Frank Hayhurst was a tall, thin, well-groomed, prematurely gray-haired Ivy League type, who wore a monogrammed starched white lab coat. His pale, unblemished complexion told of long hours indoors protected from sunlight working in his subbasement lab. He usually spent his time peering over his horn-rimmed bifocals as he delivered long, dry but brilliant analyses of his current science projects to his staff--who were quite literally his subjects in an academic feudal system. He had mastered them like servants during his long career. On a late spring day in his basement offices of the Syracuse University Physics Department, he abruptly called out for his protégé. “Finn, you’re going to jump for joy when you see this.”
Finn McGee darted out of his lab and into the older man’s private office, eagerly waiting for what promised to be good news. Since returning to academia after a brief but fruitful medical career, which seemed like ages ago, Finn had worked alongside Hayhurst, and he enjoyed sharing moments of discovery with the department head. “Frank, you called me?” Finn queried as the smiling professor reached out toward him over his compulsively neat desk and handed him a large manila envelope heavily laden with folded letters and brochures.
“You made it, Finn. You are the nominee!” Hayhurst said with honest praise for his handpicked colleague.
Finn cracked a smile that split his dimples--making him, for a moment, look like a much younger man, almost passable as one of his students--as he read the enclosed letter. Raising his hand in the gesture of a high five at his mentor and doing a half bow in appreciation, he gave the appearance of a squire just knighted saluting his king.
Finn suddenly turned gravely serious. “Frank, I don’t think I have time to pack and write a speech. Are you coming with me? Maybe you could help me with the formalities of writing something to tell the crowd?”
“Just tell them who you are, Finn, and enjoy the glory. Speech writing is for politicians. We are scientists. I’m sure you can get along without me on this trip. I have some pressing affairs coming up. You will have to go alone.”
Finn was tough enough to go alone, and he knew it. He was actually relieved that Hayhurst was not coming to steal his thunder. He would also welcome the quiet time on the drive to Washington, DC. His mind wandered as he walked back into his own office to plan the trip.
He gazed at the replica of the translation he had fashioned. Framed in gold leaf on black wood and surrounded by shades of crimson matting, the parchment copy hung proudly on his office wall and was accompanied by the original photo. The writing was a duplicate of an ancient artifact he had discovered--and a pivotal moment in his academic pursuits. He stared at it for a long time and remembered.
“Why?” was the only question Finn ever seemed to ask in school. His father taught him the value of hard work. He learned to love by his mother’s example, and he learned faith from his parish priest, who spent years as a close counselor when his mother died of breast cancer. After his wife’s death, Finn’s father was never able to rise above his own melancholy, and Finn was left alone.
In school, he was the scourge of the end-of-class bell. Always the kid with his hand in the air asking questions, he grew intellectually and became a medical doctor with a passion for understanding the causes of all things.
More than one person witnessed Finn solving the Rubik’s Cube within five minutes of first holding the puzzle in his hand. An embellishment to the story, possibly added by later colleagues, was that he spent most of that five minutes studying the position of the squares and very little time moving them about until they found their way into perfect alignment in his hands.
Finn would preach that, as the major scientists throughout history had believed, there was indeed a Universal Theory or a Grand Design that just about tied all knowledge into some ultra-human, probably divine, equation. He believed and acted upon the belief that mankind was given the means to learn about the physical world in order to learn what was beyond the palpable and obvious order of existence.
Exploring first an excellent career in medicine, Finn was driven to look beyond the mysteries of human life, and he turned himself over to the abstract world of math and physics. There he was, pulled, as if by a rope, deeper into the understanding of the physical world than most men have gone in history. He’d once thought it was all within his grasp.
At least, that’s what he believed, until he found a scroll written in ancient Greek in an ancient monastery ruin. His very presence at that archeological site was for the purpose of further exploration of the world of invention and geometry, authored by the famous Greek natural philosopher Archimedes.
Wanting to possess the scroll and learn from it, he used his Nikon camera, which he was never without, to photograph each page, meticulously arranging the lighting for legibility.
Finn smiled again at the reverie as he broke from his trance. The urgency of getting organized seemed overwhelming. He sat at his desk and began to make a list. Lists were his special way of organizing stressful problems. He jotted a few notes to remind himself what message he wanted to deliver at the award ceremony. Claire’s photo was on the corner of his desk. She forever smiled back from that isolated moment, frozen in time. He would never forget her. He had shared his life, work, and obsessions with the love of his life, even though he regretted not giving her more time.
Time is a thief, he thought, sinking back into memories of the scroll.
Finn had spent countless hours learning ancient Greek in order to facilitate the correct translation of the words. He’d learned that the words had been written there by the scribe, who wrote at the behest of a Roman general who had witnessed the inventions of Archimedes.
Months ran into years, when the translation lent itself to the scrutiny of many students in attempts at deciphering a key passage. Finn remembered the day as if it were yesterday, the day the meaning of the words was unveiled.
After triple-checking, he ran down the hallway of the college language department to ask another scholar for some help, compelled to make certain he reveled in discovery.
The passage that grabbed Finn and connected him by a strong link to the past, back to the Second Punic War, read in translation:
Boulders flew over the city wall and fell like hail, striking death upon the Roman legions and sinking many ships. The missiles moved at great speeds, with no obvious source of propulsion. The Romans had known about Archimedes’ war machines but had never expected magic!
Finn knew when he read it that it had nothing to do with magic.
© 2011 by Theodore Morrison Homa