Wednesday, December 24, 2014


A Tale of Two Eclipses and a Merry Christmas from the New Chaos Manor South

The New Manse...
Yeah, muchachos, I know the solar eclipse chasers among us look down their noses at mere lunar eclipses. But Unk is a Moon eclipse maniac. Why? We’ll get to that, but, first, it’s “HO-HO-HO AND MISTLETOE AND PRESENTS TO PRETTY GIRLS!” In other words, a very merry Christmas from the new Chaos Manor South! I’ll tell you about our Christmas Eve directly, but now we are gonna talk lunar eclipses.

First off, what do y’all think about the currently popular—with the public—term for “lunar eclipse,” “BLOOD MOON”?  You sure won’t find me using it, campers. It’s kinda romantic sounding, I reckon, and does indeed do a fair job of describing the appearance of a totally eclipsed Luna. HOWEVER…the term is wrapped-up in superstitious mumbo-jumbo involving patently ridiculous “prophecies” about the end of the world (as in, “IT’S THE END OF THE WOILD, I TELLS YA!”). So, I choose to eschew “blood moon,” no matter how attractive it might seem public outreach-wise.

Anyhoo, my history with Moon darkenings is a long one, stretching back fifty years, to my birth as an amateur astronomer in 1964. There’d been a couple of notable eclipses in the early 1960s that would have been visible to me before my first Big One in December of 1964; one in March of ‘60, and one in June of ‘64. And I do indeed have the barest memories of staring up at a fading Moon once before the ’64 Christmas (season) Eclipse. That would have to have been in 1964, since we didn’t move from our old house on Dauphin Island Parkway to Mama’s dream home in Canterbury Heights until June of 1960, and I don’t seem to have any memory of an eclipse from the old place.

I would have been almost eleven years old at the time of the June 1964 total total eclipse, and should be able to remember it well, but, frankly, I have only the vaguest recall of it. A fragmentary memory that at first didn’t make sense.  I seemed to remember walking out into the parking lot of a bowling alley to look at it. That sounded ridiculous, but now that I think about it, my Cub Scout Pack did have  a couple of all-night bowling parties (well, till 10 or 11 p.m.) for us kids at Skyline Lanes, just up the road from our subdivision. So maybe it ain’t so ridiculous after all. Anyhoo, that eclipse doesn't seem to have made a huge impression on li’l Unk. That was to change in six months’ time, to put it mildly.

December 1964

While I am a believer in my own way, I've never been a big fan of organized religion.  Even as a four-year-old dragged to Sunday school at Mama’s Methodist church, I wasn't all that comfortable with the "organized" part of "organized religion". 

However, as a pre-teen, I assented to going to church and Sunday School with Mama to keep the peace. I could even be cajoled into spending a week at Vacation Bible School in the summer. Actually, the truth was that I liked Kingswood United Methodist Church. Not only was it the center of our southern suburban social life in them days, a young woman of my acquaintance, Miss Jitter Jones, also went to Kingswood. As 6th grade came in, I suddenly and strangely found I wanted to spend mucho time in her company.

The BLOOD MOON of January 2000...
Which was probably the main reason I didn't put up a fuss about having to go to a church Christmas party, the second of two, for gosh sakes, in December of ‘64. Also, going was undeniably preferable to listening to Mama’s opinion as to what would happen to me if I strayed too far from the faith. In her judgment, missing any church function was the first step on a road to ruin that would likely wind up with li’l Rod joining the Soviet Red Army.

Despite wanting to avoid Mama's fuming and her patented lectures, and very much wanting to see Miss Jones, there was a major malfunction. The MYF (“Methodist Young Folk” me and my buddies thought that was) Christmas bash on the 19th of December would, unfortunately, coincide, with a total lunar eclipse.

I contented myself that the party would probably wrap up before the height of the eclipse, which, I read in our paper, The Possum Swamp Register and Birdcage Liner, would not come till 8 p.m. Since the MYF would get underway at 6, I assumed I was purty safe. That was important. That year, 1964, was also the year of Stephanie’s telescope, the year I became an amateur astronomer—albeit one without a scope—and anything special I heard about going on in the sky was suddenly a big deal.

You know what they say about the word “assume,” doncha? I’d forgot the strange ways of adults. Before we could get to eating party food and socializing, we had to sit and listen to endless rambling talks, amateur sermons, about the Christmas Miracle. I wouldn't have minded listening to Mama’s Pastor, Sid Locke, who was a gifted speaker, and a cool dude, but these adults were neither as convincing nor as talented as Reverend Sid.

