Sunday, November 28, 2010


Scout’s Honor…

I really do like the Boy Scouts, muchachos. Despite looking askance at some of their recent controversies and pronouncements, I like and respect the institution. In most if not all ways it’s grown and changed as the decades have passed, and if you believe an organization for boys and only boys is a good thing, you can do worse than the Scouts for your boy.

My personal history with the Scouts is another matter. I had my ups and downs with Scouting, mostly downs. The ups? Those all had to do with the BSA’s organization for younger boys, the Cub Scouts. I absolutely loved the Cubs. Our pack, which was based at my elementary school, was well-organized and run by men and women who were committed to the organization.

From my first real book about astronomy to my first look through a real telescope, I have my Cub Scout Den Mother to thank, Miss Emily Baldwin. I’ve told the story of the book, Stars, and I’ve at least brushed on the night Miss B. hauled us out to Springhill College Observatory for a look through the their big Cave reflector (I have that very scope’s mount in storage now). If I owe my life in astronomy to anyone, I owe it to Emily Baldwin and the Cubs (well, and Sir Patrick Moore and a little girl named “Stephanie”).

Despite Miss Emily’s occasional bad humors and propensity for telephoning Mama if she suspected I was up to something, I enjoyed Cub Scouting and stuck with it, progressing from lowly Bobcat (all you got was a stinking little pin), through Wolf, Bear, and, eventually, Lion, which badge I wore with pride. I earned so many arrowheads/points that Mama began to be put-out about having to continually sew them on my uniform. The Cubs had worked so well for me that it seemed a natural that I move on to Webelos (“We’ll Be Loyal Scouts”), the pre-Boy Scout program of the Cubs.

Earning the Webelos badge was mostly concerned with learning about the Boy Scouts, with our Pack’s leadership arranging activities for us aimed to accomplish that. There were visits to Boy Scout Troops and visits by Scouts and their leaders to our Pack meetings. I was impressed. Especially with the Boy Scout Handbook Daddy bought and brought home one evening.

The Handbook back then (I haven’t seen a copy in decades) was a thing of wonder. Packed with information on everything from tying knots, to pitching a tent, to cooking in the wild. I especially loved the illos, simple, descriptive drawings of serious young scouts in squared-away uniforms. The thick little book made membership in the Big Scouts seem irresistible.

My notion of how cool the Boy Scouts would be lasted just barely past the first couple of Troop meetings I attended. Our group was based at Mama’s Methodist church, and I’d assumed we’d meet in the sanctuary, since there was nowhere else to meet but small Sunday school classrooms. Surely one would burst at the seams from a whole Boy Scout Troop. Nope. Turned out “whole Troop” amounted to maybe twenty-five kids.

Which would have been fine…except. Despite the small numbers, there seemed to be a distinct lack of organization. In fact, the Troop meetings might best be described as chaos, with our adult leaders content to let us boys pretty much do whatever we wanted. A few announcements and (often) requests for fees and we were done, breaking into groups, our “patrols,” in other classrooms where we usually listened to our teen leaders talk about everything but Scouting.

I was a little disappointed from the get-go, but if I’d correctly deciphered the mumbled, barely audible words of our Scoutmaster, there’d be a campout coming up shortly, at Camp Pushmataha way up north in the county. Maybe the meetings were on the informal side, but surely there’d be some heavy duty Scouting on display at a campout.

On the way up to Camp, fifty miles from home, clutching my new sleeping bag (how Mama had grumbled about paying for that), a little rucksack/pack, canteen, and mess kit, I felt sorta like a Scout. “Sorta,” because nobody was in uniform…the Scoutmaster had advised us against that. So as not to spoil our nice outfits, I reckon. Didn’t make me feel much like a Boy Scout, though. And the whole thing seemed a mite catch-as-catch-can, with us scrambling for places in whichever parent-volunteer vehicles showed up while our Scoutmaster and company were busy elsewhere.

The trip to camp was long and wearisome over two-lane country roads, but I felt excitement returning when we arrived. Pushmataha was (and is) both beautiful and historic. It was a large wooded tract studded with (believe it or not) working oil wells, the royalties from which helped keep our local Scout Council solvent. Historic? Pushmataha lies on the site of the surrender of the last active Confederate forces east of the Mississippi.

While there were some cabins on the site, me and my fellow novices were told we’d be tent camping, since the cabins were for the adults and senior Scouts only. Most of the afternoon was taken up with me and a buddy trying to figure out how in the heck to erect one of the tents our leaders had dropped in a small clearing. Since neither the adults nor older scouts had much to say and seemed annoyed by our questions, the boy I was paired with—the kid from next-door, my best friend—and I just set out to do the best we could.

