Monday, December 24, 2012


A Chaos Manor South Merry Christmas 2012

Like last year, Unk’s Christmas this year is tinged with a little melancholy, muchachos. In 2011 it was the loss of me and Miss Dorothy's dear friend and club President, George Byron. This year it is the passing of a giant, Sir Patrick Moore, the world’s greatest non-professional astronomer. As I said on Facebook when the sad news came in, if not for Patrick, there might not have been an amateur astronomy for me. I never had the opportunity to meet the man, but it’s not exaggeration to say he was my mentor, and, yes, my friend.

I know the year I encountered my first Patrick Moore Book, 1963. The month? I am pretty sure it was December—it must have been. If one thing has made for memorable Christmases throughout my life, it’s been astronomy. From a new astronomy book or an eyepiece under the tree to my traditional December 24th look at M42, Christmas has always been spelled a-m-a-t-e-u-r a-s-t-r-o-n-o-m-y for Unk.

Set the controls of the WABAC Machine to just-before-Christmas 1963, where Li’l Unk is inventorying the shelves of the Kate Shepard Elementary School Library. It wasn’t huge, but it did have the space of one large classroom and a good selection of books up to the Grade Six level and even beyond. We little folks had been marched to the library to turn-in our books before the Christmas holiday, but Unk wanted some reading material to cover the two whole weeks of Christmas vacation. Luckily, the fix was in: Mama.

By 1963, Mama was working as Kate Shepard’s librarian. Normally, given her staunchly upright Methodist nature, she wasn’t one to indulge in favoritism, but she could occasionally be persuaded to let li’l ol’ me choose a book or two to take home off the record. I suspect that was purely self-defense on her part that December, a way of keeping me under control on those stressful days leading up to The Big Day if'n the weather wouldn’t permit her to shoo me outside to play. Freezing weather wasn’t usually a problem and snow was a miraculous occurrence, but moderate cold with heavy rain all day was commonplace on those long ago Decembers and still is.

Anyhoo, after the final bell, class Christmas party done, Room Mother duly thanked by all us kids under the watchful eye of Miss Dixon (who I thought was the prettiest teacher in the whole school), I wandered over to Mama’s library to wait for her getting off time. She was quick to announce she did not have to stay her customary and required extra half-hour on this last day before the Christmas holiday and that if I wanted to pick out a book, “You will have to get a move on, Mister; I have a full day’s work ahead of me at home if there’s going to be a Christmas.”

The pressure was on. What to choose? I had read every Tom Swift and Hardy Boys, so they were out. Yes, Mama had those series on the shelves, though she sometimes threatened to send the boy detectives and the boy scientist packing. I had just finished Heinlein’s wonderful Rocket Ship Galileo and was on the lookout for more SF, but there wasn’t any more “adult” (relatively speaking) science fiction to be found. I always liked the little blue-covered biographies Mama stocked, but I’d read just about every one of them except for Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie and a few others li’l Unk had foolishly dismissed as GIRL STUFF. Over to the nonfiction stacks. There were a few How and Why Wonderbooks, which I favored, but they were thin, one wouldn’t last all vacation, and Rocks and Minerals (Mama did not have Stars or Rockets and Missiles or The Moon, alas) didn’t sound too cotton-picking interesting. Then I found it.

Dang near fifty years later, I still remember the book I picked off the shelf that afternoon. Guide to the Moon by some guy named Patrick Moore. In retrospect, I’m surprised Mama had this one, since she would probably have considered it way too “hard” even for sixth graders. I leafed through it. Mostly words and only a few cool pictures like the one on the dust jacket, but I had wanted something that would last me a while, and I’d been fascinated by the Moon since I’d seen an episode of CBS’ Men into Space where our hero, Colonel McCauley, and his intrepid crew landed their ship among razor sharp Bonestell-style mountains and craters.

Mama asked what I’d chosen, and I hesitantly showed her Mr. Moore’s book. She wondered if Fourth Grader me might be better off with something a little easier, but I said “no,” that I was happy with what I had. Mama sighed resignedly and said she hoped I knew better than to come crying to her later if the book was too much for me.

Back home, li’l Unk was confused at first. Mr. Moore seemed to be implying you could see all these mountains, craters, and seas for yourself. With a telescope. I had just naturally assumed the book would be a tour of the Moon based on what scientists with their enormous telescopes had found out about it. Nope, by the end of the book it was obvious he’d seen the Moon's wonders for himself, and not from a giant observatory like Mount Palomar, either. This was a small epiphany, but it was an epiphany and it was the spark that set me on the road to wonder—to be swept away like an unwary hobbit.

