Starlight Memories 2

by Philip Steffey

Every Which Way to the Stars

Kalamazoo, Michigan, September 1951. School resumed, eighth grade for me, and for a change I looked forward to it. Also, I became an astronomy addict, the result of several twists of fate in the last five years. Ironically this period began with a celestial spectacle that should have inspired me but didn't.

One evening in October 1946, just after dinner, my father called me out to the small yard behind our house. There he and another man whose identity I've forgotten were looking up at the just-dark and splendidly clear sky. As my eyes adapted I sensed flickering light, then its source. Everywhere in the sky, narrow, bright streaks appeared and quickly vanished as others appeared. My mother, June, who had followed me outside, said "Oh, look at the falling stars!" The men grumbled something critical, but as I knew nothing about real stars I just kept gawking at the aerial fireworks-like display. What we saw was the Giacobinid meteor storm, which lasted about a half hour. But at age 8, so much I experienced in those days was new or strange, so this event left no lasting impression on me. (Sadly too, in the next fifty years I would see no meteor display anywhere near as rich.) Maybe, however, it planted a "look up" seed in my subconscious.

I was even slow to pay attention to the Moon. One evening in the autumn of 1947 I was sitting on the living room floor with my three year-old cousin Harry Fisk and some toys. Mom was reading by a rather dim light some distance away. Dad walked in and she introduced him to Harry, adding that we were in Virgil's house. Moments later the toddler pointed toward the east-facing window, which framed a bright, fullMoon, and uttered an incomprehensible loud sound. Mom came over, looked out and identified the bright thing, to which Harry replied "Virgil's Moon!" From then on I increasingly kept an eye out for it, not wanting to be thought ignorant by older friends or relatives.

Two years later my parents and I watched part of a lunar eclipse through the same window. And I had a basic understanding of its cause, for I had begun reading about the Moon and other astronomical objects--by accident.
My mother's mother Anna Cooper, in whose house we lived during the World War II period, owned an encyclopedia of perhaps two dozen volumes. During some of our frequent return visits in the late '40's I browsed these impressive tomes, and one early subject that interested me was snakes. I read and reread everything the encyclopedia had about them and soon was borrowing books from our excellent neighborhood public library to learn more. Eventually I lost this interest, in part due to another it had sparked by alphabetic accident. In the encyclopedia, closely following "Snakes" was "Solar System." Blessed with a strong imagination, twenty feet-long snakes soon seemed boring to me compared with a Sun almost a million miles in diameter and planets that were taking more than a human lifetime to circle it once.
My new reading interest, still unsupported by any personal, serious observing, emerged during the "golden age" of pulp science fiction, and space travel and other-worldly life were seriously discussed in popular books and magazines as never before. The articles and books by rocket scientists Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun and artist Chesley Bonstell were particularly fascinating to me. Then came a series of sci-fi movies led by Destination Moon (which ran in Kalamazoo in late 1948 or early '49). Soon I was reading hardcover works found in the public libraries or my school library, as well as pulp works. Robert Heinlein's "juvenile" novels such as Farmer in the Sky and Space Cadet were early hardcover favorites, and Astounding Science Fiction, with its serious technical articles besides fiction, was my favorite pulp read.  This reading left me with an urge to learn more about real astronautics and astronomy, and in 1950 I was pushed that way by several new developments. A now-and-then model airplane builder, I flirted with model rocketry long enough to recognize that my physical science and engineering knowledge were way too little to actively pursue astronautics. A somewhat less daunting technology --telescopes--beckoned, mostly because I had one, a two or three year-old Christmas gift that I had hardly used. Little more than a toy, it was a 6-power job with a Galilean optical system. From time to time that year I looked at the Moon with it, and though it showed little more detail than my unaided eyes did, the enlarged size fascinated me. In mid-summer I made a crude mount on a stepladder from a section of model railroad track, rope and tape, but the more stable lunar image didn't show anything new. Clearly I needed a much larger, more powerful 'scope to see the sights the astronomy books showed.

One early evening in September (my best guess), I was astonished to see a dim point of light low in the still blue southeastern sky. It was stationary, or at least moved much slower than an airplane. Puzzled by its identity--I hadn't even seen and recognized Venus yet--I soon forgot it, but I believe my subconscious made a note to learn to identify bright stars. A couple years later I knew that what I had seen was Jupiter.

