“On a clear day, you can see forever…” was a Robert Goulet song my parents used to listen to. It always reminds me of late summer evenings staring up at the sky in our back yard along the Alpine Golf Course north of Grand Rapids. On a clear night, I really did think I could see forever.
Back then – 1976-1990 – there were few lights in the back, and the neighborhood street lights were mostly blocked by the houses. Behind us, the 14th hole stretched hundreds of yards, guarded by tall stands of linden trees and aspens and a few tall oaks. We were tucked far back off the main road so the nearest business lights were more than a couple of football fields away. When a HI pressure moved through and the humidity cleared, the stars popped out like steady fireflies, even the faintest ones. Stars blinked, but planets were steady, fierce beacons.
The Milky Way stretched across the sky from SE to NW and the longer I stayed out in the warm summer breeze, the better adjusted my eyes got and better the viewing became. Meteors streaked. Satellites floated. Comets grew. I hadn’t seen a naked-eye galaxy (other than the Milky Way) yet, but I knew they were there and I knew that staring at any blank space likely meant I was seeing, though not imaging, worlds on the visible edge of the universe. If I waited long enough and sat staring at the spaces without moving patiently enough, I could see the beginning of time.
I didn’t get a sophisticated telescope until much later, but when I was a boy my parents bought me a very small refractor telescope. I’d lugged it around most of my growing years and into my adult life, including years at college and travels back and forth home when my parents moved briefly to Wisconsin. As an adult I finally broke it out of its box one night and pointed it at what I knew was Saturn, not expecting much. What I saw amazed me. There, in that tiny eyepiece, powered by that dented tube and weak lens, was the perfect apparition of Saturn and its rings. Just as I’d seen it in pictures! I forced my two-year old daughter to come out to share in the viewing, although she had no idea what I was so excited about.
We moved to a new home in the big city in 1990, crowded out by urban light, and I haven’t really seen the galactic light since. I’ve seen hints of it on really clear, crisp nights, but I’ve only imagined what it really looks like from past experiences. Now we live on the edge of town but not much further from the light pollution, it seems. I miss my view of the beginning of time.
Look up on a clear night. See the broad swath of light and stars and planets that stretch across the sky, and know that you can see forever.