Sunday, January 08, 2012


Good Old George

We take each-other for granted, muchachos; that is the human way. So it was with me and my friend George Byron. As I mentioned in the Christmas Eve blog, Miss Dorothy and I were devastated to learn that George, whom I’d known for over twenty years, was gone. It was a shock and led to your old Unk pondering the nature of friendship and mortality over the Christmas holiday. Mostly, though, I thought about what fun we had with old Georgie.

George was a friend, yeah, but that peculiar sort of friend we tend to make in amateur astronomy. I saw him month in and month out on the observing field and at club meetings, but I’d never been to his house, not once in all the years I’d known him, and I had no more than the vaguest idea where he lived. It’s not that way with all my astronomer friends, but that was the way it was with George. He was a feature of life, somebody I saw all the time in the context of astronomy, and with whom friendship had not grown beyond that. Which didn’t seem to make much difference. I was always glad to see him and I think he was always glad to see me.

I’m not completely sure when I first met George, but it was probably at a public star party at the end of the 80s. I’d just moved back to Possum Swamp and was getting acquainted with the personalities on the local club scene. Anyhoo, here was this little, old (looked it, anyhow) guy hunched over a ten-inch Meade Schmidt Cassegrain. I admired his telescope, but more than that I admired the twinkle in his eye as he showed all the Moms and Pops and Buds and Sisses celestial wonders.

What was he like in those days? He was only seven years older than Unk, which would have put him in his mid 40s. But he looked to be in his fifties—if not his sixties. The result, I reckon, of the various and sundry infirmities he suffered and must have suffered for a long time. It didn’t seem to affect his outlook, though. George was a glass-half-full kinda guy with a sunny disposition.

What spelled “George” more than anything else was his dry sense of humor and his tendency to malapropisms and misspeaking. If any of the rest of us had said ‘em, I’d call some of George’s verbal missteps “putting your foot in your mouth.” With him it was never like that; his faux pas were always hilarious, and I always wondered if he’d planned them, even though I knew he really hadn’t. A particularly funny example: one public outreach night George had his big LX5 SCT on the field and was trying to attract “customers.” He turned to one well-turned-out southern matron, looked her straight in the eye, and insisted, “IT’S A TEN-INCH!” Wish y’all could have been there to see her expression.

By the time me and Miss D. got hitched, George was a fact of the astronomical side of life. He for sure approved of my bride; especially when he learned Miss Dorothy was a math professor. While George had never been within a country mile of a college math class, having spent his working life as a blue-collar AT&T phone man, he was fascinated by mathematics and had a real talent for it. I can’t remember too many times when we ran into him that he didn’t have some kind of math problem or puzzle he wanted D’s opinion on: “Say you were able to drill a hole straight through the earth…” I’m sure his mathematical obsession was occasionally trying for Dorothy, but she put up with it both because she is such a nice person and because George was such a sweetheart of a guy.

You can bet D. and I were alarmed to hear, when we returned from our honeymoon in September of 1994, that George had suffered a serious heart attack while we’d been gone. We were maybe reassured, or maybe more alarmed, when we found him in Fletcher’s the following Sunday. Fletcher’s was a barbeque joint/breakfast buffet out on Highway 90, one of Georgie’s faves, and there he was, hale and hearty as he ever looked, plate miles high with bacon and sausage. That was, as we came to say—frequently—“just George.”

In the mid 1990s, our club, the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society, was enjoying a boom: lots of members, lots of activities. One of the things we liked to do in them days was get a bunch of folks together and convoy up to a star party, like the Mid South Star Gaze way up north of Jackson, Mississippi. Miss Dorothy and I had a great time on these expeditions, and George did too, though he must have sometimes felt like a third wheel on these slightly couples-oriented trips. Perennial singleton George bore up with the good cheer that was his hallmark. I never heard of a girlfriend or even an ex-wife, and sometimes felt a little sorry for him, but he never seemed anything but happy with his lot.

In those days, George was a huge star party goer: Texas Star Party, Winter Star Party, eclipses in Mexico, he’d been everywhere, man. The star party I most associate with him and the one he loved best was our own little Deep South Regional Star Gaze. He would drive over to the DSRSG at McComb, Mississippi’s Percy Quin State Park with a truck full of gear and plant himself firmly on the observing field. I can see him as if it were yesterday, grumbling good naturedly about the ASTRO WIMPS who’d walked off the DSRSG field at a mere 1 a.m.

