“Don’t tell me the lights are shining…”

forest park

We’re planning to spend the day in this grand old city park, if the rains abate. It hosted the fabled 1904 World’s Fair, the one Judy Garland sang about.

The first house I lived in, in Columbia, Missouri, had a small historic connection to that event, was in fact eventually recognized by the historic register because it was partially constructed of wood salvaged from fair pavilions. My parents moved into rented rooms there (ditching the small mobile home that was my first abode) while Dad studied veterinary medicine at the University of Missouri. The owner of the Westmount house was Winterton Curtis, a zoologist at the university and one of the scientific experts not allowed to testify at the infamous 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. I don’t remember living in the house but I do remember Dr. Curtis, a kindly old gentleman by then, who came visiting in later years and would always mystify and gratify me by seeming to pull a dollar from my ear and letting me keep it. Who knows, that may have been the trigger for whatever critical thinking tendencies I would develop. Thanks, Dr. C.

Dad called himself a “theistic evolutionist,” and I always assumed he got that from Dr. Curtis. But when I asked him last year he said he first heard the term from the mouth of a Baptist evangelist. Dad’s theory was that my own strong interest in evolution must have had something to do with my early association with Dr. Curtis. I’m skeptical about that, as I’m sure the good doctor also would be. What a shame that he wasn’t allowed to take the stand in Dayton. But if he had, we might not have been treated to the spectacle of William Jennings Bryan’s wonderful witness-stand exchange with Clarence Darrow, culminating in the great Populist’s proudly dismissive pronouncement “I don’t think about things I don’t think about.” Bryan didn’t win the presidency but his kindred spirit George W. did.

Dr. Curtis penned his first-hand recollections of the Scopes trial the year before my birth:

I thought of Scopes, when, in 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh stopped from his plane at the airport of Paris, and, not realizing that a crowd awaited him, introduced himself by saying, “I am Charles Lindbergh and I have flown the Atlantic.”  John T. Scopes at Dayton was that kind of man. Reporters were present in such numbers that I could well believe the statement they numbered more than 200 and that never before had there been so many reporters present at any trial.  Notable among them was H. L. Mencken, who had made himself so odious to the orthodox by his scathing criticisms of the Fundamentalist Crusade and its Crusaders.  As no seats were reserved for the expert witnesses we sat in the press chairs.  Many times I sat next to Mencken.  He resisted my attempts at conversation, but I got the flavor of the man from listening to his talk with other reporters.

The courtroom audience impressed me as honest country folk in jeans and calico.  “Boobs” perhaps, as judged by Mencken, and holding all the prejudices of backwoods Christian orthodoxy, but nevertheless a significant section of the backbone of democracy in the U.S.A.  They came to see their idol “the Great Commoner” and champion of the people meet the challenge to their faith.  They left bewildered but with their beliefs unchanged despite the manhandling of their idol by the “Infidel” from Chicago….


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