Sunday, September 27, 2009

 

Cloudy Nights at DSRSG '94


Saturday Morning at DSRSG 1994
It ain't the website I wanna talk about this a.m., but the real thing, y’all. You see, Unk blew it. Bigtime. I’d been whining about our weather for the last several weeks. How humid, cloudy, buggy, and just downright miserable it’s been. How it’s been keeping me from beginning a new series of articles on deep sky observing I hoped to present to y’all. Well, last New Moon-Saturday I should have had the opportunity to get that underway. But I didn’t. At 5 p.m. I took a quick look out the front door at the apparently still punk WX, a quick look at the dadgummed Weather Channel Local on the 8s, and quickly went back to Season Two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Next morning, as you mighta guessed, I heard from one of my PSAS ("Possum Swamp Astronomical Society," natch) buddies: “DANG, Rod, you sure missed a good one! Little haze, but the Milky Way was bright until after midnight.” Ain’t that the way it always is? Turn in early on a cloudy star party evening and what will you hear in the morning? “After 2 am it was SPECTACULAR!” Which is why my cardinal rule for many years was “If it ain’t actually raining, head to the dark site or, if you’re there, stay there.” When I’ve stuck to that, all has been well. Not that I haven’t wavered or almost wavered on occasion. Like when trying to decide if it was worth setting-out on what turned out to be one of my best-ever star party expeditions.

My dear wife, Miss Dorothy, likes to tell the story of how, when we first started dating, I told her I was an amateur astronomer. Dorothy was not (she says) appalled by this admission, which took place over a couple of vodka tonics in Applebees. She was somewhat aware of something called “amateur astronomy,” which she assumed was an informal sort of a pastime. You bought a telescope—ONE telescope—set it up in the backyard once in a while, and that was pretty much it.

Was she in for an awakening. Which began with her first star party, a weekend in the company of the most spaced-out, gear-crazy amateurs in the tri-state area (you know, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana). I was a little hesitant to bring up the Deep South Regional Star Gaze that first autumn after our marriage. Dorothy was getting acclimated to the weird lingo, weird equipment, and (sometimes) weird personalities that made up the local amateur astronomy scene. A star party, though, would be like being tossed right into the deep end of the astronomy pool. How would she react to a long weekend at a Mississippi state park? Eating food just south of elementary school fare? Listening to astro-maniacs talk our strange language and live our weird nocturnal lifestyle to the hilt?

Wayne Hester's Coulter Odyssey
When I did bring up DSRSG, however, Dorothy allowed as how she’d be delighted to accompany me to the metropolis of McComb, Mississippi and the star party’s home base, Percy Quin State Park. I was still a little iffy about the trip for another reason, however. Weather reports for the November weekend in question ranged from dismal to scary. It had been a busy fall; was I up for the bother and expense of a rained-out event? Still, I’d never had a bad time at any star party, rain or shine, and since Dorothy was amenable…what could happen? The question then began to be how to get me, her, a 12.5-inch Meade Dobsonian, ancilliary observing gear, table, picnic canopy, ice chest—you get the picture—from Chaos Manor South to Percy Quin State Park in a fraking Hyundai Excel.

My original inclination had been to take Dorothy’s Toyota Camry instead of my miniature putt-putt. Alas, her four door sedan laughed at the idea of carrying my Meade Starfinder anywhere. No matter how I maneuvered the OTA into the trunk or the backseat, it simply would not fit. Not even close. I gave up and turned to the Hyundai. I’d never tried to load the StarFinder into my little red car, but I thought it might be (barely) doable. It was a hatchback, you see, and as those of y’all who lived through the amateur astronomy of the 1980s well know, the hatchback was the amateur’s best friend. It was amazing what you could cram in one of 'em. Shame that by the 1990s they was deemed UNCOOL by the car makers and public alike and began a disappearing act.

