Saturday, December 24, 2011


A Chaos Manor South Christmas: 2011

It’s Christmas Eve, muchachos, and Unk feels like telling a Christmas story. Something I’ve done a couple of times before, like here. The story this Christmas Eve? The events surrounding Stephanie’s telescope didn’t occur at Christmas, they happened just after, but the tale has the feel of Christmas, and I feel like telling it, so we’ll call it a Christmas story.

When did Uncle Rod’s magnificent obsession with the Great Out There begin? I don’t know. Honestly, y’all, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t thinking about OUTER SPACE. Certainly by the early 60s, when I’d got my hands on a cheap pair of toy binoculars and a planisphere, the idea of astronomy, practical astronomy, not just what I read in books, had taken root in me. Not that I knew what to do with that idea.

Stephanie’s Telescope showed me what to do, but that little A.C. Gilbert was actually the second part of a one-two punch that pushed me over the edge into a lifetime of wonder. The first part came the night of First Spaceship on Venus. If you’ve read my blog article about it, you know First Spaceship, along with The Angry Red Planet and Journey to the Seventh Planet, is a member of the triumvirate of Sci-Fi (not SF) films that have remained in this old boy’s pantheon for fifty years. It isn’t really Spaceship that is important here, howsomeever; it’s what happened after the movie.

Like I said in the blog entry, First Spaceship had its initial U.S. release in 1962, but it did not show up down here till a year or two later, when it was shown at the Roxy, Possum Swamp’s cheap-seats theatre. They played first-run films, too, but not first-run films like Lawrence of Arabia. More like Tammy and the Bachelor and one of Mama’s other faves, Horrors of the Black Museum. And they showed lots of second run (or third or fourth run) flicks starring Abbot and Costello and the Bowery Boys. And lots of sci-fi like First Spaceship on Venus.

I won’t say too much about that remarkable film from the exotic Soviet Bloc other than that, yeah, it was remarkable. In many ways it was ahead of its time, even years after it was filmed, and in the pre-2001: a Space Odyssey and pre-Star Trek days it was far stranger and more compelling than even the best American efforts like Forbidden Planet. All on what must have been a laughably miniscule budget. If’n you want to know more about the film and more about li’l Rod’s reaction to it, read its dadgum blog entry. Suffice to say that when the credits rolled Mama had a hard time prying me out of my seat.

Mama, in her usual slightly disorganized fashion, had got us to the theatre about ten-minutes after the movie started. I was so taken with it that I wanted to watch at least those first ten minutes—if not the whole movie—when they ran the film again. Back in those gentler times you were allowed, maybe even encouraged, to do that. You filled a seat, and you might visit the concession stand again. I know I would have begged Mama for a refresh of my supplies—ten-cent box of popcorn, Orange Crush, Almond Joy—if she’d agreed to watch First Spaceship again.

Normally, convincing Mama to sit through a movie twice wasn’t a problem. She preferred to stay at the Roxy till as close as possible to the time Daddy would arrive back home after sign-off at the TV station where he worked. As I have often said, Mama was in many ways a strong woman, but not when it came to enduring the hours of darkness alone in a house with a little kid. She would not assent this time, though, “We have got to get home, young man. Have you forgotten already? This is the night The Den is going out to look through the big telescope. I thought you were the one who was so interested in space?”

As y’all know if you’ve read this blog often, I loved Cub Scouting, and what made me love it was mostly my Den Mother, a very special—if somewhat peculiar and spinsterish—person, Miss Emily Baldwin. Mizz Baldwin had the not young – not old appearance some middle-aged southern women assumed back then. She seemed utterly changeless year upon year. What also never changed was her commitment to us kids.

Not only did she serve as a Den Mother and as an MYF Youth Leader at our Methodist Church, she was a substitute science teacher at the Junior High School, and later went on to teach—or really preach—the wonders of science fulltime to a couple of generations of kids. I suppose I was very lucky to come to Miss Emily’s attention. She made my life interesting, if not always pleasant. Like Mama, she always had the idea I might be UP TO SOMETHING, and she was not shy about getting on the phone and communicating her suspicions. As I’ve said before, if only she and Mama had realized how timid li’l Rod really was.

Whatever. What mattered was that Miss Baldwin’s prime mission as a Cub Scout leader was to get her charges, and, I suspected, particularly me, Interested in Science. To that end, she was always arranging activities, contests, and field trips with a scientific slant to them. On this fall evening, she’d outdone herself. She’d arranged the mother of all field trips. She had set up a visit to Spring Hill College’s observatory.

Spring Hill College, then and now, is Possum Swamp’s kinda sleepy, kinda small, very pretty Jesuit College. As is sometimes the case with small, backwater institutions, they had an outstanding astronomy program due to the presence of a charismatic professor whose passion was the stars. As is also often the case, this program did not long outlast this person’s tenure. But for a while there was some pretty serious astronomy going on up at the ‘Hill. To the point where a domed observatory holding, Miss Emily told us Cubs, a gigantic telescope was built in a corner of Spring Hill’s golf course.

