At dusk they arrive, the gangly nocturnals. They hop gamely out of their vans and pickup trucks and begin to unpack their wares, this touchingly excited group of child-men in ankle-exposing trousers. Soon their elaborate telescopes are set up on the playground blacktop and the local stargazers club are chatting amiably but intently with anyone whose attention they can capture. They’ve come again this year to my daughter’s grade school to proselytize the Heavens, a bottomless and wholly incomprehensible well of quasars, pulsars, black holes, white holes, worm holes, accretion discs, ice giants, mirror matter and Seyfert Galaxies. The universe. How to explain it? It is an imagination-warping hodgepodge of the unbelievable and the barely plausible, and it’s everything we are. But this is a tough crowd. They want more. The 4th through 6th graders have been flicking wildly in and out of the lengthening playground shadows like night birds, finding through quick reconnaissance where the adult sight-lines do not expose them and restricting their games to those murkier corners of the school grounds as darkness falls. The parents in their down vests gather in a kind of bovine cluster around the assembled telescopes, milling about, hugging their mugs of coffee, talking politics and staring furtively into the night. Where’s Neil? Where’s Chloe? Whence Amber?
“NEEEE-UHL!” one of the moms calls out in a two-syllable singsong. She’s wearing a demure designer baseball cap this evening, her wheat-like ponytail roping neatly out the back. Her hollering is swallowed by the dark. Night is falling apace now. The tetherball chain clangs against the pole in the darkness. Did she sound too anxious? She draws self-consciously from her titanium Starbucks Java Bullet. “Neee-uhl.’ she says again, sotto voce.
Ma’am, you won’t be seeing Neil just now. He is enacting an ancient program that predates the formation of the Oort Cloud.
Now there are several species of telescope on display, including one that looks like a stubby cannon aimed at the sky. Another has a little servo-motor that moves the barrel in tracking sync with the dear old moon as She rises, a gigantic orange ball, and wanders upward with that phony nonchalance She has used to such effect these many eons. The old flirt. The captured lunar close-ups display on a laptop that glows like a small bonfire in our midst as darkness finally falls and the parental murmuring turns to nervous laughter. The lunar mountains and craters waver and flux on the screen, the skin of the moon a pockmarked tell-tale of meteoric abuse. Did the old girl take all those shots for us? Our thumbs and Eddie Bauer blankets would seem to suggest it. The parents gasp appreciatively and lean in for a look. Much of this is theater. To most of us the dramatically enlarged surface of the moon is as plain and familiar as a Wonder Bread wrapper. We’ve seen Her, walked on Her, talked Her to death. We’ve golfed on Her. We think we Know Her. We’re bored with Her, but She’ll see us right. Now the kids have sent scouts in from the shadows and they are flitting alertly around the edges of the adult gaggle, taking in the vibe. Why must Neil and Chloe come in to stare at this stuff? They sprang from it, for goodness sake! The complicated-looking telescopes aim at the night sky like squinting ninnies.
Finally the impatient parents have finished their coffee and begin clapping hands in the manner of over-achievers frustrated in their scheduling. Kids, let’s do this! The Next Generation of Leaders emerge from the darkness en masse like downcast zombies and congregate in a glum clot. Lots of little girls in hot pants disconsolately line up for the promised glimpse of Jupiter, the boys jostling against them. We have a robot car on Mars and Voyager is poised to become the first man-made object to enter the blank frozen reaches of interstellar space. We’ve stalked the Kuiper Belt, sounded the oceans of Europa and incinerated a dozen hapless Venus landers that scarcely had time to photograph their own feet before simultaneously crushing and melting on the unpleasant surface of that compelling and expensive world. The kids aren’t impressed.
An older man in a very Earthbound mustache guides their untrained eyeballs to the telescope ocular and describes what they’re seeing, but it looks like a blob, or worse, a pinprick. ‘That’s Jupiter?’ one of the kids is heard to ask, his tone ringing with accusation. The old stargazer misapprehends the largely rhetorical question, straightens up and exults. “Yeah! That’s Jupiter!” The kid makes a clucking sound and takes off like a bat. The little ones have their own business to attend to. It’s born of the same machinery that fuels the suns. And the Heavenly Vault is something you need to break out of so you can begin to enjoy the evening.