That month I began the seventh grade in school, at old and dilapidated but comfortable Washington Junior High, just five blocks from my home and on the same grounds as my elementary school. My courses included my first in science, general but with a smattering of Earth science and astronomy. Mostly it just encouraged me to read more.

Television came to Kalamazoo in a rush in 1950 and forever changed my life--for the better! In late spring I saw my first TV on a set in an icecream parlor in nearby shopping center Washington Square, together with a crowd of other people. Within weeks we had our own set at home, and in a year or so the first of a series of improved ones. The programs were few, tentative, and some downright silly, but somehow I distilled the good and deflected the bad--an ability that is still with me today. The least I can say about my early TV-watching is that, I also became a better school student in every respect, learned more on my own outside school, and befriended more and more intelligent, studious boys and girls.
My interest in astronomy even benefited when, in September, "juvenile" sci-fi programs appeared and soon became late afternoon staples: Tom Corbett, Space Cadet , CaptainVideo, and Space Patrol. With my imagination and reading background (e.g. of Heinlein, story consultant for TC,SC), I became an avid viewer, but with an eye out for anything I could learn about outer space, other worlds, and astronomy in general. Nowadays it is intellectually fashionable to ridicule these programs, but at their worst they were like most sci-fi movies showing then and no more childish or silly than much other TV, e.g. Kukla, Fran and Ollie. And they ran for up to seven years (CV), compared with weeks to months for most later imitations and lon-ger than even most general-interest series.

To conclude this flashback, I must mention the contribution to my soon-to-be major astronomical interest by my physical fitness. Since age 4 I had been outside most of my waking hours when not in a classroom, playing all sorts of games with neighbor kids at first and then at organized sports till well along in college. (However, from high school on I settled for intramural competition.) This activity gave me the stamina for all-night observing when I had the time and desire, without losing a beat in my daytime activities. It kept my eyesight very good, despite more and more reading, well into my 20's, and surely helped my mental development. Had I been just a bookworm from a very young age, well, who knows?

Now we have come to the middle of 1951--my 'launch' year. The first article of this series recounted how a visit to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City in July inspired me to start learning the constellations a month later. That visit also got me an issue of Sky and Telescope, to which I soon subscribed and found immensely valuable. Unfortunately, as it turned out, I also was reading Mechanix Illustrated's telescope-making and related articles then and was conned into ordering, for $15 plus shipping, what seemed like the powerful kind of telescope that would take me another big step into doing astronomy. Instead it was a big piece of junk making today's overpriced Sears or K-Mart 'scopes Nobel Prize quality by comparison. A 1 1/2-inch, single-element objective in a long, sheet-metal tube; single-lens positive eyepieces giving 45 and a humongous 140 power; a heavy but flimsy 6 ft.-high wooden tripod with a crude equatorial motion head (see photograph).

In September I saw craters and mountains on the Moon for the first time with this thing, in all the colors of the rainbow. Venus was something like a diamond in sunlight, but I did discern its thick crescent shape. Jupiter showed its four big satellites but no surface detail. Star images were so lousy that, e.g., Mizar (Zeta Ursae Majoris) was not resolved. Mercifully the cost had been low, for I used the 'scope on only a half-dozen nights that autumn and never thereafter.

Grasping my mistake in buying it, I resumed intensive naked-eye observing at night for the time and cast longing eyes at the relatively expensive telescopes advertised in Sky and Tel. during the days. By the end of the year I would have what I wanted, for a real bargain price. But that's a story for my next article.
September's big letdown was compensated by something of lasting value to my stargazing activity. I started recording observations, including a drawing of a telescopic view of Venus mentioned above (see reproduction). Mere scribblings on paper scraps for a while led to consistent record-keeping in 1952-3: detailed logs of observing sessions, special object (mainly planet) records, and quarterly general summaries. My ability to recollect the events of late 1951 in greater detail than earlier ones is due to having made written records then and preserved enough of them to the present. I commend this habit to all budding astronomers and other hobbyists. Of course, it is mandatory for professionals.


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