And we actually did pretty well. He’d been camping with his parents a time or three, and I at least remembered what I’d had to do to set up the Remco “Genuine Marine Pup Tent” I’d got for Christmas one year. Our only misstep was arranging our sleeping bags. We found out after tossing and turning for a couple of hours that if your bags are on a slope you should definitely have your heads on the high end (!).

Before bedtime was suppertime. And since we received no direction one way or another, we assumed we’d build a campfire. After clearing a spot like it said in the Handbook and gathering wood, we were faced with Problem One: how to light the thing. Rubbing two sticks together didn’t seem like much of an option, and the Handbook implied that might not be as easy as we imagined, anyway. Luckily, one of our little group of five tenderfeet had thought to bring a book of matches. We all examined it closely, since it was from Wintzell’s Oyster House and we all thought the restaurant’s motto: “fried, stewed, and NUDE” was oh-so-funny and risqué.

Fire at least sputtering and smoking, the question became “What’s for supper?” I was actually semi-OK in that regard. Mama had, in addition to an apple and a couple of peanut butter sandwiches, packed a small can of beanie weenies for me. I’d tried to explain to her that I needed an ice chest and some ground beef so I could cook a meal over a campfire, a requirement I had to satisfy in order to progress in rank. She just laughed, “I don’t think so. You’d poison yourself with raw hamburger, and I am not going to let you take our ice chest who-knows-where, anyway, Buster.”

Turned out Mama was, as usual, right. My tent-mate had been able to convince his mama to pack some ground beef in ice for him. His plan was to follow the instructions in the Handbook and make this weird tennis racket-looking cooker out of sticks. You’d weave the sticks together, sandwich the hamburger between two racquet halves, and grill away. He must have missed the part about using green sticks, though, since his flimsy looking utensil proceeded to catch fire immediately, and his instinctive response to shake it out sent his supper flying into the woods. Lucky for him, I had enough beanie weenies to share some. I was even able to heat them to slightly above room temperature on our pitiful little fire.

That was pretty much the extent of our Scouting activities. The next morning, the Scoutmaster had one of the older boys take us younglings on a long and aimless hike. I believe the sole purpose of which was to get us out of the way before we could ask more questions of him and to tire us out so we’d cause no trouble till our folks came to get us.

By early afternoon, parents began to dribble-in to fetch their younguns. Wouldn’t you know it? Daddy had to work at the (TV) studio, and my retrieval was left in the hands of Mama, who was apt to get confused about driving directions and was also apt to spend more time with her fellow neighborhood housewives over coffee than she’d intended.

Before Mama’s pink Rocket 88 finally thundered in, the day was well on its way to good and dark and I was feeling lonely and put-out and a wee bit nervous. I presumed the Scoutmaster was somewhere—surely he wouldn’t leave one of his charges by himself out in the middle of nowhere…would he? I hadn’t seen him in a while, and when he’d happened by at four p.m. and seen me sitting all by my lonesome his only comment had been, “Be sure not to leave anything behind, Sport.”

In addition to feeling nervous and cross, I was hungry. Half a small tin of beanie weenies and one peanut butter sandwich (I’d taken pity on my buddy and given him one of my sandwiches following the ground beef crisis) wasn’t much for a kid used to three squares in the 1960s mold. In retrospect, that was the most valuable lesson, in fact almost the only lesson, I learned that weekend: what it feels like to be really hungry. I still remember the apple I ate while sitting there alone on the steps of an empty cabin. It was the best apple I have ever tasted.

You can bet your bottom dollar li'l Rod was very glad to be back home, out of the tub, fed supper, and enjoying the cool comfort of Mama's living room as he cracked open his brand new copy of Tom Swift and his 3-D Telejector. Naturally, Mama wanted to know what the camping trip had been like, and just as naturally I wanted to avoid her patented "I Told You So," and mumbled that, yeah, it had been real fun.

There was one other lesson Unk learned out in the hinterlands: how the sky can and should look. In the middle of the night, being unable to sleep much on the hard ground (none of us had anything to pad our sleeping bags or had realized we’d need anything), I crawled out of the tent and looked up at a tremendous sea of stars. This was, I believe, the first time I’d been under a truly dark sky, and I was just blown away. There were so many stars that I, who now considered himself pretty expert at finding the constellations, was utterly unable to pick out Hercules and could barely locate the dadgum Dipper.

The Pushmataha debacle was pretty much it for me and the Boy Scouts. I continued on for a few months, but at the first opportunity I stopped attending meetings and let the Scouts fade into the past. Yes, Mama was right annoyed that she’d bought "all that Scout stuff" and I was "already tired of it.” I believe the only thing that convinced her to let me drop out was that I seemed terribly accident-prone any time I was at a Scout-related activity. One such accident involving me, a sliding glass door, and an impressive amount of blood. I reckon Mama was willing to write-off equipment costs in return for fewer medical bills.

