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Awe And Wonder
My book club just finished reading a book called Set The Stars Alight by Amanda Dykes. It’s the story of Lucy, a marine archaeologist who’s trying to uncover the mystery of a childhood story her father would tell. Her friend, Dashel, a forensic astronomer (didn’t even know there was such a thing), steps in with his knowledge of the stars to help her solve the mystery. Of course it’s a magical story and there’s love and all that fun sort of stuff…but that’s not the point. The story contained the aspect of studying the stars, which once again had me remembering my dad. He loved the stars.
At the age of five, the night sky overwhelmed me. It was deep and dark, full of tiny pinpoints of light and a big bright ball called the moon, which sometimes appeared to be a face looking down on me. The thought of what might be out there gave me that sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you’re excited or nervous. But my dad, being the brainiac that he was, loved space and everything about it—stars, planets, comets…all of it. He built his own telescope in the late 60’s and kept it in our garage. The telescope's cylindrical tube was white, and stood about six feet tall when placed on end. He hand-ground the mirror for it himself. When the weather was nice, and the sky was clear, and if there was a target he was especially wanting to see, he would haul that thing out of the garage and into the living room. Each and every time he would do this, I would see that telescope, and instantly my stomach would be filled with those butterflies of excitement. It meant that Daddy was going to take us outside to look up into that big dark sky. There was no telling what we’d see, but I knew it would be something wonderful.
The process of these night sky adventures took a lot of time and preparation. Five year old's have no concept of time, so of course my patience wore thin with the waiting. Inside, my dad would dust off the cylinder, and clean the mirror and viewfinder eyepiece. Then, by himself, he would haul that heavy, weighted base to the perfect spot outside, and securely attach the thin, aluminum straps to the tube, tightening all the screws and knobs. Once that was all ready to go, he would need to find the coordinates of the target he wanted to look at. Without the aid of a computer, he used a Planisphere—a device made of two plastic discs riveted together in the center. The black circle at the back has a complete star map printed on it. A twelve month calendar year is printed around the perimeter of the circles, as well as each hour in a 24 hour day. Lining up the circles with the date and time allows you to see what’s visible in the sky, along with the exact coordinates needed to see it. Pretty cool, right? People still use them today, it’s just much easier to pull out your cell phone and Google it.
I have this visual memory of me waiting outside with my dad while he moved the great cylinder into position and looked through the viewfinder for the target. He would adjust a knob, then look in the viewfinder. Adjust a knob…look, repeat. Since it took so long, I’d stand there with my neck craned as far back as I could get it, adjusting my eyes to the inky black of the night sky. I would scan the starry points of light, darting my eyes back and forth. There were way too many stars for my childlike eyes to focus on any single one. So, in awe and wonder I would just stare. Maybe if I stared long and hard enough, I’d be able to see deeper and deeper into that vastness. Wanting more, my lack of patience would end in my frustration. This was taking Dad way too long. And so, tugging on his pant leg I’d say, “Do you see it yet?”
“Not yet, Mary Beth,” he’d say. Then, again, he’d lower his eye to the viewfinder, adjust the knobs, breathing ever so gently so as not to bump and upset the delicacy of the settings. I’m sure the whole process only took minutes, but for me, he might as well have been Copernicus formulating his model of the universe. It seemed like hours.
Then, when all was lined up to perfection, he’d step back and say, “OK, come have a look. Quick, before it’s gone. And don’t touch the tube.”
In overjoyed eagerness, I’d tiptoe to the eyepiece, which usually was too high for my eye to reach. Dad would lift me from behind, and with one hand I would cover my left eye and carefully look through the eyepiece with my right. It would take a bit for my eye to adjust, but when it did, my excitement could not be contained. For there the target would shine, studded in the blackness of space, yet right there for my little eye to behold. Once it was Saturn. Another time it was Jupiter and Venus. Many times we explored the craters on the moon with its white, sandy surface almost too bright to look at. How is it possible that this enormous white tube, when aligned correctly, manages to grasp a planet or star, bouncing their reflection off of a hand-ground mirror, and ultimately directing it to a small eyepiece for my eyes to behold? However it’s possible, it was my dad who made it possible for me. He’s the one that taught me to look at the night sky in awe and wonder. I will be forever grateful to him for this.
Eventually, after he retired, my dad upgraded his telescope game to an electronic one that automatically tracks with the rotation of the earth. He bought it after I was married and had moved away, so I missed the opportunity of the viewing parties he would have. When my dad passed away, my husband, Chris, and I had the blessed privilege of taking home that telescope. We were never able to get the electronic system to work again, but with the aid of my dad’s Planisphere, we’ve been able to see Saturn and Venus, and of course the moon. We’ve since passed it on over to our oldest son. He proudly displays it in his living room.
The ability for regular folks like me to see and study the stars has grown exponentially since Dad passed away. During the pandemic, Chris and I purchased an astrophotography telescope called Stellina. Now, through a cell phone app, we select what we want to see, lock it in, and presto…instant awe and wonder.