Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Uncle Rod’s Christmas Carol

And all through Chaos Manor South, not a creature was stirring..."—sorry muchachos, wrong Christmas story. Anyhoo, it’s been a rather quiet holiday season ‘round here. We were supposed to be enjoying a great comet this month; leastways, that’s what the exceedingly silly Astronomy Magazine GREAT COMET OF 2013 Special that dropped through the mail slot the other day said. Alas, poor ISON fizzled just as your curmudgeonly ol’ Uncle had taken pains to warn all and sundry it might. No early morning comet parties, no hordes of comet-crazy laypeople to see to.

Christmas Eve itself was awful quiet, too. Just me and Miss Dorothy rattling around in the big Old Manse. What would Santa bring me? At the top of my list was Jeff Kanipe and Dennis Webb’s The Arp Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies. It is a beautiful book and something I can use this year as Operation Arp rolls on. You will hear much more about it soon, scout’s honor.

Yes, it was something I could use, but that didn't prevent me from doing a little mooning over the fact the jolly old man with the white beard and the big belly (Santa, not Bubba down to the astronomy club) wouldn't be bringing me the BIGGER AND BETTER this year. There would be no C14 and CGE Pro under the tree. “If only I had that great big 14-inch Edge SCT, then I could really see something,” Unk fumed. Despite those fading dreams of laughably impractical giant SCTs dancing in his noggin, Unk's Christmas Eve was mucho fun, 

The day had dawned clear and cold (for us) in the 40s F., and actually felt Christmasy for the first time in a couple of years. Unk puttered around till lunchtime when Miss D. and I were off to our favorite Tex-Mex joint, Las Cazuelas (our former fave, El Giro's, burned down not long ago) for our traditional Christmas Eve repast. I thought it might be best to take it easy and ordered a small frozen margarita and the lunch fajitas. But the small margaritas (yep,"margaritas," plural) had a big kick and the luncheon portion of fajitas wasn't any smaller than the supper order. Can't say I was disappointed.

Back home at Chaos Manor South after all the fun and food, Unk eventually retired to the den to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas as always. That done, it was getting good and dark and time for my yearly ritual, a look at that greatest of all Christmas ornaments, M42, “Orion,” as I called it, simply and innocently, as a boy. There was no question this year as to whether the sky would cooperate; the only question was which scope to use. The Palomar Junior was the natural choice, but by the time Orion was high enough to bother with, Unk was feeling a mite weary, and lugging the old Edmund downstairs is a pain. The StarBlast it would be. Yoda ain't the storied Pal, but he is a nice little 4-inch reflector.

“Let’s see…there’s the sword. Little to the left—dang these trees.” And there it was, shining bravely, the Great Nebula dimmed but not extinguished by urban light pollution and growing haze, glowing in my eyepiece as it has glowed on the many Christmases since I began watching it.

The cold air had brought Unk back to life to a remarkable degree despite all the food he’d consumed, and he was ready for a little cable TV and his favorite potation, Rebel Yell. After considerable channel surfing, I landed on the uber-silly Ghost Adventures marathon, and, as midnight came on, I snuggled down in my favored chair and began to feel drowsier and drowsier.

Enormous and beautiful Edge C14s dancing in my head, I had just about dozed off completely when I thought I heard a sonorous voice intone, “UNCLE ROD…UNCLE ROD…UNCLE ROD!” It then seemed as if I drifted into an El Yucatano hot sauce inspired dream; one that involved your old Uncle and a bunch of dadgummed CHRISTMAS GHOSTS. Ghosts far different from those Zak, Nick, and Aaron had been chasing all night…

And suddenly, Rod’s Snuggie was drawn back, I tell you, by a hand. At first he thought that “hand” was the paw of Chaos Manor South’s rascally black cat, Thomas Aquinas, but ‘twas not so. Unk, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with an unearthly visitor who was as close as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow...

