Starlight Nights

Every Saturday during my High School years, I made a ritual of watching the skies. As soon as I woke up, my eyes went to the window to assess the weather. If it was sunny, I was joyous, if it was cloudy, disappointed, but either way, the watching continued throughout the day, to see if the weather would hold or improve. And if my luck was good, and the clear weather held, the question would be asked.

“Mom-or-Dad, can we go to Custer tonight?”

When they didn’t have plans, the answer was usually yes. When it was no, I didn’t press the issue too far, because I knew the response I’d get was true—“You can see the stars from our backyard just as well.” The night sky over our backyard was relatively free of artificial light because two farm fields stood between town and us. The Custer Institute, however, had a special arrangement with the town of Southold to keep the area around their observatory “dark”, and the area they were in seemed to be a bit more rural anyway. And my binoculars couldn’t match the big telescopes at Custer.

But when the answer was yes, it was the start of something wonderful. In winter or early spring, I would dash upstairs to put on a few extra layers or grab some to carry in the car, and hurry out to the driveway. Then we’d set out in the fading light on the hour’s drive from Water Mill to Southold, with the radio on.

From the road, the building had a way of blending in with its surroundings, the weathered brick façade resembled many of the houses in the area. But as the car would approach the building, my eyes would pick out its identifying feature—the shiny metallic dome atop the brick cylinder. In the spring and summer, it was usually sunset when we arrived; in the winter, it was already dark, the early darkness of mid-latitude winter nights, and the sky already star-filled.

We would park in the designated area, or, if it was crowded, up on the grass in front of the porch or even across the road. In the parking area, we could stare straight up the three-story brick cylinder to the observatory dome, with red light glowing from the cross-shaped ice-block windows on the floor below.

Something about the front entrance suggested a one-room schoolhouse, although the observatory building was not quite that small. The front door opened into a small hallway area where an inflatable space shuttle model hung from the ceiling, from which you could go either right or left.

The polite thing to do, however, was to turn left into the so-called “warm room” where the Institute members who weren’t observing sat around plastic tables, working on computers, discussing astronomy, and warmly greeting visitors. Laid out on the tables would be a selection of contemporary or vintage books and magazines from the Institute’s excellent collection, and on another table up against the wall, there would be hot coffee and small snacks laid out for visitors. The wall behind the snack table had various posters, photographs, and news clippings tacked up, some with the exciting faded charm that only comes with age, including what appeared to be an original National Geographic poster about the Voyager missions from the mid-late 1980s. A postcard-sized photograph of the Challenger’s final crew, fastened by a single yellow push-pin, was near the bottom of the wall, and I always stopped to make sure it was straight and level.

There was a fireplace in the back of the warm room, but it had never been used anytime when I was there, and boxes were stacked in front of it, anyway. But more photographs and plaques were on the mantle above it, amidst the dark wood paneling. That just was the sort of place it was—everywhere you went, you found signs that amateur astronomers had been meeting in the observatory building since it had been built in the 1930s, these artifacts that had traveled down through the decades to be there with you that Saturday night, creased or faded by the journey but still intact.

After the warm room, the accepted thing to do was to go back through the hallway and head right, emerging in the lecture hall. There was a small gift shop window, but my parents were quick to caution, “Well you don’t really NEED that, do you?”, and so we settled for placing money in the donation box. Moveable chairs were arranged inside the lecture hall, and depending on the season and the weather, they might be totally unoccupied or entirely filled. Astronomical photographs taken by members hung on the walls, beneath a string of Christmas lights, and at the back of the room was a large television on which documentaries were played when the crowd in the lecture hall waiting to go up to the dome was large. Topographic globes of Earth, Mars, and Venus sat atop two upright pianos.

The doors at the back of the lecture hall led to a storage room packed with bookshelves where a sign on the curving wall read “Stairway to the Stars”, embellished with two long dried-out sea stars. The wooden stairs creaked under our feet as we climbed to the second floor, the observatory’s “library”, even though there were books nearly everywhere in the building—the shelves were just easier to get to here. It was lit by dim red lights to help our eyes adjust to the darkness in preparation for entering the dome. Climbing the steeper steps and pushing open the small wooden gate, we found ourselves in the observatory dome. On summer nights, a cool breeze from the dome window greeted us. There was always a large telescope at the center, and a set of steps to help people reach the eyepiece if necessary. Otherwise, the room was mostly empty aside from a desk and chair set up near the top of the stairs, with a red-tinted lamp to help the astronomer on duty read the books or charts there, and a CD player that sometimes filled the dome with soft classical music as we found our place in line for viewing.

What there was to see depended on the season and circumstances—when the moon was large and bright, it drowned out nearly everything else in the sky with its glow, but the telescope made its craters and mountains look as close as if they were on a raised classroom globe in front of me. When planets were visible in the sky, we looked at them, too—we could see Saturn’s rings, as well as the bands of colored clouds on Jupiter and its large moons lined up around it like Galileo had seen.

On nights without a moon, the telescope would be turned to objects much farther away and fainter than the moon or planets. The winter sky had the best deep-sky objects—the seven sisters of the Pleiades, young blue stars arrayed in a miniature imitation of the Big Dipper, and the great Orion Nebula, where the dark-adapted and focused eye could make out layers of gas and dust that hid stars. The impulse was to reach out a hand and pull back those layers for a better look, but of course that was impossible, the area was over a thousand light-years away. Spring brought the Andromeda Galaxy, like a wisp of cotton fluff, but to know that it was a galaxy two million light years away! In summer, the double star Alberio shone brightly in contrasting colors—one star amber-yellow, the other a cool blue. And whatever the season, there were globular and open clusters, flowerlike knots of stars.

After the dome, we would usually head downstairs to examine the Institute’s other telescopes, if any were being used—in the long, low “shed” behind the main observatory building or the smaller ground-level domes out on the lawn. Even though they were open to the public, the small domes and the shed were less-visited, and the members there often used the telescopes to take long photographic exposures.

And then there was the radio room down in the observatory building’s basement, although it wasn’t always open to visitors. But when it was, and the radio telescope on the lawn was in use, we gathered around the radio equipment to hear meteors hitting the atmosphere and burning up. The sound was beautiful, somewhere between a “whoosh” and the ringing of a wineglass. Later, in my college studies, I would see the same stars and planets I’d seen at Custer from fine observatories in New Haven, Washington DC and Boston. But none were as special as that old brick building an hour’s drive from my house, where we’d sat listening to the ringing meteors, surrounded by the old tape-drive computers and dusty lens-grinding equipment brought by others who had come there to study the sky on clear nights many years before.