The Enlightening Chapters 18-20

18

Merle leaned back in his seat, put his hands behind his head with elbows out, and extended his legs in a relaxed posture.  He emitted a long, deep sigh.  Then he asked a simple little question.                                    

“Ken, who do you think was the smartest man that ever lived on Earth?”  

“Oh, I don’t know.  Probably Albert Einstein, I guess.”  

“What about Sir Isaac Newton, or maybe Leonardo da Vinci?”  

“Well, I don’t– I mean, yeah, I guess they were really geniuses too–“

“Oh, I’m just having a little fun, Ken.  I think most people these days would probably say Einstein, wouldn’t they?”

“Sure.”  

“But at the same time, you have questioned some aspects of relativity, haven’t you?”  

“I guess so.”  

“So do you think Einstein may have been wrong, in some respects?”  

“Oh, no, I don’t think so, any more.  Or, at least, I didn’t think so.  I thought that relativity has been very well proven by experiment.  But maybe not, right?”        

“Well, portions of relativity have been very well proven by experiment, like time dilation, and gravitational waves, for example.  But what if other portions are not quite right?  Do you think people think about General Relativity or Special Relativity critically, or do they just unwaveringly follow along the trail of full and complete acceptance?”

Well, that was a big moment of impact for me.  I realized what Merle was essentially saying.  Nobody learns about the Theory of Special Relativity, for example, without completely and utterly accepting that the two “Postulates” are true, and without accepting that the weirdness of the whole c thing is completely true, even though these ideas defy the parameters of physical interaction, as far as I could ever tell.  

Oh, you might dig in your heels a bit, like I did, questioning, at first.  In the end, though, you just accept that certain aspects of the universe, according to Special Relativity in particular, seem to have plunged down the rabbit hole, and through the looking glass.  You have to be willing to suspend your disbelief, say to yourself “that’s just how the universe is,” and move on to the next subject.  So it wasn’t hard to think that the entire mountain of relativity, in academia, is based entirely on the complete acceptance that all of Albert Einstein’s basic stances in terms of General Relativity and Special Relativity were all totally on the money.

“It is a very deep dogma,” said Merle.  “It’s a very tough nut to crack.”      

“Yes,” I said.  I think at this point, I was still just trying to wrap my head around the thought of relativity theory being off-base, in some fundamental manner, apparently, even though I had already discussed the Lorentz transformations with Merle on a couple of occasions.  I just couldn’t begin to imagine what sort of universe that may imply.   

Merle continued.  “But yet, we already know that Einstein wasn’t perfect.  His vacillations over the cosmological constant, for example, are well documented.  So perhaps there is some hope that people may be willing to consider another possibility.”

I nodded, and we both thought in silence for a few moments, before Merle continued.  

“I’d like you to do me a favor, Ken.  Let’s just look, specifically, at Special Relativity, right now.  What would be some aspect of Special Relativity that you find to be especially strange, and difficult– if not impossible– to understand by conventional physical means?”      

“I don’t know.  A lot of it is weird, I guess.” 

“How about the mass-energy equivalence equation?“  

“You mean, ‘E equals mc squared’?”  

“Yes.”          

“Well, to me, that equation means that all energy is convertible to mass, and vice versa.  Any object in the universe, with mass, is basically a conglomeration of energy, and can be converted into various forms of energy.  Or, the mass of an object is directly analogous to the energy of an object.”  

“That’s right.  Basically, mass and energy are converted forms of the same thing.  That’s why I like to use the term ‘mass-energy’.  It’s a more inclusive term.”      

“Yes, that seems to make sense, actually.”   

“Okay,” said Merle.  “That’s good, Ken!  Now we’re getting somewhere!  This is how a detective might approach it, Ken.  Go through the list of what we know, and look for oddities– the anomalies that may seem hard to understand.  If it seems fine, like this equation, then move on.  Maybe we might need to go back later, for another look, but as for now, we’ll move on.”  

“Sure.”  I said.  

“How about the first postulate, then?”  Albert Einstein, in his Theory of Special Relativity, included a “first” and “second” postulate, as two prelude cornerstones to the theory.

“So what was the first postulate, again?”

“Basically, that all the laws of the universe are the same between all uniformly moving frames of reference.”   

I liked to put things in terms of specific examples, sometimes, for clarity, so I came up with a good example to illustrate the postulate.  “So in other words, if I took off from here at 80% the speed of light, and you flew right alongside me, also at 80% the speed of light, you and I would experience all the laws of the universe in the same way, since we’ve both accelerated to the same velocity.”  

“That’s right.”

“Well, that sounds about right.  Two people sharing a common space/time reference frame within the space-time continuum.”  

“As you and I are, right now, just standing here.” 

“Right.  So in my example, another person who stayed behind, and didn’t fly off at 80% the speed of light, would look at and see things differently, since he or she would be in a different frame of reference, velocity-wise.”  