The old DSRSG at Percy Quin.
Sadly, by the middle of the last decade it was clear his star partying days were over. His health problems, which affected not just his heart, but his digestive system, his eyes, his back, his neck, and who-knew-what-else made it downright unwise for him to venture to remote locations, and he’d finally reconciled himself to that. Despite being barely sixty, he seemed old. Last time I was at a big star party with him was the 2002 Peach State Star Gaze in Copperhill, Tennessee. We were in cabins with Spartan bunk beds and, in unaccustomed bad luck, George had got a top one. I offered to swap with him, but in typical George fashion, he’d have none of it. Also typically, I wound up helping him into that cotton pickin’ bunk every dawn.

I just hated it when George had to give up even his beloved Deep South. He hung in there with us through 2005, but that was it. I hope the end of his star partying days was made a little easier by the fact that by ‘05 we’d had to relocate from Percy Quin State Park, which he so loved, to a small and overly rustic camp down way down the road from that beautiful park.

A few years after that, we moved to a much better venue, the Feliciana Retreat Center, which featured accommodations even better than those of Percy Quin, including fully equipped motel rooms. I hoped we’d be able to lure him back for one last bow, but that never happened. Given the state of his health, I'd guess he was afraid to be too far out in the sticks and too far from an emergency room. He was missed, with DSRSGers who barely knew him still enquiring year after year about “Good, Old George.”

For a while there, it looked like he might be finished observing altogether, even from home. Well before the end of his star partying, he’d had to sell off his Meade 10-inch LX5. Not only could he not lift it onto its wedge anymore, even if we helped him get it mounted, or mounted it for him, his back and neck problems prevented him from contorting himself sufficiently to aim an equatorially mounted SCT at much of anything. The LX5 was sold, and George took to using his puny Astroscan.

That was at night. For the daytime, he had a pair of very nice Coronado hydrogen alpha scopes. In the quest for something he could find easily, I suppose, he’d turned to Solar work and developed a real interest in Mr. Sun. George used his PST and a larger Coronado to show a generation or two of Possum Swamp School children (and us) what is really going on all the time on the Sun. We were especially envious when he won a second PST at one of the last DSRSGs he attended.

But at night George had been sidelined. He had got to the point where he had a hard time aiming even the Astroscan. He still wanted to show the kids something at our public outreach star parties, though, and would struggle mightily to get the Moon in view and would beg us to check to see if he had the Pleiades centered in the little Edmund. I wondered if the time might not be coming when he’d drop out of amateur astronomy altogether.

George quit astronomy? No way! He decided he’d just work smarter. At the turn of the century, computerized go-to scopes were still a mystery, a scary mystery, for many of us. Not for George. He had a plan. He bought himself Celestron’s first NexStar, the go-to NexStar 5, equipped it with a Telrad with a 90-degree viewing adapter to help him get it aligned, and was able to keep on trucking. I believe he saw more the first couple of nights with his NS 5 than he’d seen with any of his telescopes over the previous ten years. Soon, he was moving up to a NexStar 8, zapping it to its targets with SkyTools 3, and teaching those of us who tended to look down on his observing skills a thing or two about the deep sky.

It was during this period that I probably spent more time with George than ever I did before or since. He was out to make up for those lost years spent fruitlessly hunting M42 with that cursed Astroscan. We didn’t have a good dark site at the time, but we did have a light-polluted suburban spot. The skies weren’t very good at all, and it was often just him and me, but that was OK. We saw a lot of cool stuff. Not that this was a completely different George. His contemplation of a galaxy would often be punctuated by a running commentary on the “curiosities” that intrigued him, like Olbers’ Paradox. “I still don’t get it, Rod! How COME the whole sky ain’t white with stars! HOW COME WE AIN’T BURNING UP?”

I would most assuredly be remiss if I didn’t mention everything George did for us, his fellow club members. The average astronomy club is one of the few civic organizations where the membership competes to see who can avoid serving as an officer. In the absence of anybody else to do it, he picked up the reins of our club and led us through thick and thin, serving as President for over a decade. Unfortunately for him, he did an outstanding job. Every December he’d bring up the idea of holding an election for President, and we’d reelect him by acclamation before he could say “no.”

Otherwise, George soldiered on. I think he’d finally realized his body was indeed failing him, and occasionally seemed frightened by that. A time or two out at the dark site we thought we’d have to run him to the emergency room, but it never quite went that far. I probably should have worried about him more than I did, but outside those couple of scares he seemed mostly unchanged from twenty years ago. He didn’t look young and healthy, but he didn’t much look different. Usually, he was the first person at the dark site, greeting one and all with his patented “Howdy-howdy!” and was the last one of us to pack up (reluctantly).

