by Gene Allen
As a kid I had messed about spying on a nearby GSA depot at night with a poor department store refractor. I never saw anything move, let alone anything of interest, but out of hope I kept something of a vigil going. I remember the cold air pouring in from having my second floor window open just enough. I do not remember ever trying to point that scope at anything in the night sky, but that could be because I never had any success at it.
I first became interested in actual astronomy when I first looked through a “real” telescope. My first duty assignment after Undergraduate Pilot Training in the Air Force was a C130 squadron at Dyess AFB in Abilene, Texas.
We moved into a little ranch house in base housing, and across the street lived a couple of native Texans. Phil was a radar nav on the B52s also stationed at Dyess, and Melanie was always “a fixin ta do my warsh.” My wife Seraphine was always wondering if she ever actually did it.
One winter night at almost midnight came a gentle knocking at our door. I have no memory of what we were doing up that late, but we were in our early twenties, so that was less rare those days. It was Phil who said, “Sorry to disturb you so late, but I saw your lights were still on and I thought you might like to see the rings of Saturn.”
We bundled up and walked into the open field behind his house where his little refractor was set up. He re-centered his manual alt-az mount and there it was, in all its glory. It was tiny in the eyepiece, but the rings were readily discernible and truly unforgettable. That image has persisted in my mind for nearly fifty years so far. Phil has no idea what a monster he created!
Within a few years I made an attempt to learn about telescopes. It was much more difficult in those days, before the internet, the all-knowing Google, and the ultimate mentoring of Cloudy Nights. It amounted to brochures in snail mail and visits to rare and usually distant brick and mortar retail stores. Probably from an ad in an astronomy magazine, I learned that Roger Tuthill lived in Springfield, New Jersey, only about an hour away from my parents’ home. He would collimate and otherwise tune up Celestron SCTs, re-package them for safer shipping, and sell them for incrementally more.
I called and spent several hours in his home one afternoon, mostly listening to the conversation he and several friends or workmates were having. I didn’t know what to ask or how to ask it, so my fumbling was undoubtedly inane and annoying. We had zero disposable income at that point in our lives, so despite my desires, I was not a qualified buyer.
I guess I decided it had to be that Celestron or nothing, because I just tabled my interest. My childhood experiences must have dissuaded me from repeating the department store scope folly with my own money. I never looked for a more economical way to get into astronomy.
I enjoyed science and math in late elementary and high school, finding it accessible and satisfying. From re-promotion to the accelerated math track and physics mentoring in the algebra of units from Mr. Blumert, I ended up with a Bachelor of Engineering from Stevens. Throughout life I maintained an interest in “popular” physics, picking up a Scientific American magazine now and then, plus books such as Hawking’s “History.” It wasn’t until after my second retirement that I started to attend meetings of the AAAP.
The monthly speakers were so fascinating and the folks so congenial and welcoming that I soon joined to support the organization. A few years in I decided to train as a Keyholder and had the honor of one-on-one training by the incomparable and so sadly late Gene Ramsey.
My interest validated and confirmed, and my budget ample, I dove into research to choose my own hardware. After nearly a year on the Cloudy Nights Forums, I selected a Tele Vue 85 as my first and forever scope. Building on that foundation, I have continued to learn and grow, but I will never hold a candle to the mental acuity and dexterity – the utter brilliance – of some of our Members. It is truly an honor to belong.