“That’s right.”  

“Well, yeah.  That seems good.  The first postulate actually seems to make normal enough sense, also.  I mean, that’s how I picture the space-time continuum to work.”  

Merle sat up forward in his seat.  “Good!  Good, Ken!”

Now Merle raised an eyebrow and asked the follow up question, which he no doubt had been looking forward to asking me, for some time now.  “Now what about the second postulate?”   

“Well,” I said, “that one is a bit weird.”  We had already discussed the second postulate, previously, where the speed of light always appears to be the same, to all observers.  “I guess I never really did understand how the second postulate works,” I conceded.  

“Maybe that is a clue.”

“A clue?”

“That’s right.  Maybe the weirdness of light speed is a clue to something about the universe.”

“Like what?”  

“Well, what is involved, when electromagnetic radiation travels?”  

“I don’t know.  A guy and a flashlight, or something?”  

“No, Ken.  That’s not what I meant.  Maybe I should have asked what two things are involved, when electromagnetic radiation travels?”

“Two things?”  

“That’s right.  Obviously, one of the things is the electromagnetic radiation, itself, in the form of photons, which are discreet units of energy, or quantum mass-energy, if you prefer.” 

He had me stumped with the second thing, and I sat there, trying to think, for several moments.  “I have no idea, Merle.”

“You mentioned it when we talked about the first postulate.”  

“When we talked about the first postulate… hmmm…  Oh!  The space/time continuum!  The answer is electromagnetic radiation, and the space/time continuum!”  

“That’s right.”

“So what is the clue, though, exactly?

“Perhaps the strangeness of light reveals something fundamental about something other than light itself.”  

“Something other than light…  Oh!  It’s revealing something fundamental about the space/time continuum!”

“That’s right.  Also, there just might be some interesting little details involved in the physical mechanism of electromagnetic energy, itself, also.”  

I couldn’t really process much more, I don’t think, at that moment.  I did have a good clue to work with, though.  The c weirdness of light has something to do with the nature of the space/time continuum itself, in addition to some kind of physical trick involving the mechanism of the electromagnetic energy itself.  “Let’s mark that down as an oddity, then, Merle.”  

“Yes!”  Merle said.  “An oddity it is.”  Merle grinned at that.  “And what else about the theory seems a little hard to understand?” 

“Probably just the whole thing with the Lorentz transformations, like we’ve already talked about, and with c being the maximum speed limit of the universe, and the relativistic addition of velocities, and all that.”

Merle smiled.  “It is possible that the real-life significance of a mathematical equation, or a series of equations, might be misinterpreted, isn’t it?”

“I guess so.”       

“Remember,” Merle said, “the reason that the Relativistic Addition of Velocities exists, in part, is to rationalize the speed limit of c in the universe which Einstein had postulated, which itself was based on his misinterpretation of what the transformation equations signify, in our physical universe.  Also, in fairness, Einstein had no compelling reason to consider that the universe consists of multiple dimensions, or completely separated reference frames of space/time.  The equation also ties into the concept of the second postulate.  The Relativistic Addition of Velocities was based on the first and fourth equations of the Galilei transformation, really, and folding that into the first and fourth equations of each Lorentz transformation.

“Einstein basically stated that the Galilei transformations do not hold in reality, while he maintained that the Lorentz transformations do, indeed, reflect reality.  I would argue that a true understanding of reality requires the balanced understanding of what both the Galilei and Lorentz transformations indicate about reality, and our perceptions of it.  In a way, the Lorentz transformations reveal how the universe disguises the truth.  But in another sense, they reveal a greater truth, if we allow it to.”  

Merle was starting to lose me, although I was genuinely trying to follow him.    

Merle continued.  “So Einstein, in his theory, uses the Lorentz transformations, which really only involve perceptual relativistic artifacts between an observer and a traveler, and he formulates a comprehensive, universal law, describing these artifacts of perception as the actual full reality of the entire universe, resulting in this Relativistic Addition of Velocities.”  Merle frowned, which was the first time I had seen him frown.

My coy alien friend had to stay within his boundaries, I suppose, but still, he must have been itching to just spell the whole thing out to me, all at once.  Merle was more patient about it than I would have been, I think.  Nonetheless, at this point, I was starting to look at the first few pieces of the puzzle a lot more seriously than I had previously.  

At this point, I became aware of a group of three women approaching us from behind.  It was the time-savers!  I was feeling much friendlier towards them at that point, knowing some of their incredible background.  I was looking forward to talking to them some more.  I turned and said “Hi”.  I probably did a bit of a double when I saw Clotro.  She looked absolutely amazing.  It was the first time I had seen her with her white hood down, and her long blonde hair shimmered in the bright sunlight like rippling waves of gold.  She seemed to be enjoying the day as much as Merle was.  She was definitely turning a few heads from some of the passers-by.  She gave me a nice smile and nodded slightly.  Latsis dipped her head ever so slightly as an acknowledgement.  Atropha, however, looked like she was in a bad mood again.