We continued as we always had till one night when it was just him and me on the field. I mentioned more or less in passing that I planned to step down as his Vice President, a job I’d held about as long as George had been President. I further said that the club was now in good health with several young (at least younger) members who were enthusiastic and well-suited to take over from us, the old guard. In other words, it was time for us to hand the club off to the next generation. He seemed a little taken aback at first, but nodded in agreement, and opined that we ought to hold real elections in December, which was just a few months away.

While I felt rather strongly about the need for the club to move on from us old-timers (which in the end, unfortunately, only delayed the club's precipitous decline), the last thing I wanted to do was upset my friend. I just wanted him to think about it. I said nothing further on the subject after that night, and was utterly gobsmacked when, after the opening formalities at the December meeting, George announced that it was time to elect new officers. In just a few minutes, it was PSAS: The Next Generation, with a new President, Vice President, and Secretary taking over. George seemed OK, if maybe a little stunned.

I am glad one of the last things I said to him embarrassed him badly. I stood up and thanked him for his years of service, announced he would always be our President Emeritus, and requested a round of applause, which was long and tumultuous. I wonder now if, sub-consciously anyway, he was putting his affairs in order that night.

Life being what it is, I didn’t much think about George for the next several days. Not till I arrived at the dark site Saturday evening and found myself alone. No “Howdy-howdy, Rod! How’s Miss Dorothy? Did she ever get a chance to look at my math problem?” After a couple of my compadres arrived, we discussed George briefly. We were not overly disturbed. It being the Christmas season, we thought it possible he had gone to New York to visit relatives, though it would be strange for him not to mention that to us. I figgered he just wasn’t up to braving the cold, and, since he wasn’t President anymore, no longer felt obligated to be at every single dark site run.

I wasn’t a bit worried about my old friend, not much anyhow, which made it that much more of a shock when Miss D. called me at work Monday afternoon to tell me she’d arrived home to find a message on our machine from Judy, the club Treasurer and a very old friend of George. Judy, Miss Dorothy said in a shaky voice, had called to let us know George had died that past Saturday.

I called Judy for details just as soon as I could; deep down I guess I was hoping it was all a mistake. What she knew was that George had been in the habit of phoning one of his NY relatives every Saturday. Like clockwork. When said relative hadn’t received her customary ring, she got ahold of his stepmother, who lives down here. Her repeated attempts to contact George failed and the police were called. They found my friend dead in his favorite chair.

Dorothy was concerned George, all alone, might have been in pain and scared at the end. Thankfully, from what we could glean, it must have been very quick, probably a massive heart attack, and he might even have gone in his sleep.

Which didn’t make it any easier for us, the living, to bear. We’d scheduled a Christmas Eve observing run, but even if the clouds had not piled on, I wouldn’t have been there. December 24th was way too soon. I couldn’t stand the thought of seeing George’s accustomed spot empty. And I simply dreaded the absence of that old reliable “Howdy-howdy! Guess it’s too cold for them ASTROWIMPS!”

George was a good friend and a good observer. He was also uncommonly nice. I’m only able to vaguely recall one time when he came even close to losing his temper in all the years I knew him. In addition to his natural niceness, George also possessed an innate appreciation for truth and fairness and wasn’t shy about speaking up for the right. You can’t ask for much more in a friend or anybody else than that, now can you, muchachos?

Next time: Going to XTREMEs...

Very moving remembrance. Touched me deeply. You honored your friend.

A wonderful and moving tribute. We wish people like your friend George could live forever.

South Carolina
A beautiful tribute - you, my brother, are a treasure...
My condolences, it's hard to lose a close friend.
Came across your obituary for your friend George whilst surfing the net. A glowing tribute for a genuinely nice man. Being always half full rather than half empty is its own reward and a great way to life your life however modestly.
from another sixty year old George and Stargazer in Lowesoft England. Clear skies!
I wish you all could have known George. He was definitely one of a kind in the best sense of those words. ;-(

Our hearts go out to all in "Possum Swamp" over the loss of your friend and fellow stargazer. Perhaps now he has the best view of the heavens available.

Sincere condolences.

Dave & Ann Hockenberry
Chester County Astronomical Society
West Chester, PA
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