Thursday, June 24, 2010

Under the Night Sky

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.


Liberality said...

The airport and city lights from Indianapolis dim the sky here so that you can hardly see the stars at night anymore. It's a shame because the night sky is beautiful and reminds us of our place in the universe.

The airport is expanding here and almost every night from midnight to 3 AM Fed Ex jets roar over our house, which is out in the country supposedly, nonstop. It makes me want to scream sometimes. I hate airplanes. I really do. And when the weather is bad those planes fly even lower and sometimes I think one of those beasts is going to crash on our house, they are that loud.

Middle Ditch said...

You will see them again. I promise.

I see them every night, living in a tiny village in the middle of the sticks and they are gorgeous. I also love satellite watching and on many a night I can see several gliding by at some speed.

Now I'm off to watch Holland (my home country) play football in the world cup. Oranje Boven!!!!

Doc said...

Thanks BB. I was transported to laying on my back in a cow pature on a hill and staring into the vastness of it all. It is a moment of respite that I need to revisit more often.


Beach Bum said...

Liberality: Its the same way here made worse by damn landscaping lights with people for some reason wanting to show off their trees and shrubs at night. Its beyond stupid to me but I am a minority here.

Middle Ditch: Seriously sound like a piece of Heaven to me.

Doc: You and me both my friend. Years ago I camped out at Huntington Beach State Park down on the coast of South Carolina and the stars were pretty good because the sprawl had not expanded that much yet. Listening to the surf and watching the stars was fantastic, even that's been ruined now.

allen said...

Sounds like you need a deck chair and a boat-drink on a dark night.

The first time I saw the galactic plane I was utterly shocked at how many stars I could see. It lets you know how small we really are.

Rhiannon said...

I couldn't agree with everything you said in this post more. All my life I've always looked up at the night sky and stars and was always spellbound, while wondering some same thoughts you wrote about us human beings being so narrow minded.

Whenever I look up at the night sky or the beauty of the clouds and day sky people I know walk past me and always say "what are you looking at"? sigh..I so tire of hearing I tell them "the sky the beauty and how wonderful it is"...most just look at me and just "don't get it" by the way those people that walk by me a lot when I"m looking up are usually looking down at the sidewalk looking "down" and rarely up...I just don't get that! So there!

You remind me of myself sometimes when things you write in your post on your blog. I guess some people are "deep" and some are not...or maybe people think we are "weird" because we always look up nut who you want to be what is considered "normal" now? I sure don't.

Have a good upcoming weekend BB.


Beach Bum said...

Allen: HEY COUSIN!!!!! You know what would be really cool, being on a sailboat ten or so miles out at sea away from most man-made lights.

Rhia: "...most just look at me and just "don't get it"..."

LOL!!!! I know that feeling very well, which greatly worries me at times. I have always believed the old saying that its the insane man that thinks everyone else is crazy. Not a day goes by when I the world seems to fall a little deeper into the Abyss.

Tim said...

When I star gaze, which I love to do, think about all the people before me who pondered the night skies. The wonderment we share over all these years.Cool beans..

Jack Jodell said...

Thanks for bringing me back again to the days of my youth, when I, too, was fascinated by outer space. I still am, and am in awe every time I think of Voyager I, the probe we launched back in 1977 that is now at the very edge of our solar system's outer boundary and is heading into interstellar space at nearly 40,000 miles per hour. And, in another 5 years, we'll finally see closeup shots of Pluto, which so far has only been a blurry little ice ball to us. Fascinating, isn't it?

lime said...

as soon as you said you were in the mojave i gasped at imagining the sky you were able to enjoy. can't imagine the vision the night goggles must have given. you describe it so vividly though. thanks so much for sharing these meditations. may you see the stars again soon.

Beach Bum said...

Tim: Yeah, that's a heavy connection with the past. Also makes me wonder about the people who will look at them in the future.

Jack: Absolutely and for that very reason I was livid with the president for canceling the Constellation program of going back to the moon. Hopefully I'll live to see the Chinese get to the moon and onward to Mars because I do not expect the United States will do much beyond make pretty Powerpoint illustrations of manned exploration.

Lime: It was very cool and sort of spooky. A few times I was alone out there for a couple of days and I understood the scores of stories about alien visits and abductions. I love the ocean but I seriously could live out there.

sunshine said...

I loved star gazing as a little girl. We lived in the country so, I had a great view.
Last summer I took it up again with my kids. We bought a book (kids version) and learned some of the names. This summer (at some point) I'd like to get a telescope.
I live in a city but, it's not large so, we can still get a decent view. :)


Randal Graves said...

All this damn artificial light, virtually impossible to truly stargaze. I'm not naive enough to think that if every single person on planet earth would have a chance to look down from an orbiting spacecraft, we'd suddenly find ourselves in utopia, but I'd wager there'd be at least 3-5% less fuckery.

TomCat said...

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.

Busted, huh? ;-)

Seriously, in my much younger days I used to fish occasionally at a high (11,000 ft.) lake that was a two day walk from the narrow gage railroad and 50 miles from the closest light bulb. I have never seen such an awesome night sky anywhere else.

Beach Bum said...

Sunshine: As I mentioned above its real bad down here with wackos lighting up trees and shrubs at night.

Randal: Heck with Utopia down here, fuckers would make an extra special effort to burn it down and sell off the ashes as souvenirs. I'd just be satisfied with what you mentioned, a little less of the overwhelming crap.

Tomcat: No, but given the shit that passes as normal here in Suburbia 2010 its best I do not even try.

Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

If only the holier-than-thous/all of these religiouly ordained politicians ("I answer to a higher father", the simpleton said) could channel some of your well thought out and respectful humility (not even to mention your perspective; us being basically but a blip, etc.). Yes, me-bucko, if only.

David Barber said...

Sorry I'm late to this. Where we are there is very little light pollution and on a clear night the stars are awesome. When we used to come here on holiday, we stayed a mile or so away from where we live. It was a log cabin on the side of a loch. The nights were pitch black and the skies were something else, 'shooting stars' every night. Thanks for this post, Beach.

TomCat said...

Better luck next time. :-)

Beach Bum said...

Will: Like Randal said, I'd be happy with a little less crap. Better yet, if there was only some way I could finance my exile to some isolated place in New Zealand or Austrailia or at least the desert southwest leaving the world to its nasty games.

David: You are very lucky, any opening at nearby hospitals for biomed technicians?

Tomcat: LOL!!! Actually the windows I'd like to see inside are at an apartment complex near my work. Dropped off a buddy one time and it was crawling with babes and MILFs, many who work at my hospiatl.

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