What was truly amazing was that not only was I was able to stuff that big, white Sonotube into my tiny rollerskate of a car, but that I was actually able to close the hatchback after moving the passenger seat forward only a couple of inches. And that all my other astro-junk, our suitcases, and everything else we'd need for four days in the wild fit in there somehow. Hatches securely battened down, we were off on Bloody Highway 98. Why Bloody? The old U.S. Highway used to be notorious for fatal accidents. It was narrow, two-lane, and wound through endless stands of Mississippi piney woods. There was nary a shoulder to escape onto in the event one of the multitudinous 18-wheelers that frequented the stretch between Possum Swamp and Hattiesburg decided to pass at the wrong moment.

Thankfully, by 1994 Bloody 98 was being four-laned all along its Mississippi length, with the old serpentine stretches being abandoned as construction proceeded. Naturally, there were some slowdowns due to the roadwork, but the journey was still a mere three-and-a-half hours, a good thing, since Miss Dorothy was in classroom teaching mode in those days and we were not able to leave town until well after noon. Not that I was sure it would make much difference when we arrived. The initially hopeless weather forecasts had got worse, and now indicated the only things we would be observing at night would be the insides of our eyelids.

Dorothy and Friend...
After a few short hours in the pleasant company of my lovely new wife and one stop for junk food and gas as the road construction finally petered out, we arrived at the then smallish metropolis of McComb, Mississippi at around 4 p.m. We proceeded under the I-55 overpass and hung a left for Percy Quin State Park. In those days, the park was beautifully maintained but rustic. You had camping, canoeing, fishing in the big lake (Lake Tangipahoa), and cabins for rent, but not much else (today there is a golf course, dirt track racing, and god-knows-what else). That was a good thing. After the summer season ended, the park was mostly deserted, and its administration was desperate for paying customers and positively enthusiastic about hosting our star party. That streetlight on the access road might be a problem? The rangers would round up a cherry picker and disable it post-haste.

Our area, the Group Camp, was isolated from the rest of the park, being off behind thick stands of trees and undergrowth. I’d been known to miss the turnoff for it on occasion, but, thankfully, I didn't embarrass myself in front of Miss Dorothy. We were soon driving onto the observing field. That was a slightly larger than football field sized tract (actually it wasn’t just football field sized; that was its purpose for 51 weeks out of the year). Not huge, but it suited our usual turnout of 100 – 125 observers.

First task was unloading the (for me) big scope. The 12-inch was certainly easy enough to assemble: plunk down rocker box, insert Sonotube. First, however, you had to get that big white tube to the rocker box. Unloading it from the car was like wrestling with a small hot water heater, and I was just this side of hot and bothered when I was done. Set up sure had been easier the previous year with my 8-inch Coulter, Mabel.

After getting everything else we needed for the field including our ice chest, observing table, and a couple of lawn chairs unloaded and erecting our tent canopy to the tune of much cussing of tangled ropes and missing tent stakes while fighting hordes of southern Mississippi’s (in)famous biting gnats, we drove the quarter of a mile up the road to the cabin/cafeteria area.

I was a little afraid Dorothy would be disappointed in the astronomers’ quarters, but she was delighted. I suppose she’d expected drafty boyscout chickies; instead, the Percy Quin cabins were ultramodern—if spartan as far as furnishings went, GI bunk-beds—and each was equipped with not just a bathroom, but with central heat and air. Yes, the cabins contained a faint miasma of years of accumulated bug spray, but they were clean, and, to top it all off, the star party management had given us newlyweds the little private “councilor’s room” in our particular cabin.

Hard to believe Unk was ever that young...
Did I say "cafeteria area"? Yep. The Group Camp sported a school-cafeteria-like setup. The dining room was more than large enough to accommodate all the observers who signed up for meals, and was, frankly, beautiful, with large plate glass windows looking out on the lake. There were even real live cafeteria ladies to serve us. The food? More on that later, but, suffice to say, I was always happy the place was situated next to the cabins and their bathroom facilities, since it generally took about 24-hours for Unk’s normally cast-iron stomach to adjust to Percy Quin fare.

Meals wouldn't begin for 24-hours, but that was OK. Not only had we we loaded up on junk food at the convenience store - gas station where we'd re-fueled the Toyota, there was the traditional caravan to Mr. Whiskers' Catfish Cabin late Thursday afternoon. No, what concerned me was not victuals, but the clouds that had followed us from Possum Swamp and which were now loitering in their hordes over DSRSG. Not only was it hot and sticky with a feel that portended “bad weather coming,” the sky was at times completely overcast. All we could do was wait the couple of hours till sundown and see what turned up.