They were a bunch of lay church leaders who weren't just boring, but who did their best to turn a wondrous season of joy into a dreary and bleak responsibility. Not that these people knew they were boring the daylights out of us kids. They probably thought they had us in the palms of their hands and every freaking one of ‘em got cranked up and talked and talked and talked.

There was a saving grace on this night, but it didn't come from above; it came from my Sunday School teacher, Cub Scout Den Mother, and, later, science teacher, Miss Emily Baldwin. As li’l Rod's Timex ticked on toward 8, with the party part of the proceedings still well underway, I found I couldn’t restrain myself any longer. I approached the sometimes forbidding and spinsterish Emily Baldwin: “Miz Emily, I read in the paper that there is a total lunar eclipse tonight, and it is going on right now…”

Partial eclipse of June '65. 3-inch Tasco + Argoflex...
That was all it took for the science-minded Miss Baldwin to marshal her chicks into the parking lot to view what she referred to as “One of God’s wondrous spectacles.” I’ve written before how us 6th graders, still innocent and open to wonder, stared up at the darkening and reddening Moon and spontaneously, as with one voice, broke into “Silent Night” ala' A Charlie Brown Christmas. What I haven’t talked about is how the Moon, the eclipse, looked on that long ago night.

It’s easy to find the circumstances and details of an eclipse with Google, and I did indeed look up the December 1964 event to make sure I wasn’t misremembering it. I wasn't. It was a good one. High in the sky and dark, but not too dark. The Moon was a medium red at totality and very attractive. Which red color elicited plenty of questions from the kids—and the adults who’d also wandered out—until I, at Miss Baldwin’s prompting, explained the reddening. Even covered by the shadow of the Earth, the Moon was being illuminated by light passing through our planet’s atmosphere. “Just like seeing the Sun turn red at sunset,” li’l Rod chirped.

The amazing thing? In those more enlightened times, no one, neither kid nor adult, chimed in that the Bible pointed to a BLOOD MOON as being a sign of the END TIMES. In those days, us middle class suburban kids and adults would have attributed such strange ideas to out-in-the-country cult churches. Today, such weird beliefs are almost mainstream, I’m afraid.

Anyhow, not only did my “eclipse talk,” if you want to call my mumbling and bumbling that, get me in good with Emily Baldwin for quite a spell, it obviously impressed Miss Jones. As I was waving my hands around, outlining the mechanics of lunar eclipses for the crowd, I couldn’t help noticing she was throwing me an admiring glance or three.

That was good, nay wonderful. But what was also good was that night helped start me on the road I was to take for a lifetime. At least as much as Stephanie’s telescope, that eclipse is responsible for me becoming an astronomy writer and educator. That's the reason, I guess, the supposedly mundane lunar eclipses are still stirring for your old Uncle.

There were more good, if not quite as memorable, lunar eclipses after 1964, including a nice partial one in June of 1965, which came not long after I got my first telescope, a Tasco 3-inch Newtonian. I didn’t think the eclipse looked that much better in a telescope, really, than it did with my naked eyes, but I was excited by the picture I took by holding a camera up to the eyepiece of my little reflector. After that? Moon eclipses kind of faded into the background as I started on the road to becoming a (sometimes) serious deep sky observer.

October 2014

Just beginning...
And, so, all the long years have ticked by from 1964 to 2014. It sure would have been cool to have another Christmas eclipse exactly 50 years down the road. And we almost did—missed it by that much, y’all. One thing is sure concerning the recent one, anyway:  if I didn’t know how much a lunar eclipse could still move me, I dang sure found out. I don’t know how many of y’all dragged out of bed way-early on that 8th of October Thursday morning for it, but it was worth it, was it ever.

Not that I spent over much time just gawking at the show; I wanted to take pictures. It had been years since I imaged a lunar eclipse, not since the January 2000, event, the last total lunar eclipse of the Millennium. How long ago that was is witnessed by the fact that the camera I used then was my ol’ Pentax loaded up with Fuji’s legendary Super G800+. Film. That eclipse was a mid-evening one, and I shot through my Ultima C8 (at about f/10) to good effect. Since thisun wouldn't be underway good till after 3 in the cotton-picking a.m., however, I had no intention of dragging out a C8—or any other telescope.

No, I plunked down my trusty Manfrotto tripod and Canon DSLR and imaged with a zoom lens that took me out to 400mm. I achieved a nice, large image scale, but could also frame the Moon with trees, houses, etc. when I wanted to. Only fly in that-there ointment? It had been so long since I’d shot the sky with an undriven camera that I got a little carried away. At much over 3-seconds at 400mm, you will get obviously trailed stars—and I pumped up the exposure a little too much at times. The good? The live-view of new-fangled DSLRs sure makes sharp focus a snap.

