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THE PRINCETON STELLAR ASSOCIATION

THE PRINCETON STELLAR ASSOCIATION

A TALE FROM THE 'GOOD OLD DAYS' OF AMATEUR ASTRONOMY


by CRAIG CROSSEN


SPUTNIK

The single best thing that ever happened to American amateur astronomy was the launching of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. For one thing, it dramatically increased American public interest in space exploration, the Solar System, and outer space in general - including my interest. Insofar as I could be said to have any 'intellectual' interest at the unripe age of 7, hitherto it had been in collecting plastic army toys (though I actually did some serious reading about the Second World War). But after Sputnik flew, I wanted to know more about space ships and the Solar System. I began with the 1930s 6th grade science textbook in the upstairs bookcase. It had artists' conceptions of the surfaces of some of the planets-€”pure science fiction (though no more false than the computer-generated fantasies that disfigure today's astronomy monthlies). One of these showed what the earth would look like when the Sun'goes out': a soot-black solar disc hung in an ash-grey sky over a city skyline of the cereal-box and obelisk skyscapers of that day, halfway up the sides of which lapped an ocean of liquified nitrogen and oxygen. I turned the information I got from this Depression-era textbook into an extra-credit project for Mrs. Peterson's second grade class: a huge chart of the Solar System drawn in crayon on brown wrapping paper, with each planet's vital statistics printed along the arc of its orbit. This project was done free-hand (by a 7-year-old boy!), and looked it.

Sputnik made quite a splash on popular culture. Its best-remembered inpact were the enormous dual tail-fins that sprouted on the hind-ends of the next model-year's automobiles. Perhaps Sputnik's second most-remembered impact on the culture was the hit song 'The Purple People Eaters,' which in a couple years would be the unofficial nickname for the new Minnesota Vikings football team. Space aliens invaded not only Roswell, New Mexico, but also Nabisco 'Shredded Wheat' boxes (which gave me the opportunity to discover how much I disliked Shredded Wheat. My mother made me eat the whole box anyway.)

The attention span of the popular culture even in those early days of television was short. But mine was shorter: my interest in space travel had passed even before the end of the school year. Nor had it extended beyond the Solar System: I learned the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and Polaris, but, as far as real deep-space astronomy went, that was it. (I thought of the Belt and Sword of Orion as the front end of of a steam locomotive, with the Sword corresponding to the cow-catcher.) Within a couple of years I no longer knew even that much, because I had forgotten that the Little Dipper actually looks more like a ladle than a dipper.


SCIENCE EDUCATION

But Sputnik had sounded alarms in the halls of Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon. Jiminy Crickets, we were behind! In the context of the Arms Race, though, this was no laughing matter: it meant that the Reds apparently had a rocket technology superior to our own and could deliver a larger payload at a greater distance.

Washington therefore pushed the panic button and began throwing serious money at American science education, from the elementary level all the way up to university graduate research. This, then, was the second, and perhaps most important, way in which Sputnik benefitted American amateur astronomy. In future years I personally was much benefitted from this new focus on science education. In particular, during the summers of 1962 and 1963 my future high school Physics and Chemistry teacher, Richard M. Anderson, attended two National Science Foundation ten-week science teaching seminars at Highlands University, New Mexico (near the Los Alamos National Laboratory); and later my own University of Minnesota education would in part be paid for by a Sputnik-inspired Federal grant and a National Defense Student Loan.

At the beginning of 4th grade, however, I got interested in ancient Egypt-€”a good, strong, intellectual passion that lasted for four years (and has never really left me), but not much related to science. But during this time the educational fall-out from Sputnik began to hit remote, rural Princeton Minnesota. Now, this little farming community had only around 2000 souls, and my graduating class totaled just 144. But the new high school, completed in 1965, had three large science classrooms with six support (storage and experiment) rooms. And the science curriculum was expanded to take advantage of all that space. Thus, by the late 1960s, the school offered six full years of sciences! - three of Biology (Bio I, Advanced Bio, and Bio Lab Assistant), two of Chemistry (Chem I and Advanced Chem), and one of Physics. Nothing better illustrates the change in America's cultural values than the fact that 30 years later, in the 1990s, though Princeton had become a bedroom suburb of the Twin Cities and its school system had grown accordingly, its high school now offered just two years of sciences!


