Thursday, September 13, 2012

When you wish upon a star

Did you see the stars last night?
While we're all probably sorry to see the end of summer and the shorter days of autumn and winter, there is some good news.
The stars stay out longer.
So, did you see them?
If you were especially lucky, like me,  your view of the heavens was through the towering summer oaks of a Smoky Mountain hillside, featuring a starlit night so completely unaffected by man-made light pollution that each twinkling orb seemed many times its usual size.  But even the night before wasn't bad. That was the evening we spent camping in a Kentucky state park tucked in the middle of a small, busy city. We mistook a nearby Best Western sign for the rising moon, and awoke the next morning to the sounds of fire trucks and traffic, instead of forest birds and babbling brooks.
But the stars were beautiful there, too.
No big surprise. They're stars. That's what they do.
I've been a dedicated star-gazer for as long as I can remember. As a little boy, I spent countless summer nights in the huge, tree-lined backyard of the house where I grew up. My dad was an avid gardener, so much of the time after he came home from work was spent in that yard. He would dig, hoe, plant and harvest. My mom would put together a quick meal out of the tomatoes, green beans, potatoes and other vegetables he grew. My sister and brother and I would do the kind of outdoor things kids did in those days.
Finally, darkness fell.
It was real darkness, unaffected by much in the way of street lights or by the new waves of light and color now brought forth by an ethanol plant and a couple hundred or so twinkling wind turbines.
"Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight. "
My mother always seemed to say it first, but one by one, we spotted that first star and made our wishes. If mine came true, it meant that we'd get to stay outside a little longer before we were finally driven indoors by a mixture of mosquitoes and my mother, who was, no doubt, hoping to get us all washed up and bedded down before the beginning of the Johnny Carson show and her one chance to sit down and put her feet up.
I hoped we'd get to watch the stars for awhile.
Now, before you get the idea that we were a family of budding astronomers, let me assure you that it was all pretty basic.
"That's the big dipper," my dad would say. "There's Orion. See his belt?"
And that was about it.
But it was enough.
And I've been doing it ever since.
Besides our recent Smoky Mountain vista, I've enjoyed the upward view in a lot of memorable spots. Like Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks, where the nighttime skies seem especially alive with starburst explosions. Or on the shores of Lake Superior, where the Northern Lights can ripple and roll in sheets of lavish light and color. I've gazed in awe at starry wonders over Illinois cornfields, from Rocky Mountain heights, and, even, from Central Park, a darkened oasis in the middle of New York City.
There's no bad place to watch the stars, I guess. But some are better than others.
I'm looking forward to spending some time with my youngest grandsons soon. They're back in school, and their days are quickly become a little more complicated with school stuff, soccer, friends and all the other things that change their little lives.
But I'm hoping they'll have some time. Some time to sit with me just after sunset. Some time to look straight up.
"That's the big dipper," I'll say. "There's Orion. See his belt?"
Because some things--like stars--never change.

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