After a supper of  Mr. Whisker's excellent if grudgingly dispensed all-you-can-eat fried catfish and hush-puppies where I had lots of fun visiting with my fellow amateurs and introducing Miss Dorothy around, it was back to the observing field. I'd peeped out a couple of times during the meal and was somewhat encouraged—it seemed to be clearing. The closer sunset approached, the more the bad, old, gray, fluffy things began to scuttle off, and by 6:30 p.m. the Milky Way was burning.

My new 12-inch was equipped with both a 50-mm finder and a Telrad, so, with the aid of Sky Atlas 2000, not much escaped me. I was also using printouts from the first computer program to impress me as a practical tool for charting, David Chandler’s late, great Deep Space 3D. DS3D wasn't just a planetarium program, it was the antecedent of today's planning programs like SkyTools.

DS3D made it so easy to assemble observing lists that I went freaking hog wild. The list I brought with me to DSRSG was composed of a whopping 327 objects. Given three clear nights, I could maybe essay that many with a goto scope today. Maybe. Back then with Telrad and 50mm finder? No way. Which I really knew. I just wanted to be prepared if we got spectacular skies—better too many objects in your list than too few, I reckoned.

The MAS
In the hours we got Thursday night before the clouds came back, I didn't touch that list. The sky was good, but it was not that good. And I wanted to see what the new telescope would do on my old favorite objects. It was all bright showpieces, and I lingered over each one, luxuriating in their appearance in my big Dobsonian. I hopped like a bunny across the sinking late summer constellations to the signs of fall hovering in the east.

One thing was sure; the Meade StarFinder impressed me on its first outing to a dark site. That was partially because it was blessed with a very good mirror, and partially because I’d been using mostly C8s for the better part of two decades and 4 extra inches of aperture was, shall we say, “noticeable.” 

There was also something special about the sky on this particular evening. Despite the humidity, which ran high, and the dew, which ran thick, I was doing amazing things. Yeah, McComb wasn’t so big, yet, but it was growing and its light dome was there. Nevertheless, when I moved to M74, that disgustingly hard Sc spiral in Pisces, the moisture and the light dome didn't seem to matter. There it was, not just bright, but, as I continued to gape at it with a 16mm Konig eyepiece (which I'd bought the previous year from a DSRSG vendor who came all the way from Kansas City), detailed. The more I looked, the more spiral structure began to appear. At first only to averted vision, but after a while direct vision was showing the galaxy's arms.

I saw quite a few of the summer marvels before the clouds had their revenge, but if all I’d seen had been M74, the trip would have been well worth it. The Weather Channel insisted Dorothy and I would be wasting our time, M74 said “No-sir-buddy.” For a while, anyhow. By 1 a.m., we were completely socked in, but I didn't care. I had a photo-like image of that distant giant of a galaxy etched in my memory, where it remains to this day.

Friday morning brought with it clouds and more clouds. What was there to do other than mutter about that danged sap, the weatherman? If you could stand the skeeters and gnats that had now taken possession of the observing field, you could wander around looking at gear and meeting friends old and new. I believe this was the year my buddy Pat Rochford, who'd arrived at midday Friday, set his shirt on fire when the Sun unexpectedly peeped out while he was demonstrating collimation techniques to a newbie. All in all a pleasant enough Friday if’n you didn't mind dousing yourself from head to foot in Deep Woods Off. Cans of the stuff became as sought after as Nagler eyepieces before the star party was done.

What’s a star party without a vendor? In addition to the aforementioned Kansas City folks who were back for another year of DSRSG, we got to spend our bucks with another astro-seller this year thanks to Rex McDaniel  from Arkansas (Rex’s Astro-Stuff), who after his first year became a long-time DSRSG fixture. Miss Dorothy and I kept our spending in check, but did spring for a couple of them new-fangled red LED flashlights. Rex, by the way, is still in business with a brick and mortar store in Arkansas and a website to boot. I understand he will be at next month's 2009 DSRSG, which must be at least his fifteenth or sixteenth appearance.