I don’t remember the drive out to the college, packed in the backseat of one of the moms’ cars with three or four other Cubs, but I sure do remember what I saw when we got there: a perfect little observatory dome. I say “little” now, but back then it looked enormous. Big enough to house Mount Palomar’s Hale Reflector, which I often obsessed about. I had read a somewhat tacky science fiction novel about Palomar Observatory, The Big Eye, seven or eight times, and that great instrument had become my totem, my touchstone, my religious icon. I know one thing: Miss Emily sure didn’t have to shoo me inside.

Spring Hill's scope, a 12-inch Cave reflector, was not what we'd call "big" these days, but when I entered the small dome I felt as if I were standing in the company of and dwarfed by the mighty Hale. I didn't mind waiting in line for a little while, either, since I could gawk at the indecipherable star charts (probably Becvar’s Skalnate Pleso atlas) and funny-looking clocks that were revealed in dim red light.

Above all, I could admire The Telescope with its lustrous, nearly glowing white tube and massive equatorial mount. No, 12-inches doesn’t sound like much today, but even now a 12-inch long focal length Newtonian on a large German equatorial is a big telescope. When it was my turn to ascend the ladder to the Cave's eyepiece, I felt as if I were climbing all the way to the Hale’s prime focus cage. Then it came: my first look through any scope.

Memories can deceive, but what's locked in my mind near fifty years later is a perfect vision of M51’s glowing spiral arms. That may even be accurate, since a 12-inch Newtonian would have been perfectly capable of revealing considerable spiral detail in the bright Whirlpool Galaxy in those not-so-light-polluted days, even for the newest of novices. It was all I could do to keep from tumbling off the ladder. My mind reeled, and then got a grip, a tiny grip, on the true scale and majesty of the Universe.

I didn’t begin to come back down to Earth till we all stopped at Possum Swamp’s brand new (and first) Macdonald’s. I munched those crazy fries and 10-cent hamburgers with the rest of the Den, getting ketchup all over our uniforms and the Moms’ cars in the process—no indoor dining at Mickey D’s in them days—but even then part of me was still far, far away, out among the galaxies.

I daydreamed—and dreamed—about The Telescope for weeks and months, but being just a little chirper in a big, wide world, I didn't imagine I could have a telescope of my own. I went back to my semi-toy binoculars and my star finder (planisphere) and the outer space shows on TV like my fave, Fireball XL-5. No, I had no idea I could have a scope. Until one after-Christmas show-and-tell day in the 4th grade.

Is show-and-tell still done in elementary schools? I don’t know, but it was very popular in the antique days of the early sixties, giving us and our teachers a break from our normal routine of studying the multiplication tables between duck and cover air-raid drills with Bert the Turtle. Show-and-tell went like this: you brought an item to school (a toy, a book, even a pet) and stood up in front of the class and gave a short talk about it. 47 long years later, I have no idea what I brought on that winter Friday morning, but I remember with laser clarity what my classmate Stephanie brought.

Stephanie usually had good stuff, being from the upper middle class rather than the middle-middle (really lower-middle) class like me and my buddies Wayne Lee and Miss Jitter Jones, but what she brought on this day was beyond good. Perched on a spindly metal tripod was a long black tube. Almost instinctively, I knew it was a telescope, a telescope for looking at the stars—not a dime-store spyglass like I used when me and Wayne Lee and Jitter were playing pirates.

I knew it was a telescope, but I couldn't figure out how you looked into it. The "eye thing" seemed to be on the wrong end. Stephanie soon explained all: this was a special sort of a telescope, a reflecting telescope, which used a mirror instead of a lens. She went on to tell us that she and her Daddy had used her Gilbert (I had one of their cheap microscopes) to see craters on the Moon. Imagine that: they could look at Moon craters. Any time they wanted. Stephanie let us all have a peep through the classroom windows at a distant telephone pole, and that was that. Which was enough for me. I had to have a telescope. HAD to.

Over the next few months, I made a lot of noise to Mama and Daddy (a.k.a. “The Old Man” or “The Chief Op” around our house) about wanting a scope, and I believe they allowed as how they'd "see about it" (usually code for "No, you'll forget about it soon enough; we can't afford it anyway."). No telescope was forthcoming. Perhaps they wanted to be sure I was serious in my odd new preoccupation, or maybe the money really wasn't there. It's easy to forget it amidst the nostalgia for those supposedly more innocent times, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s the lower middle class had resources more akin to those of po’ folks today. But I didn't stop pestering, and I think Mama eventually realized how serious I was and communicated that to Daddy. Eventually there was a big and ragged and almost unmanageable 6-inch loaner scope, which was followed not long after by a telescope of my own.

