University Lowbrow Astronomers

Sarah’s Story

by Paul Walkowski
Printed in Reflections: November, 1997.

I had a memorable time with my new 10 inch Dob for a week at Long Lake North of Alpena, Mi.  I could pick out most of Messier objects naked eye and find them easily with a Telrad. On July 5-7 it was essentially a New moon, the transparency, seeing, and weather conditions were perfect for 2 out of these 3 days. The skies were clear for 5 out of the 6 evenings of my stay. There was a slight cool breeze coming off of the lake and I set up the 10 inch Dob on a point of land that jutted out into the lake for the best Southern horizon.  Venus was a brilliant disk in the east. Jupiter quickly rose over the trees on the other side of the lake and reflected brilliantly across the entire surface of the lake. I collected a fair number of curiosity seekers after the camp fire each night, but after a quick glimpse of Mars “that small round red thing?”, the moon, “wow looks cold and empty, and I can see craters just like in the books” (a 3 year old exclaimed, “look daddy it has bubbles”), and Jupiter, “Oh, I can see 4 moons and those brown line things, what are they?” they quickly went back to their cabins leaving myself, Sarah, and her dad Peter alone with the night sky.

Sarah is nine years old now, the hood of her jacket pulled tight to her face to keep out the cold night air, full of wonder and just the right touch of courage.  Two weeks before vacation, when she heard that my family and I would be at Long Lake at the same time as her family, she reminded me that I needed to bring “my telescope” again this year.

The story began much earlier.  Two years ago I bought a 2.5 inch Tasco refractor from a garage sale for $30 while at Long Lake.  I soon tired of the planets and “not finding things” pronounced easily visible in the book Night Watch (by T. Dickenson) so started coming to Lowbrow Meetings and open houses.  I learned frustration with a poor telescope mount.  The scope had to be incessantly tapped to bring in Jupiter for a 3 second zip past the optics which made focusing at anything but low power impossible.  Easily embarrassed by the department store toy that I wound up with, I brought it to only one open house and brought it out only after all of the “paying customers” went home.  But I looked through enough other scopes and talked to enough people to know that the skies contained the same awesome evidence of the might of God’s arm that I saw when I first visited the Rocky mountains 20 years ago. Last summer I bought parts for a 10” Dob and drew up meticulous blueprints, but vacation came quickly that summer. Not intending to be again disappointed, I borrowed Kurt’s 4” SCT and saw Jupiter, Saturn, and a few of the brighter Messiers, and of course I was just learning how to star hop and where to look.

This is when I first met Sarah. To be sure she blessed her parents and siblings prior to this, but she had never seriously entered my conscious mind until then. Her parents were a long time friends, involved with the same church group and private school that I supported. Her dad had spent hours showing her the night sky through binoculars in previous years, and naming some constellations.  The 4 inch Mead SCT opened up a whole new world for Sarah. She couldn’t see enough of the stars and planets through Kurt’s scope and neither could I. Back then, I just couldn’t answer most of the questions that an 8 year old “has to know” either.  But I resolved to learn a few more answers for myself and others and be better prepared next year.

The 10 inch Dob was finished hurriedly in late March, so I could see the fleeting views of Hale-Bopp. The crowds at Peach Mountain and the large star party at Kensington Metropark demanded a steady diet of Hale-Bopp. In the excitement to get out and look at the comet I forgot about the rest of the sky and got started star hopping in earnest just as the comet set.  Of course Garfinkle’s book “Star Hopping” was a great help, if not encyclopedic, but he just didn’t have the same viewing priorities that I did. So much sky--so little time!

This brings us back to Long Lake.  This year Sarah had more patience and followed the lead of her dad and I well into the night, missing nothing , and drinking deeply of everything.  The questions were more focused--what is a “planetary nebula and are there other kinds?” and “how big is the Whirlpool and how far away, and how do you know?”  The only complaining was of the predictable good natured variety when bed time drew near.  Each night she asked for a favor or two, “just look at Jupiter again, can’t we, before I go to sleep”, or “let’s show mom Alberio, the yellow and blue double is my favorite” and grew a touch bolder in asking and learning to aim the telescope. On the last night the air was thick with the sense of something good that should go on forever coming sadly to an end.

Sarah captured the sense of urgency and asked to aim the scope at the moon for the campfire people. She startled from the brightness of the first quarter moon and reached for the cardboard stop down aperture without being reminded. Satisfied with her work she took a long drink of the moon while other children, older than her, engage in horseplay in the line now forming. She wanted to know what crater she had centered in the eyepiece at the terminator but my faded photocopy of the moon map is inverted and backwards from the telescope view and we never figured it out. She raced on to Mars, the moons of Jupiter, the cloud bands of Jupiter, I start to bring up the Lagoon Nebula but time is running out and she can’t wait for me to clear the heavy dew off the Telrad finder, so she gently wrestles the scope from my hands and finds it by instinct.

As the evening rushed faster and faster to a close, her dad and I stood back in awe of the little girl turned astronomer before us.  We joked nervously about being muscled away from the telescope by Sarah’s exuberance to see it all in one night, but didn’t want to discourage her in the least. “Oh look, Saturn is up. I want to see the rings again” she chattered without the least hint of sleepiness. One more drink of Alberio, a last look at the Ring Nebula, “What’s this bright globular cluster near the point of the teapot of Sagittarius and how come its so much brighter than the one I found at the bottom of the handle? Is that one further away or just fainter?” Sarah was dashing on to the double cluster, and the globular and multiple open clusters at the tail of Aquila, the Galaxy in Andromeda all found on previous nights. The wind gusted more sharply now and her wind breaker rattled in the breeze without her noticing it. The Whirlpool Galaxy, the Spiral galaxy, and M-13 were a reach from the top of the stepladder, but such obstacles were overcome without hesitation.

Finally the evening came to an end. Sarah and Peter helped me load the scope into the van. Everything was cold and slippery with dew.  Peter and I talked about visiting Peach Mountain, about encouraging Sarah, and someday getting her a telescope of her own.  I watched those two walk back to their cabin in silence.  Peter looking down, I imagine, sharing my own resignation that vacation was over and wondering where all this would lead, Sarah looking up for one last glimpse of the new friends she had made--she knew many of them by name.  Its an astounding thing to watch a child blossom before your eyes. Maybe vacations force things to happen on compressed schedules.  A flicker and a spark turn into a roman candle.

So if on some cool night on Peach Mountain a little wind breakered, sandy blond haired, nine year girl old asks you the distance to the Double Cluster, and how it was measured; and just say while you are distracted that she steers your telescope for the next few hours; say hello to Sarah. She’ll treat your scope with all the gentleness of a newborn baby. And she does really want to know. Pause and remember the excitement of your own “First Light” experience.  Then move over--the next generation of astronomers are here to learn from us as much as they can before they fill our shoes.


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