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August 1968 and everything after

The summer after eighth grade, I think it was. Charlie, Dave, Bob and I, sleeping out with sleeping bags but no tent, the sky for our ceiling.

This was routine. We’d sleep one night in one backyard, the next night in another, scraping together enough paper route and allowance money to buy cans of Coca-Cola to drink as we sat up talking. We’d watch the constellations pinwheel around Polaris until the fog rolled in from the river. By then we were talked out, the talk having largely consisted of wishful conversations about girls. None of us had girlfriends. I can’t speak for the other three, but I was so shy that had one of my many dream girls expressed a romantic interest, I probably wouldn’t have been able to talk.

One night, we saw a lot of falling stars. Spend enough time under the night sky and you’re bound to see a meteor or two, but on this night, we’d see one every few minutes. I did a little homework the next day and learned we’d seen meteors from the Perseids shower, visible around Aug. 11 and 12 each year.

In the 40 years since that August night in Bob’s backyard, I learned a lot about the Perseids: how big the typical meteor is (a sand grain), how fast it travels (36 miles per second), its altitude (about 75 miles). I used to write newspaper articles including all of that information, and I’d call observatories and planetariums to interview astronomers early each August for a Perseids preview.

Do a Google search for “Perseids” today and you’ll find the word “spectacular” in many of the articles. This is an exaggeration. The typical Perseid has flashed into oblivion by the time you can say, “There’s one!” The ones that burn a little longer – say, the time it takes to blink three times without stopping – burn a little brighter, too, and sometimes will leave a short-lived trail. But watching Perseids usually involves sidelong glimpses of shooting stars, with minutes between meteors. Spend two hours watching, and if you’ve seen 50, you’ve had a good night.

The Perseids make me wistful for a couple of reasons. One, they remind me of that night 40 years ago, when life was so much simpler. None of us drank; none of us used drugs; none of us got into any trouble; none of us had anything to worry about, really.

To me, the Perseids also mark the beginning of the end of summer. All of the blooms from my day lilies have just finished falling from the stalks, and my Rose of Sharon bushes are just beginning to blossom, the last major burst of color in my perennial beds. They’ll bloom for about a month, and as they do, the sun will begin to set noticeably earlier. By the time the last flower falls from the bush, autumn will be whispering over the horizon.

My evenings in the dark watching the Perseids ended several years ago — 2002, I think. The astronomers were predicting a truly spectacular show that year — a meteor swarm, as opposed to a meteor shower, with hundreds of meteors expected. I was skeptical; after all, Halley’s Comet had been a bust when it swung around in 1986, and I’d been waiting for the great comet ever since I was a stargazing kid who buried his nose in astronomy books. The Perseids forecasters were saying to get out around 3 a.m., so I dragged out of bed and headed into the cool evening.

This time, the forecasters nailed it. In three hours of awe, I counted no more than five seconds between meteors, and often they were falling three or four at a time, everywhere you looked. I walked into the nearby countryside to get away from the streetlights and wound up standing on the shoulder of a dark, deserted county road, watching. Just watching. The moon had long since slipped behind the hills, and the velvety black sky was a spectacle of flying, dying embers. I watched until sunrise stopped the show.

Nothing I ever will see will compare to that night, so when the Perseids start lighting up the sky again early next week, I will be indoors, thinking about unforgettable nights when the stars fell. And if the night is cool, I will feel fall’s finger tapping my shoulder to remind me that another summer is dying.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 9th, 2008 04:50 pm (UTC)
Whenever we watch the Perseids, it's always in the high 80's and very muggy....even at 3AM. No thoughts about the end of summer here until October.

I still get up and watch the showers every year.

That 2002, or 2003 shower was spectacular, I remember it well.

Aug. 9th, 2008 10:39 pm (UTC)
You may be right about 2003, Jeff; I'm just guessing, and I've never been able to find a reference to it. Whatever year it was, it was a helluva show.
Aug. 9th, 2008 07:44 pm (UTC)
As a veteran Perseid watcher, I applaud your remembrance. Thanks.
Aug. 9th, 2008 10:40 pm (UTC)
It might be interesting for you to tally the number of different locations you've seen them from.
Aug. 9th, 2008 09:59 pm (UTC)
What a lovely, melancholy post. Hubby just had one of the boys google "Perseids" to get the exact dates for this year's shower. We try to catch a few every year from the backyard.

Aug. 9th, 2008 10:44 pm (UTC)
Remember that shower we all watched from Eaton's Crossroads that night in '87?
Aug. 10th, 2008 12:52 am (UTC)
I do remember, although I couldn't verify or dispute the year to save my soul.
Aug. 10th, 2008 01:11 am (UTC)
Were you guys with us the night we went way out somewhere and parked off the road on a hill and laid on the hood of the car? Kiddo's thinking we all did that too, but we can't remember who where or when. (sieve-like minds...)
Aug. 10th, 2008 01:37 am (UTC)
Yeah, we all did that. I'm thinking it was the first summer I went out with Sherry, so '79. As I recall, the guy who owned the land chased us away.
Aug. 9th, 2008 10:54 pm (UTC)
I've never tried to catch it, being only vaguely aware of its existence. Thanks for the enlightenment.
Aug. 10th, 2008 01:39 am (UTC)
It's a good lawn-chair-and-cooler way to relax a night away. Try to find someplace with a reasonably dark sky. The viewing is best a couple of hours after midnight.
Aug. 10th, 2008 04:20 am (UTC)
I got to watch it once over Freshmen's Bay near Bar Harbor, Maine. It was beautiful, of course, and the presence of the ocean only made it that much more profound.

Beautiful post, PV. What a writer you are....
Aug. 10th, 2008 01:42 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the kind words, Chris. Coming from you, that means a lot.

Out where you live, I imagine you've got a good sky for meteor-watching. If you can tear yourself away from one of your manuscripts for a couple of hours, that is.
Aug. 11th, 2008 02:39 am (UTC)
That was just a great post. Thanks for writing it.

Write enough of these posts about the area and times when you were younger, and you'd be able to create a memoir.
Aug. 11th, 2008 02:42 am (UTC)
And thank you for reading it.
Aug. 12th, 2008 05:32 pm (UTC)
I'm happiest to read about the Perseids from you more than anyone else, since we discovered our shared penchant for stargazing from an essay I wrote in Clare 110.

This year I shivered from the rain and watched from the end of my dock on Chautauqua Lake. Something about watching them over water...the reflection makes them surround me completely, you know? Nothing but stars and still, black abyss.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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