My earliest memory of my father took place soon after we moved into the new house. I was five or six years old. He woke me in the dead of night to see a comet. He had heard on the radio that a comet would be visible in the eastern sky in the hours before the dawn. Slippered and jacketed, dragging sleep behind me like a comet’s tail, I followed my father into the backyard. Together we stood on the new badminton court surrounded by black pines and searched our little patch of starry sky. I am guessing now, in the frail light of memory, that my father did not know exactly what we were looking for or where in the sky we might find it. He imagined, I suppose, that the comet would announce itself, trumpeting like an angel, trailing a train of light. He expected a sky on fire, and he wanted me to see it. Or at least that is how I remember his advertisement for getting me out of bed.
He was born on March 27, 1909, the year Halley’s Comet was recovered telescopically for its 1910 apparition. He liked to say that he came in with Halley’s Comet and hoped to go out with it too; after all, the period of the comet, 76 years, is about the same as the expected life span of an American male of his generation. He didn’t make it. The comet returned in 1986, twelve years after he died. The connection between the most famous comet and his birth seems to have assured his lifelong interest in all things astronomical. The return of comets, so precisely calculable by astronomers, appealed to his engineer’s sense of how the universe should run.
As I recall, we did not see the comet that chilly morning in the backyard. It was probably one of those dozen-a-year comets of interest only to astronomers, visible with binoculars or telescope. Or perhaps it was a faint naked-eye comet hidden from us by the pines. As I recall, we stood in the cold morning air and searched the sky until dawn lighted the east. I carry from that morning my first memory of the stars, nameless, uncountable, beautiful and frightening.
One memorable Christmas of my childhood, perhaps that very same year, my father received a star book as a gift, A Primer for Star-Gazers by Henry Neely. The book, now long out of print, is still in my possession. A glance takes me back more than seventy years to evenings with Dad in the backyard of our new home, gazing upwards to a drapery of brilliant stars flung across sky. As he used the book to teach himself the stars and constellations, he included me in his activities. He told me stories of the constellations as he learned them. Of Orion and the deadly Scorpion. Of the lovers Andromeda and Perseus, and the monster Cetus. Of the wood nymph Callisto and her son Arcas, placed by Zeus in the heavens as the Big and Little Bears. No child ever had a better storybook than the ever-changing page of night above our badminton court. He taught me the names of stars: Sirius, Arcturus, Polaris, Betelgeuse, and other, stranger names, Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, the claws of the Scorpion. The words were like incantations that opened the enchanted cave of night. He was a man of insatiable curiosity. His stories of the stars were more than “connect the dots.” He wove into his lessons what he knew of history, science, poetry and myth. And, of course, religion. For my father, the stars were the sublime contrivance of the Great Engineer, their contemplation a sort of prayer.
That Christmas book of long ago was a satisfactory guide to star lore, but as I page through it today I see that it conveyed little of the intimacy I felt as I stood with my father under the canopy of stars. Nor do any of the more recent star guides that I have owned quite capture the feelings I had as a child of standing at the door of an enchanted universe, speaking incantations. What made the childhood experience so memorable was a total immersion in the mystery of the night—the singing of cicadas, the whisper of the wind in the pines, and, of course, my father’s seemingly inexhaustible storehouse of knowledge with which he embellished the stars. He taught me what to see; he also taught me what to imagine. Behind the patterns, behind the names, behind the sweet sensations of the night, there were truths to be intuited, if only one had the tools and the talents to see and hear.
What else do I remember of the stars? I remember evenings on the sleeping porch of my grandmother Dietzen’s house on Ninth Street during the early 1940s. A screened sleeping porch might be found attached to any southern home of a certain vintage and substance, usually on the second story at the back; on sultry summer nights you could move a cot or daybed there and take advantage of whatever breezes stirred the air. I slept there when I visited because it was the only place to find a spare bed. I was usually alone in that big spooky space, with only a thin wire mesh separating me from the many mysteries of the night. Far off in the house I could hear the muffled voice of the big Stromberg-Carlson radio in the parlor, where grown-ups listened to news of the war or the boogie-woogie tunes of the Hit Parade. Outside was another kind of music, nearer, louder, pressing against the screen, which seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, a million scratchy fiddles, out-of-key woodwinds, discordant timpani. These were the crickets, whippoorwills and tree frogs of the southern summer night, but to me at that time they were the sounds of the night itself, as if darkness had an audible element. Some nights the distant horizon would be lit with a silent, winking illumination called “heat lightnin’.” And closer, against the dark grass of the badminton court, the scintillations of fireflies—“lightnin’ bugs”—splashed into brightness. The constellations of fireflies were answered in the sky by stars, whose names and constellations my father had taught me, and which on those evenings when the city’s lights were blacked out for air-raid drills, multiplied alarmingly. I would lie in my cot, eyes glued to the spangled darkness, waiting to hear the drone of enemy aircraft or see the flash of ack-ack guns. No aircraft appeared, no ack-ack tracers pierced the night, but the stars were themselves like vast squadrons of alien rocket ships moving against the inky dark of Flash Gordon space. That’s when my father’s stories truly came to life. That’s when the names of stars exerted their fairy-tale magic. I could almost hear him reciting the names—Polaris, Betelgeuse, Zubenelgenubi, Zubeneschamali. Just as he had taught me, there was the Scorpion creeping westward, dragging its stinger along the horizon. There was the teapot of Sagittarius afloat in the white river of the Milky Way. There was Vega at the zenith and the kite of Cygnus. As the hours passed, the Big Dipper clocked around the Pole. And sometimes, in late summer, I would wake in the predawn hour to find Orion sneaking into the eastern sky, pursuing the teacup of the Pleiades, just as I had been taught to expect.
Neely’s A Primer for Star-Gazers was my father’s kind of book, and I’ve come across nothing like it since. It employed an elaborate system of star maps and horizons, dates and times, the sort of gizmo-ization of the sky that only an engineer could love. I have it here on my desk as I write. I can see its affinity with the journals Dad kept as he died, and even in a funny way with the account book of family finances his mother kept as he studied engineering—get the numbers right and an elusive but gracious plan of the universe will be made clear.