Wednesday, September 04, 2013


The Unbowed

It happens to us all: the week before a star party you’ve been looking forward to for months, the happy little Suns and Moons on the weather map are replaced with lightning-festooned thunderheads. Forecasts go from “clear skies” to “partly cloudy” to “severe weather.” Some of us will decide to stay home, but some of us will head for the star party anyhow. We are the optimistic, the glass half-full astronomers, the hard core. We are the unbowed, muchachos.

Five annums back, I did a blog entry called “A Pursuit for the Patient and the Optimistic.” The point of it was to remind y’all you should not be too quick to decide to stay at home or too quick to leave early if you’re already at a star party no matter how bad the weather forecasts sound. But what do you do at a star party when you can’t observe? This summer has been the cloudiest I remember since 1994, and while I hope the weather breaks soon, this seems like a good time to talk about what you do at a rainy star party.

If you’re going to see much over the years, you have to take advantage of every chance you get to observe, especially under a dark sky. And don't be too quick to give up the ship, even if the weatherman starts talking "severe thunderstorms" or worse. I’ve always been purty good about that; the only time Miss D. and I’ve left a star party before the bitter end was the 1999 Deep South Regional Star Gaze. Which was, alas, supposed to be a big one

DSRSG 1999 would, for one thing, feature a higher profile speaker than usual, David Eicher, the Editor of Astronomy Magazine. We’d just been named one of Astronomy’s “Great Star Parties,” and we were excited about that and ready for the days of the dead-clear observing weather we just knew would come.

Which the weather gods must have thought smacked of hubris, something they simply cannot abide. The weather forecasts, frankly never good to begin with, went to hell by Thursday, the first official day of the star party. When we rolled onto the field that afternoon? It was dismal, but I at least hoped to get the gear set up, even if the telescope had to stay under her Desert Storm Cover all night. Just as I opened the trunk to start unloading, I felt the first drop of rain and it began to sprinkle.  I closed the trunk. At least, D. and I were able to get our suitcases and bedding unloaded at the cabin before the bottom fell out half an hour later.

What did we few who’d decided the star party was worth a shot do that night? We convoyed up to our favorite local restaurant back then, Mr. Whiskers, the home of all you can eat catfish, but what I remember most was sitting on the field under a tarp somebody had been able to set up somehow, and holding a wild and woolly non-virtual meeting of my then-new SCT User Yahoogroup. Some of us drank a significant amount in the process, natch. 

It was a dark and stormy night (I’ve been wanting to use that one for a while), but I hung on the field till just after midnight when the canopy began to sag in the constant downpour and (choke! gasp!) rain suddenly ran down my back in a torrent. I grabbed an umbrella, pronounced "Gentlemen, adieu," and headed to the cabin where Miss Dorothy had been wise enough to stay.

At least we can play computers...
It rained even harder Friday than it had Thursday, stopped for a while Saturday morning, shortly got its second wind, and was worse than ever by midday. The open-air pavilion we used for speakers was damp and drafty at best. In addition to David Eicher, there were a few other presentations, but not many. DSRSG has mostly been about observing over the years, not speakers, which is a problem when there ain’t no observing and nothing much else to do.

So, what did everybody do for three days? Not much. We walked around when that was possible, and sat in the cabins or in the pavilion when it wasn’t. I would normally have spent plenty of time talking astronomy with my fellow amateurs, but as the weekend came in there were fewer and fewer people to talk astronomy to. It was obvious early Friday the sky wouldn’t get much better and might get considerably worse. So, understandably, quite a few folks took to their heels.

I never did get the C8, Celeste, out of the Camry or even erect our tent-canopy. The denouement was that in the face of dire weather forecasts for Saturday night Dorothy and I, like everybody else, packed up (what little packing we had to do) and split early in the afternoon.

The point of this little story is that since we left early we would not have been onsite to take advantage of clearing if it there had been any. There wasn’t, but there could have been. We didn't care. We were all bored and depressed and ready to go home. That’s what this blog is really about, being happy at a star party when you are forced to sit under clouds hoping for better.

What is the most boring way to spend a rained-out event? Staying on the star party site in a group cabin with few amenities. You will go stir crazy in no time, I guarantee. I habitually stay in nearby motels whenever and wherever possible, even if the weather looks like it is going to be beautiful the whole time. Much as I love my fellow astronomers (well, most of them), it’s not a difficult choice:  drafty chickie with no air conditioning or heat, no privacy, and no Internet access, or a budget motel in town? A Days Inn, a Red Roof Inn, or even a Super 8 will feel like the freaking Ritz compared to a cabin where you keep company with the spiders.

It’s not just creature comforts like a refrigerator and cable TV that make a motel better. Being able to rest in privacy—you will always be in a group cabin with noisy early-risers at any star party—means I can sleep as late as I need to during the day. Waking to a clean shower and a motel breakfast makes me better prepared to go a long while the next night. After a long, hard observing run, I can come “home” to Ghost Adventures on the TV set and cold Colorado Kool-Aids in the icebox and can really relax. 