It was a strange figure—like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, in fact, its visage at times seemed to bear remarkable resemblance to PATRICK MOORE or maybe SCOTTY HOUSTON. Since the ghost didn't say a word, Unk finally screwed up his courage and addressed the shade: “You may be an undigested bit of quesadilla, a dram too much of Rebel Yell, a fragment of an underdone chile relleno. There's more of enchilada gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

I AM!” the ghost roared in a both loud and melancholy manner, not unlike that of the aforementioned Bubba when he first laid eyes upon his new Meade LX80. Yes, that sad.  That tormented. Unk trembled. Seeing the terror on Unk’s eyes brought forth by the memory of that much wished for and most execrable Meade scope of Christmases past, the spirit seemed to relent. Its voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.

“Who, and what are you?” Uncle Rod demanded.

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

“Long Past?” inquired Unk.

“No. Your past.”

Rut-roh,” thought Rod, thinking of his many missteps and mistakes over the years; particularly those involving the fairer sex. Despite those fears, Unk made bold to inquire what business brought the spirit.

“Your welfare!” said the Ghost.

Uncle Rod expressed himself much obliged but could not help thinking a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end. The Spirit must have heard him thinking, for it said immediately: “Your reclamation, then. Take heed!” It put out its strong hand as it spoke, and clasped him gently by the arm.

“Rise! and walk with me!”

It would have been in vain for Unk to plead the weather and the hour were not adapted to pedestrian purposes, that the den was warm, and the bottle of Yell yet half-full. The grasp, though gentle as a woman's hand, was not to be resisted. He rose: but finding that the Spirit made towards the window, clasped his robe in supplication.

“I am mortal,” Unk remonstrated, “and liable to fall.”

“Bear but a touch of my hand there,” said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart,” and you shall be upheld in more than this!”

As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall and stood in the open. Selma Street had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The darkness and the mist had vanished with it, for it was a clear, cold, winter day with snow upon the ground.

“Good Heaven!” said Uncle Rod, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. “I was a boy here!”

The Spirit gazed upon him mildly. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to the old man's sense of feeling. He was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten.

“Your lip is trembling,” said the Ghost. “And what is that upon your cheek?”

Unk muttered, begging the Ghost to lead him where he would.

“You recollect the way?” inquired the Spirit.

“Remember it!” cried Rod with fervour; “I could walk it blindfold.”

They walked along the road, turning into the well-remembered entrance to the old subdivision, its marker festooned in 1960s fashion with holly and depictions of angels and carolers. The name, in wrought iron script, was “Canterbury Heights.”  Unk recognised every house, and post, and tree.

And most of all the children, free of school for the holiday, playing and gamboling in the rare and unaccustomed snow that had been deposited upon Possum Swamp. And who were those three? Unk rubbed his eyes, but there was no denying; before him were two lads and a young lass. That boy…that was Wayne Lee. The girl could be none other than Jitter Jones. And the remaining lad? Unk peered through misting eyes, why it must be…it was him, that was little Rod.

“These are but shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “They have no consciousness of us…”

I’ll be the first to admit Mama and Daddy were uncommonly indulgent of my brother and me at Christmastime. No, I didn't get everything I put on my yearly list—a 3-inch Unitron Photo Equatorial never did appear under the tree—but they were very generous. We got everything we wanted within reason and within the capability of our middle/lower middle class parents.

Most of the time. There were a couple of lean Christmases toward the end of the 1960s. The leanest of which began one afternoon when brother Danny and I’d accompanied Mama to the oddly named Bellas Hess, a nearby discount store. We were pointing out half of what was on the shelves to her with a constant refrain of “Yep, want that too.” Till I noticed the usually effusive Mama looked grim. She was known to complain about the work Christmas brought her, but we knew it was her favorite season and she never seemed blue this time of year.

Before my brother could add another G.I. Joe to his must-have inventory, and before I could run off to the electronics department to claim that new stereo record player that would make my Beatles albums sound so much better, Mama took us aside: “I’m sorry, boys. It’s going to be a different kind of Christmas this year. Santa Claus (who I still claimed I believed in) won’t be able to bring you everything you want. Maybe one medium-sized present and one littler one.”

