Sunday, September 18, 2011


My Runs

When I was a young feller in junior high and high school, my days had a certain sameness to ‘em that seems comforting now: school all day, supper, homework, a little observing at night. Repeat week after week. Comforting now, maybe, but not so much when I lived those days. I was neither the best nor worst student—my academic interests didn’t really blossom till college—and I didn’t click with a social scene that, till the end of the 1960s, was pretty Leave it to Beaver. I was just not a sock hop/malt shop kinda guy, so I was usually glad when another school day was done.

Until I was a senior and finally got a car, the Old Man’s cast-off 1962 Ford Galaxie (natch), I had to ride the bus home except on those infrequent occasions when I could convince Mama to pick me up at school. Otherwise, yeah, a hot bus with a hundred other screaming baby-boomer kids. Hot and noisy and slow.

That was a problem. We didn’t get out of school till 2:30 p.m., and the lumbering bus turned what should have been a fifteen minute journey into at least half an hour. I’d be getting awful antsy by the time I was dumped off at the entrance to Mama and Daddy’s subdivision, Canterbury Heights, and was off in a flash down the street to an empty house. Mama could have been there, since her job as librarian at Kate Shepard Elementary got her home half an hour before me, but she was often hauling my brother around to his after-school activities. Which was cool. That meant there was absolutely nothing and nobody to stand between me and watching whatever remained of Dark Shadows.

You may have heard of the late-sixties-early-seventies’ long-running gothic-horror soap opera. Dark Shadows has been revived once already (80s) and is soon to be made into a Major Motion Picture with Johnny Depp. That’s nice, but they’ll never, ever be able to duplicate the scary marvels I saw each afternoon. Watch the old episodes today and what you’ll notice is flubbed lines and falling scenery, but that is OK now and was completely unnoticed then.

What made Dark Shadows special was that a talented cast of professionals, Jonathan Frid and company, and their writers had room to stretch. The half hour show (I will NOT call it a “soap”) was on every weekday afternoon, and the story arcs grew to incredibly convoluted and detailed and fascinating proportions. The writers covered and amplified on everything from “The Turn of the Screw” to The Crucible to Dracula and everything in between. Mix-in memorable music by Robert Cobert, and little Rod had the perfect escape from the dreary realities of high school.

“What in Sam Hill is this about, Unk?” If you read this here blog more than occasionally, you know how I do things, how I conduct my observing runs. But what were things like in the halcyon (supposedly) Day? Back before there were SCTs and PCs on the field? When amateur astronomy was simpler? To give you the complete picture I have to tell you about afternoons at Mama and Daddy’s.

When the credits and the well-loved theme song of Dark Shadows rolled, it was time to change channels from ABC to our CBS affiliate for The Early Show. I am still amazed I found so much to watch when all we had were three lousy channels: ABC, NBC, and CBS. We had PBS, too, but the station’s signal was so weak you couldn’t tell what was on through the blizzard of snow. Yep, no cable TV in them days, younguns. You either had a pair of rabbit ears (a small antenna that sat on top of the TV set) or an aerial on the roof. Us? We used Daddy’s 6-meter (ham radio) beam antenna for a TV antenna when he wasn’t on the air on “six.”

The Early Show had been on for years, but had never been of much interest to li’l Rod till our station, WKRG, bought a package of films that was heaven: The Universal monster movies, Tarzan/Bomba jungle films, and assorted B-grade science fiction movies. I loved monsters for a couple of years, going through a phase where I waited for Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine with almost as much anticipation as for The Fantastic Four’s monthly comic. By the time I had my Palomar Junior I had almost outgrown monsters, though, and was more interested in the outré SF I’d see some afternoons.

We ain’t talking The Day the Earth Stood Still. That hallowed film was reserved for broadcast by NBC once a year on Saturday Night at the Movies, just like The Wizard of Oz. Nor even The Blob or This Island Earth. No, what we got on The Early Show was odd films like The Monolith Monsters and I Married a Monster from Outer Space. And Invaders from Mars, the story of a little kid (there’s a small refractor in his room!), who discovers invaders from the angry red planet are taking over the minds (and bodies) of adults.

I was genuinely frightened by Invaders. In my slightly alienated, slightly oppressed state, the idea that my teachers at W.P. Davidson High School—and maybe even Mama and Daddy—were ACTUALLY cruel and hideous monsters from The Great Out There sometimes didn’t seem so far-fetched.

Whatever was on, I sat and watched till the movie ended precisely at five. Unless, as occasionally happened, some inexplicably out of place “mushy” film was on The Early Show in place of the normal fare. Why they would sometimes slip Mildred Pierce between Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and Invasion U.S.A. I still do not know. The scheduled film didn’t arrive? Temporary insanity concerning what us kids wanted to watch? If the movie was punk, which would be signaled by the absence of The Early Show’s wacky host, Jungle Bob, before the film rolled, I’d move straight on to my homework.

