Star Party 

Saturday my The Grizz invited me to a Star Party. In attendance? Pollux, Castor, Venus… Ha-ha, yes you get my amazing joke: Not the typical sort of “star” party now, was it? No, it wasn’t typical at all in terms of what you’d expect nowadays when you hear the term, and that made for much better of a time.

Over the past handful of years he, The Grizz, has taken up astronomy as a hobby and now possesses a pawful of telescopes and some awesome equipment (read: craziest laser pointer you have ever seen in your life that he will not let me and C.Sto play with). M.Sto and The Grizz belong to the area astronomy club and that very club holds parties out a ways where and when the viewing conditions are best.

For this event, C.Sto, The Viking and I rode to the flanks of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the place called Sky Meadows. My parents had been there all day (these parties are a 12-hour affair for them) but we didn’t arrive until 9PM, which was after dark. The tricky part was picking our way over a few rolling hills and then up to where the telescopes were, and therein identifying which shadowed figure was that of Le Grizzwold. So as to not disturb this secret society and the conditions best serving its scientific ritual, no lights are allowed unless they are infrared. Thus, we walked with arms linked through the darkness.

Under the crescent moon we eventually found a meadow (as promised by the title of the park) filled with seventy telescopes, each attended by an owner. We linked on past lines of amateur astronomers, laughing at our misidentifications of non-Grizz-like figures as we went, our shadows strong on the grass under the bright moonlight as we made out still more telescopes beyond those we moments ago thought must be the last, some so large that one needed climb a ladder to reach the eyepiece. When we located him at last, The Grizz was busy finding Saturn in front of M.Sto’s sleeping car. There they had setup a table with various manuals, maps and equipment, a cooler and two chairs for the sitting.

C.Sto looked up, “It’s like being in planetarium!”

“That’s Orion!” I said, pointing to the horizon, then, “wait, that is Orion, right? …Dad?”

It was. (After much debating and looking at star charts in the Grizz’s infrared headlamp the constellation was confirmed.)

It wasn’t the clearest smear of a galaxy sky I’d ever seen (that status belonging to Cape Hatteras or Death Valley), but it was a damn clear night, and the clearest I’ve seen in a long, long while.

“The public” was also there, wandering from 'scope to 'scope, as if it were a perfectly sunny street fair, they ambled along, here looking at a merchant’s cart, there watching the candle maker at work; but instead of purchasing, tonight’s order of business was asking the astronomer in question if they might have a look at the Object in sights. The corresponding astronomer always obliged with some pride, allowing us to view his catch and explaining the science behind the celestial body. The firefighter with his three kids, the grandfather there by himself with his huge telescope, the two little old ladies blathering on behind us, the student working the event table with M.Sto…

Something about the community of being outside, rural, in the safe shadows of the cool night under that blanket of velvet and pin-point lights and solar reflection, and of that being normal, a town of the night, was very present upon me, and recalled some days… Evenings spent playing flashlight tag, when one was allowed to spend time outside after dark, if only because one had a clear purpose, a reason for being out.

And the people watching (or silhouette watching, I suppose) was semi-amusing. At one point, a couple walked by and asked The Grizz,

“What do you have there?”

“Saturn!” He replied, having once again turned his telescope’s gaze toward that ringed giant. (I do believe it is his favorite.)

“It seems that Saturn is popular tonight,” said the man with a hint of snide-ness, declining to look and writing our telescope station off as elementary, as if The Grizz were incapable of finding anything but Saturn.

The Grizz regarded him a moment, as a child might an adult who had insulted him: Recognizing the tone at first in surprise and then in an amused sort of way, for it so did not fit the circumstances of the friendly nighttime community, nor say much about anything save the sayer himself. Then, without a further thought on the matter, The Grizz returned to adjusting the view of Saturn, pleased to see his old yellow-white friend.

I will admit that I had the strong urge to respond in my typical way, “Your mom is popular tonight.” But I did not. (Best comeback ever and it works on all occasions.)

Anyway, that fool can get his own telescope if he doesn’t like Saturn. Otherwise, the whole affair was rad. Such as when were in line for one of the larger telescopes, one that required the accession of a ladder and discipline in focusing one’s eye properly. Gasps suddenly erupted from various clusters of silhouettes; we quickly turned to see what the subject was, and caught sight of a bright shooting star angling west toward the horizon. Then it was gone, and there was applause from all sides of the meadow.

Telescope Viewed:
Saturn (twice)
Venus
The Moon
Spiral Galaxies (two)

Eye-Spied:
Satellites
Shooting Star
Orion
Dippers (two)
Gemini
Venus
Planes (boring)

On our way out, we passed the “Sky Tour.” The guide spoke of Lyra to the crowd, who sat on the grass before him. Wielding a crazy-insane laser pointer of his own, he traced the stars one by one and the constellation became apparent to all.

Just like a planetarium, indeed.

If you search up “star party,” chances are that you will discover one near you.

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