I started out in comfort on the deck, firing away at the partial phases. I’ve got plenty of big memory cards, so I shot lots and lots of frames between ducking inside for yet another cup of Joe. What did I think of the eclipse as totality slowly approached? Sweet. Cool. Impressive. Like the 1964 event, it was dark but not too dark. But affecting? Not so much.  Not at first, anyhow.

Just before totality came in at 5:30 a.m., I had to move the camera to the front yard, since the Moon was beginning to sink in the west, and a tree a couple of houses down was blocking me and the Canon’s view from the deck. After taking plenty of frames at mid-totality, I stopped and just looked for a spell.

I don’t know what it was, maybe just the sight of the eclipsed Moon with my unaided eyes, or perhaps the vista of that big red balloon floating over suburban houses like in the 60s, but suddenly all those long years, nearly half of a century of them, faded away. I almost heard the voice of long-gone Miss Emily again and felt young Jitter Jones standing at my elbow in the early morning darkness.

These feelings were intense enough that when I came out of my reverie—or whatever it was—and began shooting the Moon again, my heart hurt a little bit. For lost friends, and years, and youth. But that is the nature of life on this little rock, y’all, and I shortly carried on imaging and enjoying the show in more cheerful fashion.

Christmas Eve 2014

The key word was “quiet,” y’all, which is just the way like D. and I like it. Oh, in the a.m., we’ll have a houseful of family, but today it was just the two of us. We did get out this morning to run a few errands, preceded by one of our traditions, a Christmas Eve lunch at a Chinese place.

In the past that has usually been one of the Japanese steakhouses, who, natch, really serve Americanized Chinese food, but today it was China Doll. It’s a buffet, yeah, but it’s the best Chinese buffet I have ever seen. I did not stint on the General’s Chicken, that’s for sure. I don’t know who General Tso is, but I hope he gets promoted to the PLA General Staff; he deserves it.

Back home the big question was the weather:  would it clear enough to allow Unk his other tradition, a Christmas Eve look at M42, that greatest of all ornaments? The weather-goobers insisted there’d be clearing, but at 3 p.m. the clouds from the nasty front that yielded killer tornadoes just to our west in Mississippi the day before were still hanging on.

My original intent had been to make it a special night, to get my Edmund Scientific Palomar Junior out for a look at the Great Nebula, but as time went on and the sky remained a socked-in gray, I began to scale back.  I love my old Pal, but that scope is a handful on her pedestal mount and is packed away in a corner of Unk’s shop behind more than a few boxes I’ve “temporarily” stored there. I decided that should I get a sucker hole or three, I’d just waltz Amelia, the C102 refractor, out to the deck for a quick peep between draughts of Rebel Yell and watching whatever good Christmas movie appeared on the cotton-picking cable. 

The Clear Sky Clock and Scope Nights, my two goto astronomy weather apps insisted “clearing by 7 p.m.”  Alas, 7 and then 8 came and went without a hint of that. Poor old Unk laid a finger aside of his nose, opened up the bottle of Yell, and turned on the umpteenth showing of A Christmas Story. In a bit of a snit, I settled in for the prelude to a long winter’s nap where visions of gleaming APO refractors on massive German equatorial mounts would undoubtedly dance in my head.

And so another Christmas Eve has come and gone muchachos. This was my first skunking in a couple of years and I tried to bear it with good grace, declaring that should it clear by midnight, I’d hie myself out to the backyard with a pair of binoculars at least. But I almost didn’t need to. The memory of M42 as seen on Christmas Eve of 1966 was clearer than ever this year. And there is always next year. To sum up? “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Postscript:  As midnight came in, there was indeed some clearing, and Unk wobbled onto the deck with his trusty Burgess 15x70 binocs and got his Christmas Eve view of the Great Nebula. If a somewhat shaky one caused by the cold wind, the heavy binoculars, and maybe by the just a bit more than a dram of Yell he'd consumed while watching freaking Anthony Bourdain's show, his Christmas Eve viewing of choice this year.

Next Time:  Uncle Rod's New Year...

And merry christmas to you uncle rod and thanks for all your wonderful blogs over the past years. Howard
Zero comments? I can't have that!, thanks for every one of your blog posts last year Rod. I enjoyed them all, you are a true friend of the Astronomy Community and a Southern Gentleman as well.
Have a very merry Christmas..
Kevin Berwick
I've been away from amateur astronomy and from your blog for a couple of years, but inspired by your tradition I did enjoy a long look at M42 last night. Thank you for continuing to write and promote this wonderful hobby that is always ready for me to return. Have a very merry Christmas and a happy new year!
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