Star Light, Star Bright

A Smith College graduate, ANITRA FREEDMAN lives in Berkeley, California, where she is engaged in writing, editing, and literary research.


I WAS shivering in a vacant lot one evening recently While my son “swept the skies" with his four-inch reflecting telescope, when a man accosted us.

“See anything interesting?” he asked suggestively, pointing to the lighted windows of nearby houses.

“Just looking at some heavenly bodies,” I told him.

“Mm, hm!” The stranger grinned. My son look this moment to exclaim “Wow!” and the man turned to leer at me.

“Jupiter and four moons!" my offspring sighed ecstatically.

The man’s face sagged, like that of one who has been dreaming of Marilyn Monroe and wakes to find his pet puppy snuggling against him. “Four moons!" he muttered in disbelief.

“Jupiter actually has twelve moons,” I said apologetically, “though all of them aren’t visible. And, of course, with a small telescope like this — “ But by this time the man had sidled away.

As the mother of a young telescope nut — more familiarly, T.N. — I belong to that growing subspecies of the human family known as the astronomater (or, if you prefer, astronomartyr). This is something like a golf widow, but in reverse. Instead of being left at home — no hardship for a female with all the instincts of a sloth — I, perforce, accompany my offspring when he goes out to gaze at the skies and study constellations and galaxies.

It is in the nature of this hobby that it must be pursued at times when one could rightfully expect to be settled comfortably before the radio or TV set, or in a nice warm bed. Full many a gloomy night finds me shivering and sleepy on balconies or in back yards while my son, oblivious of earth-bound matters, gazes skyward through his telescope.

In the course of time, we became members of a local astronomical society, an organization of “amateurs" whose erudition makes a monkey out of a contented novice like myself. Now any amateur astronomical society worth its salt has at least one “star party,”usually the culmination of its activities for the year. This year our star party was held atop a 4000-foot mountain, to which members were to bring their scopes for observing as far as possible from the madding crowd. Since the viewing couldn’t begin until dark and would continue until morning, the plan was to camp out overnight.

On the way up the mountain, my son began to anticipate the pleasures of the party.

“There’ll be a lot of good things to see, he said. “Since Saturn’s in opposition, we may be able to see Cassini’s division, and probably even Encke’s.”

“Oh, I’m sure of it.”

“Jupiter crosses the meridian tonight at about nine o’clock, Gee, we might be able to see some equatorial white spots, and even the south tropical disturbances. Naturally, we’ll view the great red spot. And what do you think. Mercury’s gibbous!”

Not to be outdone, I contributed the sum total of my knowledge: “Since the moon’s new tonight, that’ll be good for observing.”

“When the moon is new,”my son informed me patiently, “it is aetuallv not visible at all. Asa matter of fad, it is in first quarter and is about to occult Beta-Geminorum.”

At last, equipped with our borrowed army cots, sleeping bags, and air mattresses, and carrying food for supper and breakfast, we arrived at the camp site late in the afternoon. Already a number of eager beavers had arrived. Telescopes were lined up along the edge of the road.

My son promptly disappeared, leaving me to find a water tap, locate “sanitary conveniences,”put up army cots, inflate air mattresses, start a fire for supper, and follow other such mundane pursuits. From time to time he reappeared, delivering breathless announcements: ”You should see Jim’s scope. It’s a sixinch reflector, built at F/10. . . . Walter’s is a Cassegrain and no chromatic aberration. . . . Tom has a cool equatorial mount with perfect counterbalance and setting circles!”

Meanwhile, weeping in the billowing smoke from the fireplace, I blindly slapped potatoes and corn into the ashes, and steak on the grill. As the wind rose and the sun set, I added layers of clothing. By the time we had eaten and I had made a pass at washing dishes in lukewarm water covered with soot, I was eying our sleeping bags with suspicion. I tried not to think of my warm bed at home, complete with electric heating pad.

As the stars began to appear, my offspring became increasingly blissful. “You should see the Crab Nebula!" he sighed. “And take a look through John’s scope. It’s a four-inch open tube job and it splits two seconds of an arc. Bill’s telescope has an Erfle eyepiece, and it gives a field of view of 70 degrees. It’s pointed at Messier 13.”

I resisted a mad impulse to ask whether this was in any way related to a Messerschmitt, a faux pas that would certainly have cost me filial confidence and respect.

“The globular cluster in Hercules, you know. Come on, I’ll show it to you.”

As we went in search of this phenomenon, we were assailed by siren voices crying their wares in the dark: “It’s an eclipsing binary. . . . .Ah. Denebola! See the colors of the two stars! . . . Look, Saturn’s rings! . . . The Great Nebula in Orion, see the Trapezium!”

Suddenly, a hideous groan went up on masse from the entranced viewers. Rolling inexorably toward us from the west was a heavy bank of fog. In a matter of minutes it completely obscured the sky, and there wasn’t a star in sight.

We spent the rest of the evening around a blazing campfire, a condition against which I personally had no complaint. From time to time, when a gust of wind blew the fog away and a star or two could he seen, some hardy perennials went out into the cold. It was a trial by fire that sorted out the real stargazers from the mere hangers-on. Along about midnight, I made a wild dash toward my cot, knocking over two telescopes and one nut (T.X., that is) in the process. I jumped into my sleeping bag with all my clothes on. My maternal feelings having been nosed out by the instinct for self-preservation, I left my son to fend for himself.

I spent the entire night huddled down at the foot of the sleeping bag, gnashing my teeth in cold and in fury, and thinking bitter thoughts. When the sun at last burned off the fog in the late morning, I crawled out hollow-eyed and hungry, and ready to unburden myself of a few ultimatums.

As usual, my offspring got the jump on me. “I’m going to make a six-inch reflector,” he announced enthusiastically over a lukewarm, gritty breakfast. “I figured it all out with the fellows last night. I’ll build it at F/12. It’ll be achromatic, with orthoscopic eyepieces. And it’ll have an equatorial mount, an adjustable polar axis for change of latitude, aluminum tubing, selling circles, worm gears. . . .”

Ah well! I drowned my complaints in cold coffee. As long as his head is in the stars, his feet are on the ground, so to speak. At least until the arrival of the rocket age. And, to give the boy his due, I suppose he could have picked a worse hobby. I know a woman whose young daughter is interested in natural science. She collects live snakes.