Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Telescope Tale

A Telescope Tale

From my astronomical journals...

12 June 1986

Flagstaff, Arizona

Weather:            clr/cm, Temp 48f, Bar 1019, Hum 35%
Instrument(s):    60mm Bushnell Refractor on Equatorial Mounting
Narrative:         Mars and Jupiter observed with 60mm Refractor/no times noted.

MARS: Approx. on meridian.  20mm eyepiece (no filter) visible disk, but no detail due to glare.
12.5mm (filter) Definite detail-polar cap & dark greenish area. 12.5mm (w/out filter) Detail visible, but partially obscured by glare. 4mm: Hard to focus, but nice view of polar cap.
JUPITER: High in SE. 20mm: Three satellites visible--glare obscured planet. 12.5mm: (filter) surface detail visible--3 band. 4mm: four major cloud bands visible--no red spot.
The telescope I was using on that cool June evening in Flagstaff (a Bushnell "Banner Astro 400" and the subject of this post) was actually the second refractor I have owned in the course of my forty-year-long love affair with the night sky; the first was a similar but lower quality 'scope that my mother purchased for me at Christmas of '72.  I recall her concern that I would outgrow the hobby, losing interest in the stars, and the inexpensive Sears telescope she had selected for me would end up gathering dust in the attic.  

Of course, this didn't happen.

After six years of usage in the yard of our home in Mandeville, Louisiana, and at numerous observing sessions of the Ponchartrain Astronomy Society of New Orleans, the little Sears telescope was on the verge of falling apart; my enthusiasm for the hobby (and a little youthful impatience) had worn out the mounting and tripod, and my incomplete knowledge of the 'scopes' proper care had done some minor damage to the tube and optics.

In the summer of 1978, gathering my savings and collecting the monies earned by working the summer before on my uncle Sterlings' fishing boat (I'm pretty certain that he over-paid me), I went shopping for a more capable instrument.   (Looking back I find it interesting that I wasn't thinking of an "upgrade" so much as a replacement for my first 'scope; by this I mean that I seem not to have been infected at that time by that dreaded-but-oh-so-pleasant disease of the amateur astronomer, "aperture fever", which draws the observer to seek larger and larger telescopes and mountings until they strain both lower back and bank balance!)
A Touch of Glass
The telescope I settled on was the Bushnell refractor mentioned previously, no larger or even more powerful than my old Sears 'scope, but with a substantially heftier and more capable mounting and tripod and much better optics.  This last point was brought home to me on the first night "out" with my new instrument--lunar craters and maria were much better-resolved, and giant planet Jupiter revealed for the first time not only his four bright moons but the thin parallel lines of cloud bands girdling his equator!

From the moment of "first light"--that initial glimpse of the Cosmos through a new telescope--I was in love.  And, like any young couple in love, we went nearly everywhere together!  From observing planets in my backyard in Mandeville to splitting double stars in the Florida Everglades, spotting my first asteroid (4 Vesta) under Flagstaff's clear skies and watching a lunar eclipse in the heavens above Newport News once I'd joined the Navy...the Bushnell 'scope vastly expanded my astronomical horizons over the next eight years.  My experiences using this telescope under skies across the country over nearly a decade certainly helped shape my perspectives as an amateur astronomer, and I think they also made me a much better observer, more appreciative of every opportunity to get out there under the stars.

All Good Things...
Every love story, it seems, must have a tragic moment; a tearful goodbye or revelation upon which the tale turns.  In the case of myself and the Astro 400, this came in the Autumn of 1986; after a brief separation from the Navy I was about to embark on my second enlistment. The petty officer who deserves credit for making this happen was one Gary S., then serving at the Navy recruiting office in Flagstaff.  A fine Shipmate and good friend, he made the process of returning to uniformed service easy and even enjoyable, not only signing me up but putting me to work talking to potential new recruits about the benefits and downsides of naval service.

When the time to ship-out came, I asked Gary to look after my telescope while I got back into the Navy groove.  He agreed, and I packed-up and left the telescope with him when I departed for San Diego in the first week of September.  And that was the last time I saw the Astro 400...

A few months later, with my career re-booted (and, incidentally, recently engaged to the lovely Lucy Prochazka of Ardmore, Pennsylvania--but that is another post!) assigned to a ship sailing out of Virginia, I wrote to my mother and had her contact Gary to coordinate the shipping of my goods from Flagstaff to Newport News, where Lucy and I were busy building our lives together.  

At this point something went wrong; when my boxed belongings arrived via Greyhound there was no telescope.  When contacted, my mother told me that all the boxes had shipped.  I'm not certain why I didn't try calling the recruiting offices then--I think that perhaps I had already given up on the idea of ever seeing my refractor again--but in the build-up to our wedding and the separation of our first shipboard deployment as husband and wife I think it finally slipped my mind altogether.

The years flew by...

The Ghost of Solstices Past
Only a month or so ago I was surprised to receive an email from Gary.  He had run across All @ Sea! and recognized my style in the posts he read--it seems that I write in much the same fashion as I speak--and so made contact with a "are you the same person who..." email.  I was of course amazed to hear from him after a quarter-century--and further thrilled to learn that he still had in his possession my old 60mm telescope, and was prepared to ship it immediately!

Consider for a moment my old friends' dedication; I left my instrument with him for what I expected to be (at most) a few months, and he took excellent care of it for over twenty-six years!  I am reminded of the stories you hear about letters delivered decades after being mailed and beloved pets finding their ways home across hundreds of miles of wilderness.  

To say that I am grateful is a major understatement.

I came home on a weekend's liberty a few days after Christmas, excited to be back from the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea and looking forward to three days in the company of my wonderful wife Lucy and our small but energetic menagerie of an English Bulldog and two cats.  But I will confess here that another reunion filled me with almost as much anticipation as the long-awaited return to the bosom of my family, for waiting in the wings was a familiarly-sized box, recently arrived from Oregon.  

In my own defense I will state here that I did not leave Lucy in the lurch upon arrival; I managed to resist until after her welcoming embrace and our exchange of holiday gifts the draw of that well-wrapped parcel!  When the time came I was very pleased by what I found; the Bushnell 'scope had weathered well the decades of storage as Gary moved from place to place, shifting it from storage unit to garage to yet another unit.

My fingers moved by instinct, it seemed, the long years of separation forgotten as I assembled my old observing companion.  In a few minutes my old refractor stood before me in the living room, needing only a good cleaning and some lubrication of the mounting and focuser before it would be able to return to full duty.  A trial run outside was impossible due the overcast night, but I'm willing to wait a few more weeks for that second "First Light".

The Once and Future 'Optik Tube'

Now that the Banner 400 is restored to me, what will I do with it?  As capable as it is, it now stands as the smallest member of my observing collection--the 120mm APO refractor I use these days is double the Bushnell 'scopes' aperture and five times its weight, and my 8-inch reflector telescope also dwarfs it in size and light-gathering power.  In other words, the tiny refractor that aided me in my entry into observing is seriously out-classed.

However, for its type and size it continues to be useful.  I suspect that I'll fix the '400' up and perform a few modifications (the finder scope especially needs an upgrade), keeping it handy for those evenings when I feel like a quick look at the moon or a few double stars, and for when newcomers to astronomy join me at the altar of the stars; the telescope that got me started may yet inspire others to turn their eyes toward the heavens, and that strikes me as a perfect way for this particular telescope tale to continue.

The story goes on.

The photos in this post were all taken of the Bushnell Banner 400
on the morning of 29 December 2012. 

1 comment:

  1. I seem to remember a car trip and a 6ft long telescope and a place called GinGin?