TALES OF A THREE-LEGGED NEWT

The world at night is a different place, as any amateur astronomer knows. You hear things and sometimes see things out there in the dark that would otherwise not be experienced. In the years I studied the stars in my youth, I encountered geese migrating high in the night, raccoons and opossums, more fireflies and mosquitoes than can possibly be counted, and a stray horse who appeared to be sleep-walking. As soon as I took up the hobby again, I became reacquainted with the quiet oddities of the night. Living in a suburban area, these at times included encounters with curious neighbors, as well as wildlife. I’ve heard and seen coyotes and skunks, listened to geckos chirp and bark, been overflown by great horned owls, and even witnessed one of those big, winged predators trying — and failing — to take out a stray cat. All of them part of the night life.

Two such incidents that happened after I ended the astronomy hiatus stand out for me, one with the Newt, the other the Old Scope.

When I decided to get into stargazing again, I still had the old 60mm refractor I started with so many years before, and I put it to good use while figuring out what I was going to buy as an upgrade. One evening, as I was studying the Moon, a male voice hailed me from the alley. “Excuse me, sir,” and a bright light was in my face. It wasn’t as much of a shock as it might have been, since I’d been staring at a bright first quarter Moon at the time. It still startled me, and my first reaction was less than graceful.

“What the hell’s with the light?” I demanded.

“I was trying to see what you had there.” The light dropped and it bearer identified himself as a police officer.

“It’s a telescope,” I said, though I was reasonably sure he’d figured it out by then.

“Ah, yes. You haven’t seen anyone else out here, have you? Someone with a gun?”

“Just you,” I replied. Okay, I didn’t really mean to sound like a smartass. It just slipped out that way. “Why? Something going on? Should I be packing things up?” The idea that someone was wandering around armed, in a way that had attracted the attention of the police, was alarming.

“Not sure. Lady across the way said someone was back here pointing a rifle at jets flying overhead.”

I looked up as a jet from the nearby Air Force base rumbled by overhead. A common occurrence and one to which I otherwise pay little attention while out observing.

The light was suddenly on the Old Scope again, and the police officer muttered something I couldn’t hear clearly, something about a telescope. Louder, he said over the fence, “Sorry to bother you. Have a pleasant evening.” And switching off the flashlight, he walked away up the alley. I could swear he was laughing.

I eventually learned, from the caregiver for an elderly neighbor across the alley from my house, that her charge had been the one who called the police, claiming that someone was outside with a gun, trying to shoot down planes. The elderly neighbor, who sadly suffered from a significant degree of dementia, had apparently seen me and the Old Scope.

She was very annoyed that they’d let “that terrorist” get away from them.

Given that this was just a couple of years after the 9/11 terrorist attack, I was inclined to be forgiving. I also made it a point to set up the Old Scope before sunset after that, so she could see exactly what I was up to. It must have worked. She never saw the terrorist again.

The other situation involved a potted plant, specifically a hanging basket with a rounded, plastic bottom, and a significantly sleep-deprived amateur astronomer. I’d taken it off its hook and set it aside so I could safely move around in the dark on the porch, without fear of a concussion when I inevitably forgot it was hanging there. I’d planned a long night, a practice session to see how I handled an all-nighter. My first ever Messier Marathon was coming up and I wanted to know how deep into the night I could go. I was well into it, observing during the wee hours of a Sunday morning, when I heard something thumping and bumping on the porch behind me.

I turned to see what was going on and saw that hanging basket pot advancing toward me across the bricks. I don’t care how rational you are by the light of day, that’s the sort of thing — at three o’clock in the morning and half past the last dose of caffeine — that raises the hair on the back of your neck. I stood there for one long, awful moment, absolutely baffled by the concept of a plastic pot, trailing light-weight chains and slender branches, coming to get me. These things just don’t happen outside of a cheap B-movie. The pot wobbled, turned around slowly, and moved steadily in my direction. I suddenly remembered a certain B-movie and another sleep-deprived late night from my teen years. Remembering what a fool I’d been back then, frightened out of my wits by a bullfrog in wet grass, I couldn’t stand it anymore. Reaching down, I grabbed one of the chains and lifted the pot. And believe me when I say I was ready to jump — just in case.

I didn’t need to. Staring up at me was the neighbor’s young black cat. He meowed at me and stood up on his haunches like a little dancing bear, obviously trying to reach the pot, which he had been pushing around on the porch in his effort to mash leaves against his little furry face.

That’s when I finally remembered what was growing in the basket.

Catnip.

Posted August 20, 2022 by underdesertstars

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