Manatee Springs...
In a cloud-out situation, all those things are even more desirable. There have been times I’ve holed up in a Chiefland motel room under cloudy skies watching cable TV and cruising the Internet, and been happy with that for a couple of days. Being reasonably comfortable and reasonably occupied makes it possible to wait out punk weather without going crazy. For me, inexpensive motel rooms just work. If I didn't mind pulling a trailer or driving an RV, it might be different, but I do, so I am happy Tom Bodett has left the light on for me.

Don’t do motels? OK. If you are staying onsite, at least get off that cotton-picking site a time or three. Spending days doing nothing but pacing a damp observing field and complaining about the lousy weather to your fellow stalwarts will have you ready to go home in no time. If there is a town, visit that town. Sometimes even a tour of the dadgum Wal-Mart is a treat. Yeah, you signed up for the meal plan, but that doesn't mean you  have to eat every meal at the star party. An afternoon or cloudy evening at a local restaurant, or e'en just the Mickey D’s, with some of your buddies will make time pass a lot quicker. 

One thing I find about any star party I go to? There is almost always something of interest in the area, from Chiefland’s beautiful springs, to the Texas Star Party’s Fort Davis and McDonald Observatory. If it’s clear, touring these attractions is fun, especially for your non-astronomer spouse or kids. When it’s cloudy, these “field trips” can be a lifeline.

What is the godsend for today’s weather-challenged star parties? DVD equipped laptops. Back in the day, the best you could do for electronic entertainment was pack a portable radio or tape player. A day or two of listening to WHIK, Radio Podunk, or your Cowsills and Three Dog Night cassette tapes over and over might make you wish you hadn’t.

Cloudy Nights on a cloudy night...
Today, a laptop becomes a personal movie theatre or, if there is Internet,  a TV set thanks to Hulu. There’s almost sure to be an LCD projector and a sound system onsite for presentations, so the star party bosses can maybe arrange some group movie showings. What to bring? Some of your favorites, and some that will appeal to all and sundry if you are called upon to contribute the “programming.” Here are some of Unk’s faves:

2001:  A Space Odyssey. The quintessential star party film. Maybe a little heavy for some folks, but a favorite of many amateur astronomers. Next morning at breakfast, the air will be full of “My mind is going, Dave” and “Open the pod bay doors, Hal!” jokes.

October Sky (The Rocket Boys). The story of the backwoods West Virginia boys who started their own space program. I love this one, maybe because the rocket boys seem a lot like young Unk and his buddies in the fabled Backyard Astronomy Society. Ever since we watched this flick as a group one stormy night at the 2009 DSRSG, it has been my top star party film.

Any fifties SciFi. Anything from The Blob, to This Island Earth, to The Day the Earth Stood Still, to Forbidden Planet, to Teenagers from Outer Space. With a big group at a star party, these old potboilers really come to life. You will have a great time watching ‘em, even if Bubba persists in giving a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 style running commentary all the way through I Married a Monster from Outer Space. That might even be a good thing.

Star Trek:  For me, gotta be the original series, but all are good bets: STTNG, Deep Space 9, Voyager, even Enterprise. Don’t forget the movies, either. Just try to restrain yourself from continually startling your fellow partiers the next day with your sudden outbursts of “Khan!”

Firefly:  Most amateur astronomers will like this excellent series whether they have heard of it or not.

Farscape. I haven’t run into many fans of this 90s SciFi Channel series, but it’s easily available, you will like it, and so will everybody else, which makes it perfect for a star party showing. It’s by Jim Henson, but is pretty danged serious at times, occasionally morphing from Sci-Fi to genuine SF.

Battlestar Galactica (the “reimagining,” the remake). It’s dark, very dark, but it is also the best SF TV series I have ever seen. Your pals may agree after you expose them to a few episodes.

The Twilight Zone. Always a favorite. I love it, but I admit that for every “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” “The Shelter,” and “Time Enough at Last,” there are dozens of episodes nobody remembers that were startlingly poorly written, produced, and acted .

Hangin' with the Homies...
How about games? A deck of cards, a bottle of Kentucky’s finest, and a few of your cronies and you can have a high old time, clouds or no. Not your cuppa? I ain’t gonna pack my Xbox, but it might not be a bad idea to load up a few computer games on the laptop, bring along some extra gamepads, and get a Halo tourney going.