“What is the status?” she asked Merle, rather curtly, in English.  

“We were just talking about the Relativistic Addition of Velocities equation from their Special Relativity Theory,” Merle told her.  

“Oh,” said Atropha.  “That.  And what does Ken think about it?“

“We haven’t gotten into it very far, yet.”      

By now Atropha was standing in front of us, with the two others off to the side.  She looked directly at me, in a purposeful and somewhat exaggerated manner, with those penetratingly deep black eyes.  “Well, Ken.  See to it that you keep an open mind.  In the end, you’ll have to decide for yourself.”  And with that, she spun around and gave a “follow me” wave to the other two.  I noticed that she also signaled to Clotro to put her hood back up, which she did immediately.  They strolled away from us, side by side, back behind a dense cluster of bushes.  I never saw them come out from behind the cluster, so I assumed they had gone back to the ship in their usual manner.

“Now, where were we?” Merle asked.       

“Well, Merle,” I said, “the Lorentz transformation equations must be correct, mathematically, while our interpretation of what they signify in the universe is not quite correct.  And the Relativistic Addition of Velocities is just a mistake in general, in some way.  And light speed is really some basic feature of the space/time continuum, and maybe something in the way in which light itself travels has something to do with it, also.  Oh, and the speed limit of c is– maybe it isn’t right.  Oh wow, does that mean you can go as fast as you want?!”  The thought of going faster than light was very appealing to me!

Merle looked at me, straight-faced, for a good long moment, before he broke out into a wide smile.  “Well, Ken, I already told you that I myself traveled faster than light speed, or, more accurately, the ratio of space to time, on the way here.  But even if you might be correct in what you say, you still don’t understand the context, or the physical mechanisms involved, or any of that.  When you are making adjustments to the Theory of Special Relativity, then surely there must be other adjustments to be made, in how you think about the universe.”  

“True.”

Merle leaned forward in his seat, his right hand tucked under his chin, as he gave the matter some more thought.  Then he sat back up straight, and turned to face me as he continued speaking.  “You know what, Ken?  We should take this back a few steps, back to the basics.”  

“O.K., whatever we need to do.”  

“There are some basic concepts that all young students on my home planet, Akeethera, learn, like how to write, how to read, basic math, and all that.  But one of the first things they study is perhaps the most basic question there is.”

“And what is that?” 

“The question is, ‘what two things comprise the universe?’”

“What two things comprise the universe?”

“That’s right.”  

“And what’s the answer?”  

“What do you think the answer is?”     

“Uh, matter and energy, I guess.  Right?”

“No.  You are almost half-way to your answer, though.”  

“I’m almost half-way to my answer?”  I had to think about that for a bit.  “Is it mass-energy?”

“Well, now you’re half way there.  Mass-energy is one of the things that comprise the universe.”  He waved his arm around, slowly, in an all-encompassing manner.  “Mass-energy represents most of what we visualize when we speak of ‘the universe’.  You and I are mass-energy.  Earth is mass-energy.  The Milky-Way is mass-energy.  The movements of your arm, or of the stars, are mass-energy.  A burning flame, the dance of a ballerina, the flight of a damselfly– all are mass-energy.

“Mass-energy, Ken, is an entirely quantum phenomenon.  Every form of mass or energy, anywhere in the universe, exists or originated in discreet, separately formed units of energy, such as individual sub-atomic units, or individual photons.  That is what is meant by quantum—formed of individual, discreetly separate units.”

I interrupted Merle.  “But what of the wave-like nature of particles?  Isn’t that a sort of non-quantum behavior?”  Well, you would think I struck Merle with an electric shock, the way he bolted in his seat when I said that.       

Merle literally shouted to me, as he slapped the seat next to him.  “Absolutely!  Absolutely it represents non-quantum behavior!” He leaned in closer to me, and looked around, as if he just realized that he had been shouting.  Then he asked me a question, in a much lower, even hushed manner.  “The thing is, Ken:  Is that non-quantum, wave-like behavior a characteristic of the particle itself?  Or might it be a characteristic of the second thing that comprises the universe?”

 “The second thing, right?”

 “Yes.  But what do you think it is?” 

 “The space/time continuum?”  

 Again Merle jumped as if he had been shocked.  “Yes!  Yes, Ken, yes.  The space/time continuum is the other thing that comprises the universe!  The space-time continuum, you see, is completely non-quantum.  That’s why we call it a continuum, of course.  A continuum, by its very definition, is not in any way divisible into discreet, individual units.  It is totally non-quantum, yet the continuum itself does represent a form of energy, that interacts with our quantum world of mass-energy.  Can you guess how it might interact?”