AN ASTRONOMICAL RENAISSANCE

In the autumn of 8th grade the little glowing ember of incipient interest in astronomy that had been ignited in me by Sputnik suddenly flared into full flame. At the beginning of the school year Mr. Skavnak announced that he would accept extra credit work and I thought to myself, 'I want to do an extra credit report on astronomy.' And the rest is history.

But the real moment of epiphany occurred on the evening of October 6 that autumn, when I walked out to the hill in the south hayfield carrying a flashlight and a copy of the Golden Nature Guide Stars and began identifying the constellations. By the time the yellow-orange last-quarter Moon rose in the east-northeast over the dark, silent river-valley woods, I had relearned the Little Dipper, traced out Ursa Major, Draco, and Hercules, identified Vega, Deneb, and Altair, and was forever hooked on the beauty of the star-figures and the sublimity of the night sky. And ever since then, the cool, quiet evenings of autumn, with the sharp fragrance of the dried leaves and dried grass, have inspired remembrances in me of the summer just past and anticipations of the spring waiting beyond the sleep of winter.

During the next few months I identified all the constellations visible from mid-northern latitudes. The most memorable observing night of this period was the mid-April evening I traced out the star-patterns of Leo and Hydra while the leopard frogs sang in the pond beneath my observing hill, their chorus echoing down the dark river-valley woods and evoking feelings of great vistas through time and space. The seasonal star-charts in those older editions of Stars were of course primitive by modern standards. In particular, their magnitude limit was too high to adequately show the full star-patterns of many of the major constellations, or anything but the brightest couple stars of the minor constellations. But at least in my case they did the job, and I've still got a soft spot in my heart for that book. I particularly liked its chart of the south circumpolar region, which had a navy-blue background sky and a powder blue Milky Way, and plotted such exotic far southern sights as the Southern Cross, the Coal Sack, Alpha Centauri, and the Magellanic Clouds.


OBSERVING GUIDES IN THE'GOOD OLD DAYS'

Within a couple years I had found three or four observing guides with scientifically (though perhaps not aesthetically) better charts than those in Stars. My favorite was the full-sky star-atlas occupying several pages at the back of a small paperback titled (if I remember correctly) The Pocket Guide to the Skies. It charts went down to mag 5-½ (and fainter), with all the Greek-lettered stars labeled and the constellation boundaries indicated. However, the book did not have much of what one would call real observing guide material, telling you what to look for, where to find it, and why it looks the way it does.

In all truth, the astronomy guide-book situation in the 1960s (and into the 1970s) was terrible. The most comprehensive guide-book available was Dover's reprint of Webb's Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes, which had been originally published about a century earlier! One of the most popular guide-books was Olcott's A Field Book of the Stars, which had been originally published before the Second World War. I read it cover-to-cover during Activity Period in 9th grade (because it was in the 9th grade science classroom's small library and I needed something to do). It, as well as observing guide-books in general during this era, was written for the small aperture (60-80 mm), medium magnification refractors that were the basic amateur instrument during those years: it was heavy on double and variable stars, adequate on open and globular clusters, but very weak on nebulae, the Milky Way, and other galaxies.

Another over-rated'classic' observing guide was Donald Menzel's A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets. The 1960s editions of this book were particularly bad. The book was padded out by a section, dozens of expensive glossy pages long, showing, in both white-on-black and black-on-white (with labels), the sky at 10 p.m. at the beginning of each month. There was a separate set of such charts for mid-southern latitudes. The book also included a full-sky photographic atlas of Harvard Sky Survey red and blue plates, negatives and positives of each plate on facing pages, with text underneath describing the highlights of the field. This too was printed on glossy paper, and probably was the best part of the book-€”though the printing was not so clear that you could distinguish between the fainter stars and the printing faults.

I found especially useful, both then and in later years, The Beginner's Guide to the Skies, by R. Newton and Margaret W. Mayall, the latter the long-time director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My copy of this book was very cheaply made, with glue binding and coarse paper that within a decade had yellowed to the color and brittleness of November's leaves. But it had individual charts for every constellation visible from mid-northern latitudes, however minor, with stars down to at least 6th mag, constellation borders, and text on the facing page describing the constellation and the best objects in it. The selection of objects was excellent, and the charts were so well designed that these objects were easy to find. This reflected the participation of someone - Margaret Mayall - who knew the sky extremely well.