The passage of time often tints the past with a rosy glow. That may be true for some things, but not for my Scouting memories. Even today, I shudder at the recollection of cold beans and the hard earth of north Mobile County. But I have come to realize my problem with the Scouts was not the Scouts, but my ill-begotten Troop. I’ve talked to plenty of adults who have wonderful memories of Scouting and whose groups indeed did things the Scout Way, just like in the Handbook. I’m now a real cheerleader for Scouting, and if my son had shown any interest in it, I’d have become involved.

He did not, but still I’ve endeavored to support our local Boy Scouts—with star parties. These have usually been outreach missions to local Troops, but the other day the chance to do a little more presented itself. After a long hiatus, the Mobile area Scouting Council would be having a Jamboree, a mega gathering of the county’s boys.

Despite the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s outreach activities with Scouts over the years, I just about hit the delete button when I received the email from a local Scout official concerning the Jamboree. It sounded like an occasion ripe for disaster. Two thousand boys at an event the likes of which hadn’t been held in our town in years. I resisted the urge and passed the word to my PSAS-mates that our help was needed. Despite my skepticism about the local folks’ ability to pull it off, I thought it would be a worthy cause, and was further persuaded by the fact that it would be held at Battleship Park, which is only ten - fifteen minutes from Chaos Manor South.

After a little back-and-forth at the PSAS meeting, three of my fellow club members agreed to join me. I was a little concerned about that, that we’d have at most five scopes to serve all those boys who’d be camping onsite—“five” because my friend George promised to bring his Astroscan in addition to his C8. The saving grace was that we’d have all night or as long as we could hold out, and that there’d be numerous other activities going on all evening. There probably wouldn’t be the huge rush on the scopes there is when we are the only game in town.

Telescope? I wimped out. Not only would I not set up the 12-inch Dob or the C11 or the C8, I decided to leave my usual Outreach Scope, Cindy Lou, my RV-6 Newtonian, at home. Instead, I’d arm myself with my 80mm f/11 Sky-Watcher refractor.

I hadn’t set out to buy this long focus refractor, “Eloise,” as I’ve christened her; what I was after was her Synta AZ-4 mount. I found I could get the mount paired with the refractor for less from Adorama than what Orion wanted for the mount alone. The limited testing I’d done of the Sky-Watcher hinted she’d be a good little scope with decent optics, and she’d at least have the plus of LOOKING LIKE A TELESCOPE to the boys. I wasn’t convinced I’d need more firepower, anyway. The evening of the Jamboree unfortunately coincided with a Moon one day short of Full.

When the Saturday of the Jamboree rolled round, I was hoping for a good night, but still a mite skittish. While the nice man who’d invited us out had been very happy we’d said “yes,” he’d been short on details as in “Exactly where do we set up and when?” Were these cats as laughably disorganized as the leaders of my old troop? I did get a map of the event via email, showing a “Midway” where various science/crafts booths would be set up including one for astronomy, but Battleship Park is a huge place, and it was hard to tell exactly where this Midway was from the little map. Whatev. If I couldn’t find the person who’d invited us, I’d just turn around and go home at the small cost of half an hour of my time.

Arriving at the site, I gotta say I was impressed: scout tents as far as the eye could see, from hard against the old battleship to the edge of the parking lot of the adjacent Best Western motel (which houses one of Unk’s fave restaurants, The Captain’s Table, which features crazy-good steaks and scotch and plenty of jazz). I rolled up to the gate, rolled down my window, and intoned, “Hi! I’m Rod Mollise from the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society.” I was met, as I’d expected, by puzzled looks. Rut-roh. Here we go again.

The adult manning the gate could only offer minimal help. When I mentioned the name of the contact person, he waved his hand vaguely at the sea of tents: “He must be over there. Why don’t you park and see if you can walk over and find him?” Sigh. Just when I was ready to head for home, I spotted two lines of big, white tent canopies. Walking over that-a-way, I spied George setting up his C8. Our contact person was there and was able to guide my vehicle in, helping me negotiate tents and a swamp-like morass that had formed at the foot of the Midway.

One thing was sure: it was nice to forget big and—especially—computerized scopes once in a while. I got Eloise’s mount out, set it up, fastened her to the AZ-4 with her Vixen dovetail, erected a little camp table for my eyepieces, and was ready to go. Or ready to think about some possible targets while we waited the 45 minutes that remained till darkness.

Given that the Moon would limit what we could see to the brightest of the brightest, I had not brought out a set of charts. What I did have was my iPod Touch running SkySafari (nee Sky Voyager), and I was curious to see how far pocket planetariums have come since the days of monochrome Palm Pilots and Planetarium for Palm.