After Mama was off work, she’d sometimes run by the house and put something on the table for me. Or, if he wasn't working till sign-off at the TV studio, Daddy, a.k.a. “The Old Man” or “The O.M.,” might be home and might be persuaded to heat a can of Chef Boyardee for us. Otherwise, Mama would leave something for me in the oven accompanied by heating instructions that warned in the direst terms that I MUST turn off the oven when I was done lest I burn down the house and my silly self. If I was lucky, the instructions were uber simple and involved a fried chicken or turkey or Salisbury steak Swanson’s TV dinner.

In winter, I’d have to hustle after supper, as it would already be on the way to good and dark. If it was spring, I had a little while to plan my observing run. On the weekends or in the summertime there might not be much planning at all. A few similarly interested proto-nerd buddies and I had got together a little club, the Backyard Astronomy Society, the legendary BAS. If we could convince the Moms involved to haul us and our small telescopes to one of the members’ backyards, we’d observe together and put our heads together about which objects to view, “Dang it, Wayne Lee! You will NEVER see the Veil Nebula; that is for professional scopes!”

On a school night or a Saturday when the gang couldn’t get together, I’d fetch my logbook (a steno pad) and my reference materials (the latest Sky and Telescope, Stars, Norton’s Star Atlas, and The New Handbook of the Heavens) and scour them for deep sky wonders of interest. By the time I had moved up from my 3-inch Tasco Newtonian to the Pal Junior, not much planning was necessary. All I had to do was check the Messier list to see which objects I’d done, which needed to be done, and what was available (determined with my Edmund Star and Satellite Path Finder planisphere). Monday through Thursday, I’d be able to get in an hour of observing in the spring and maybe a couple in the winter before Mama chased me into the house.

Time to get the gear out the door. Without Mama’s hovering presence, that was easy. Not that I had a whole lot of gear to get out. I had my Edmund Scientific Palomar Junior 4.25-inch Newtonian, a TV tray on a stand that served as my observing table, a box of eyepieces including a 1-inch (25-mm) Kellner, a ½-inch Ramsden, and a lousy ¼-inch Ramsden. I also had the Barlow that came with my Pal, but I don’t remember it working very well and it usually stayed in my room.

My eyepiece case was a small aluminum war-surplus box daddy had given me. It was about 6-inches by 4- inches, was furnished with a shoulder strap, was painted a smart olive-drab, and was weather (dew) proof. It worked very well—I could hang it over my shoulder and have all eyepieces at my immediate beck and call. I wish I still had it. For field reference, I’d have Sky and Telescope if I thought I’d try some Scotty objects (many of which were too hard for me). Norton’s Star Atlas was on the table till I could grub up the coins to replace it with the much better Skalnate Pleso (the ancestor of Sky Atlas 2000).

Finally, I had my astronomer’s flashlight, an EverReady with some red cellophane left over from Valentines day over the lens, and my Messier Computer. That was what I called it, though it wasn’t really a computer; truthfully, I didn’t know what a computer was. All I knew about ELECTRONIC BRAINS came from the vague descriptions in Arthur C. Clarke novels like The City and the Stars and what I saw on Star Trek (“ERROR! ERROR!”). My gadget had information on all the Messiers, so I figgered it was like Mr. Spock’s Library Computer.

As I’ve described before, the Messier Computer was a scroll of paper, teletype paper, on which I’d written the numbers and names (if any) of all the M-objects. I also added a short description for each (“Norton’s says this is a bright globular cluster.”) and a box to check-off when I conquered the fuzzy. This scroll was wound on the rollers of a piece of war surplus electronics gear (which me and my buddies called “radio junk”) I’d got from the Old Man. It was probably a calibration reference guide for some kind of signal generator—the roll of paper I’d removed from it was utterly indecipherable. Whatever it was, the Messier computer worked a treat, and I curse the cruel fates that decreed it disappear sometime during the 70s—I suspect during one of Mama’s yearly cleaning binges while I was far away in the Air Force.

There was always the question of where to set up. There was a tree-free spot at the base of Mama and Daddy’s yard that allowed me to examine Southwestern sky, but when I was home alone I found that too spooky most nights. I preferred to set up on the blacktop next to the carport. I had a pretty good view of the eastern sky (over the roof of the house; it took me a while to figure out the heat radiating from it screwed up my images), and the meridian was in the clear from the north pole till just past the Celestial Equator.

I’d detach the tube, lift the big and heavy (I thought) mount, and carefully, very carefully—I was wisely wary of nicking Mama’s beloved mahogany coffee table—maneuver the Pal’s German equatorial mount out the back door. Tube back on and observing table set up and populated with my accessories, I’d try to keep my mind on preparing for my run as I waited for the stars to wink on.