As I look back, there seems to have been two major faults in amateur astronomy guide-books of that age. First, many, or most, of them were written by professional astronomers whose familiarity with the heavens, both with the unaided eye and with small instruments, left much to be desired. (The Beginner's Guide to the Skies was an outstanding exception.) Second, not unrelated to the first, was that the guides' authors seemed ignorant about the capabilities of binoculars. It wasn't that binoculars were so much more expensive in those days, because they weren't: good war surplus optics could still be had for excellent prices. It was just that the writers of the guides apparantly had never given binoculars a real test and therefore simply didn't know what binoculars can do.


OTHER ASTRONOMY BOOKS OF THE'GOOD OLD DAYS'

The standard college astronomy text during this time was Robert H. Baker, Jr.'s Astronomy. However it seemed designed specifically to throttle all unseemly enthusiasm for astronomy the reader might bring to it. For one thing, it began with a dry-as-dust discussion of the least colorful aspects of astronomy: terrestrial latitude and longitude, the celestial sphere, and time measurement. Now, this stuff has to be learned at some point; but it's poor pedagogical procedure to start here. There are alternative ways to begin an astronomy textbook, as future writers would show. But Baker's approach was traditional and academic traditions are tough to buck.

Nor was Baker's textbook very friendly to the aesthetics of astronomy. Though it was printed on glossy, heavy-stock paper, and included some of the magnificent wide-field Milky Way photos obtained by E. E. Barnard around the turn of the 20th century, these photos were reproduced on small scale, had poor contrast, and were even grainier than Menzel's photographic atlas in Stars and Planets.

Fortunately even at that time there were books that combined the beauty of astronomy with its science (and indeed had been since at least the 1920s with the publication in Britain of The Splendour of the Heavens. But I discovered that book only in 1983.) One was called Pictorial Astronomy, which had solid, though non-mathematical, science, and was not ashamed of showing Barnard's Milky Way photos, or the newest Hale or Lick plates, to full-page advantage. (Its cover photo was the Hale Whirlpool Galaxy.) Another was The Atlas of the Universe, the first half of which was alphabetized text including definitions of astronomical terms and essays on astronomical subjects (with charts of each of the 88 constellations-€”though not accompanied by anything like'observing guide' text), and its second half full-page B&W photos (plus some charts) on glossy paper with long captions beneath. I found the alphabetical approach of Atlas of the Universe a lot more readable than the approach of the pedantic and puritanical Baker, and therefore, over the summer between 10th and 11th grades, read it from cover to cover (and learned a whole lot more astronomy than I ever did from Baker).

Finally there was the wonderful The Universe in the Time-Life series, which was downright hedonistic about astronomy. I especially remember its plate of the nearly edge-on spiral galaxy NGC 253 in Sculptor: snow-white in the interior, and sky-blue around the rim. It looked like a silver dollar on the roll. Even the book's H-R diagram was an orgy of color - but with good science, too. In the lower right-hand corner the red dwarfs were represented by a swarm of tiny red dots. Farther up and to the left along the main sequence were increasingly larger, but fewer, orange and yellow circles for the solar-type stars. The red giants branched off toward the upper right, with a couple big red circles on the left edge for the Mira LPVs. Farther up along the main sequence the small white circles of the Sirius-type stars slowly grew into the large blue circles of the blue giants. And finally, all along the top, were the blue, yellow, orange, and red supergiants, represented only by the lower parts of the segments of increasingly larger circles of the appropriate colors. Thus this chart not only showed the basic temperature-luminosty relation of the H-R diagram, but showed the relative diameters, and even relative population numbers, of the various spectral types. There was nothing like this in Baker's Astronomy (though, to be fair, a cruder version of it did appear in Stars, also by Baker).


SKY & TELESCOPE

In those days you didn't talk about 'the astronomy magazines' because there was really only one. I seem to recall a glossy monthly titled The Review of Popular Astronomy; but it was very thin and obviously starved for advertizing revenue and soon gave up the ghost.

