As I stood alone in the cold and dark one, fine moonless night recently, I remembered with sudden intensity the night that I became a life-long stargazer. Here’s the story.
I jumped as my grandmother spoke loudly from the porch. “What are you doing out there in the cold and the dark?”
It was one of those perfect winter nights. No moon spoiled the view. The stars of winter shone brightly with an unsteady twinkle.
I was 10 years old.
I stood in a grassy notch of the snow-covered front lawn of my grandmother’s dilapidated house on Byron Street in one of the poorer sections of Youngstown, Ohio. My father was visiting to shovel the snow, which seemed to tower above my head. He was inside getting warm before we returned home. I was outside, the crazy kid who didn’t know when to come in from the cold and dark.
My grandmother was a hard, practical woman. Her character was forged in the Great Depression, when she had struggled mightily simply to keep herself and my father alive. Her husband had abandoned and divorced her. Her new husband didn’t like having her rambunctious son in the house, so my father had lived for years away from that house in the even-poorer home of his aunt.
When Grandma gave an order, she meant business. But I detected a hint of kindness in her voice, so I continued to look up.
And what I saw probably changed my life. I had borrowed from my father’s glove compartment his cheap, plastic-lensed, flip-open opera glasses, $3 from a “five-and-dime near you.”
I trained them at Orion and scanned around. My eyes lit upon what I now know as the “Sword of Orion,” a line of stars hanging from Orion’s belt. My heart flew. I had found something. All by myself. I had no idea what it was, but I had found it.
Near the end of the sword was what looked like a fuzzy star. I now know that it is the Great Nebula in Orion, a gigantic cloud of mostly hydrogen gas in which stars are born.
Since then, I have seen the Great Nebula in every manner of binoculars and telescope, large and small. I have seen its swirling complexity, its subtle colors. But nothing will ever match the electric moment when I saw it as a fuzzy star buried in Orion’s Sword for the first time.
I continued to scan haphazardly. Up and to the left of Orion is a dipper-shaped collection of six stars, I now know is called the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. In those opera glasses, the area exploded into a dozen or more stars, all caught up in a vague haze. To this day, I pretend that I saw a faint hint of the cloud of gas in which the star cluster is embedded. The real reason for the foggy image, I realize now, was the cheapness of those opera glasses.
But the view of all those stars was beautiful. The only words I have ever heard that capture its magnificence are by Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, who wrote them over 180 years ago. Perhaps as he wrote them, he was doing what I had been doing on that cold night in the dark:
Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.
That was half a century ago. In those days, I had not found my voice. How could a ten-year-old explain why he stood like an idiot in the cold and dark to gawk at the stars?
“Get in here out of the cold,” she insisted.
I yelled out an inarticulate reply, “Inna min’,” or something like that. I knew full well that I was lying. They would have to drag me in, and eventually, they did.
Now, after all these years, I have reached the evening of my life, and I have at last found my voice. Here is what I would say to my grandmother, now long dead:
The stars are beautiful on these cold winter nights. Our love for them is beautiful too. As I stared uncomprehending that night long ago up at the stars, I felt like a part of some grand thing that would be forever beyond my ken.
It was there a long time before we were here. It will be there a long time after we are gone. Just looking at it is recompense enough for the brevity of our part in it. We must not resent that we are fireflies. We must embrace the silver braid.
And, Grandma, by the way, I’m still out there in the cold and the dark. And there I shall remain until the cold overtakes me and the dark carries me away.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.