Mama, I noted, studiously avoided my eyes. But, funny thing for a kid who always liked to see how much Christmas loot he could accumulate, I didn't feel unhappy. I was pretty much over the toy stage, though I could still be lured in by a cool Marx space playset. The problem lately actually seemed to be deciding what I did want.

Back home, it was decision time. Mama was back to her normal somewhat mercurial self, and declared we’d better decide what we wanted that very afternoon, “Or that tree in yonder won’t have a thing under it Christmas morning, MISTER!” I took care of that critical research project right away. I equipped myself with the Edmund Scientific catalog and the Sears Wishbook and got to work.

I only spent a few minutes with Mr. Edmund. If I had really expected to get anything out of there for Christmas I’d have had to put it on my Final List weeks ago. Through bitter experience, I knew Santa was just as subject to Edmund’s “four to eight weeks” delivery schedule as we mere mortals. Anyway, I’d sensed the beautiful 20mm Erfle that would give me an amazing 65-degree apparent field of view was out. Even before Mama’s announcement, I’d had the distinct feeling its $24.00 price wouldn’t fly, though I’d pushed through the 25 buck envelope one Christmas with what was probably the biggest chemistry set A.C. Gilbert ever sold.

I tossed Edmund’s aside and picked up that Bible of Christmas-crazy 60s kids, the Sears Wishbook. I don’t know if Sears still does catalog-order, but even if’n they do I’m sure it’s nothing like the business they did in the 1960s. And the biggest time for that was Christmas. If you were a youngun back then, you well remember the big day when the Wishbook came in the mail, the subsequent hours fighting with your siblings over who got to make their picks first, and agonizing over what your picks would be. I had a system, which I always carefully briefed Mama on. I put a single check-mark next to the “maybes” in the catalog, two beside the “goods” and three beside the “GOTTA HAVES.”

The Wishbook’s pickings seemed slimmer this year, though I’m sure they were about the same as always. It just seemed that way to me. I was getting older and some of the magic was going away, I reckon. Nevertheless, there was some cool stuff between the covers of that fat catalog.  There was a whole page devoted to telescopes. But they were all small refractors and A.C. Gilbert style reflectors that were clearly inferior to my Palomar Junior. I was intrigued/bemused by the Latest Thing in Sears scopes: one of the Newtonians incorporated a device in the rear cell for viewing Viewmaster style slides. Here was a telescope that would finally deliver on the Department Store Scope Makers’ claims of Palomar like views, I thought.

Might as well take a look in the toy department for old time’s sake. I devoted a few minutes to Moon McDare, Sears’ faux G.I. Joe astronaut. Part of me wanted to go for it, but the kid-stuff factor was undeniably there. A lot of the neighborhood boys would be getting Aurora Model Motoring slot car sets, I figgered, and I didn't want to seem any weirder than they already thought I was.  The fact that Moon McDare was accompanied by his dog, “Space Mutt,” seemed over the top no matter how you sliced it.

Marx Playsets? The pickings were slim in that department this year. No space. Just Battleground Europe, Battle of Fort Apache, and a couple of filling stations. I’d been there before and didn't feel moved to revisit any of that.

Well, DANG (I said to myself; occasionally Mama had been known to classify “dang” as PROFANITY deserving of her wrath).  One last run on the Wishbook’s rather extensive science section, I reckoned.

Hmmm... Electronics kit? The Old Man would have loved that, but I knew he wouldn’t be able to restrain himself from “helping” me by putting everything together before I had a chance to touch it.  What then?

Seemed as there was a new player in the science department this year, “American Basic Science Clubs,” whoever the heck they were, with multiple entries. Three immediately caught my eye: The Atomic Energy Lab, the Analog Computer, and the Photomicrography Lab. The price was right on all three, six – ten bucks; the problem was “Which one?” The Atomic Lab was a strong contender. It included an honest-to-god cloud chamber for viewing the trails of alpha and beta particles from a nuclear source, or so the catalog said. That was way cooler than a freaking slot car, I thought. 

There were two strikes against it, unfortunately.  Mama, the Queen of Nuclear Fear, was suspicious of anything having to do with “atomic,” often voicing her wish that daddy get rid of his radium dial watch. Also, I was aware from having researched building my own cloud chamber that I would need dry ice, and I reckoned being able to lay in regular supplies of that would require Mama and Daddy’s help and would be an expense and a problem.