So Sky & Tel was the only game in town. Some of its faults were the result of this very lack of competition. Others were the result of its aristocratic birth in the hallowed halls of the Harvard College Observatory: the magazine had something of Ivy League smugness coupled with New England Puritanism's distrust of beauty and pleasure. (As late as the 1960s America was still a very regional country, and traditionally New England intellectuals were certain civilization stopped short at Hudson's River.) Though its paper was excellent, and could have showed astrophotos to good advantage, the magazine seldom printed these photos for their sheer beauty. Such display was beneath it. However this asceticism was Sky & Tel's Achilles' Heel which in a few years would be bitten by the midwestern upstart Astronomy magazine.

But in those days Sky & Tel had lots of good, solid, no-nonsence science. Serious researchers wrote articles for it, and, by and large, wrote very well. (One of my personal favorite articles from that period was 'Penetrating Puppis' by the astrophysicist M. Pim FitzGerald, who wrote about the low density of interstellar dust in this direction through our Galaxy.) The monthly 'News Notes' department culled hard data from the journals, not astro-speculation. Unfortunately, when Sky & Tel was forced to lighten up under the increasing competition from Astronomy and pay more attention to the aesthetics of astrophotography, it lost some of its grip on the hard science of astronomy, and followed its adversary down into the swamp of science-fiction art and'gee-whizz' astro-speculation.
In the Good Old Days Sky & Tel also had lots of articles for serious observers by serious observers. Walter Scott Houston's contributions and the Messier Album are now legendary. However, two aspects of Sky & Tel were of little interest to me. One was all the reports of recently-held amateur and professional meetings, complete with group photos of participants in front of some observatory. I thought of these as the magazine's gossip column. By contrast I had the healthiest respect for the ATM 'Gleanings' department. But it did me little good because, when it came to telescope-making, one of the major amateur activities of the 1950s and 1960s, I was all thumbs. . . .


TELESCOPE TRAVAILS

Like most beginners in astronomy, I was dead certain that I needed a telescope, and that I needed one immediately. I did not know, because neither Stars nor any of the other guides I had read, told me (1) telescopes are bulky and heavy and a bloody nuisance to take out to an observing site and set up; (2) everything but the Moon is so hard to find in the tiny field of view of a telescope that everyone except experienced observers spend more time looking for rather than looking at objects; (3) magnifications of over 100x are often superfluous, even in medium-aperture optics; and (4) an astonishingly large number of astronomical objects appear to better advantage in'mere' binoculars than they do in any telescope, including all Milky Way star clouds, many open clusters, several diffuse nebulae, and even some galaxies.

However, I was dead certain that I desperately needed a telescope-€”one with lots of power! Christmas was coming, so I asked for the 2-½-inch refractor I saw advertized in one of the mail-order Christmas catalogues, an instrument that boasted something like 600x. But even when I got it all assembled, I was too naive to recognize how wretched it really was: its tinny tripod was topped by the crudest excuse for an altazimuth mounting, without either fine-adjustment controls or even locking screws; the main tube was cheap spiral cardboard, and the focusing'mechanism' just two sliding cardboard tubes; and the edges of all the lenses-€”objective, ocular, and barlow-€”were chipped.

Obviously I was not going to get very far with this sorry contraption: it wouldn't even resolve Theta-one Orionis, and for a long time I believed that the four stars of the Trapezium Multiple must be Theta-one and Theta-two Ori plus the two stars due east of the latter. However, I was about to aggravate my telescope problems:

A year or so after getting the telescope, I spent $50 of egg money on an astronomical spectroscope from a West Coast company called Optica b/c. In later years this was to prove a splendid instrument, delivering stunning'live' views of stellar (and even nebular) spectra. But my crummy little chipped-lens refractor had neither the aperture nor the mounting to do justice to this shiny new stainless steel device. My problems started the day the spectroscope arrived in the mail when I discovered that the inner diameter of my telescope's cardboard eyepiece holder was too large for the outer diameter of the spectroscope's eyepiece barrel. I had measured the inner diameter of my scope's eyepiece holder, and it had come close to 24.5mm, so that was the size spectroscope I had ordered. But nothing was'standard' about my telescope.

