The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

August 10, 2013

BILL EGGERT | A star-studded celestial shower

Bill Eggert
For The Tribune-Democrat

HARRISBURG — It was for my 14th birthday that I asked my parents for a telescope, which I received that March 4.

It was a 60-power refractor, not really that powerful, but for a teenage novice astronomer just starting it was perfect. You could see the rings of Saturn (just a small white line circling the planet), the phases of Venus (just like our moon) and the four largest moons orbiting Jupiter (four white dots neatly lined in a row). Best of all was our moon, with its beautifully desolate landscape of craters and “seas.”

It was around this time one summer that our relatives from Georgia vacationed with us in Johnstown.

My Uncle Jim was an interesting individual. A lanky Southern gentleman more than 6 feet tall, Uncle Jim served in the Marines as a teenager during World War II. He fought on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. One of Uncle Jim’s many interests was astronomy, and one summer night in Richland he introduced my brothers and me to the wonders of the Perseid meteor showers.

Everyone outside in our backyard enjoyed that night, including my dad. Our section of Richland had not yet been affected by the future light pollution from Scalp Avenue, and that clear summer sky was filled with countless stars. The Perseid meteor showers were spectacular, like a celestial fireworks display.

Like clockwork, the Perseids meteor shower will peak here later this evening and Monday. The best time to see them will be after midnight through the predawn hours, when about 60 meteors an hour are expected. Hopefully the weather will cooperate with a cloudless sky. The moon will be in its crescent phase, increasing the visibility of the shooting stars.

While they can be seen anywhere above, most will radiate from the northeastern quadrant of the sky, coming from near the Perseus constellation (Hence the name “Perseids” meteor showers).

Essentially they are quick, silver flashes streaking across the sky. They are so fast (133,000 mph) that average telescopes cannot track them; only the naked eye will catch their tracking. But a dark sky (away from any lights) ensures a greater number of meteors seen.

The Perseids have fascinated humans for approximately 2,000 years, with earliest written sightings coming from the Far East.

They occur because the earth’s orbit intersects that of the trail of the comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the sun every 133 years. The Perseids are made up of remnants of ice and dust that are flung off of Swift-Tuttle. These remnants are essentially particles more than 1,000 years old.

As the meteors burst through the earth’s atmosphere (about 30 to 80 miles above the ground) they ignite, causing them to streak through the sky. Those very few that actually hit the grounds are called meteorites.

Occasionally, you can see fireballs from the Perseid showers. I have been fortunate enough to witness them once in a while.

Early Catholics have dubbed the Perseids  “Tears of Saint Lawrence,” in honor of the martyred saint (258 AD) whose anniversary falls on Aug. 10, near the peak of the Perseids showers.

Every August, whether in Pennsylvania or in Georgia, I have always looked forward to the amazing light show in the skies above.

I often wonder if younger generations are missing something having not been introduced to the wonders of nature, being preoccupied with their newfangled electronic devices. I think they are. We move at a pace far too fast to stop, sit down in a lawn chair, and appreciate God’s glory unfold in the heavens above.

I always mark the dates on my calendar and look forward to the Perseids. I do not get the telescope out too much anymore. It was slightly damaged in an apartment building fire in Atlanta, and I never seem to have the time to break it out. But I do stop and watch the Perseids every year, weather permitting.

And on those hot August nights I think back to those summer nights past, and those clear, star-studded skies over Richland, when the pace was a bit slower, and the world seemed simpler and much friendlier.

And I remember that first night, with Mom and Aunt Alice in the house. Out in the backyard on the patio Uncle Jim’s quiet voice informed us about the Perseids. My cousins Barb and Mike, we three brothers and Dad sat on the folding chairs gazing skyward. The kids would shout out as we would spot one of the meteors streak through the night sky.

The memory is somewhat bittersweet now. Dad, Uncle Jim and Barb are gone now, all within the space of a few short years. Like the meteors we watched that night, their lives streaked across our lifetime in an all-too short span on this earth.

But I am grateful they were here for that time, to grace us with their presence and enrich our lives when we had them with us.

As long as I have my memories, they continue to live on. Their personalities, idiosyncrasies and lives continue to influence me with their interactions with my life in the past and into the present and future.

And if I listen hard enough, I can hear their voices reach out to me from the distant past, and console me with their absence on those starry, starry nights.

Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident. He writes an occasional column.