How about the analog computer? The widget’s billing, that it would let you “Calculate powers, roots, and logarithms with amazing speed!” sounded cool and interesting, but the picture in the catalog looked cheesy and cardboardy.

Which left the photomicrography lab. After about ten minutes, I began to believe this was indeed IT. Yes, I had a microscope, a Gilbert, natch, but this thing could be used as a projection microscope to display slides on the wall. More importantly, the projection unit could be converted to a contact print box for making photographic prints from negatives. And there were photo chemicals, a safelight, print trays, print tongs, and photographic paper.

Not only would the kit’s microscope/projection microscope be fun to build and play with, I thought, I could use the contact printer and the rest of the stuff to equip my own darkroom. No more begging Daddy to haul out his enlarger every time I wanted to make prints of my Moon pictures. Three big check-marks went right beside the Photomicrography Lab.

That still left Thing Two, but that was easy. The Wishbook had a great deal on a set of three Tom Swift Junior books I’d missed, the first three of the series, Flying Lab, Jetmarine, and Rocket Ship. Actually, after the summer before last's orgy of reading and playing Tom Swift, I had just about outgrown the boy scientist. Marvel comic book heroes and pulp icons like Doc Savage, The Shadow, and The Spider had replaced him in my hero pantheon. I still liked Tom, though, and the price for the set, a mere $2.48, made me feel virtuous. “Why, Li’l Rod pitched right in to help his folks through Hard Times that cold Christmas.”

Funny thing about this Christmas? It was the first one that didn't take forever to arrive. Before I could do much ruminating about or fantasizing over what I would do with the photomicrography kit, Christmas vacation was flying and Christmas day was here. I guessed I was growing up and wasn't sure if I liked that.

Did I imply I was immune to a last sprinkle of Christmas magic? Not so, as I found out on the 25th when I saw there were not a mere two things for me under our rather scraggly tree, but three. That third, unlooked for, gift had Daddy written all over it. It was a kit that allowed you to build a Morse telegraph key and sounder and even included a handsome bust of good old Samuel F.B. Morse.  And... Daddy even let me assemble it all by myself!

The telegraph set was fine, even if I suspected it was mostly Daddy’s way of hinting I needed to get a move on and get to work learning the Code so I could get my ham license. Which I did a few years, later; ham radio arguably becoming Unk's lifelong NUMBER ONE hobby and fulltime obsession (with astronomy just a nose behind, natch). Tom Swift was almost as much fun to read as he had been on those summer afternoons. The winner, though, was the photomicrography set.

Oh, there was a hint of cheese; the microscope’s optics were simple lenses housed in cardboard tubes, but it appeared well thought out and there sure was a lot of Stuff accompanying it. The contact printer/projector was easy for me to put together, and when I had it assembled, amazingly, the rig worked like crazy. The algae I retrieved from my little goldfish bowl (which Mama had been after me to clean), looked incredible projected on the wall of my room on Christmas night.

What I really wanted to do was process some Moon pictures. Luna would be full in two days, but that was OK. Then as now, I liked pictures of the Moon under high illumination with the mare standing out in high contrast. The only puzzle to solve was “Which camera?” The cardboard roll film holder (I won’t call it a “camera”) that came with the set might have worked, but I figured my Argus twin-lens reflex box camera was a better bet, even better than Daddy’s Nikkorex SLR. For the Moon to look like anything more than a tiny spot on a contact print (lay negative on photo paper, expose to light) you need a big negative, and the 620 film the Argus used was much bigger than the Nikon’s 35mm.

Getting the Moon shots when the sky cleared the day after Christmas was not hard. I’d been down that road plenty of times: Point Pal Junior at Moon. Put Argus on tripod next to scope. Point viewing lens into eyepiece. Focus scope as precisely as possible. Elevate tripod so taking lens was pointed into ocular. Fire away.