Need I say pack along a few books and magazines (I recommend Sky & Telescope, natch)? Be sensible about your choices. A star party will usually have too many distractions for you to tackle Kafka. What has constituted my star party reading of late? Stephen King has been a constant (despite my disappointment with Under the Dome, which I was barely able to finish). Science fiction is a natural, of course. Best new (light) SF series I've tried is Jack Campbell's The Lost Fleet. David Sherman’s and Dan Cragg’s StarFist series, also "military SF," is one of my go-tos too.  Another new and excellent series by an astronomically literate writer I've just discovered is Star Carrier by Ian Douglas.  Last winter at Chiefland, I brought along The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, David Drake's stories of an armored division of the future. As you can tell, I am a big fan of military science fiction, but you get the idea, “light” and “fun.”

Walking the field, hanging out with old friends, and getting caught up on everybody’s doings can be fun as long as you don’t spend every waking moment doing it and it’s not pouring down rain. Unless everybody leaves. Monitor the weather, and if there appears to be a chance for improvement, spread the word. How do you monitor it? If your star party has cell phone access, at least, try an iPhone app called Scope Nights. It is very well done and accurate.

MORE brisket? Don't mind if'n I do!
Even if you talk your bubbas into staying, chances are there won’t be many people there with y’all. Some folks just won’t do a star party if the weather don’t look good. They’ll stay home even if they've already paid. Not that that is always bad for you and me. The field might be a little lonely, but there are perks. Like extra-helpings at mealtime. The Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage is a small event to begin with, and this year the weather kept some observers home and sent others back home early. That meant Unk coulda had thirds on pot roast night. He didn't, but it was a struggle.

You can also have the pleasure of lording it over your missing compadres (in good-natured fashion, of course) if you do get a clear night. At the first club meeting after a star party, my old friend George would make sure the no-shows and early-leavers, the ASTROWIMPS as he called them, knew just who they were.

One thing you can do other than watching trashy movies, drinking with your mates on the field till all hours, eating, and visiting local tourist attractions like Chiefland's famous Manatee Springs (where I've never seen a single manatee), is listening to speakers. Assuming your star party has plenty lined up, your days will be purty well taken care of. How about the nights, those rotten rainy nights? No doubt some attendees can be convinced to give talks on their special interests in amateur astronomy. It is also possible a “pro” speaker might be willing to give an extra talk. That is something you gently enquire about, not insist on. I never mind doing an extra talk, and always have backup PowerPoints on a flash drive just in case, but that is just me.

Has it stopped raining? If it has and you haven't done so already, especially if it looks like there is a chance for clearing, you can set up your telescope and the rest of your gear. That will occupy an hour or two, raise your spirits, and give you a place to hang out on the field if you haven’t been able to get your tailgating canopy (a must at any star party) up previously. When your mates see you setting up, some of them will do so as well, and it may begin to feel more like a star party than a pea-picking wake.

Finally, you can sleep. The last ten years of my engineering career was spent getting up at 4:30 in the a.m. every freaking morning. You probably don’t have it quite that bad, but if you are a wage slave, you gotta get up in the morning, and a few days of being able to sleep-in can be heaven. Especially if you’re in a quiet motel room, not a crowded cabin where ol’ Skeezix is in the shower at oh-dark-thirty every morning serenading everybody with “Hippity Hop to the the Barbershop.”

You know what? Even when all I’ve done at a skunkified star party is sit under my EZ-Up listening to countrified cornball on the area's only (AM) radio station, I have rarely had a bad time, muchachos. The foregoing suggestions are simply designed to make a worst-case scenario more funner. I can’t wait for the fall star parties to get started and I do not give a fig what the dadgum clouds do.

2020 Update:  

What is notable about this one from 2013? How much things have changed for me weather-wise--among other things both astronomy and non-astronomy related. 1999 was probably just a normal luck-of-the-draw stormy autumn week in the deep south. Around 2012, however, it became obvious weather patterns were changing. I used to observe regularly from Chiefland, Florida in the summer, for example. It was not uncommon to get a long string of clear nights in July, even. That's all changed. Clear skies are now at a premium there from spring and into early fall. It's much the same in the rest of the south (I say as I sit under relentless thunderstorms in the wake of Hurricane Sally).

In this article I boasted that DSRSG 1999 was the only time I'd ever left a star party early. Alas, not too long after saying that in 2013, leaving early when there's no hope of good weather became the norm, and not just at DSRSG. Oh, going with the stick-to-itiveness I promoted above has helped on occasion as at the a DSRSG Spring Scrimmage mentioned above. Mostly, however, it now comes down to me admitting, "You know what? I can go home and watch it rain in comfort from my den!"

The other side of it? I haven't done a star party in three years. The weather, my health, my dislike of change of any kind--especially involving star parties--the fact that I'm retired and on a semi-fixed income, and, more recently, the pandemic have conspired to keep me in the backyard. Will 2021 be different. Maybe. I'm not about to let myself further devolve from backyard astronomer to armchair astronomer. So, if the virus is in check by fall of 2021, there's a good vaccine, and my health improves, I might be back--at the good old DSRSG anyway.

Unk! You forgot Babylon 5! Now there is a fine SciFi tale.
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