I had an idea, based on what Merle had been saying.  “The space/time continuum interacts with mass-energy in the form of a wave?”                  

“Yes!”  Merle looked relieved.  “The quantum particles of mass-energy ride the non-quantum wave of the space-time continuum.”  He paused and looked up into the sky for a few moments, watching a large flock of starlings fly past.  “We have a saying on Akeethera, Ken.  Roughly translated to your language, it goes ‘we are all but ducks on a lake’.  The ducks represent mass-energy.  The lake represents the space-time continuum.  It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s not a bad one, either.”

“You mean that you have ducks on Akeethera?”

“Well, we have flying creatures that are partially aquatic, much like ducks.  So it’s the same idea, and I’m just using ‘ducks’ as the nearest translation.”

Merle’s analogy seemed pretty simple to understand.  “Merle, that is like the secret of the universe, right there!  That solves a huge, central question of quantum mechanics, right there!”  

Merle smiled at that.  “Well, I told you that the universe doesn’t hold any secrets, Ken.  And don’t get too excited, just yet.  You still can’t put that into much of a context.  You still need to fill out your understanding of the entire situation.  And you need to understand the space-time continuum to a much greater extent than you do now.”

“I think I understand space-time pretty well, now, Merle.”

“You do?  Well, a positive attitude always helps, doesn’t it?  We will talk quite a bit more about the space-time continuum!”  At that point, Merle stood up from his seat on the bench and took a few moments to slowly stretch his body, this way and that way, like a cat does after a nap.  As he stretched, he continued conversing.  “We should let these ideas we’ve bounced around soak in for a while, Ken.  We can continue our Special Relativity talk later.  In the meantime, let’s keep walking.  It’s too nice of a day to just sit here talking, anyway.”

I stood up and stretched, myself, actually relieved in some way to take a break from our physics discussion, in spite of being very interested as to where it all was leading.  “O.K., Merle.  You lead the way.” 

19

We left the path, and strolled across the large central grass area of the park.  Stands of trees, shrubs, picnic tables, picnic shelters, and outhouses were interspersed here and there throughout the park.  Merle, as always, was checking out every bug or bird he saw.  Occasionally, random things like a drinking fountain or an outhouse caught his interest.  

One thing that sort of took me by surprise at first was that Merle often reached down to pick trash off the ground.  He collected it to deposit in the next garbage can we came across, so our walk was basically a zig-zag route between pieces of trash, and garbage cans, and we stopped at interesting sidelights along the way.  I couldn’t help but join in on the trash collection, at some point.  Just the two of us picked up enough scattered refuse to fill up an entire park garbage can, at least, that day.

Eventually, we closed in on the northeastern portion of the park.  Streamside Creek ran along a portion of the western edge of the park, as well as the entire northern edge.  The baseball fields were in the northwestern corner near the stream, and the basketball courts were to the east, also near the stream and not far from the parking lot that ran along part of the eastern edge of the park.  There were a couple of guys out on the basketball court already, and one of them was pretty tall.  I knew who that guy was.   

Tommy Marnel was, basically, the king of the basketball courts out at the park.  In fact, to this day he still goes out there from time to time, maintaining his honorary role on the courts.  He just can’t spend as much time out there, these days, with a wife and a young daughter.  He works at his uncle’s factory, as a Production Supervisor, and he coaches his nephew’s travel basketball team, too, so he definitely keeps busy.

Tommy’s other uncle, George, was the varsity basketball head for our local high school, Rundle Central.  He’d been the head coach for about eight years or so, by the time I tried out for team.  I heard that he’s coaching at some other school now; I forget where.  

Both Tommy and his uncle George were big basketball stars at R. Central, back in their respective days.  They both have plaques on the big wall of the Rundle Central Wildcat Hall of Fame, in the foyer of the Fieldhouse. 

I played basketball at R. Central, myself, freshman and sophomore seasons.  Back then, I was playing summer league basketball four days a week, for most of the summer, which was part of the basketball program.  On off days, a lot of guys from the school teams would come out to Streamside, to try and get in there to play against Tommy, who was playing in college at the time.  I played against him a few times and actually did pretty well, I thought.  The last time I came out here, it was late July, before my junior year of high school, and I remember it was real hot out there that day.  Probably less than three minutes into the game, I was battling Tommy for a rebound, and he jumped for the ball too soon.  As he was coming back down, and I was going up, his elbow came right down onto my nose, and my nose broke.         

My mom freaked out when she found out I was hammered by Tommy Marnel, who she knew from when my brother was in high school.  She said he probably outweighed me by 25 pounds.  It had to be at least 50 pounds, but I didn’t tell my mom that!