Letting my thoughts turn down the strange pathways engendered by The Early Show, pathways that led past UFOs, zombies, and vampires, was a recipe for an end to my run before it began. I was thirteen going on fourteen, and monsters were now supposedly a thing of the past, kid stuff from my days of reading Forrest J. Ackerman’s sacred writings and playing “Werewolf’s out tonight!” under a fat yellow Moon with the kids next door. But with the neighborhood settling into a dark night, none of it seemed like kid stuff at all.

If there was a Moon out and deep sky observing was doubtful, I might decide to add a few snapshots to my slowly growing collection of Moon Pictures. I did that with the only camera I had, my Argus Argoflex Seventy-five twin-lens reflex, which was just a plastic 620 film (you old timers remember that) medium format box camera. The OM could be persuaded to bring out his fancy Exacta or Nikkorex once in a while to shoot the Moon, but I’d danged well better not touch his cameras when he wasn’t home.

If I planned to take pictures, there was easily enough to occupy my mind. In the beginning, I didn’t have a camera mount and set up a tripod next to the scope so I could point my Argus’ lens(es) into the eyepiece, which wasn’t so simple when the eyepiece might be at some decidedly odd angles. The Palomar Junior didn’t have tube rings; the OTA was bolted directly to the mount cradle. I couldn’t move the polar axis off north to position the focuser better, either; that would make it harder to track the Moon with the camera than it already was. I did the best I could and kept saving for an Edmund’s camera bracket.

When visual observing was the agenda, getting set up was easier, but I still had to ready my reference books, whether Norton’s or Scotty’s latest column. If I were staying close to home, in the Solar System, maybe just visiting the good old Moon, I’d use the wonderful two-page Lunar map in the old Norton’s. I had a plan, too. My hero, Patrick Moore (well before he was SIR Patrick), suggested that if you wanted to learn the Moon you should sketch 100 prominent Lunar features. I kicked it up a notch, undertaking to draw all 300 identified on the map. Jupiter and Saturn and Mars and Venus? I’d draw them too, though I wouldn’t have much idea what I should be seeing. Maybe that was good.

I’d usually (though not always) sketch what I saw of the deep sky as well. I did all my drawings, planets and DSOs, in the steno-pad that served as my log. I would later transfer some (maybe slightly wishfully enhanced) drawings into a real sketchpad. I again curse the fates that my early logs and sketchbook disappeared sometime in the 70s.

When dark finally came, I had lots more work to do if I were taking Moon pictures. I’d debugged my astrophotography system (as much as I could) in the days of my 3-inch Tasco, but plenty of effort still went into getting Lunar images, and no matter what I did it was always a tossup. Would the shots that came out of Daddy’s darkroom look good or would they look like something Aunt Lulu’s poodle dog threw up? The latter was more likely, and no wonder, given my simple, shaky technique.

Since I couldn’t remove the lens from my Argus TLR, I had to shoot using the “afocal” method where the lens stays on the camera and the eyepiece stays in the scope. The camera takes the place of your eye at the eyepiece. That works well with modern digital cameras, but way back when it was tough unless you were lucky enough to have one of them new-fangled single lens reflexes, which I most assuredly did not.

My problems were focus, exposure, and camera shake. In other words, everything. Focus was the main difficulty. My camera had a (single element) fixed lens, and just snapping away with the scope focused by eye led to putrid results. I finally hit upon focusing through the “top lens,” the viewing lens, of my twin lens reflex, carefully elevating the tripod to bring the shooting lens into place when I was done, and firing away. This worked, if not consistently. The viewing lens had such a large depth of focus that it was hard to tell when the Moon was really sharp. I also had to line-up the shooting lens blind, meaning my framing was often off, and if the camera got tilted with respect to the eyepiece, part of the picture would be blurred.

Exposure was also a stumbling block, if not as much as focus. My camera only had two shutter speeds, an “instant” one, 1/60th second, and a “time” (actually B) exposure mode, meaning the shutter stayed open as long as you held the release down. The normal speed worked fairly well for full disk shots with the 25mm Kellner and the 35mm “Moon picture eyepiece” daddy made for me out of an old Wollensak lens and a length of brass tubing. My negatives were almost always either underexposed or overexposed, but Daddy was able to make something of most of them in the darkroom.

What was amazing was that some of my Moon pictures weren’t ruined by vibration. While the Pal Junior’s mount was heavy, it was, in typical sixties GEM fashion, shaky. In order to get a good image I had to position the Moon so it would drift into the center of the frame by the time I pushed the shutter release (I didn’t have a clock drive), which I would do after I judged the scope had had time to settle down after I touched it. As I said, it’s remarkable I got anything, and I am still proud of those humble shapshots 45 years down the road.

