A boy and his telescope

Some time ago, there was a terrorized, traumatized early teenage boy. He lived in a small industrial town, in which he did not fit, and he was socially awkward on top of that. For seven years, he would be the prime target for every form of social mistreatment that the minds of teenagers could imagine. This would leave him with PTSD, to the point where it would be perilous to come up behind him or surprise him with even a pretend threat. The experience and aftermath rewired his brain, as PTSD does. Its effects would haunt him even as his hair thinned, then faded to silver and white.

Few of the boy’s peers shared any of his cerebral/nerdly interests, and none shared his interest in astronomy. The town’s river valley was not an ideal region for stargazing, but one takes what one can get. On his eleventh birthday, his parents got him a new Sears, Roebuck 60mm telescope. The literature billed it as a 350x (with Barlow lens), including an image erecting prism, spotter scope, solar projection screen, and right-angle lens. Three eyepieces, from about 35x to 175x.

The telescope opened up an amazing world, though it also introduced the boy to the concept of deceptive advertising. The Barlow lens, which was supposed to double the power, ate up too much light to be useful at night. The image erecting prism and right-angle lens, at least, worked as advertised. It was only a 175x altazimuth mount telescope, without an equatorial mount or other bells and whistles, but for him it was great. On any clear night, the boy would be out there getting a closer look at the Crab Nebula, Saturn’s moons, the Andromeda Galaxy, the gorgeous array of tiny electric sapphires known as the Pleiades, the surface of Mars, and many more.

A nearby observatory was always willing to help when he phoned them to ask where a planet was, since he lacked those resources himself in pre-Internet days. By the time he was ready to graduate and leave the hellhole forever, he could always identify the planets unassisted. Jupiter? If it’s brilliant white, brighter than any star, and isn’t at sunset or sunrise (if it is, maybe it’s Venus instead), that’s all it can be. Mars? Like Jupiter, not quite as brilliant, and distinctly reddish. Saturn? About like a very bright star, but doesn’t flicker like one, and yellowish. Even a binoculars would show its rings, like a little flying saucer, but the telescope showed them in full clarity.

Life happened; college, graduation, underemployment, marriage, life crises, moves, healing, bereavement, surgery, technological advances. In spite of the PTSD, he gained enough perspective not to dwell upon the horrors of the past. With help from his wife, he overcame much of his social awkwardness; group events would still be work rather than play for him, but the man-once-a-boy would at least walk away from most such events feeling he had not embarrassed himself. And through almost half-a-dozen moves, the man still had his old boyhood telescope.

The man had always taken good care of it. He still had the documentation from Sears, Roebuck. It lacked only one small bolt to hold in place the little lamp on the accessory platform. A trip to Ace hardware, some lens wipes, and it could be ready to go. But there was a problem: it was forty years out of date. He would never again use it, and deep down, the man knew this. He was of an age when excess things were becoming impediments, especially fragile things–however beloved–that he would never use and enjoy. If the man wanted a telescope, he would buy an excellent modern one for the price of four or five hours of his labor.

The telescope, an old friend from the bad days, needed to begin doing someone some good. The man advertised on Craigslist for a deserving family with a precocious child, but didn’t advertise in the free section even though the telescope would be free of charge. The free section was the haunt of people who would happily say anything to make a gain. Other than a couple of kind comments, the man received no responses.

Then it occurred to him to phone the nearby elementary school. It was a STEM school, in a state where public educational funding was parsimonious. Would they like a telescope in good working order? Why, yes; yes, they would!

The man gathered together all the telescope’s parts, checking to see what might be missing. He loaded them into his vehicle, and went to meet the elementary school’s vice principal. She was excited at what the telescope might mean to her young charges. She explained that it was a high mobility school, that they typically saw a child for two years at most due to short apartment leases. She asked whether he would mind assembling it, and as he put it together for the last time, the man assured her that even a couple of good educational years–like those he had enjoyed in early youth, before his parents had moved him to the small town where he had been given the telescope–could get a child through ten years of hell. He held back most of the worst parts, but told the vice-principal enough about how hell looked that she got a little misty.

When it was assembled, and time to go, the man felt his own eyes watering. He laid a hand on the telescope’s white side, undented, unscratched, and cared for all these years. “See you later, old buddy. Teach the kids.”

It wasn’t the parting from a thing that made the man’s eyes moist. It was the memories the telescope had meant. It had been a rare thing of joy in a time with few joys.

He shook the vice-principal’s hand, thanked her for her time, accepted her polite thanks, looked one last time, and finally walked away from his old friend of the hardest times.

Sometimes, he thought, one has to give one’s old friend a chance to make some new friends.

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8 thoughts on “A boy and his telescope”

  1. I finally has a chance to read this. It was worth the wait — I’m choked up with a sort of grief yet happily optimistic. You’ve written many wonderful essays but this one may well be your best.

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