Mom never did like when I went to play hoops at Streamside Park, because of some of the “unsavory characters” who sometimes hung out there by the courts, and in the parking lot.  So, after my nose broke, my mom made me promise not to go out to that park to play against any college kids until maybe the following summer.  I battled her on the issue, but in the end I had to promise to not go back there.  For the rest of that summer, I played basketball at Reclamation Park, closer to our house.         

That fall, somebody at school told me that someone had asked about me, out at Streamside, and Tommy said that I was afraid to come back, because of the broken nose, and because of how rough it was out there, at the park.  That was exactly what I didn’t want him to think, especially since he had a direct pipeline with his uncle George.  That was a big part of the reason I wanted to get back out there so badly, which is probably also why my mom forced me to promise not to go back out there.

It was sort of ironic, too, because Tommy wasn’t much of a physical player, himself.  He was more of a 3-point specialist than a post guy.  Even I had just posted him up, in fact, about a minute before he caught me with the elbow, and like I said, I was a lot smaller than him at the time.  So I wouldn’t exactly classify the play out there as particularly rough-and-tumble.  I just happened to catch an elbow at a bad time. 

Anyhow, I was in the first round of cuts from the varsity team, that winter, the same day I won a 3-point shooting contest during the tryouts.  Everybody said they were shocked, because they thought I was a lock to make the team.  So who knows?

It was nice to get my life back, as it turned out, because there’s not much free time left, when you’re on the basketball team- especially varsity.  I’d have to run track or cross-country, too, if I was on the basketball team, since the coaches want you to do a second sport where you run a lot, but preferably don’t get hit.  Between that, and weight training, and summer league, it left maybe two or three weeks at the end of summer where you got a break.  So we were able to take a nice family vacation early the following summer, for the first time in a long time, without me having to worry about missing a “critical” week of basketball.  Plus I was able to intern at an engineering firm, which I never could have done if I was still in basketball.  So that was a real nice summer for me, as it turned out, without playing in the league four days a week. 

Meanwhile, Merle had gotten a few steps in front of me, and I heard him say, “We should play these two guys in basketball.”

I hoped that I misheard him.  “What did you say, Merle?” I asked.  

“I said, we should play these two guys in basketball.”       

“That’s what I thought you said.”  I had to almost break into a jog to catch up with him.  I was a little panicked because I knew I would be rusty, having not played in almost a year.  And my well-intentioned alien friend had never touched a basketball, it seemed safe to say.  Going two-on-two against Tommy and his friend– probably a teammate from college or something—would probably end up 21-0 (21 was usually the score limit on the courts at the park), and I wasn’t looking forward to being embarrassed like that.  Plus, I was terrified that Merle would end up getting hurt.  For some reason I had the macabre thought that Merle would get his nose busted, and start bleeding some color other than red.

“Merle, I don’t know if this is a good idea,” I said.  “I haven’t played in a long time, and these guys are pretty good players.  And pretty rough, too.  You’ve never even touched a basketball in your life.”  

“I think it’ll be fine, Ken.  Just give it a chance,” Merle said.  

“O.K.  Whatever.”  I wasn’t feeling very confident about our chances whatsoever, and I had a sinking feeling deep, deep down in my stomach, but I guess I just sort of knew that I’d never be able to talk Merle out of it, anyhow.

By that point, Merle was quickly striding up to the courts, and I was still hustling just to keep up.  Tommy and his friend were each lazily dribbling basketballs, and launching up a few practice shots.  They each picked up their basketball and turned their heads when they saw Merle approaching.  Tommy’s friend scowled and said something to Tommy, which we couldn’t hear from our distance.  But I imagine it was something to the effect of, “now who in the blankety blank are these two doofuses?”        

“Hello!” Merle said.  “We were wondering if you’d like to play some two on two.”  We stopped and stood in front of the two.  I noticed that Merle was about three or four inches shorter than Tommy, and Tommy’s friend had about two or three inches on me.  I was wondering how Merle knew about “two on two”.

An uncomfortable silenced followed, as Tommy and his pal assessed the situation with bemused smiles.  Tommy’s eyes landed on my face, and he recognized me.  

“Hey!  I remember you!  It’s the kid with the nose!  Long time no see, kid!  What brings you back around here after all this time?  Finally ready for another beating?”  Tommy laughed out loud at his own little joke.  “No, seriously, was your nose OK after that?”  

“Yeah, I guess so.  It healed up.”  

“That’s good,” said Tommy, very non-sincerely, I thought.

“That’s good,” said Tommy, very non-sincerely, I thought.          

“We just thought you might be looking to play a game,” was all I could think of to say. 

Tommy’s friend whispered to Tommy that he’d rather just practice, and wait for their friends to arrive.  

“You can play us, in a practice game,” said Merle.  “That will be practice.”  

Tommy obviously wasn’t too interested in what his friend, Harold, thought about it.  Tommy smiled; somewhat sadistically, I thought.  “O.K.”, Tommy said.  “We’ll play.”  

