If it’s alright, let me tell you a story. In the early part of 1963 I was an eight-year-old boy living on the rolling hills of central New Jersey. It was all farmland then, cows, chickens, and endless fields of soy and corn. By bicycle, it was ten minutes to our closest neighbor and probably a good 20 minutes to reach one of my friends. Usually, I was allowed to ride to each by myself, but sometimes my brother would prop me up on the handlebars of his fancy three speed bike and we’d ride off together.
Ours was a large chicken farm with several, long, low-slung coops connected by a tractor-wide dirt road that began at our house and ended behind the most distant building, right at the top of a great hill for sledding. It was on that dirt road, during walks with my uncle, that I began to take notice of the night sky. It was dark and quiet, but I don’t remember ever being frightened at the remoteness of it all.
We’d walk along the road and talk about stars and planets, though I don’t think he really knew much about either. He’d just raise his arm and say something like “look out there, Harry, look at all those stars.”
He planted the seed in me with just those few words. For a poor kid like me, far removed from a library or from a town large enough to support a book store, there was nothing I could do with my curiosity other than to go outside and stare at the points of light. Fortunately, every few months, my teacher handed out a two-page listing of books we could buy through a school program. For 30 cents one could invest in a Curious George tale and, perhaps, buy a pamphlet about the planets. I’m not sure there was another eight-year-old kid who had it so good.
That year, before my grandfather passed and John Kennedy was killed, the most important things to me were the stars, playing baseball in the field next to our home and going with one of my parents to the Smithburg general store several miles away. The store was built, according to the numbers affixed high above its front door, in 1860, though it clearly had been remodeled several times in the century that followed. Later, it would be sacrificed to a road-widening project. But I was lucky enough to buy countless baseball cards there for five cents per pack. Sometimes, there’d be a Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle card along with a single stick of gum. For another penny or two, one could purchase hundreds of little candy dots that miraculously clung to a roll of waxed paper. I wanted for nothing.
Recently, for whatever reason, though I guess for many important reasons, as 2020 winds down to its merciful end, I found myself thinking about that time and that place and its wondrous innocence. I haven’t been back there in many years, though on my last visit it was easy to see the changes that had basically swept all what had been so special for me completely away.
Really, does anything remain as it was more than a half century later? It was at that point in my reminiscing, that I realized that some things, despite the passage of time, don’t change at all. It took little effort and no money for my uncle to instill in me a lifelong love of astronomy. Any pathway or porch or backyard will serve the same purpose as that beloved dirt road of my youth. Political assassinations, wars, and even pandemics have no power to get between an adult and a child talking about the sky or about a garden or about a tree growing in the desert. Indeed, in times like ours, that’s exactly what adults should do.
You see, it’s taken me all these years to finally realize what my uncle taught me on those nighttime walks. He taught me that seemingly insignificant moments – “Harry, look at the stars” – can instill in a child a passion for knowledge and a never-ending reverence for the awe that comes with it.