Relaxing...
As I said here not long ago, we are blessed with numerous good vendors these days, but I always go out of my way to spend money with the folks who support our star parties. They often come a long ways and usually don’t make much money, but do make our star parties much more fun. Sometimes, like when you leave the eyepieces or the dew heaters at home, they make the difference between there being a star party for you and not.

Finally, the day began to wane and it was time for our first meal in the park cafeteria. What can I say about that? Well…mainly that I was glad Pat Rochford and Dorothy and I had done lunch at the Chinese buffet in McComb. Yes, the caf food was edible (an ex-GI such as myself can get just about anything down). But “fancy” was not the word. “Borderline” was more like it.  I wonder if anybody didn’t find a chicken bone in their chicken gumbo? The park's food service people were cheap to the point of being ridiculous. For example, at every meal we were restricted to one glass of diluted Kool-aid.

I’ve never been one to complain about star party food. Not when it’s cooked by my fellow amateurs or catered-in to a remote site. This was different. While not expensive, the chow was not given away, and was being prepared and sold by the state park itself. We were not in Timbuktu, and they should have had the resources to do better. Not that any of us were overly concerned. My generation of amateur astronomers was still young, still willing to rough it, and there was excitement in the air.

Almost magically, given the fact that this was supposed to be a stormy evening, it cleared for a while, and after the curtain went up on the great sky show I spent several pleasant hours voyaging through the fall and early winter constellations with my new Dobbie. Once again, the sky was not perfect, and I didn't touch the big list with its dozens of galaxies; I just continued my tour of the best of the best. What do I remember all these years down the line? How M76 looked like the BIG dumbbell, and how M15 filled my eyepiece with countless tiny glittering gems surrounding a core that glowed like the Hope Diamond. We were happy campers indeed—for a while, anyhow.

Much as we hated to admit it, the weather-goobers had been mostly correct. Well before midnight the curtain rang down with a resounding thud, and there was soon lightning flashing all around the horizon. I secured the scope and Pat and I—Dorothy had decamped for the cabin some time before—left the field satisfied. As always, we'd wanted more, but by all rights shouldn't have seen a thing.

Suppertime...
Let me tell you, Dorothy and I were real, real happy to be in our snug room in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Not long after midnight, fierce equinoctial gales lashed the cabin with torrential rain while thunder boomed and lightning flashed endlessly. I don’t recall if anybody tent-camped that year, but I hope not. Safe and dry, we toasted the raging elements and each other with a bottle of bubbly left over from our wedding in September.

In the morning, when the rain finally let up, we were able to tour the field, which was a vista of downed picnic canopies. If a tornado hadn’t brushed the field, its first cousin had. Our tent was one of the few still standing; a fellow PSASer, Wayne Hester, had shown us a trick for securing the tarp to the center pole with a length or rope when we'd set it up, and that really, really worked. Thankfully, nobody suffered any serious damage—the dire weather reports had impelled everybody to adequately secure their scopes. At least the rain had stopped. And breakfast in the cafeteria, I had to admit, was actually pretty good. Things was looking up.

Except up over our heads. The clouds stayed and thickened. And it began to rain again. The question then became, “stay or go?” Not only did the radio not offer hope for clear skies, it hinted even worse weather was on the way, with a tornado warning being posted by mid-afternoon.

We spent the balance of the day keeping dry in the park pavilion and listening to presentations by our brother and sister amateurs. And, of course, there was that staple of star parties everywhere, THE RAFFLE. As usual, Miss D. won a nice prize. I didn't even get a rock. With suppertime still some hours away and the bad weather staying put, quite a few folks had said “the hell with it,” pulled up stakes, and left. I considered it, but I was having a good time, and Dorothy seemed to be having an even better time at her first star party. We’d stay, get a good night’s sleep, and head home to Chaos Manor South early in the a.m.

That’s what I thought. At about 10 p.m. one of my PSAS bros, probably Wayne Hester, started banging on our door: “Rod, GET UP, IT’S CLEAR!” ‘Deed it was. The front had pushed through in massive fashion, dropping the temperature about 25 degrees and leaving gloriously clear and black and star-spangled skies in its wake. I was out to the field in a hurry, you betcha.

