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May 24, 2012

From Fly Creek: For help with the smug

— I’ve been having much fun lately, friends, writing a short book called “Saints for Special Needs,” completely  fictional characters whomight get us thinking about humanity—and ourselves, in particular. Here’s a sample. Let me know your reaction. (Oh, and I have a fine cartoonist to illustrate the book!) [Almost every culture has a place for “the wise fool,” the vacant sort of person who, in fact, has a witty and trenchant view of humanity, and may even see into its future.]

The list of famous persons not born in Swabia is very long. But some notables were native to the south German province. Rommel was born there, and Schelling, Kepler, Hegel, Brecht, Daimler, Hesse, and, of course, Einstein. These men, as you may know, are all quite famous.

Among the many less famous and now almost anonymous Swabians was Saint Swibart. He was canonized in 1400 AD, as an object lesson, one might think, for the smug. For he is an example of a blessed presence among the self-absorbed: a wise fool and, more important, a seer. For Swibart could foresee the future, though, like poor Cassandra of Troy, was never taken seriously.

The Ulm of Swibart’s boyhood was a busy commercial center, already gaining wealth through trade in linen and coarser fabrics.

Swibart was born there around 1340, close to the River Blau’s confluence with the Danube. Nothing is known of his family.

From early boyhood, Swibart was avoided by many adults who were put off by his jarringly odd ways. For instance, even when he was looking right at someone, responding to a question, the boy’s eyes seemed focused at some point behind and beyond the speaker; and often his strange answers had no connection at all to the question.

The children, however, found him fascinating when he described for them “carriages linked like parading elephants, propelled by bursts of steam.” That first railroad train he described did not pass through Ulm for another 400 years. They also loved the way he would sit in a wheelbarrow, legs hanging down on either side, rotating clenched fists and roaring, “Rrrmmm! Rrrrrmm!” Swibart couldn’t know that the was prophesying the first invention of Gottlieb Daimler, to born in Ulm in 1834, and who in 1885 installed a primitive gasoline engine on a two-wheeler and rode off on the first motorcycle.

But before 1400, youngsters took turns pushing Swibart around in the barrow while he alternately laughed and thundered “Rrrrmmm!” Adults, though, were frightened by his strange weather predictions. During one parched summer, he told a nun, “Someday our church spire will pierce the clouds and free the rain!”

The Ulm Cathedral was already begun at that time, but no one knew that, at its completion in 1890, the 500- year building project would boast a spire 528 feet tall and sharp enough, it seemed, to tear open passing clouds.

What seemed another weather prophecy was also not fulfilled for many centuries. For a whole week in a cold December, Swibart paced the square, face contorted, forearms on top of his head. “Brimstone from the sky!” he moaned. “Flames and destruction!” But his contemporaries needn’t have feared.

It wasn’t until December 1944 that RAF bombers flattened most of Ulm. And even then they spared the cathedral and its cloud-piercing spire, since it was a useful navigational marker.

But, again, it was the children who remained Swibart’s true friends. As he grew older, he never lost a childlike joy, and never ceased being children’s beloved peer.

One day a crowd of them watched as he paced out the  length and breadth of thesunny square. It was 100 by 50 feet, with a pleasant fountain halfway down the long west side. When he was done pacing, he sat on the fountain’s edge. The youngsters settled around him but soon realized he was far, far away.

Eyes glazed, Swibart kept repeating, “Reifen und kugen! Reifen und kugen!” Barrel hoops and balls?

What could he mean? But suddenly he was up, loping to the middle of the square, holding curled hands in front of him as if he held a muskmelon. Then he ran in a semi-crouch to the square’s north end and, twenty feet out, launched his hands up and outward, as if throwing a projectile.

He spun, raised hands to catch something, and then ran toward the south end, using one hand seemingly to bounce the invisible melon off the paving stones. Close to the north end, Swibart leaped high and threw the invisible sphere downward. “Dunk!” he yelled triumphantly, and the excited, confused children all yelled, “Bitte schon!”

Soon a dozen youngsters were running alongside him, back and forth, some trying to knock the imaginary kugen from his hands, and others trying to fend them off. In short order, they were acting as two teams, and when one side managed to capture the kugen and run away with it, the defense became the offense and went at them.

That children’s game lasted decades beyond Swibart’s death, but it had been forgotten centuries later when in 1970 the Ratiopharm Ulm opened as home arena for the Bundeslega basketball team. Albert Einstein was not born in Ulm until 1879, but Swibart saw him many times some two hundred years before. Even when fully himself, he would sometimes run toward bent old men with wild white hair, calling to them.

“Einstein? Einstein?” he’d ask hopefully. This got him kicked in the shins more than once, and sometimes knocked down.

In visions, he almost always he saw Einstein writing with chalk on a black wall, but since Swibart could neither read nor cipher, he had not an idea of what the squiggles meant. But the old man looked at once so intent and so kindly, that Swibart loved him deeply.

Once he saw Einstein facing an invisible audience, repeating an incomprehensible phrase. “E=mc squared,” the gentle voice said. “That is the very key.” Then he nodded slowly, smiling.

And, indeed, on Swibart’s own deathbed many years later, surrounded by children and by children who had become fathers and even grandfathers, Swibart murmured that very phrase.

“E=mc squared,” he whispered. “Das ist der Schlussel.” “Ah, he is delirious,” said one man tearfully. “Nein, nein,” others said. “See his soft eyes, see his peaceful smile.”

And then a sigh and his final word. It was breathed out in  a language none understood;Swibart was quoting his old friend from far in the future. “Relativity,” he whispered.