I remedied the diameter difference with some masking tape around the spectroscope's eyepiece barrel-€”crude, but entirely effective. However, when I took the telescope out one night and actually tried to see stellar spectra with it, I learned that it is no easy matter to keep a star in the exact center of the field of view while plugging and unplugging things from a telescope's eyepiece holder: even if you don't jar the telecope out of alignment, sky-drift will have carried the star to places unknown.

Obviously I needed a better mount for my telescope, and a clock drive. So, as soon as I had saved another $50 of egg money, I bought an Edmund equatorial mount (machined steel on a hardwood tripod) and, from a telescope supply house that shall remain nameless, an inexpensive clock-drive. The mount, like all the other Edmund equipment I ever brought, was sturdy, well-made, and smooth to operate. But the clock-drive was a piece of junk: its worm had such severe backlash that any star I placed in the center of the eyepiece field would have drifted westward clean out of sight by the time the worm had engaged the polar-axis gear. But I did not discover all this until I had managed to get the clock-drive onto he mount, which was a problem because the inner diameter of the clock-drive's mounting ring was smaller, slightly, than the outer diameter of the equatorial mount's polar-axis collar. In the absence of a machine-shop, my high-tech solution was to hammer the clock-drive on. This was courting disaster, but nothing broke.

So now I had a $50 spectroscope and a $50 mount + clock-drive to go with a telescope which originally had cost, tinny mount and all, just $25. I would have been well-advised to start investing serious money in decent optics. But I did not know any better, so I continued to adorn my telescope's cardboard tube with fancy accessories.

My ultimate goal was a Science Fair project involving photos of stellar spectra. I needed something to hold my mother's box camera in place behind the spectroscope, so I sent for an Edmund camera bracket. But after I had screwed the camera-bracket base onto the telescope tube, positioned the camera behind the spectroscope, and let go, the camera's weight caused the business end of the telescope to swing up into the air and point helplessly toward the zenith. Not even the equatorial mount's locking screws could hold the telescope tube in place. I realized that I needed some sort of counterbalance. So I got a heavy cast-iron bar from an ancient horse-drawn rake moldering in some tall weeds near the haystack, and, with great toil and trouble, hacksawed it to a convenient length and drilled two holes for bolts through it. After bolting the bar onto the telescope tube, attaching the camera to the camera bracket, and letting go, I had the satisfaction of seeing the telescope tube stay in put. I congratulated myself on my engineering expertise until the next night I took the telescope out and actually looked at something through it: the weight of my cast-iron counterbalance bent the telescope's cardboard tube so much that in the eyepiece the stars were distorted into little commas!

By now I was beginning to get a bit discouraged. However, it occurred to me that I might yet save the day by reinforcing the telescope tube with a tube-length metal bar, so I sawed a section of aluminum window-frame to length and bolted it along the telescope's tube. This worked; but, given my telescope's image quality, was a waste of time. Eventually I gave up on my Science Fair project and bought the components parts of a 6-inch Newtonian reflector. The result was a simple but optically-sound instrument that, under my dark rural skies, delivered excellent views, especially of open clusters.

Thus like many, or most, beginners I was bedazzled by big optics and the gleam of new equipment. But if any of the observing guides I read during that time had really given due credit to the unaided eye and binoculars, then perhaps I would not have been so easily beguiled. Stars had solemnly declared that no beginner should get a telescope until after they have used binoculars for several months. Sound enough advice. But it was delivered in a tone which suggested that naked-eye and binocular observing are work: that they are the time-serving basic-training fatigues one must go through to earn the right to look through a 'real' telescope and see 'really interesting' things. However, there are not too many astronomical objects that would rate as more important and interesting than the North American Nebula, the Veil Nebula, the Lagoon Nebula, the Whirlpool Galaxy, the Triangulum and Andromeda galaxies, and the Perseus Double Cluster, all of which are not only easy to see in 10x50 glasses, but reveal shape and structure in them.


