MR. OLCOTT’S SKIES

The stars of the winter sky posed the greatest challenge to me as a young observer. Observing on week nights was a problem, of course, with school in session, but weather was the major difficulty. Stars of winter were alternately hidden by cloudy weather, and then put out of reach by the bitter cold that often moved in behind major storm systems. For my mother, ever the worry-wart, the idea that I might be allowed out on a sub-freezing night, however effectively bundled, was absolutely appalling. Many a clear winter night passed me by simply because mother declared it “Too cold!” I learned early on that it was not a fight I could win. Being trapped in a house each winter with five children prone to every sneeze and sniffle-causing virus known to medical science (actually, I think we bred some new ones), my mother was more than a little paranoid when it came to our health. If she perceived a risk it was a real risk, end of story. Look back at it now, it’s hard to hold this against her.

I’m not honestly sure whether or not my father always agreed with her, or simply (and perhaps wisely) deferred to her judgment in these matters. As time passed and I became a little older and obviously less fragile than she believed, he did eventually intercede on my behalf. That he did so only after my mother went back to work and wasn’t always there in the evening when permission was requested, is a tribute to his common sense. I remember no few occasions, after I started high school, on which she drove up to the garage, headlights glaring off the snow, and found me peering up at Orion, Peruses, or blazing Capella. “What do you think you’re doing out here?” she demanded the very first time this happened. My defense was that Dad said it was okay for “a while,” that conveniently indeterminate unit of time so often used by parents.

To be honest, I was never all that fond of cold weather, or standing in the dark in the snow. There were times when the lure of starlight was too great and I just had to be out there. I was not inclined to push it, my motivation being limited by that aversion to cold, the difficulty of using a telescope with heavy gloves on my hands, and the fact that short days pulled the wind out of my sails. I surely did less winter observing than was actually possible. And yet there are, among the sights of the winter night sky, those that I know as well as any from late spring or the summertime. Chief among these, of course, is Orion the Hunter.

My fascination with the Hunter, an attraction that predates meaningful telescopic examination of its vicinity, is most likely due to being able to identify it so readily. The depictions of Orion in Neely’s A Primer For Star-Gazers caught my imagination and stuck in my memory. The sheer size of the constellation reinforced knowledge of its identity. It looms over you in the winter night sky, and anything that looms makes an impression on small children. So by the time I reached my telescope-wielding teen years, Orion was the constellation of Winter. On those clear winter nights when I could get out of the house, Orion received much of my attention. It’s a rewarding constellation for a small refractor, containing as it does so many bright double stars, and the Great Nebula of Orion itself.

Of course, the Pleiades and the Bull were also well known to me, as was Canis Major, impossible to ignore with brilliant Sirius flashing low in the south. I can remember standing alone out there, in the frigid winter dark, struggling to focus the refractor with fingers that slowly went numb even with a good pair of gloves to protect them. I split Mintaka, saw three stars of the sigma Orion is system, and tried very hard to make out all the stars in the Trapezium while contemplating the awesome idea that I was staring at a place where stars were born. The sky in which these, and other, wonders were set, especially in mid-winter when domes of dry, transparent arctic air settled over us, would be as black a setting for stars as any I’ve seen since. The same conditions that made diamonds and jewels of the stars, hard and bright in a transparent black sky, also sent the temperatures plunging. I came in more than once because of ice crystals on the eyepieces, frost on my eyebrows, and with a touch of frost nip in my fingertips causing them to burn and sting when I went back inside.

My mother may have over-estimated the risk I was taking, but she was not entirely wrong. It grew dangerously cold, some nights, but as these were often the best of nights, I would bundle up and take that challenge. Eventually both my parents came to trust my common sense in the matter. Under completely different circumstances, I once endured a touch of actual frostbite, and the pain of it was not something I ever forgot. So I was very careful. I dressed like an arctic explorer and carried the telescope out to an area cleared of snow while wearing snowmobile boots, thick mittens over fingerless gloves, and a wool ski mask that itched something awful. All you would have seen of me was my eyes and mouth, the latter being concealed frequently by steam. I would go out before dark, when the world was covered by blue snow shadows and the sunset glowed low in the southwest. The air smelled cold, strange as that may sound. If there was any breeze at all it would be a short night; calm nights I lasted longest. The snow squeaked and crunched under those thick-soled, clunky old boots.

Twilight did not last long, that time of year, and darkness settled in quickly. Out at night in the winter, darkness always held a slightly spooky quality for me, no doubt the result of SAD warring with my motivation to do astronomy. It’s more than a bit awkward to be enamored of the stars, and to be (in a way) afraid of the dark at the same time.

Toward the end of high school a few of my classmates acquired vehicles of their own, which led to one of the few instances I can recall in which one of them shared the view through the eyepiece. I was not far off the back stoop with only the telescope and the 20mm eyepiece, not doing any serious observing, merely moving the telescope from one old favorite to another. A car came up the drive and stopped, the headlights went out, and one of my friends stalked through the snow over the frozen backyard. He probably made a sarcastic comment about me being out there in the cold and dark, but by then I’d heard them all. There was no ill intent, and so no sting. This incident stands out because for some reason, in addition to the usual harassment, he challenged me to show him something “interesting.”

I moved the scope and pointed it at the Great Nebula in Orion, and then set the nebula just off the edge so there would be time to switch observers and still get a good look. My friend peered into the eyepiece. There was some back and forth as we got things focused for his eye, and I demonstrated how to gently nudge the scope to keep the nebula in view. He naturally wanted to know what he was seeing, and so I rattled off everything I could off the top of my head regarding the Great Nebula. It was probably a good deal more than he wanted to know, and I’m sure I got carried away a bit with the part about those four tiny, gleaming stars being new suns, born in that cloud of gas and dust. After a while, he looked up at Orion and nodded. “Far out,” he said quietly. And then, as if nothing unusual had taken place, he suggested we drive over to another friend’s house and hang out. A little disappointed, though not honestly surprised, by his reaction, I packed up the scope, obtained parental permission for the jaunt, and we went elsewhere to spend the evening.

The following Monday morning, a couple of classes into the day, that same friend and I found ourselves sitting in English class. The emphasis for that semester was on writing creatively, part of the grand effort to prepare us for colleges many of us would never attend. On Monday morning the week’s writing assignment theme would be determined by taking an idea from what we experienced over the weekend. To stimulate discussion and ideas, we were encouraged to share the experiences about which we intended to write our essays. My friend was one of those called upon for this one. What had he seen or done over the past two days that stood out, the teacher asked?

He told her he had seen a place where stars were born.

Posted August 20, 2022 by underdesertstars

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