By April Hoffman
Entering Dr. Spooner’s basement office, I stared at the rows of large glass jars that crowded against each other on his shelves. In each jar, a long-dead specimen floated in formaldehyde. In one, a giant mud puppy, replete with frilly gills and stubby, gelatinous toes, rubbed against the rounded glass. But at four years old, I was most taken with the human baby. After decades of death, this newborn had turned putty colored. A wisp of something opaque now swirled around his umbilical cord. Each time I saw him, I longed to stare forever into his filmy eyes. They seemed to hold the answer to a mystery I didn’t yet fathom. In comparison to Dr. Spooner’s collection of oddities, Dad’s small jars of pickled reptiles and amphibians bored me.
Dad and I had met the year before. When he returned home from WWII, I was three, and from that moment on he viewed me as a rival for Mom’s affection and attention. When Mom was near, he ignored me, but when she was away, he would terrorize me, then threaten to hurt me more if I told on him.
Strangely, though, when Dad decided to teach me something, he became kind and encouraging. Although I soon learned never to let down my guard, I enjoyed the times he patiently taught me how to tell time, the monetary value of his pocket change, and the stupidity of religion. One of my earliest memories of him was his teaching me how to light matches, while carefully explaining how dangerous they were.
My other first memory was of sitting on his lap and combing his hair with the tiny black comb he kept in his shirt pocket. As I combed through his pomaded hair I braced myself for the moment he would knock me off. I remember feeling surprised that he didn’t. Several days later I asked to comb his hair again. He said, “No.” I can remember sitting in his lap only once after that.
To me, Dad was scary and all-powerful, but when he and I visited Dr. Spooner’s office, it was he who entered with awe. Dr. Spooner was one of Dad’s professors. A petite old gentleman with a shock of white hair, he wore ties daily and always called Dad “Philip” instead of “Phil,” the way other people did. His Harvard PhD earned him reverence at tiny Eastern Illinois State Teacher’s College.
Dad seldom took me with him to Dr. Spooner’s office, but when he did, he invariably showed me two items. One was a long, vertical chart of a tree. Branches stuck out all up and down its trunk. Dad explained that this was Darwin’s ‘Tree of Evolution.’ It showed the different species of animals and when each first appeared on Earth. At the bottom, intertwined with the roots, were the one-celled animals. At the top, in the tree’s crown, were the words, ‘Homo sapiens.” That was us. Dad said that ‘Homo sapiens’ meant ‘wise man.”
The second item that Dad always pointed out to me was a framed cartoon of a monkey holding a human skull. In the drawing, the monkey scratched his head as he pondered it. Dad told me the word on the skull read, ‘Darwin,’ and that this illustration was meant as a joke.
Even at four this blasphemy shocked me. I knew already that Darwin was no joke. When Dad mentioned him, his voice grew husky, and I listened as he and other zoology students discussed Darwin’s theories late into the night. I knew early on that Darwin’s Theory of Random Selection trumped LaMark’s Theory of Acquired Characteristics. But while his ghost filled our lives, I never considered Darwin godlike.
Gods were not welcome in our house. Dad preached that religion was for weak people who needed a crutch, not for rationalists like us. When well-meaning relatives gave me children’s Bibles as gifts, he would smirk at me, letting me know he’d consider me a fool to buy into these primitive beliefs. It took me years to realize that Dad’s dogmatic atheism wasn’t so different from the religious zealotry he disdained.
This realization occurred after I was an adult and Dad had become a moody, depressed alcoholic. As I grew up Dad liked me less and less. He repeatedly referred to my emerging personality as ‘obnoxious,’ and he abhorred the value system I embraced as an adult. The result of all his rejection was my continual attempts to win his approval.
On a visit home in my thirties, knowing full well he had no desire for my company, I once again mustered my courage and joined him after dinner. After all, I hoped, this might be the magical time he would finally see me as having value. As he stared into the whiskey glass that seemed glued into one hand, and twirled his cigarette between the fingers of his other, I pondered what topic might interest him and lead to a meaningful conversation. I brightly mentioned that I had read that some contemporary scientists were now questioning Darwin’s theories.
Dad’s violent reaction nearly knocked me backward off my chair. He spun around, gripped his glass so tightly that whiskey splashed out, and sputtered furiously, “Those God damned iconoclasts!” Then, coughing violently, both from outrage and the chain smoking that would soon kill him, he stomped from the room, leaving me stunned.
When my breath returned, the darkening room seemed to fill up with my sadness. I’d blown it again. No matter how hard I tried, Dad despised me, and every desperate attempt I made to win him over caused him to dislike me more.
But then I remembered Dr. Spooner’s office, and slowly, I began to see Dad in a new light. It was his angry use of the word, ‘iconoclasts’ that tipped me off. Why would an atheist use ‘iconoclast’ as an epithet? Wasn’t HE supposed to be the iconoclast?
Suddenly, a ‘Let there be light’ moment shone so clearly I could almost hear angels’ trumpets. Shimmering in the air in big block letters, the TRUTH appeared. My Dad wasn’t such a big atheist. My Dad had a god. His god was Darwin. And he had a Bible. His Bible was On the Origin of Life. Dad even had a Torah, that ‘Tree of Evolution’ chart!
When this revelation occurred, I felt the way a balloon might as the air slowly escapes: increasingly relaxed. Then I felt amused. Now that was an emotion I had never felt in conjunction with Dad. Suddenly I wanted to laugh out loud.
Could it be that the Emperor had no clothes? I had considered this before, but was too terrified of Dad to sustain the belief. Now I wondered again, and the possibility made my next encounters with him just a tiny bit easier.