THE TECH-MEN 'EGGHEADS'

The third way in which Sputnik helped American amateur astronomy was by giving 'eggheads' (today better known as 'geeks' or 'nerds') some social respectability. Before the Second World War, America was (and after the Viet Nam War would again become) an anti-intellectual country. This was the natural and inevitable result of (1) the sort of non-contemplative virtues necessary for 'taming a continent,' and (2) the fact that most European immigrants to America (going all the way back to the Pilgrims) were fleeing societies in which the aristocrats had the corner on both justice and education: to the immigrants, therefore, intellectuality and injustice went hand-in-glove.

But the Cold War changed all that. Suddenly scientists and engineers were on the front lines of National Defense. Chemical, aeronautical, and oil companies ran full-page ads in Life and Look showing bespeckled men in white lab coats gazing intently at bubbling test-tubes, with captions like, 'Plastics for Home and Defense.' The 'absent-minded professors' who had been lampooned in Laurel & Hardy and Marx Brothers movies in the 1930s were now our A Team against the Red Menace.

In my hometown 'eggheads' also had a good name because of the popular senior high school Physics/Chemistry teacher, the earlier-mentioned Mr. Anderson. Before teaching, he had done pre-med studies and worked as a salesman for Upjohn Pharmaceuticals. But he was also a talented musician, playing organ for the town's Methodist church and keyboard in a small semi-pro band. As a teacher he was at once serious and humorous. You had to pay attention to his lectures, otherwise you'd miss his one-liners and sudden puns.

In my class the top egghead was Dwight Jenson-€”'DJ.' He was short, thin, knock-kneed, and (of course) wore big, black-rimmed glasses. His father was a Swedish immigrant farmer who had been more than 70 years old when DJ was born. DJ's interests centered on electronics, particularly short-wave radio, but extended to astronomy. He had assembled his own 3-inch Newtonian reflector, building its equatorial mount from scratch, complete with a seat for the observer. It was not a thing of beauty, but, like everything else DJ built, mechanically and optically rock-solid. For constellation-identification DJ used an Edmund Planisphere, on which he had marked the Messier objects. He was, like myself, an avid chess player; and most noons he and I played chess in the lunch line. His mother, a school teacher, had long since given up trying to make him keep his upstairs room in their big old farmhouse neat, and it had become a chaos of electronic components, electrician's tools, radios and televisions in various stages of disassembly, and handbooks and magazines (Sky & Tel, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, etc.)

The top egghead in the class behind was another farmboy, Delbert Jones. His emphasis, like DJ's, was on short-wave radio, and he too was a skilled free-lance TV and radio repairman. The expertise of both DJ and Del was frequently called upon by high school administration to cure ailing PA and audio/video systems; and the school's theater productions relied heavily upon their skills in lighting and set. Del had a real ham-shack: a converted hen-house. This might sound like it was dumpy, but it wasn't: Del was as neat and organized as DJ was sloppy and chaotic, and there never was a stray transistor littering the floor, nor a tool out of place from the tool-rack unless in actual use. (DJ and Del roomed together for a while when Del was at the University-€”a real-life'odd couple' arrangement that did not last long.) Del had designed and constructed a special cabinet for his 'Starliner' receiver and its support accessories. His ham-shack had an insulated ceiling, double windows and walls, and its own space heater, and therefore was proof against even Minnesota's January nights.

Another brainy boy from DJ's Swedish-American farming community was Brad Anderson. Brad was interested in, and very good at, electronics, and complemented this ability with extraordinary skills at drafting and design. But it was hard to call him a real 'egghead': he had a sociable, extroverted, personality with a broad sense of humor that so well combined intellectuality with earthiness that when he told a vilgar joke, it didn't sound vulgar. He had always been popular, and at the end of our junior year was elected the next year's student council president-€”a position almost always reserved for some bright and beautiful girl or some bright and athletic boy. However, Brad was anything but athletic: he carried 240 pounds on a five-eleven frame, and had campaigned for the student council presidency with the Peanuts-inspired slogan, 'Happiness Is A Big Cuddly President.' (Brad returned to school the next September down to a svelt 175!) He had natural managerial skills, and since boyhood had always been the leader in any enterprise he became involved with: as Huck Finn admiringly remarked about Tom Sawyer, 'He could out-superintend any boy I ever see.'

