Tuesday, February 8, 2011

When the Earth was Flat. . . . .


When I was a kid I knew a boy named Duncan. I don’t remember his last name but I remember a great deal about him. He was a spindly, red haired kid with more freckles on his face than you could count. In fact sometimes it looked as though his face was just one big freckle with the features of a ten-year-old boy desperately trying to break through. Duncan was hopeless at sports and continually suffered the schoolyard indignation of being the last boy chosen for the team. Unfortunately, what Duncan lacked in physical prowess he was unable to make up for in scholarly aptitude. His voice was squeaky, his teeth were bad, and he lacked almost any ability to be what one might call ‘socially smooth.’ He told jokes that either weren’t funny or he would screw up the punch-line in one way or another. And to make matters worse Duncan almost never knew where he went wrong and so he was completely incredulous when people failed to laugh.
But for all his apparent faults I liked Duncan. He was an amiable companion and generous to a fault. If Duncan was your friend you could be sure that he would take a genuine interest in your interests. When I made several hapless attempts at building models Duncan ran out and bought a model of a 1963 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud and brought it to my house so he could build a model right there beside me. When I got interested in Comic Books he would spend his own allowance on Silver Surfer comics and give them to me as gifts. And when I started to take guitar lessons Duncan decided to become an expert at the penny whistle because he thought it would compliment my musical interests.
“We can play together,” he told me excitedly when he showed me the penny whistle that he bought at an Irish-themed store on Santa Monica Boulevard. And though whenever he played it he sounded like a banshee on drugs, I never had the heart to tell him that he wasn’t getting any better. For much of forth grade I strummed away at the guitar while Duncan’s whistle jumped from one register to another seemingly at random.
I sat next to Duncan at school and I distinctly recall the day when the Mrs. Rosenbaum started talking about Christopher Columbus. She went on about how remarkable Columbus was and how he was one of the first people to realize that the earth was round. I later found out that many people prior to Columbus believed the earth was round, including the Greek mathematician Eartosthenes who estimated the Earth’s circumference in the 2nd century BCE with remarkable accuracy. But the story of Columbus is always interesting and the class was enthralled. 
             But after school as Duncan and I were walking home he surprised me with some startling news.
            “Columbus was wrong you know,” Duncan said.
            “About what?”
            “About the earth being round,” Duncan told me confidently, “its flat really.”
            “Do you really think so?”
            “I am sure of it because my grandfather told me so, and he knows a lot about a lot of things.”
            “No doubt,” I told my friend.
            I was pretty sure that the earth was in fact round but I didn’t want to argue with Duncan or contradict his grandfather. I later found out that Duncan’s grandfather lived in Lancaster, a town in the Mojave desert where my grandfather also lived. And it seems that Duncan’s grandfather was the next-door neighbor of a man named Charles K. Johnson who was, for many years, the president of the Flat Earth Society.
            My dad used to say that you don’t choose what football team you support; you are born into it. I realized early that people believe all sorts of things depending on how they were raised and whose opinions they admired. Some beliefs are intolerable, such as racist or sexist ideas, some inspire only indifference, while others are downright attractive. Some people seem to be naturally skeptical or inquisitive and they end up rejecting many things that they have been taught. Other people just seem to be comfortable accepting what they’ve been told and going on their merry way. That’s how it goes I guess.
            I realized that I really didn’t mind whether Duncan thought the earth was flat or whether he thought it was shaped like a Leatherback Sea Turtle with a glandular problem. What mattered was that Duncan was one of the nicest kids I knew; he had a natural empathy for others and that is a rare quality in a ten year old.
            Of course, it didn’t take me long to realize that what someone believes can be very important to how you feel about them. I have yet to meet someone I have liked who expresses blatantly racist opinions, and every committed capitalist I have gotten to know has turned out to be a selfish creep at heart. But people can believe all sorts of things that I think are strange or a little wacky but still be remarkably nice people.
            I have thought about Duncan a lot over the years. He is my shining ten-year-old example of what’s important and I hope that wherever he is he still believes the earth is flat. 

2 comments:

kirbycairo said...
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doconnor said...

I'm pretty sure Alexander is spam as most genuine expressions of appreciation don't include links to gambling sites.