One morning, just as I was waking up to get ready for school, Daddy came through the door to my room with a telescope in his arms. I barely heard what he said, a simple “I happened to go by Joe’s Loan last night during my supper break and saw this and thought you might like it.” That was plenty. I didn’t care that the little Tasco came from a pawnshop. It looked new and may have been. Daddy’s pal Joe sold a few new things in addition to his huge assortment of used, “hocked,” stuff. Used or new, it was love at first sight.

The new telescope, my new telescope, was a thing of wonder. Gleaming white metal tube, beautiful wooden tripod, and a couple of shiny lenses (what I called eyepieces initially). Most of all, this 3-inch Tasco Newtonian seemed to be straining in her traces, eager to gallop into the sky like a thoroughbred. You can bet that school day was a long one. All I could think about was my scope. I even tried the “Miss Stinson, I feel SICK! Can I go home?” ploy. Strict Miss Stinson applied a no-nonsense hand to my forehead and told me to HUSH, sit down, and get out my math book. Yeah, it was gonna be a long Friday…

When evening finally came, I turned the Tasco to the sky, taking first light on a nice, gibbous Moon. From that moment on my course was set, even though the Tasco did not turn out to be quite the thoroughbred I thought she was. Her optics were not-so-hotsky, doing OK on the Moon, OK on the few deep sky objects I could find, and poorly on the planets. I was not dismayed. Instead, I began drooling over the Edmund Scientific catalog Daddy gave me and, just like all us gear-mad amateurs today, dreaming of More Better Gooder that could take me farther.

I don’t have many mementoes from those days. For the longest time, all I had was a single snapshot of me posed with my wonderful telescope, my dog-eared copy of Stars, and a Moon picture or two I took with the Tasco and my Argus box camera. Then, not long ago, I took custody of the mount from Spring Hill’s old Cave reflector. The second I laid eyes on the time-worn GEM head, I was pretty sure where it had come from. Nevertheless, I was gobsmacked when further investigation revealed this relic was indeed part of that wonderful telescope from so many, many long years ago.

What will I do with the mount? It still works—even the drive runs—though it could use considerable restoration. That will come, and I will put a suitable instrument on it. Maybe a big achromatic refractor. For now, I just pat it every once in a while in passing. When I do, memories from fifty long years ago come flooding back, memories of Mama and Daddy, and the Tasco, and Miss Emily Baldwin, and long-ago Christmases, and, particularly, of Stephanie’s telescope.

This Christmas…

The mount from THE telescope.
It’s a slightly more melancholy Christmas than usual. This week, Miss Dorothy and I received the shocking news that an old friend, George Byron, whose name has appeared in this blog more than once, had passed away. George was a good friend and a good observer and the backbone of our little astronomy club for years. We will miss him.

Tonight, Christmas Eve...

After a late lunch in celebration of stepdaughter Beth's birthday (at the Olive Garden as per usual), younger daughter Lizbeth joined us for the traditional annual showing of A Charlie Brown Christmas (via DVD). Unk settled in to watch, savoring a wee nip of the Yell, of course, and ruminating on the Christmas of 1965, the year Charlie Brown premiered. I tried to settle in, anyhow

I was on EDGE, muchachos. Christmas Eve night had assumed the character of a race. As you know if you've been reading this here blog for a while, me and Miss D's other Christmas Eve tradition these many years has been to grab a scope and hie ourselves into the yard for a look at that greatest of all Christmas ornaments, M42. The 3-inch Skywatcher refractor, Midge, was near the front door and ready to go, but would we see anything? A front of heavy storms bringing thick clouds was approaching from the west as fast as ol' Orion was rising in the east...

For the second time in two years, Unk was victorious. All five us us, me, D., Beth, Beth's husband Rob, and Lizbeth, trouped out into the front yard and, despite low altitude and haze and light pollution, the great nebula shone through. Did it ever. We drank in the ancient photons and one and all proclaimed it a good omen. Soon, your old Unk will be off to bed, visions of Mallincam Xtremes dancing in his head. I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas, a Christmas just as numinous as ours is turning out to be.

Excelsior, y’all!

Next time: Happy New Year 2012 from Chaos Manor South!

Merry Christmas, Uncle Rod... what a wonderful story.
Merry Christmas Rod and a Happy Prosperious New Year!
Merry Christmas to you and yours Rod.
Well Rod, I remembered that M42 on Christmas Eve was one of your traditions. As such, when my youngest went up to sleep, I wondered out to the Obs and took a look at M42 myself. Surprisingly, my older daughter came out to join me. We looked at the blue snowball, Jupiter (although it wasn't good), M31 and hunted for the Horsehead. It was a nice night just to have her join me.

Anyway Merry Christmas to you and yours. And thanks for a tradition that I may steal from you.

Darren Dassinger
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