Brad and DJ lived only about a mile and a half apart and since childhood had collaborated with each other on many interesting projects. During our senior the two of them, with Mr. Anderson, studied for their ham-operator's licence (which meant that several weeks of Physics that winter were devoted to the Morse Code and FCC regulations). Earlier, near the end of 9th grade, Brad and DJ had shown me Brad's design for their summer project: a submarine made out of an inverted galvanized-steel livestock water-tank, with air-filled inner-tubes for flotation and concrete silo-staves for submerging. They proposed launching it on the small lake near Brad's farm. I knew that lake: it was pretty shallow. Nevertheless their contraption looked like a death-trap to me. However, the next September the two of them returned to school alive.


THE BIRTH OF AN ASTRONOMY CLUB

Mr. Finelli was the school's very popular 10th grade American History teacher. Like Mr. Anderson, he had an open, genial personality. And, like Mr. Anderson, he enjoyed his subject and continued to study it just for fun: he was always reading new books about American History; and the year we had him, he was in the midst of a long-term project visiting all the major Civil War battlefields.
Unlike Mr. Anderson, however, Mr. Finelli was not an 'egghead.' On the contrary, he seemed to be something of a 'jock': he had pitched a couple seasons in the minors (one of his 1956 Aberdeen [Northern League] teammates was the future Baltimore Orioles star reliever Wes Stock), and was the pitching coach for both the high school and American Legion teams. He also did the play-by-play of the school's football and basketball games for the local AM radio station, and wrote a weekly sports column for the community newspaper.

One morning after class Mr. Finelli called me over to his desk. He said he had noticed in the student newspaper, which had just published an article about me, that I was interested in astronomy and had two telescopes. He said he too was interested in astronomy and had a telescope (a small refractor). He suggested we start a school astronomy club.

I was shocked. So Mr. Finelli was a clandestine amateur astronomer! Who would have thought it!

Mr. Anderson enthusiastically seconded the idea, so we had excellent faculty support. I proposed the name 'The Princeton Stellar Association,' which obviously had more pizzazz than something like 'Princeton High School Astronomy Club.' The principal's office announced an organizational meeting for all those interested. It came out that my class had a fourth telescope (in addition to my two and DJ's reflector): Rick Cassian, hitherto a low-profile C+/B- student, disclosed that he had a 4-¼-inch Newtonian reflector. Dick lived nearer downtown than Mr. Finelli and therefore had poorer observing skies.

So, including Mr. Finelli's refractor, the Princeton Stellar Association had no less than five telescopes. It was a good start. And Mr. Hanson, the Biology teacher, loaned us his department's war surplus 7x50 binoculars. We had more optics than John Wayne had guns.


TELESCOPE-BUILDING AND METEOR-COUNTING

The next question was what she should do with ourselves. We needed a project. DJ and I suggested that we build a large telescope from scratch, including the mirror-grinding. (DJ was particularly interested in the knife-edge curve-testing phase of the operation.) Del volunteered his ham-shack for the work. My farm contributed a played-out 50-gallon gasoline barrel which, set on edge and half-filled with water, would provide a rock-solid, waist-level surface on which to fix the plate-glass grinding tool. To raise the funds for the Edmund 10-inch mirror-grinding kit, we sponsored one of the post-game Friday night dances in the high school gymn.

But the truth is that, even with such skilled tech-men among us as DJ, Del, and Brad, this was a job a bit over our heads. We never even completed the initial rough-grinding of the mirror blank (though DJ, Del, and I spent some very enjoyable evenings together in the privacy of Del's ham-shack, worrying at the mirror blank in a desultory kind of way while watching Star Trek). In all fairness to ourselves, however, it must be said that we were all conscientious students and involved with several other organizations at church and school and therefore had only limited time for our ambitious scheme.

Nevertheless, the Princeton Stellar Association was a fairly active club. One of its highlights was the May 1967 partial solar eclipse. The principal gave club members special permission to skip their morning classes to observe the eclipse from the lawn on the east side of the school. I used the community newspaper's double-lens reflex Yashica camera to photograph the eclipse through DJ's telescope, and two of my shots were immortalized in print the next week. DJ and Del set up an experiment using the latter's Starliner receiver to see if they could detect any decrease in solar radio waves as the eclipse progressed.