Harold gave Tommy a look that said, “Do we really have to?”, while I gave Merle the same sort of look.  But we strode out there, anyway, and Tommy went over the ground rules with us, more for Merle’s benefit than for mine.  Basically, you had to go backcourt with the ball to start the possession, and it had to be checked by the other team after a score.  The game was to 21, and you had to win by two points.  “Here,” Tommy said, and tossed the ball to Merle.  “You can in-bounds it to start the game.”

Merle took the ball up past the arc, where backcourt was, and started to dribble.  I was surprised that he looked perfectly natural, dribbling the ball.  “So,” asked Merle, “Two points for a regular basket, and three points from behind the arc, right?”  

“That’s right,” said Tommy.  

Merle nodded his head.  “And I don’t have to pass it out first?  I can just shoot from right here, if I want?”

“Sure,” said Tommy.  “We already checked the ball.”  Those things hadn’t been mentioned when Tommy went over the ground rules, and I was surprised to hear Merle ask the questions.  A lot of times, in playground rules, a basket is one point, and behind the arc is two points, but the games at Streamside usually went with traditional 2/3 scoring, to discourage players just standing behind the arc and launching shots.  

Tommy gave Merle a smile that seemed to say, “Go ahead and shoot, you’re going to miss anyhow.”  Then Tommy stepped across the line, closer to Merle, and put his hands up, in defense of a potential shot.  I started cutting cross-court to try and get open for a pass, with Harold at my heels, in hot pursuit.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Merle just rise up and launch a 3-point attempt, with Tommy’s hand in his face, as naturally as if he had been shooting 3-pointers all his life.  The shot rose up with a high, graceful arc, and slammed through the center of the hoop.  The chain-metal net flipped and jangled, as the ball passed through the basket.

Everybody but Merle just sort of stopped for a moment, surprised.  I know that I, personally, was absolutely about as flabbergasted as I could be.  In fact, I’m surprised I didn’t fall over, right on the spot.  Then Merle said, “Three- zip,” to announce the score, and the game was on.  I didn’t even have time to wonder how in the world Merle just did that.  

Harold took the ball out at the top of the arc, and as he cut to the right, he passed it back to Tommy as he cut across in the other direction.  I was covering Harold, and he cut to the left side of the court after his pass.  Tommy flipped an overhead pass across court, leading Harold, who had clearly gotten past me.  Harold had an easy layup in the bag, but the ball never got there.  Instead, Merle jumped up, incredibly high and amazingly quickly, and snatched the pass out of the air, before it had traveled even six feet.  Then he dribbled backcourt, looking a lot like a point guard as he went between his legs to blow past Tommy, while I cut back the other way around Harold.

Merle spun around and hit me with a dead-on pass as I drove the lane for the lay-up.  When I went up, though, Harold gave me a subtle push in the lower back, and that little push was enough for me to clang it off the backboard too hard, and off the top of the front of the rim for the miss.  As I turned back towards the basket, I saw Merle flying in from the top of the key.  He grabbed the ball while it was still up above the front of the rim, after the bounce.  While still in the air, he brought the ball over and behind his head, and power-slammed it back through the hoop, just like you might see some guy do in a dunk contest on TV.  Merle landed in a crouched position at the baseline behind the basket, after the dunk, facing the court like a tiger, or a martial arts guy, or something.  It was pretty wild, really.  The entire dunk sequence, even now, when I think about it, is so surreal, how high he got in the air, and how hard he threw the ball down through the hoop, and how he landed and everything.  The basketball bounced off the court after the dunk, and Merle snatched the ball back out of the air, while still in his tiger crouch.  He looked up at Tommy, who I’m sure was totally shocked by the unexpected start to the game.  Merle flipped him the ball.  “Five-zip,” Merle said.

Well, that move really got their attention, I have to say.  Heck, it got my attention, also.  It quickly became very apparent that Merle, far and away, was the best player out there.  Shooting the ball, passing the ball, playing defense, rebounding, Merle did it all out there.  Plus, he could jump amazingly high, and, without question, he was faster than anybody else out on the court.  I had no idea how he was doing it.        

We built up a pretty decent early lead, and I even scored a few baskets myself, on an easy layup and a mid-range jumper or two, since Tommy and Harold were so focused on guarding Merle.  As the game progressed, it was obvious that Merle was trying to get me more and more involved in the game.  It was interesting to watch him operate.

