Dear Fellow Reunion Attendees:
Last week I received an announcement of my 40th high school reunion. These notices from people who are significantly older than my memory’s picture create equally distorted memories of my actual high school experience. While music took a majority of my time—I arranged my schedule so that my senior year consisted of three AP classes and seven music courses, my memory space is more occupied by interscholastic forensic speaking tournaments.
Omaha Central High was a Midwest debate powerhouse, with several state championships. It was an unusual school, as the debate, chess and math team awards occupied the same trophy-case prominence as baseball and basketball. My alma mater hadn’t done well in football since the Gale Sayers days.
Several of my friends “lettered” in speech and debate, and while I set aside debate tournaments for music classes my senior year, I did continue to compete in oratory, impromptu speaking and dramatic interpretation, as these took significantly less preparation time.
The dramatic interp competition was a late add-on to my forensic portfolio. At any given competition, students were permitted to enter four events, and coach Weintraub thought Charlie Fishkin and I were naturals to present the courtroom act from Laurence & Lee’s play, Inherit the Wind. The scene recalled the culmination of the Scopes trials where Nebraska orator William Jennings Bryan took on the humanist Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow in open court. Darrow makes mincemeat of Bryan by laying bare the intellectual limitations of Biblical creationism and championing the more scientifically plausible school of natural selection and evolution. Charlie played Darrow; of course, I played Bryan.
The 1925 Scopes trial was the first broadcast courtroom drama. Radio had just come into its own and created an immediate real-time national media circus. Circus, quite literally, because promoter Lew Backenstoe brought his marquee act, Joe Mendi, to Dayton, Tennessee, to perform in the streets while the battle for modernity raged in the courtroom. Joe Mendi was an 18-month-old chimpanzee who carried a cane and wore a top hat and tails. Mendi would play a small piano, sign checks and deal cards, blurring the line between primate-chimp and primate-man to the delight of the crowds.
Such entertainment has long been outlawed in most states. Forcing young animals to perform only for the delight of humans is considered now inhumane, an unusual term when used in reference to the treatment of animals. We’ve stopped dressing them in little costumes to perform acts unnatural to them but mundane for humans, because of what such treatment says about us, the alleged superior creatures.
Historically, Scopes lost and was fined $100 for breaking Tennessee law; Bakenstoe won, making tens of thousands of dollars touring with the chimp made famous during the trial. Still, in the long run, the Scopes decision was overturned on appeal, and Bakenstoe is remembered as a monster for his cruelty to animals. On the other hand, in the much longer run, folks still wager on dog fights, and several states require Biblical creationism to be taught in science class alongside natural selection. It’s unclear if we have evolved; if natural selection turns out to be correct, we’re in trouble.
My reunion is in October and I’m not sure I’ll attend. If I do go, I’ll have to brush up my piano playing and start hunting for a good top hat.
Connecting dots where there may be no picture, I remain,