a rush of unfettered joy as I ran my kite against the fresh breeze.
Otherwise, I was hemmed in by rivers and Ocean. My cubicle had a roof. The sky stretched out, suspended from the tip of that great oak two doors down, draped over the chimney of Howie Hinckleman’s big double house out back, and stretched across the long tile roof of Union School, across Springfield Avenue. There was no north, south, east or west. To this day I cannot remember noticing where the sun came up or where it set. I never pondered why our neighborhood was called the West End. Streets were laid out in a crazy webwork ordered only by the bends of the river and the curved run of the Erie railroad “shortcut” spur.
Sure, Grandpa Uriah (“Pop”) had illustrated the earth’s curvature that day when he told me of being saved from a watery death, demonstrating in gesture and quaint Newfoundland brogue how the mast of his rescuer’s ship gradually emerged above the horizon. There was also that greasy and worn globe at home, with its stark areas in the Dark Continent and Antarctica marked “Unexplored.” But no, the earth was indeed flat.
The biblical creation story, based on a science understandable to desert people but not to New Jersey suburbanites, portrayed an earth and sky much more expansive than my vision. Mankind lived under a firmament, a sort of inverted fishbowl that kept out the dark waters; heavenly bodies migrated across the sphere, and floodgates opened to refresh the fields and rivers. Beyond that, the Deity offered the explanation for all else.
Such a concept was beyond my ken. My stars and moon slid across the ceiling of my cubicle in two dimensions. Even on many cloudless days, my sun was obscured by smog and summer humidity.
Only after I got drafted and reported for duty in El Paso did I gain an appreciation of the earth science of the ancients. Out across the Pecos River the horizon spread out as far as eye could see, and there was room to lay out the streets in an orderly grid. Most ran either east and west or north and south, and just north of town stood Franklin Mountain as a point of reference.
Even at night, the radio towers at the peak and at times, the holiday star on its face, were suspended in the darkness to assure accurate navigation without map and GPS. See how the sun climbs up and across the firmament, and the constellations pinwheel on its surface around the North Star. The moon is indeed the greater light, for it illuminates the darkness, while the sun shines only in the day, when light is not needed.
Science marches on. Some day, probably soon, new evidence will upset another long-held theory, just as quantum physics upset my cute high school model of atoms as little “planets” with orbiting electron “moons,” and the discovery of mitochondrial inheritance disturbed the certitude of Mendelian genetics. Each advance leads to new lines of inquiry.
As we approach the limits of what is within understanding, we have two choices. We can give up and surrender to the mystery, or push on. Now I find myself much more tolerant of the ancients, with limited tools, as they struggled to understand. I am impatient with those who reject modern scientific inquiry and prefer to craft the Almighty to their limited image, as a Potter, incapable of creating freedom and chaos. They don’t seem to notice that humankind, the “greatest work” of the Creator exhibits both of these properties.