The kit hadn’t come with a roll film-developing tank; the instructions suggested you’d be able to develop your film in trays if you cut up the negatives. That sounded like a bunch of hooey to li’l Rod. With Daddy at work and Mama on some kind of outing with my brother, there was nothing to prevent me from borrowing Daddy’s developing tank. I did use my chemicals, which I’d mixed up and put into bottles just like Daddy did. The negatives, after they’d dried for an hour hanging in the bathroom over the tub, looked purty good. Alrighty, then. Still a couple of hours before I could expect Mama to come home and start hollering about my mess. I’d contact-print the suckers. I couldn’t use the kitchen as my darkroom as daddy did at night, so I set up in our windowless bathroom.

Again, it went like clockwork. Negatives and paper sandwiched in the kit’s print-frame (binder clips and a piece of glass). Turn on the print box light and expose for the length of time the instructions indicated. Develop, fix, and wash the little prints…and I was getting some results.

My first session with my own darkroom would have been a complete triumph except for one bad mistake. I’d removed the glass light fixture over the mirror so I could screw-in the kit's safelight in place of the regular light bulb. The safelight was kinda funky…a neon bulb with colored cellophane filters you  paper-clipped over it, but it worked. The problem came when I was done and was remounting the glass fixture. Ooops! Smash! Right in the pea-picking sink! I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it had happened and wondered if I could somehow make things right with glue. Nope, the thing was in a thousand shards. Was I in for it now! I would Get It for sure!

And I did, sort of, from Mama, who raised a fair ruckus. The Old Man? Not so much. Instead, it was just, “Well, sport, sorry you did that. Now, let’s see those prints you made.” As you can imagine, that got Mama to fuming.

I spent many days, weeks, and months working with my little darkroom set. It never really got put away per se, it just got upgraded. "Developer tray has a crack, have to mow a couple of lawns to get a new one. Time for a new safelight bulb." And so on. In that sense, I suppose I still had that little set all the way to the end of the film days in the 90s. It was the best gift I got that year? Almost.

A day or two after Christmas, I was set up in the backyard with the Pal Junior.  I was alone as I usually was when I wasn't observing with my buddies in our Backyard Astronomy Society. Sometimes, I could convince Daddy to come out for a look or two, but when it was cold, it was hard to get him to the eyepiece. With the Moon not quite up, I was aiming the telescope at M42. Then, I heard footsteps...  

I liked to have freaked out, imagining the UFO aliens or maybe the Wolfman had come to pay a call.  Good thing I didn't run for the hills like a scared little kid, because it was Miss Jitter Jones. I was just about to give her a look at M42 when Wayne Lee's voice came out of the darkness. “What y’all lookin’ at?”

That, folks, was my best gift that year, standing under the glittering stars of the Hunter with my friends. It wasn’t the last time I did that, but it was one of the last times. One more wonderful Christmas and they would be gone, their parents moving away when our Brookley Air Force Base closed down. Maybe that’s why those few minutes with Jitter and Wayne Lee and Orion on that frosty night are still so bright and clear in my mind. And why I still get out every Christmas Eve and look at M42 and nothing but M42 and think of my lost friends.... 

"…and then, as in a dream, those shadows faded and vanished, and Uncle Rod found himself back once more in Chaos Manor South’s den as morning began." 

Christmas had come as many a Christmas had come in ages past, but to have said nothing had changed would have been to be mistaken. What Miss Dorothy thought as she heard Unk shouting, we can only speculate. But shout he did:  “I don't know what to do!” cried Unk, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy, I am as giddy as a drunken man!”

The reason for my merriment? I’d found the true meaning of Christmas, and, much more important, I’d found the true meaning of amateur astronomy five decades on. Use the gear you have, muchachos, no matter how humble, and stop worrying about the More Better Gooder. I’ve never had more fun in astronomy than I had making my pitiful little Moon pictures that ancient Christmas. Most of all, appreciate the truly important part of our avocation, the wonderful friends you have made and will make in this wonderful pursuit at this most numinous time of year.

In other words, “Merry Christmas, everybody!”

Next Time:  Power Problems...

Merry Christmas, Uncle Rod!
Great story! Happy holidays...
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