For one thing, if Merle had just taken control of the ball himself, and not passed it to me, we probably would have won the game by 15 points, easily.  And when Tommy or Harold made a nice play, or scored or whatever, Merle cheered them on, and wanted to high-five them like he was their own teammate or something.  At first they didn’t know how to react to that, but after a while, they went along with Merle’s routine and accepted the hand slap or fist bump from Merle, laughing at him like he was a crazy man or something.  Actually, other than the fact that Merle was passing the ball to me, and guarding Tommy and Harold, you probably might not have even known which team Merle was on.  That made the game more fun, I think.  While Merle was having fun, and at the same time trying to get me more involved in the offense, Tommy and Harold sort of snuck right back into the game.  Merle and I had been winning by a comfortable seven points, 19-12, but I missed two easy layups that could have won the game, and Tommy hit a couple of threes to close within one point, 19-18.

Merle took the ball out, and passed to me on the left side.  I panicked and dribbled it right off my foot and out-of-bounds.  

They took the ball back out, and Tommy passed it back across to Harold, who stepped back behind the arc for the game-winning “three” attempt.  Luckily, I moved up on him quickly and got a fingertip on his shot, and it fluttered down, ten feet short of the basket.  Merle out-leaped Tommy for the ball and passed it to me, cutting towards the back court.

I took Merle’s pass backcourt, and dribbled the ball back out before lobbing it back to Merle at the top of the key.  He circled to his left with the ball, and as he did, he gave me a quick head motion, indicating that I should cut down the other side of the lane, which I did.  Merle flipped a behind-the-back pass to me as I shot past, and I grabbed it off the bounce.  Without taking a dribble, I quickly tossed up a floater.  This time Harold’s push in the back came a little too late to affect the shot, and the ball hit high off the backboard, caromed high off the front of the rim, and came down straight through the chains, for the game winning shot.

By then, a small crowd had gathered around the court, mostly guys coming out to play with Tommy and Harold, and they hooted up a storm when that winning shot went through the hoop.  Nobody would expect Tommy and Harold to lose, two on two, to anybody, let alone to us two guys who didn’t exactly appear to be serious “ballers”.  Merle came over to high five me, and then, somewhat to my surprise, so did Tommy and Harold.  

“Nice game, kid,” said Tommy.  “You hit some nice shots there.  Good game.  Good, tough game.”  Then he gave me a fist bump.  I even got a fist bump from Harold, who didn’t say too much.  By now, the four of us had sort of strolled over to the back corner edge of the court, while the other guys came out onto the court and started shooting around.  The park was coming to come to life now, as more people poured in, riding bicycles, kicking soccer balls, throwing Frisbees, and walking their dogs.  Families were streaming in, and young children were breaking up the early morning peacefulness with shrill shouts and wails.

20

While Merle, Tommy, Harold and I made small talk, a vendor on a bicycle drove up by the courts, selling ice cold bottles of water for $ 1.50.  Merle excused himself from our conversations and went up to the vendor.  He handed the vendor a five dollar bill for two waters, and waved off the two dollars in change, telling the vendor to keep it, as a tip.  The vendor tried to give Merle a third bottle of water, but Merle thanked him and told the vendor that he didn’t need any more water.  Merle turned and tossed one of the waters to me.  I chugged it in about 15 seconds, I think.  Tommy and Harold were drinking their own water, which they had brought with them.  

Meanwhile, Merle started to walk back away from the courts, towards the stream.  There was a single tree that was growing on our side of the stream bank in that area.  I watched Merle as he walked quickly to the edge of the upper bank, just to the left of the overhanging tree.  Merle set his unopened water bottle down in the grass, next to the path, and he began to hop deftly down the bank.  He stopped along the way to grab a long branch that was lying among the tangled heaps of weeds, vines and assorted trash, and then he continued on his way, down to the very edge of the stream.  Mystified, I followed over a little closer, to get a better view of the situation.

     A child’s ball was in the flow of the stream, and it was rapidly approaching Merle’s location.  Even though he seemed perilously close to falling into the brown water, Merle reached the branch outward, and, with the gnarled and curved end, he corralled the colorful sphere as it floated by.  It was one of those plastic, inflated toy balls that you get for three dollars in some grocery store bin, about eight inches in diameter, cobalt blue, and festooned with several emerald green cartoon characters with brown pants and cottony white hair.  Merle was just in time to grab the ball with the stick, and he pulled it back to where he stood on the bank.  I was surprised by how he knew the ball was floating along back there, and even more surprised at how quickly he moved to make the save.  I was confused as to why he went out of his way like that, just to grab a little child’s ball.  I was thinking that maybe Merle was going to collect it, to bring back with him on the ship, as something like an artifact, or a souvenir, maybe.  I was starting to wonder how I was going to try and explain this odd behavior to Tommy.  This was really the first goofy behavior which I had witnessed from Merle.

Meanwhile, Merle hopped back up the river bank, pausing along the way to drop the branch back into its original position in the tangles.  At the same time, I started to see what had actually happened.  The commotion of a wailing kid was coming closer, and I turned to my left to see a young girl, no older than six or seven years old, with tears streaming down her face.  She was running along the path by the stream, looking down into the water, apparently searching frantically for her ball.  The instant she spotted Merle with the ball, she stopped in her tracks, while still wailing and crying.  Her thick curly locks of hair bounced up and down with each heart-rending sob.  Her eyes were locked on Merle, as he rose up from the riverbank, with the ball in his hand. 

