There’s not the slightest doubt in my mind that except for a few things that happened during my earliest years I would never have had an interest in the night sky, one which led to one of the most exciting experiences of my life.
My earliest glimpses of the night sky came about in a simple, natural way. Most of the games we played on our block on Staten Island were played on Pike Street, a cross street running from Brook Street to Victory Boulevard. Pike Street wasn’t an officially designated play street as some New York streets were in the 1930s, but we used it that way.
Had you taken a look at Pike Street on any day of the week you would have seen most of the kids on our block playing some kind of game. One game we played a lot was Three-O-Cat, a version of baseball with just three bases: home, first, and third. We used a tennis ball and broomstick instead of a baseball and bat because baseballs break too many windows. On other days we played touch football, or skated around on street skates with steel wheels, or played tag, or whatever. The girls joined in too. The main thing was that day or night Pike Street was ours.
Up till about nine o’clock on most evenings Pike Street was as full of kids as it was during the day. The main difference at night was the two or three neighborhood vehicles parked on Pike Street because bus traffic made parking on Brook Street a bad idea.
And guess what? Having those cars parked on Pike Street at night was a great thing. We had a nice place to lay back and relax when we got tired of wearing out our clothes from the inside out.
And just where was that, pray tell?
On the running boards, of course.
Ever seen an old car like the 1935 Chevy sedan, which was the first car I ever owned? It had running boards that started out about eight inches wide by the rear doors and increased to a kid-comfortable width as they passed the front doors and swept smoothly upward to become fenders.
What a great place for a kid to lie back and look up at the night sky!
So that’s how some of us learned the basics of the night sky; lying on our backs and looking up as we took a break from a game. It might surprise you that never once did an adult ever chase one of us off a running board. Times were simpler back then, friendlier, more relaxed and natural; and kids were also less destructive.
So a comfortable running board was the spot from which I got my first look at things like Jupiter, Mars, the North Star, the big and little dippers, and so on. It was a relaxed, easy, natural way to learn a few basic things about the night sky, but I have to admit that I picked up a lot of what I know about the night sky in a rather odd way.
Want to see an excited 8-year-old? You should have seen me the night my friend Harry McKinley and I sat down on my front stoop with a set of low power binoculars to see what we could see.
Truthfully, we didn’t see much of anything at first. A star is a bright little speck in the sky, and with a pair of three power binoculars it’s still just a bright little speck in the sky.
But then came the moment when I casually aimed the binoculars at Jupiter. I absolutely could not believe my eyes. There was good old Jupiter, as bright as ever, but around it were some things I hadn’t heard about.
“Hey, Harry!” I said as I handed him the binoculars. “Look! Jupiter has four moons! You can see them as plain as ever!”
That small but critical moment was a big step toward one of the most exciting experiences of my entire life.
Can you guess why?
Tell you next week.