A starry night puts me on the edge of forever

Tonight, the sky is velvet. A bright treasure of jewels splash across its horizons. There is no moon.

Already, Patrick can pick out the major constellations, including the Big Dipper, pointing toward Polaris and true north. In my imagination I picture Jim, Huck's loyal friend, following it like a beacon to the land of freedom.

Sean spots Orion, holding a noble shield before him, his belt glittering in the blackness. It conjures up images of the Greeks: the thick walls of Troy, the beauty of Helen, the craft of Odysseus. I shiver in a slight breeze that's rustling through the trees.

My eyes are wide open, and so are the eyes of my sons.

There are many stories in the night sky. Ancient astrologers claimed to read the future in the stars; astronomers peer through the dark in search of light. Forty years ago, my father and I spent many nights looking up, tracking the phases of the moon and learning to read the drama that unfolds in the heavens.

Back then, I was completely satisfied with naked-eye astronomy, until the day I passed by Breezy's Pawnshop on my way home from school. Breezy's was in a colorful section of town delineated by an assortment of night clubs, betting parlors, and diners with tiny windows.

Out front, there was an old man playing his saxophone right there on the sidewalk. I joined a small crowd to listen and sway back and forth with the music.

Across the street, a girl in a flowered dress was standing on a box decrying the danger of the A-bomb.

Then I spotted the telescope of my dreams in the window. It was a small refractor, the kind Galileo had used to study the music of the planets and redefine the universe.

In a flash, I was mapping the universe. The mysteries of the cosmos were within my grasp, but still a bit beyond my reach.

Inside, a woman in a bright-orange dress was trying on rings. Breezy sat there patiently while she spoke of the color and cut of the stones. He made comforting sounds and nodded in agreement with everything she said. I felt sure I had stepped onto an alien planet with strange customs and languages foreign to the human ear.

Then Breezy looked up, measuring me with his eyes, one eye enlarged by the thick curve of a jeweler's loupe. A card-dealer's visor graced his hairless head.

"Help ya, kid?" he asked.

"Yeah. Can I see the telescope?"

"Sure thing. It's a beauty." He went to the window, removed the instrument from its display, and set it down on the floor on the other side of the counter.

"Come on back," he waved.

It was love at first sight: a smooth gray tube, wooden tripod, equatorial mount, small black spotting scope on top.

"Belonged to an old astronomer who hadda leave town quick."

I looked through the lens and saw the musician up close. "How much?" I asked.

He studied me for a moment. I had heard that in negotiations of this sort, a droll, disinterested expression is required.

I struggled to wipe the joy from my face, which only widened my smile even more.

"How about 25 bucks? You can swing that for such a fine instrument." It was an act of kindness: more than I had, but not more than I could raise.

Two weeks later, I returned with the money. Breezy packed the scope in a wooden box lined in red velvet, and I had it home in minutes.

That night, the whole family assembled in our yard. In no time we were exploring the mountains on the moon, sailing its mysterious black seas.

No one was more excited than my grandmother, who asserted her royal position on the family tree by commandeering the telescope as soon as a new object floated into her field of vision.

Other nights brought new and glorious wonders: the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter, even the polar caps on Mars.

The Earth has swung around the sun almost 40 times since that perfect first night. My family has changed, but that same sense of wonder remains in the new generations.

Tonight, we can see billions of miles above, and thousands of years back. While we stand here in silence, a shooting star bursts across the sky. An owl marks its passing from a distant tree. And for a little while, time stops.

We peer through that telescope again, and for one more evening we stand on the edge of forever.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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