Today I turned 72 years of age.
For 70 of those 72 years, I have been looking up at the sky. When I was two, my grandmother took me out to her back porch in Minnewaukan, North Dakota, (a town of about 500) pointed up into the dark Mag 7 skies and said, ‘look at the beautiful stars.’ I had no idea of what I was seeing. All I knew was that the dark night sky was an amazingly beautiful site. From that time forward, I have always checked out the night sky every chance I could.
Over these years, a lot of hobbies have come and gone. Photography, back in the days when there was film, I used to develop my own negatives and print up my own positives from them. Color was too complicated, and too expensive in most cases. I took up shooting pistols and rifles and listening to short wave radio and music (led a dance band in high school playing tenor sax, and bassoon in the orchestra) and played basketball in high school. Boy Scouts took center stage, earning my Star award. Then I discovered girls, and all those hobbies went away—except for girls and astronomy. I found that the young ladies also liked looking up at the night sky and were interested in learning about its various objects. I also discovered that there is nothing like being out in a dark sky, to set a romantic mood.
Astronomy is the only hobby that has remained with me over the past 70 years. In 1946, when I was three, my mother, a school teacher, moved us to Ely, Nevada, a town of about 5,000. A hill blocked the downtown sky at night, and again, I had Mag 6.5 to 7 skies—just outside my back door. One cold February night, a friend asked me if I would like to join him and his son (a friend of mine) to drive to the mining town of Ruth, Nevada to look through a telescope. I was 10 years old. I had never looked through a telescope. The owner had just purchased a 3.5 inch Questar and he did not know how to use it. The moon was about half full. I looked through the eyepiece and saw only a bright white glob, with no detail.
Then, I saw a little knob near the eyepiece. I turned it—and suddenly the moon with all its glory of craters, rills, and plains popped into view. I was absolutely stunned. I have never forgotten that first view through the telescope. I read somewhere that the human brain loses about 25 thousand brain cells a day. At age 72, I don’t know how many I left. However, that first look at the moon through the Questar has forever seared that image into my mind.
Sam Brown’s book All About Telescopes took a young person through some excellent information about astronomy; Leslie Peltier’s book Starlight Nights fueled my desire to keep looking up. Now, several large bookshelves are full of astronomy books, star atlases, and star maps. More recently, some computer programs and Tablet apps, continue to serve me well.
Back in the days that I lived in Ely, Nevada, many of the people had limited financial means. I could not afford to subscribe to Sky and Telescope, so I went to the library each month to read it. A telescope was also out of my family’s financial reach to buy one. In the comics I liked to read, I saw the ads for a 3 inch reflector, for $29.95, that would show craters on the moon, the rings of Saturn, and other sky objects. If I wanted a telescope, I would have to pay for it. I was leery that the 3 inch telescope would do all that the ads claimed. At age 15, I drooled over the ads in Sky and Telescope for Unitron refractors and reflectors in the four to 16 inch category. I was drawn to a four inch, F10 Dynascope ad. It had an equatorial mount. Electric clock drive was not yet available for most telescopes. It listed for $79.95. I could not afford the telescope. I worked all summer mowing lawns at a dollar a pop. I had already saved up about $20 shoveling walks the winter before. At 6,400 feet above sea level, Ely gets quite cold. If does not snow that often, but enough so I could make some money shoveling walks. Finally, I had the $79.95 plus delivery costs saved up. I sent off for the telescope. It arrived in perfect condition.
In dark, pristine skies, you can see a lot even with a small aperture telescope. Today light pollution is so bad that many of us live in Mag 3 skies, and even after driving for 20 miles or so, we still only have Mag 5 or so skies. Back in the 1950’s, I was viewing with a four incher in Mag 6.5 to 7 skies. I was viewing the moon, planets, clusters, a few brighter galaxies and nebula, and found that there were numerous double stars that I could split with that small instrument. There was no astronomy club that I could join, but I did have a friend who lived about a block away who also shared a deep interest in astronomy. He and I had numerous sleep-overs in the summer where we stayed up most of the evening looking at sky objects.
These are some of my best memories of this great hobby that gives so much positive energy to my life. Looking up at the stars connect the 70 years of my life through both the good times and the bad. I graduated from high school in Ely, but had to sell my little four incher to pay for some books when attending the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City. I could not afford another telescope for several more years. Life’s journey took me through a divorce, but then I found and remarried the woman of my dreams and was blessed with two wonderful daughters and two sons. They in turn blessed Jeannie and I with three wonderful granddaughters and two grandsons. After 28 years serving in the Air Force, we found ourselves back living in San Antonio. I went through several other telescopes over the years, but ended up with a 12.5 inch, F5 Portaball, as my final telescope.
The night skies has provided my life continuity, and brought me peace and joy second only to that provided by my wife, children, and grandchildren. The night skies and its stellar views were a constant in my life, no matter where the Air Force assigned me. The night skies were a constant in my life through a divorce, the ups and downs of the economy, illnesses and life’s good times. I was born at the end of World War II, remember the Korean War, the Kennedy assignation, Water Gate, the Vietnam War, the dot.com bust, the more recent financial downturns, and recoveries, and the more recent wars in the Middle East.
Auriga, Orion, Pegasus, Andromeda, Lyra, Hercules, Ursa Major and Minor, Canis Major and Minor, Leo and others were my best friends. They could be counted on to march across the heavens, and return at their appointed times, and places. The planets and moon more randomly wandered through the constellations to provide some interesting relief. But, over the years, the starry skies became my best friends—friends that could always be counted on.
More recently, I have a friend who approached me and said, ‘if you ever want to sell your Portaball, I would like to buy it.’ What she was getting at was, ‘when you die, have your wife call me. I would like to buy your Portaball.’ However, my daughter Stacy beat her to it. Stacy said, ‘dad, when you die, can I have your telescope?’ I said sure. My wife and I have talked about one day dying, and wanted our children to know that death is not something that we are afraid of.
We are at peace with our religious faith and have told our children that death is just part of the cycle of life. We told our children that death is just part of life’s journey. We have told our children that our deaths one day will result in helping to make up the contents of more new stars as we take our places in the heavens.
However, it is great knowing that my children have also grown to love the night sky with one of them wanting my telescope. Before those two offers, I was thinking of having the Portaball buried with me. However, there are state and federal laws to contend with, plus even if that could happen, I probably would have to buy two grave sites. I am happy that one of my daughters will carry on the hobby of astronomy with the telescope that brought her dad so much pleasure.
What Stacy doesn't know is that along with the telescope, she will also get a 21,13, 8, 6, and 4.7 Ethos; a 10, 8, and 6 Delos, a 9 Hutech, an 8 Brandon, a 7 TMB supermono, 5 XO and other eyepieces. I will leave her instructions in my will about the value of those eyepieces, and knowing her, she will keep and treasure those eyepieces, along with my 12.5 inch Portaball, the rest of her life.
Old age is creeping up on me. I have to be careful when driving at night. I can’t drive and talk at the same time because my mind wanders. Testosterone shots and Viagra help keep me going. Although my telescope is very portable, it now is getting more challenging to load, set it up, and take down. I don’t know how long I will be able to do so.
However, the night skies will always be there and beautiful to behold—even if I am limited to the one power views of my eyes. That’s all the ancients had and they marveled at the night sky for thousands of years, before the advent of optics and telescopes.
I have lived a blessed, full life. I hope to live a few more years—before I eventually turn to dust, and take my place in the heavens, to become the stuff of stars.
San Antonio, TX
- Dave Mitsky, CollinofAlabama, ArizonaScott and 58 others like this