What did I spend these unexpected riches on? Once again, my carefully composed list got the short shrift. The sky was looking real good and I was not about to "waste" it on dim Pegasus galaxies. I wanted spectacle. To start, I toured M33 for at least an hour in the company of my fellow observer, Craig Brendan. The big galaxy was an absolute wonderland peppered with more HII regions than I’d ever seen—or known were there. After that, a few more goodies and it was a time for what was, in them days, The Big Challenge. The Horsehead. Barnard 33. The Fickle Filly.

Last morning of DSRSG...
Despite my lack of an h-beta filter (I hardly knew how to spell “h-beta” in them days), prompted by Wayne, who thought he was seeing something in his 13-inch Coulter Odyssey in the spot where the Horsehead ought to be, I moved to Zeta Orionis for a look. If’n you want to corral the Horse, the first thing you do is check to see how prominent NGC 2024, the Tank Tracks Nebula, is. If it is bright ‘n easy, you’ve got a chance. If not, fuhgeddaboutit. On this night, the nebula was a spectacle even in my relatively primitive—by today’s standards—Plössls and Konigs. So, nudge-nudge and to the Horse's spot went I.

And saw—absolutely nuttin'. Not at first. Just before my eyeball began to bleed, I began to detect an extremely faint stripe down the middle of the field—IC434, I thought. A little re-nudging, and I caught sight of a something flickering in and out. Did I see the Horse without a filter with a 12-inch? I wasn’t completely sure, but there was something there, and it was in the right place. It was late, but that pumped me enough to keep me rocking until I realized that wasn’t light pollution I was seeing on the eastern horizon...

As dawn was breaking, we few, we happy few, left on the field headed back to the blessed warmth of our cabins utterly astounded at what we’d seen—especially considering what we were supposed to have seen was nothing at all. I gotta admit there was a bit of puff-chested superiority and strutting, too, “Can’t wait till the next club meeting to tell them ASTRO-WIMPS who went home what they missed.”

If there are lessons here, they are “astronomy is a game for the patient” and “never assume.” It gives me the willies to think that if I’d listened to the fraking Weather Bureau, I’d have missed one of the greatest sights of my observing life. Hell, it took till last year for me to get another look at M74 as good as the one I got at that long ago Deep South.

Hokay, y’all, I am appropriately chastened, and I am officially REINSTATING my old star party/dark site rule: “Unless it’s Actually Raining, You Pack Up the Car and Go.” Now, let’s see if I stick to it.

Whatever happened to Deep South, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze? Nothing. Well, nothing much. In 2005, we finally moved from our much-loved Percy Quin site. Yeah, despite my carping about the cafeteria's food, it really had wonderful facilities. Unfortunately, McComb continued to grow, and by ought-four the light dome was becoming unbearable. The horizon lines had got bad, too. The pines that were small/medium-sized when DSRSG began in the 1980s were now tall, cutting off chunks of sky for many field positions. Finally, Katrina meant the park was unavailable to us in 2005, anyway. It was being used as a staging area for relief vehicles and supplies.

For 2005 – 08, we were at a small but nice Campfire Association camp in the same general area just over the state line in Louisiana, but far enough from McComb to escape its light dome. Cabin-wise, Camp Ruth Lee was drafty chickies all the way. Still, the skies made it worth roughing it. Unfortunately, the camp was a victim of the recession, and we will be at a third site for this year’s edition. The Feliciana Retreat Center is only a couple of miles distant, and, while more expensive, has the plus of honest-to-god motel (like) rooms. It prob’ly won’t be as nice as my Holiday Inn Express down in Chiefland, but a darn site better than the previous location’s chicken houses.

Come what may for DSRSG, I’ll always have my wonderful memories of that wonderful year. Miss Dorothy? When I occasionally mention how bad the weather was at her first Deep South, she replies: “It rained that year? I thought it was WONDERFUL.”

Comments:
Great story, Rod. I felt like I was there!
 
Wonderful read... enjoy living vicariously through the memories.
Looking forward to my next weekly dose..

John. from the great white north.
 
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