The stars have always been a source of fascination for me since I was old enough to hold a pair of binoculars up to the night sky in my grandfather's backyard. During those times lights from homes had yet to overwhelm the stars and planets and I spent hours staring at the craters of the moon, the tiny disc of Jupiter circled by its largest moons, and even the faint wisps of the rings around Saturn. These were real places to me long before the Pioneer and Voyager probes sailed by sending their pictures back to Earth.
As much as I enjoyed it I never delved deeply into actual astronomy. One Christmas I did receive a telescope as a present but its lenses were weak compared to the old binoculars my grandfather owned and the tripod mount could never be tighten enough to allow a steady view. Many times I would have it pointed at an object only to see it slowly drift downward before I could look through the eyepiece. Another reason I lost interest was that in my hometown I was the only person who showed any curiosity in the subject. You spend enough time outside at night in any suburban setting and eventually some busybody will become convinced you are trying to peep into windows. So as I grew older I moved on to other things less likely to have the sheriff called out on me.
That was the case until one night out in the Mojave Desert at Fort Irwin, California. Fort Irwin is the National Training Center which during my time in the active army in the late 1980's taught soldiers what to expect if the Soviet Union ever crossed the Fulda Gap and started World War Three. During my visits brigade sized units faced off against a similar sized opposition force trained in Soviet tactics and who used aircraft and vehicles that were altered to look like their Soviet counterparts. It was extremely fast paced during the daily battles, for those lucky enough to be assigned to a maneuver unit, and very fun to a much younger and gung-ho version of myself. But like anything to do with the military one hour of sheer terror, or fun in this case, is nothing compared to the other twenty-three of utter boredom waiting for something to happen. It was in the God awful, dark hours of the very early morning while in the desert that I noticed the stars again.
We were a few hours away from the armored vehicles in the lead maneuver unit moving into position for the battle that morning and I was lying on top of an old M-113 armored personnel carrier trying to catch a few more minutes of sleep. During that time strict light discipline was being enforced as part of the training to prevent anyone from giving away our position. The other guys in and on the track vehicle with me were trying to sleep themselves and despite the events about to happen a deep silence hung over everything. Looking up at the night sky unable to sleep it was then that I noticed the stars blazing above me like I had never seen them before.
Back home on the best nights the Milky Way was a faint haze stretching across the sky but at Fort Irwin it flowed like an intense river of light above me and I would be a liar if I did not say I was in awe of what I saw. The Orion constellation, the only one I really knew how to find, stood out bright and clean and it was only then that I could see how the ancients had come to describe that grouping of stars like they did.
With the naked eye alone everything above stood out in its full glory as it must have from the earliest days of humans walking the earth. But given my location and what I was doing I had another instrument that would add another astounding level to what I was seeing. The vehicle I was on had a pair of night vision goggles on board and with a little effort I was able to get my hands on them without disturbing anyone.
After I got the device turned on and looking skyward what had been awesome with the naked eye became unspeakably beautiful as the instrument gathered the weakest light from deep space and amplified it many times. A multitude of stars that were too dim to be seen with the naked eye shined with a radiant beauty that again left me bewildered and nearly drunk. During those quiet moments as everyone around me made themselves ready for the training that would teach them how to kill as efficiently as possible I was struck with the futility of the whole endeavor. Looking up and seeing all those stars and the galaxy itself staring back down on us it occurred to me in an almost a painful way how damn small and unimportant we were in the true scheme of things. The idea that anything we could conceive would be significant enough to kill each other over was ludicrous when something far greater than us screamed each night to be notice. Like all moments of epiphany and revelation the more mundane affairs of humans soon demanded attention and it wasn't long before I was speeding across the desert with my fellow soldiers.
Tonight as I arrived at work the hospital was its usual center of human foolishness. Standing at the top of the parking garage I looked out below as people screamed, yelled, and cursed each other over any number of things. From my perch I could see a couple clutching each other walking toward the emergency room with fear emanating from them like sound waves. Two nearby men walked away from the entrance with one holding a heavily bandaged arm with a spot of blood visible on the bandages even from my location. Beside the people machinery hummed in the distance, lights from a hundred empty windows burned, and a steady flow of cars entered and left the parking lot it was then that I looked above me and saw only a few stars and planets visible and able to overcome all the man-made light that was trying to snuff them out.
The lives of people of course come before the hopeless mental meanderings of a country boy perplexed by the strange and self serving behavior of the naked primates that run things here on Earth but as I looked above me tonight I was struck at how our egoistical and mindless pursuits ignore the greater grandeur of existence. It's a shame really and I truly believe it leads to a banal and empty life which we try to fill with material things. Long story short, I miss the stars and planets I saw that night in the desert and hope one day to see them like that again.