Almost in spite of myself, I found I was eager to begin showing Scouts the night sky when the frikkin-frackin Sun finally gave it up and went to bed. In the meantime, I wandered around. Battleship Park was a beautiful setting for the Jamboree, with the backdrop of BB60, a B52, and the submarine U.S.S. Drum. The two thousand Boy and Cub Scouts onsite certainly seemed to be having a good time. And I had to admit the event seemed pretty danged well-organized and even calm—relatively speaking. Since when have two thousand sub-teens and young teens been calm, and who would expect them to be?

The Scout leaders did a great job of making us feel at home, making sure we knew how much they appreciated our presence, and making sure we were comped for meals and drinks (decent hot dogs and burgers and cokes). All that remained was to get the show on the road. With the arrival of the last of my fellow PSASites, who’d been as confused as I had been when she’d arrived at Battleship Park, we were ready to roll.

As five o’clock came and went, good, ol’ Luna made her presence ever more felt to the east. Time to send Eloise over that-a-way. While I’ve had the refractor for several months, I haven’t had much opportunity to use her—been one o’ them summers—and I was interested to see how she’d do on that most difficult object for achromats, a (near) Full Moon. In went a 20mm Orion Expanse, and over to Diana we went.

I was pleasantly surprised. At f/11 there was some color around the limb, as I’d expected, but in a 3-inch it’s just not that bad. The few shadows visible along the terminator, I noted, were not purple, but black. Before I could do much more than register that fact, though, I heard an excited and insistent little voice: “WATCHA LOOKIN’ AT MISTER?! THE MOON?! CAN I LOOK?! CAN I LOOK?!”

And so it began. While excited and needing a little guidance, the Scouts responded well to our direction: “Don’t run. When it’s your turn, go up to the eyepiece. Look, don’t touch.” We had a large number of customers, but were never swamped. The boys all seemed to have a good time, and some even used this viewing opportunity to satisfy some of the requirements for the Astronomy Merit Badge.

What did we look at and what did they like? Well, everybody loved the Moon best, but second best? After my fascinating green laser, anyhow? We were fortunate to have Jupiter in the sky, and in the steady air at sunset he really allowed Miss Eloise to strut her stuff. I was easily able to make out the transiting Great Red Spot. The Galilean moons were beautifully on display as hard little b-bs, and the Scouts loved them and were impressed that I (with the aid of SkySafari) could tell them which was which.

How about SkySafari? I’ve had the program for a while, but this was the first time I’d used its charts for object locating. All I can say is that after a few minutes I forgot I was using a handheld. The program seemed just as useful and legible as any of the PC astroware I use. It is, in fact, beautiful. If you’ve an Apple handheld—an iPod, iPhone, or iPad—and you like to travel light or do a lot of public outreach, I urge you do get your mitts on this excellent soft. Frankly, it’s so good it deserves its own blog entry one day.

What else did we look at? SkySafari was able to guide me to quite a few objects in the star-poor sky: M57, M31, M37, M36, the Pleiades, the blue and gold Cub Scout Double (Albireo, natch), the Cat’s Eyes Double (Gamma Andromedae), and a few more. Naturally, the boys all wanted to get a look at a bright star—kids always do—and that allowed me to gauge exactly how bad Eloise’s chromatic aberration is. Verdict? Not bad, not bad at all. Yes, there was a bit of purple haze around tough Vega, but you had to use your imagination to see this vague mist as having any color at all. Not bad for a “free” scope.

We kept on going till about nine when our middle-aged bodies began to complain and the Scouts began to filter back to their campsites. They’d had a good time and we’d had a good time. As multitudinous campfires began to flicker on the big field, I became wistful that I’d never been able to have what for these kids is clearly a wonderful experience. But I had, thanks to the Scouts, albeit the Cub Scouts, got my first look through a telescope, something that lit a fire in me and gave my life its direction. Looking across the darkened field, I imagined and hoped I’d done the same for some little kid out there.

Nota Bene: If you'd like to see more pictures from the PSAS' Jamboree outing, hop on over to Unk's Facebook page. Yep, Luddite ol' Rod actually has a Facebook page. What else? Those of you who've been so kindly concerned about Miss Dorothy's health will be relieved to know she is much improved. We were even able to do our normal Thanksgiving at the Hotel Monteleone, to include much time in the vaunted Carousel Bar.

The Boy Scout handbook you show above is the one I had while I was a Boy Scout. I think my younger brother may have it now...
Great post! I got that same SkyWatcher scope, for the same reason, and like you I have been pleasantly surprised at how nice it is. I find the CA to be minimal and easy to ignore, and it certainly is a sweet ride for cruising the moon.

No matter where you are or what you use...the key phrases and orchestrations of astronomers all over are common among us.

Thanks for the smiles!

Chicago Astronomer Joe
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