The little girl’s eyes followed Merle as he strode over and picked up his water bottle.  He opened the bottle and set the cap back down in the grass.  Then he cradled the ball in his left arm and poured some water onto the ball.  He managed to swoosh the water over the surface of the ball with his right hand, while he sort of pinned the ball against his chest with his left forearm.  He shook the water off the ball and then poured out a second round of water and swooshed it across the ball again.  He shook the water off and finally emptied the rest of the water onto the ball, swooshing and shaking off the water a third time.  He reached down to pick up the bottle cap, and he quickly screwed it back onto the empty bottle.  Then he turned to his left and pitched the bottle into the nearest recycling bin, which was about ten yards away.  The bottle went in, “nothing but net”, of course.  Then, holding the ball with both hands, he carefully rolled it back and forth across the front of his shirt, for a final drying.

Merle looked up, and he met eyes with the little girl, who was still standing on the path, maybe twenty yards upstream.  Another forty yards back, the girl’s mother was closing in, chasing down the path with quick, scurrying steps.  Every few steps, the mom would pause and sharply call out to her wandering daughter, in breathless, staccato bursts of some foreign language that I couldn’t place.  Farther back still, the little girl’s brother was getting vigorously scolded by their rather angry father.  Apparently the brother had kicked his sister’s ball into the stream.      

Merle held the ball up in his right hand, showing it to the little girl.  She instantly stopped sobbing and stared at it with wide eyes.  The sun had now moved up higher into the sky, above the tree line, and it brightly illuminated the blue globe that had been lost, and now found.  Merle, in perfect bowling form, rolled the ball slowly down the path, back towards the little girl.

She stood there, transfixed, and watched the rolling of the approaching ball.  Finally, it curved back across the path and came to rest, right at her feet.  She reached down and picked up the ball.  Cradling it tightly in both arms, she peered intently at Merle, for a good few moments.  Then, suddenly, she broke out in an immense grin of acknowledgement and squeaked out a quick “T’ank you!” in Merle’s direction, before she turned on her heels and ran back down the path, jabbering excitedly to her mother in that unknown language.  After the girl reached her mom, and showed her the ball, the mother looked across at Merle.  She held up her hand towards him and smiled, as an obviously very sincere and respectful “thank you”.  With her arm around her daughter’s shoulder, and with both talking excitedly, they turned and walked back towards their picnic spot.  I suppose they might have moved their picnic a little farther from the stream, after that turn of events.

“You’re welcome!” Merle called after them.  He was smiling broadly.  Then he turned and strolled back over towards the courts, to where Tommy and Harold were.  I walked over there, also, relieved that at least there was an explanation for why Merle went for the ball.      

“Nice job, man!” Tommy Marnel said.  He thumped on Merle’s back repeatedly to show his enthusiasm for what he had just witnessed.  “Nice job!  I can’t believe you saw that happening!  That was beautiful!”  

“Why did you pour the water on it?” Harold asked Merle.

“That water in the stream is filthy,” said Merle.  “There’s a lot of garbage in there, and some of the factories upstream seem to think the stream is their own personal sewer.  So I just wanted to clean off the ball a bit.”      

“Oh,” said Harold.  He seemed very satisfied, and even impressed, by that answer.  “Right.”  

“There is a lot of garbage in there,” I said.  “Shopping carts, old tires, plastic bags, all kinds of stuff.”  

“It’s pretty bad,” Tommy agreed.  

“Something ought to be done about it,” Merle offered.

Harold laughed.  “Right!  They can’t even manage to empty the garbage cans out here, half of the time, and they’re going to take the carts out of the river!”  

“But why wait for the Park District to do it?” Merle asked. “Why not get something organized on your own?”

“I don’t think they’d let us,” I said.  

“Sure they would!” said Merle.  “You’d just have to get some sponsors.”  

“Well, if you ever do it,” said Tommy, “let me know.  I’ll get a whole bunch of people out here to help.”  

“O.K.” I said, laughing.  “Fair enough.”  I looked over at Merle.  “We really need to get going,” I said.  

“Well,” said Tommy, “thanks for a good ass-whuppin’ out there.”  He was looking at Merle as he said that.  “Where did you play b-ball?” he asked Merle.  

“Nowhere, really,” said Merle.  “Just here and there, basically.”  

Both Tommy and Harold laughed at that one.  “Right!” said Tommy.  “’Just here and there!’  Right!”  

Merle laughed also, and we all shook hands.  Merle and I walked away, while Tommy and Harold went back to the court, shaking their heads.

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