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I got the moon and stars that year

I don't think I've ever seen more beautiful night skies than those that overlie the state of Maine. Until I came north some 18 years ago, I didn't quite know what people meant when they described stars so numerous and bright as to illuminate the landscape below. Now that I have experienced it for myself, I seize every opportunity to observe the firmament.

Just this morning before daybreak, waking from a restless sleep, I opened my eyes to the morning star - a Venus so brilliant that I thought I must be dreaming. But a few squints later it still sparkled in the cold, dark winter air. I stared in wonder until morning's first light erupted on the horizon, washing the planet away.

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Sometimes, when I consider my affinity for the night sky, I feel as if I am making up for lost time. I grew up in urban, industrialized New Jersey, under a scrim of city lights and a veil of factory effluvia. The moon and only the most determined stars and planets managed to wink through: Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn at their brightest; the North Star; the Big Dipper, Orion, and Taurus.

Beyond this there was only the occasional star, perhaps the brightest member of a team constituting some other constellation, divorced from the pattern that gave it meaning.

This didn't stop me from asking my parents for a telescope for my 10th Christmas. I had recently made the transition from career chemist to aspiring astronomer, so my request was a logical one. My parents, ever eager to stoke the fires of my scientific curiosity, dutifully presented me with a reflecting telescope on Christmas morning - a three-inch mirror in a black cardboard tube, with folding metal tripod. I was, in a word, thrilled.

The most frustrating thing about receiving a telescope at the crack of dawn is that one has to wait until nightfall to point it at the stars. In the interim, I took it into the front room and aimed it across the street at the living-room window of our neighbors the Rutiglianos. I observed them as they celebrated their own Christmas with their three boys - Charlie, Vito, and Vinnie.

"Wow!' I announced to my parents while squinting through the scope, "Vito got a Robot Commando!" I could also count the raviolis that Mrs. Rutigliano was making by hand in the kitchen. Such was the power and resolution of my new celestial tool.

I waited with bated breath all through that Christmas day. There was a crust of snow on the ground, and the windowpanes were bordered with frost. As evening approached it became even colder; but this didn't daunt me in the least.

By 5 o'clock it was dark enough to run outside with my telescope. I hit the street, looked up, and bit my lip when I saw that the streetlights were preempting most of the first stars. But there was a crescent moon on the rise, and my heart took flight.

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I high-tailed it to the end of my block, a dark corner where a street lamp had burned out some days before. I set up my tripod on an icy snowbank and laid the side of my face against the outside of the tube to aim it at the moon. Then I placed my eager eye against the viewing lens and was immediately rewarded with a flood of lunar light. I carefully turned the plastic focusing knob until, in crisp relief, I captured the satellite, as crumpled as a sheet of used tinfoil.

I could do little more than catch my breath in awe at the sight of my first crater - Tycho - a brilliant splat on the moon's southern aspect. I remained outside that night, observing the moon over and over again, until my fingers and toes ached with the cold. Then I returned home, utterly in love.

By the next day, I had regained my scientific poise and objectivity to the point where I had made a bold and enterprising sign to hang on my scope:

SEE THE MOON AND STARS FOR A NICKEL!

That evening was even colder than Christmas night, but cold skies tend to be clear skies, and I found myself standing on my street corner, open for business, with a modest basket of stars overhead.

While waiting for my first customers, I pressed my eye to the cold lens of my telescope and commenced a grand tour of everything worth seeing. I first passed over the surface of the now-familiar moon. Having established my bearings, I headed for more remote regions, beginning with the Big Dipper, coursing along its handle and using it as a springboard to bound off toward Orion.

There I scanned first-magnitude stars with marvelous names like Rigel and Betelgeuse, the latter a red giant. Traversing the vast interstellar distances with unfathomable speed, I arrived at Taurus, where I orbited the Pleiades, a loose cluster of stars and gas known as the "Seven Sisters." Then came Aldebaran, Polaris, Sirius, and, as I recall, Vega.

I remained outside for the longest time, to the point where I had lost all track of my profit motive. By the time my father laid a hand on my shoulder to coax me in, I was ready to pack up my observatory. And so I tucked the telescope under my arm and ambled home with my dad. I hadn't earned a nickel, but as my travels that night had taught me, the universe is a hard thing to pin a price on.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society