On a deep sky night, I had a much more relaxing evening in store. My usual practice was to stick to a constellation or two. I’d found that jumping all over the sky was not productive unless I was just out to look at a few of the night’s best and brightest showpieces. Once I got my bearings in a particular area, it was much easier to locate one object after another than it was if I was always moving to new and unfamiliar territory.

I didn’t make much headway with the Messier until I figured out star-hopping. Before I did, I’d try to position the scope on an object in one go after glancing briefly at its position in Norton’s. That usually meant I missed. One night, though, I had the epiphany that I should be letting the stars in the area lead me where I wanted to go. M37 was about half-way along and just outside a line formed by Theta Aurigae and Beta Tauri. Once I glommed onto hopping, the Messiers began to fall before me. Not that everything was easy. M37, one of my favorites, was always tough. But at least I could see it when I got there. It was easy to star hop to the position of M101, but no matter how many times I did I never saw a blessed thing.

Another obvious help that eluded me for some time was that many of the Messiers would be visible even in the Pal’s humble finder scope, a puny 23mm job. Instead of setting and resetting on consarned M37’s position, a good, long look through the finder once I was in the area might have shown this somewhat subdued cluster as a wee fuzz-spot. Strange as it sounds today, I think I had the odd idea that doing that would have somehow been “cheating.” Go figger.

Once I was finally on the object of my desire, I would give it a good look, even if I hoped to tick off a bunch of Messiers on that evening—maybe three or four. Taking my time on objects was something I had to learn, though. In the early days, I'd give a DSO maybe a minute before I was off hunting the next one. Till one day I realized that I didn't see much at all if I didn't give my target at least five or ten minutes of eyepiece time.

I’d stare at my target for as much as half-an-hour and let my mind drift toward it, wondering which of the multitudinous stars of M37 or whatever I was looking at harbored those nasty aliens from The Early Show. Sometimes I spooked myself so bad that I was soon carrying the scope back inside just  as fast as I could go. But it was still worth it. What good was looking at the stars if you didn't do some DEEP THINKING about them?

Whether I was admiring M37 or Jupiter or Copernicus, my last step before moving on was making a drawing. Over and above Patrick Moore’s advice to sketch the Moon if you wanted to know it intimately, I found drawing fun. My sketches weren't art, but I think some of my finished ones were pretty good nevertheless.

I’d developed an interest in drawing for its own sake and somehow convinced Mama to pay for art lessons for me one summer at our little city’s art gallery in Langan Park. Mama actually assented readily, maybe because she hoped it would keep me out of the mischief she always imagined I might be getting into—if only she had realized how timid I really was. Anyhow, the lessons helped both my celestial and terrestrial drawing technique. In the process, I developed an intense crush on my instructor, a pretty young woman from our local university’s faculty. Oh, to be young and suffer that delicious heartbreak again!

All good observing runs come to an end. On a weeknight that end was presaged by the headlights of Mama’s car coming down the driveway. She knew to be cautious if she saw the carport light was off lest she run over her strange young son. Not much danger of that; it was hard to miss Mama’s coming and I’d have picked up my Pal and moved him to the safety of the patio at the first distant rumble of her shocking pink Oldsmobile’s Rocket 88 engine. If Daddy made it home first, I could sometimes convince him to have a look or two and thus be able to stay at the scope for a little while after Mama returned. Eventually, of course, she’d stick her head out the back door and holler, “Now Frank, you know that boy has got to get to bed!” and that would be it.

Then as now, one of the best parts of the run was the aftermath. Quick bath, back in my room, snuggled down in bed beneath my Solar System and Mr. Spock posters. I’d voyage back through the wonders I’d seen that night till sleep took me. And after in my dreams where I'd roam the Moon in the shadow of razor-sharp Chesley Bonestell mountains or traipse  the Universe in my own personal Rocketship Galileo.

Great blog Rod it always brings back memories of my early observing days , Edmund Sci's telescopes and eyepieces , Nortons Star Atlas, that Bonestell prints is in a frame that occupies a space over my Desk at work.
Thanks for the journey down memory lane.
Gary ( aka Satman on Cloudy Nights)
Wow, there are so many memories that we share from childhood! But for me these things are largely forgotten (until reminded by you). How on earth do you recall all this stuff in such detail? Anyhow, thanks for the great writing and reminding me of my own childhood.
I seem to remember more and more of those supposedly good old days of is called GETTING OLD! LOL!
I tought I was reading an article about me back in the late sixties and early seventies.Brings back that warm and wondrous fuzzy feeling of the "Halcyon days."
Thank you very much for the trip down memory lane.
I tought I was reading an article about me back in the late sixties and early seventies.Brings back that warm and wondrous fuzzy feeling of the "Halcyon days."
Thank you very much for the trip down memory lane.
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