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When the lights go out, the real show begins

As a kid I was fascinated by astronomy. I devoured Sky & Telescope magazine and read the daily almanac in the paper to stay abreast of the movements of the planets. Then, when I was 10, I received a Christmas gift that was the icing on the cake: a telescope. It was little more than a cardboard tube with a mirror and a cheap plastic lens, but it was enough to allow me to observe, with surprising detail, the craters on the moon.

I was happy beyond compare.

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The irony of it all was that I lived in urban New Jersey, where a scrim of city lights washed out most of the night sky. Add to this the ever-present pall of smog, and the result was slim celestial pickings. Besides the moon, which was always available to me, some of the planets and brightest stars managed to wink through, but I wanted more.

Specifically, I wanted to see a meteor – a shooting star. I felt that, if anybody deserved to see one, it was me. After all, I had the interest, the star charts, and, most of all, the willingness to get up just after midnight when scheduled meteor showers would be most visible. But year after year I stood outside in my pajamas, searching in vain. The night skies over cities just don't lend themselves to much in the way of cosmic spectacle.

Then, one morning – in or around 1966 – I awoke to a startling newspaper headline: "Meteor Streaks Over New Jersey!" A large fireball – an especially bright meteor of long duration – had crossed right over my city and then broken up in flight. And I had missed it! The celestial observation of a lifetime had passed while I slept.

A year later I found myself headed for a Florida vacation with my family. Until then, our summer getaways had been strictly local affairs, so this was truly a major going forth for me, a real trip over the rainbow into terra incognita.

After three days of travel (in a 1962 Chevy Nova without air conditioning), we arrived in the evening at our motel in Clearwater Beach. I got out of the car and looked up to see a beautiful, star-spangled sky. And then I caught it – a streak of light that lasted 1, 2, 2-1/2 seconds – my first meteor. I was 13, and I felt that I had spent every one of those years waiting for that small, fleeting cinder.

As I grew older and extended my own orbit into the wider world, I saw more meteors: When I was in high school, during a class trip to upstate New York. I saw them in college, when I spent a semester in the Virgin Islands, and during a tour in the Navy, when my ship sailed under a basket of stars – with not one artificial light to pollute the viewing.

While other sailors lamented the long tours away from home, the monotony of the daily routine, and the disappointing quality of the food, I discounted all of these as small sacrifices for the privilege of going topside in the still of night. Then I would lie on my back on the signal deck, watching the meteors fly by, and feeling as if I could reach up and pluck a star to keep for a rainy day.

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When I moved to Maine I found that beyond its quaint villages, vast forests, and magnificent coast, it sported something else that few have taken the time to speak of: crystal-clear skies. At long last I had meteors as constant companions.

I eventually became a father by adoption. When I brought my 7-year-old son, Alyosha, home from Russia, it was just before the annual Perseid meteor shower in August. My son didn't speak English, so it was difficult to make him understand why I was rousing him from a sound sleep in the dead of night. Once outside, we lay down in the grass and stared straight up. Then the show began. His exclamations of "Oh!" and "Papa!" told me that he got the picture.

Alyosha is now grown, but I have another son, age 10. He's never seen a meteor. Not that I haven't tried to help him out, but patience is not one of his virtues. I can't get him to stare at the sky long enough for his reward.

However, I have kept the pilot light of inspiration burning by adorning the ceiling of his room with those plastic, glow-in-the-dark stars you can buy in dollar stores. When I turn the lights out, they glow brilliantly for 15 minutes or so.

The other night, while I was tucking Anton in, he gazed up at his starry ceiling and voiced his desire to see a meteor.

"You will," I told him.

"Really?" he said.

I stood up, peeled a still-glowing star from the ceiling, and handed it to him. "Here's my promise," I said.

By the time the star had faded, so had my son. I looked out his window at a sky obscured by a diffuse cloud cover. But the clouds would eventually clear, and my son's night would come, just as mine had.