I showed the book to Daddy, a.k.a. “The Chief Op” around our house, wondering to him if somehow, someway I might be able to get a telescope and look at those craters like Patrick Moore did. Daddy allowed as how telescopes were, as far as he knew, expensive things well beyond the reach of mere commoners such as us. Seeing li’l Unk’s downcast expression, he added that it might be possible for us to build one instead of buy one. He didn’t know a darn thing about how to do that, but a guy at The Studio (the TV station where he worked as an engineer) was building a gigantic scope.

Before The Old Man got around to asking his buddy about telescope making, my Cub Scout Pack’s trip to Springhill College’s giant observatory and Stephanie’s Telescope intervened, and that was a good thing. By the time a first scope came my way I was all primed and ready—was I ever.

Another Christmas had come and gone before Daddy finally talked telescopes with his pal. He probably never would have, dismissing my astronomy infatuation as merely another of li’l Rod’s many short-lived enthusiasms, but the Rodster began to bug him and Mama day and night about A.C. Gilbert scopes like the one Stephanie had.
It turned out his friend had indeed built his own 6-inch Newtonian, but that after he finished making the telescope he found he wasn’t much interested in using it. The upshot was that one afternoon Daddy’s 1960 Ford Fairlane roared into the driveway with a long white tube sticking out one of the back windows. The ATM didn’t care pea turkey about looking at the night sky, but maybe Daddy and his son would…

This 6-inch f/12 giant was, no denying it, a monstrosity with its huge and heavy stovepipe tube, its single homemade eyepiece (the elements were held in the barrel by leftover pitch), and an alt-azimuth mount—if you could call it that—made from a discarded studio mic stand. The silvered mirror could have stood a recoating, but it worked. By god, did it ever work.

If this telescope had not appeared, it is possible my desire for the sky would have cooled, but being able to see at least a little of the stuff Patrick Moore told me about kept me going. It wasn’t much of a telescope, no, but coupled with Patrick’s Guide, which I’d begged Mama into letting me have on extended loan, I was finally able to see some of the same mysterious lunar features Patrick had seen. My head says otherwise, but my heart tells me this ragged 6-incher was the best telescope I have ever had.

I soon went on to a 3-inch Tasco reflector, my Pal Junior, 6-inchers I made myself, and onward and upward (mostly) for nearly 50 years now. In the early days Patrick was constantly at my side, at the eyepiece with me, but I lost touch with him in the 1980s. Oh, I’d replaced my 1960s copy of his signature book, The Amateur Astronomer, with a newer edition, but I didn’t look at it much. I was infatuated with Burnham’s Celestial Handbook and Deep Sky Magazine and associated Patrick Moore and his books with my childhood novice days and the dumb old Moon.

I did have to admit that there was still a lot of good information and advice in The Amateur Astronomer. Yes, Patrick still harped-on in his old-timey way about the depredations of pillar and claw telescopes (whatever those ancient things were) and the perils of observing the Sun, but most of what was in the book was as useful for anybody, including thirty-something Unk, as it ever had been.

I think one of the main reasons I drifted away from Patrick Moore was that I was never able to see the TV show that became his life’s mission. The BBC never marketed The Sky at Night in the U.S. of A. as far as I know. Maybe because they thought Jack Horkheimer had the tiny astronomy market sewn up with his Star Hustler series. As I have said before, I was very fond of Star Hustler and Jack Horkheimer, but he was no Patrick Moore. Who is?

Then, one afternoon seven years ago, Unk was browsing the shelves of the local Barnes and Noble bookstore when he ran across Sky at Night Magazine. What the—? It appeared to be at least OK, sort of a spiffed up Astronomy Now, but what persuaded me to carry it to the checkout was that not only was there a column by Patrick in the magazine—they were not just playing off his name—there was, in typical UK magazine fashion, an included CD with the current edition of his TV show and a couple of classic episodes on the disk.

Looking at those shows brought home both what an incredible asset (by now Sir) Patrick Moore was for amateur astronomy and what a fascinating character he was. I cursed the TV executives who had prevented me from seeing The Sky at Night when it would have helped me most. Hell, even today the BBC blocks us Americans from watching the program on their web site (though I believe you can view episodes on Youtube now). Thank goodness the magazine has allowed us to keep up these past seven years.

