“What I really need,” I expounded at the dining table, “is some flexible plastic tubing that I can use to make super-long straws so you can lay flat on your back and still take a drink.”
“That is so lazy!’ came a reprimand from the next room. Eldest daughter Amber had caught a snippet of my conversation with youngest daughter Melinda. Taken out of context, my statement sounded like one more slide on my slippery slope toward morbid obesity. “That’s terrible!”
“No, no,” I protested, “you don’t understand.”
Neither did the grinning woman who stood behind me in line at the hardware store as I purchased several feet of 3/8″ diameter clear plastic tubing that afternoon. The coiled mass apparently reminded her of some bygone revelry, and a knowing smirk spread across her weathered features. “You gonna drink some beer with that?” she drawled.
A point to her for deducing that the tubing was destined to be used as flexible straws, but otherwise incorrect. Nor was my innovation designed for the sole purpose of minimizing physical activity, as Amber feared. In fact, I was looking for a way in which Melinda and I could maximize our observation of meteors during last weekend’s peak of the Perseid shower. We knew from experience that merely sitting up to take a drink can mean a missed meteor. All of our preparations for comfort and sustenance would be arranged so that we could keep our eyes on the sky for hours without interruption.
Unfortunately, Melinda and I had to do our observing without the welcome company of our fellow Perseid enthusiasts, my brothers David and Richard, whose work schedules were most inconvenient this year. It has been a tradition for the four of us to gather at David’s country abode, set up camp in a clearing next to the stream, and talk through the night while keeping a running tally of the meteors we spot. My brothers are fond of enhancing the conversation with recordings of late-night paranormal radio call-in shows, and there is something to be said for stargazing to the ramblings of paranoid souls who spin Twilight Zone scenarios with utter sincerity. What with the absurdity of our listening fare along with our lack of sleep, we become easily susceptible to giddiness, which keeps things lively in between meteors.
Despite the absences of David and Richard, Melinda and I decided to have our own Perseid party, this time within the confines of our back yard. It’s not an ideal spot. Surrounding development keeps the horizon glowing like a suburban night light, and the floodlit perimeter of our neighboring elementary school is distracting. Still, we found that when we were sprawled on the ground in sleeping bags, our privacy fence blocked the most annoying light pollution, and we could actually see more of the sky than one can observe at David’s, where clusters of tall trees are unavoidable obstacles. We waited until drizzle and clouds moved out and finally set up our observation station at about one in the morning. We wanted to see at least 50 meteors, and we held out hope for 100.
It was Richard who introduced me to the phenomenon of meteor showers three decades ago, around the same time that he was supplementing my science and math education with books by George Gamow, Carl Sagan and Martin Gardner. He explained to me that the Perseid meteor shower was caused by the intersection of Earth’s orbit with a field of minute debris left behind by the Swift-Tuttle comet. The tiny particles burn up when they hit our atmosphere, and, incredibly, we can see it happen with our own eyes all the way down here. He took me out to a reservoir on the edge of town, where the sky was so dark that it seemed like the number of stars had multiplied. Armed with sleeping bags, Slim Jims, and a boom box playing a cassette copy of the soundtrack from Sagan’s Cosmos, we saw over a hundred meteors that night, and I was hooked. I thought it was one of the best natural wonders a human being could experience, and I still do.
Mel and I hunkered down and waited patiently for our first meteor of the night. I had loaded my iPod with an astronomically themed playlist that was nearly five hours long and heavy with Pink Floyd and Gustav Holst. I pressed play, and we took the first sips from our customized drinking rigs.
It wasn’t long before Melinda caught Meteor Number 1. I failed to spot it, but that’s how it goes with meteor watching. The bright streaks can zip along and be gone in a second, and if you happen to be focusing on some other part of the sky, you won’t notice. Sometimes your own vision cannot be trusted, and you’re not sure whether or not you’ve just seen a meteor or it was just the way your brain processed the night sky as you darted your eyes. With that in mind, Melinda devised The Seventy Percent Rule, by which she thought it wise that in the absence of a witness, we would count solo observations only if we were at least seventy percent certain of what we had seen. In this manner, she also spotted Meteors 2 through 4 on her own. Finally, with the appearance of the brighter Meteor 5, I could corroborate her claim, although I perceived it only as an aberration along the rim of my glasses. I decided that it would be better to take in the entire sky with diminished vision, and once I removed my glasses, I caught most of the meteors that Mel saw (as well as a few that she didn’t).
Inevitably, our conversation turned philosophical. It’s impossible to be jaded about the cosmos when you see Cassiopeia appear to arc around Polaris over several hours, and you know that you are actually observing a change in perspective due to your rapidly traveling location on a rotating planet. We talked about how the stars we could see were so far away that their light which we saw was generated years ago, a well-worn yet mind-boggling fact. Melinda recalled a pourquoi story in which Nature punished a disobedient animal population by enshrouding the sky in a blanket for half the day, thoughtfully leaving a few pinholes in the material so at least a little light would shine through. It was fun for us to imagine the dome of the sky as that enormous blanket, though the occasional meteor rather spoiled the effect.
We were fortunate enough to see 50 meteors within the first three hours. Things picked up a little as dawn crept closer. Meteor Number 66 was the undisputed highlight, a fat, radiant light that grew brighter as it lazily streaked earthward, disappearing behind the privacy fence and leaving a faint trail in the sky. We also saw a couple instances of two to three meteors appearing in the same part of the sky in rapid succession. In all, we counted 132 meteors before Cassiopeia faded into the dawn and we decided to call it a night. Or day, such as it was.
All in all, a great success. Except Melinda’s bottle of Diet Mountain Dew kept toppling on the bumpy ground. Next year, we hope to reunite with my Perseid-loving brothers. By that time, I hope to have refined my stargazing drinking apparatus with weighted cupholders.