That morning we also picked up an important new Stellar Association member. Some years ago Leif Robinson of Sky & Telescope wrote an editorial in which he criticized American amateur astronomy for being, on the whole, 'sexist.' With all due respect, I never understood what Leif was writing about. At least in the Midwest, I have never seen or heard about any astronomy organization, amateur or professional, which was not absolutely delighted to have lady members. For whatever reason-€”and it certainly is not **** discrimination on the part of the astronomical community-€”not many women are astronomy enthusiasts. Even if the surrounding culture as a whole actively discourages 'tech-women' (and today it is not very supportive of tech-men either), their reception if they approach the local astronomy club is likely to be embarrassingly hospitable.

At least ours was when, the morning of that May solar eclipse, one of the most intelligent, attractive, and popular girls in our class, Kathe Swenson, asked to join the Stellar Association. She frankly admitted that she just wanted to get out of that morning's classes. (It should be noted that Kathe was from the same Swedish-American farming community as DJ and Brad, and one of her older brothers was a science standout who later became an engineer,) We fell all over ourselves to make her feel welcome, and at an extraordinary meeting of tthe Stellar Association's officers voted to let her in for half-price. With both Brad and Kathe as members, the Princeton Stellar Association found itself near the school's social main-stream-€”a strange place indeed for an astronomy club! A couple weeks later, for the official yearbook photo of the Stellar Association, we placed Kathe front-center next to Rick Cassian's telescope: It pays to advertize. At least one other boy joined the Association (at full price) only because Kathe was in it.

Another Stellar Association highlight was the Perseus Meteor Shower the following August. A half dozen of us met at my farm to count meteors, rolling our our sleeping bags out on the far southeastern arm of the lawn between the machine-shed and the wire corn crib. (Fortunately the mosquitoes were unusually subdued that particular night.) One of us used a penlight to record the data while the others, laying facing different directions, announced sightingsand stated the shooting star's location, path length, brightness, and, sometimes, color. Since not all of us were equally familiar with degree measurement and the magnitude system (to say nothing of the constellations), there were lots of gaps in our data-list. Nevertheless I carefully copied it out and sent it in to the American Meteor Society. We later received a very kind card from the Society's then very-aged Director, Charles P. Oliver, who, in a very shaky hand, thanked us for our contribution and tactfully broke to us the news that we had done it all wrong-€”that, to standardize and calibrate meteor observations, meteor counting was done by observers individually! Oh well! At least we had had a very good time.


EPILOGUE

Not surprisingly, the Princeton Stellar Association did not long outlive the graduation of its core group. The unfinished 10-inch mirror blank and its grinding kit ended up in my family's spare room across the porch. I later turned it over to the school's science department, where it soon disappeared under a pile of dust as the school lost interest in the sciences. Mr. Anderson, disgusted with the direction public education had taken, resigned his teaching position, walked away from his pension, and began teaching refresher courses in math and physics to the engineers of Northern States Power Company.

The Stellar Association's individual members went on to a variety of fates. Del, the youngest member of the core group, became an electrical engineer for Honeywell, specializing in laser navigation systems, and bought a huge house in a rich Minneapolis suburb. One of the less active members of the group, Brad's clever campaign manager Mike, was sent to Viet Nam, but returned to become a veterinarian. Another fringe associate of the Association had a fling with politics, but since then reformed his ways and is now a Lutheran pastor in northern Minnesota. Kathe Swenson attended the University of Minnesota for three years and then married a pharmacist. I am pleased to report that she has lived happily ever after.

DJ was trained in a top-flight computer institute and held high-level computer hardware and software positions with Univac/Unisys. But about 20 years ago he went through a tough divorce and has dropped out of sight. Even more tragic is the case of the charismatic Brad, who suffered a catastrophic divorce less than two years after his graduation from college. He had risen rapidly to the position of purchasing engineer for a major Chicago heavy-equipment manufacturer, but then collapsed back into the malaise of marijuana, from which he never escaped.

And what of the narrator of this tale? Well, like that other refugee of the 60s, Dr. Johnny Fever of WKRP in Cincinnati, he now lives far from home in electronic space.


Craig Crossen
September 10, 2008



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