The Sky at Night began in 1957 and will continue at least till January of 2013, when the last episode Patrick hosted will air. While the BBC has reportedly not made up their minds whether to continue TSAN after the last Moore episode, I understand it was Patrick’s desire that the show go on after him. There is no doubt many of us would like to see it continue. Like plenty of y’all, I believe Queen guitarist (and astronomy PhD) Brian May, who has purchased Patrick’s house in Selsey, I’m told, would be the perfect choice to continue The Sky at Night. I believe May, ably assisted by Patrick’s co-host, Chris Lintott, can carry on in the grand Moore tradition.

While the television program was Patrick Moore’s life’s work along with his books, he lived a long and interesting and full life outside those two monumental endeavors. He was a bombardier - navigator in the RAF in WWII. He got to hang out with Arthur C. Clarke and the other legendary members of The British Interplanetary Society. He received a knighthood; he even established a name for himself as a xylophone player. Like all of us, he was human and not without faults, but on balance the scorecard is way in his favor.

I mourn, but not for Patrick. I mourn for us. He has gone to his rest; it is we the living who are bereft. Over and above the loss of Sir Patrick as a still valued and valuable member of our community, one of the last tangible links to my childhood is gone and I cannot help but be blue. Still, I will try to be cheerful this Christmas Eve and raise a toast to one of the best and wisest men I have ever known. No, I didn’t really know Patrick Moore, but, like thousands of other starry eyed kids, I felt and still feel like I did. That is the wonder of the thing.

This Christmas Eve…

It's yet another quiet Christmas Eve 'round the Old Manse. Miss D. and I had a wonderful Christmas with our two young grandsons—there is really nothing better than being able to buy toys at Toys 'r Us again—a few days previous, but they are now off on a Christmas trip. In truth it would have been too quiet a Christmas Eve if Unk's wonderful daughter, Lizbeth, hadn't made it in from Denver.

But she did and it's been great. Our Christmas Eve lunch, a particularly jolly repast, was at Unk's fave Tex Mex joint, Las Cazuelas, where I treated myself to a large portion of fajitas with all the fixings I could hold:  guacamole, sour cream, salsa, refried beans, rice, El Yucatano hot sauce, and margaritas. After that it was a little preparatory gift opening when Unk's brother, Danny, stopped by.

All that remained were my two long running traditions: viewing M42 and viewing A Charlie Brown Christmas. Charlie Brown, which I never tire of, was as good as ever. M42? Missed it by that much. I wasn't surprised. Severe weather, possibly including dadgum tornadoes, is, alas, being predicted for Christmas Day. My hopes were raised by a clearing at sundown, and If I'd had just another hour of it I would have seen that greatest of all ornaments, but no cigar this time. I can't complain, though, coming off a couple of good Christmas Eves. As good old Chuck Brown would say,  "NEXT YEAR FOR SURE!" 

Christmas Eve ain't the last day of the year, but lately it seems to put a philosophical coda on my year far more than New Year's Eve does. Maybe I'm just getting too old to get out and party like it's 1999 on December 31 anymore. Be that as it may, it was another memorable year in the greatest avocation in the world with the greatest people in the world, amateur astronomers. That is you, muchachos. Have a great Christmas or whatever else you celebrate at this numinous time of year, and may visions of Unitrons dance in your heads. 

Next Time:  Mirror Cleaning Madness…

Merry Christmas, Uncle Rod! Your reminiscences brought back some memories that are completely nonastronomical, but perhaps permissible to post on this special night. My Mom also worked in my school from time to time. As you no doubt know, one need not be Methodist to be “staunchly upright”, and she (a sweet soul at home) would generally avoid even smiling at me when I might bump into her at school. Now, she was an assistant in the principal’s office, but some boys were convinced she was “assistant principal”! I had enough problems with bullies to disabuse them. When, however, it was my time to be dragged to the principal for fighting, I had to be dragged to her office past Mama’s desk...
Merry Christmas ~ Have a nice day~ =)

Regards, (A Growing Teenager Diary) ..
Aren't those grandkids wonderful creatures.
I always say they are the reward for not killing your kids.
Merry Christmas, Unk, and to all.
Don Horne
Merry christmas Uncle Rod. I too find myself reminscing about old times and making astro resolutions during the merry season. In fact I wrote about it in my blog Anyways I want to take this opportunity to thank you for inspiring me to keep up with my blog and go out and observe. One of the things I look forward to every week is your weekly blog. Oh and I just love you book on suburban observing.
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