“Fortune and Glory, kid. Fortune and Glory.” Indiana Jones
I’m still not sure if the shooting star was CGI or real in this scene. Spielberg claims it just happened, but it’s so perfectly framed and timed, you have to wonder. I’ve never really been able to get a definitive answer on it. But hey, I thought it would be a nice visual to kick off this post about meteors.
So every year our pale blue dot passes through the cosmic dust of this comet called Swift-Tuttle, and we get the Perseid meteor shower. Astronomers call them that because the seem to shoot out from around the Perseus constellation. The Perseus constellation is pretty close to that one that looks like an M or a W (depending how drunk you are), called Cassiopeia. Fun fact: I’ve always pronounced this constellation with an emphasis on the “Oh” sound, but an astronomy enthusiast friend always pronounces it with an emphasis on the “PEE”. Now I’m sure a quick internet search will prove me wrong, but I’m an “Oh” man, I’m afraid, and it will take more effort than it’s worth to get me to get behind the “PEE”, I’m afraid.
Well, you didn’t dial in here to hear about how I pronounce constellations, did you? If you did, here’s another one: I prefer calling that famous cluster of stars, “The Big and Little Dipper”, instead of “Ursa Major and Minor”. That just seems a little “show-offy” to me.
And although I may never get to see “The Southern Triangle” with my own naked eyes, I have a special affinity for the northern sky’s Cygnus constellation which looks a little bit like a baseball diamond, complete with a pitcher on the mound and a batter coming up to bat.
But enough about all that. Speaking of baseball, after watching a very satisfactory game that ended up having the Blue Jays squeak a half game ahead of the Yankees in the American League East, I thought I should probably “stick” my “head” out the “door” and see if I could see any of these damn meteors. Most years I don’t bother, but the fact that there was no moon and a fairly clear sky made me a bit curious. If I was really serious about it, I could have driven to the edge of the city, but the last time I did that, it turned into a big production. Did I ever tell you about that?
It was before we were married, and my then girlfriend, now my wife, and I decided we would head out to the edge of the city to see if we could see the Perseids. At that time, my we were both still living at our respective parents homes. The early part of the evening consisted of a racquetball game and a pint in a pub until it got dark enough to make it worth-while. We drove just out to the south of the city and found a quiet parking lot adjacent to a park. The perfect spot, we thought.
Well, we waited and waited, and waited and we saw not a single thing. It was a clear enough sky, but we were either still too early in the evening (or too early in the season) for it to bear any celestial fruit. We got cold pretty quickly, so we sat in the car for a bit, until the windows got too foggy to see anything, and then we got out and looked some more.
The thing about looking for meteors, is that you start to think if you take your eyes off the sky for a second you’ll miss something spectacular so we didn’t want to leave until we saw at least SOMETHING. We had invested all this time already.
Speaking of time, the other thing we found with meteor watching was that you could really lose track of time very quickly. You began to operate on a cosmic scale, not an earthly scale, so what’s an hour or two or three to the universe? Nothing. At one point, when we had decided to head in, we started to drive and then a huge bright streak filled the sky ahead of us, as if to say, “Don’t go just yet, there are wonders to see.” So we pulled over and stayed out even longer.
But here’s the thing. I guess my girlfriend told her Mom that we were planning on checking out this meteor shower, and when we weren’t home she started to worry (it’s her way) and she called my mom and the two of them talked back and forth and got each other worked up into a lather. “Maybe their car stalled?” “Maybe they drove off the road!” “Maybe they hit a DEER!” “Maybe aliens got them!” (I just made up that last one but you get the idea). My Mom, who is usually the level-headed one in that pair, showed a surprising level of irrationality that night, and I guess the two of them hatched this plan that my Mom would drive over and pick up my girlfriend’s Mom and the two of them would “just drive around the countryside” or something until they found us. They didn’t even know which park we were planning to go to. It wasn’t a very good plan.
At this point, it was probably quite late, after midnight at least, and probably closer to 1 am. My girlfriend and I had decided to call it a night and I was about to drop her off and head home myself. We were just turning onto her parent’s street when a very familiar-looking truck sped towards us.
“Holy crap. That’s my Mom. What’s she doing out at this hour?” I said.
“Um, look who’s in the passenger seat,” said my girlfriend.
Yep, thankfully we had returned before they had actually tried to go find us. It might have turned into an all night affair.
So with that as my background to the Perseids, I didn’t think I should go too far afield last night.
Luckily, we live near a golf course, so at a little after 11 pm, I headed out. Everyone else at home had gone to bed. There are a lot of good websites that give you sound advice about how to best enjoy the meteor shower, but I didn’t really follow any of them. I didn’t bring a blanket to lay down on, I didn’t put on bug spray, and I didn’t get out of the city. I also didn’t wait til midnight, which conventional wisdom suggests is when the meteors begin to be visible. I took a chance that there would be the odd one beforehand, and I was supported by one site that said that some of the more dramatic ones may happen just after dusk. I might have already been too late!
I grabbed a cigar on the way out to ward off any mosquitoes. I suppose bug spray would have been more effective, but I was in full #summerboy mode, with my birks, shorts and seersucker on, so I just went with it.
It was a warm night. No need for fleece. I walked down to the golf course, and I immediately saw a long streak across the sky. It really surprised me, even though that was why I was out there. I had a decision to make. Do I look AT THAT EXACT SPOT for the rest of the evening, knowing that one had appeared there, or do I look around a bit? I realized afterwards I probably should have looked up where the Perseus constellation was in the sky, but I didn’t do that until I got home. Like I said, I wasn’t really all that prepared. Seeing that one meteor off the top really encouraged me to stay for more, though.
I walked right out onto the fairway of the golf course, which gave me a clear view of a huge section of the sky, and I was also away from any immediate sources of light. Granted, I could only see a few of the brightest stars in the city, and would have been better off outside a bit, but this would just have to do.
I don’t golf, but standing out in the middle of the golf course reminded me about something one of my favourite geography professors told me once. He said that golf was like life. You make one great shot, and that gets you through the next 20 or 30 terrible ones. I guess the same could be said for meteor watching. You see one spectacular one, and that makes the waiting around in the buggy dark with a cricked neck a bit more bearable.
I didn’t see anyone else on foot out there, although the odd car drove by. I wondered if they could see me out there in the semi-darkness, and if they wondered what I was doing. In any case, none of them stopped.
After a while, my eyes began to play tricks on me. Did I just see a meteor out of the corner of my eye? Was that a real faint one or did an eyelash just get in my eye? Did I just look down at the wrong second? I know I saw about 3-4 really bright ones, one which was so bright and seemed so close, it looked like a firework that had gone off course. I think I saw many more faint ones, but I can’t say for sure. Then, in a magical period of only about a minute, I saw about 5 shoot by. It really lived up to the term “shower” and I thought things were really heating up, but then, after that. Nothing. Or at least nothing visible to me, at my unique place on earth, at that moment.
I knew a couple of friends were also out somewhere viewing the shower. I wondered where they were and how they were making out. Were we seeing the same ones? Did they look differently from where they were? And then I thought of everyone else who were out last night. Campers and cottagers watching full prairie skies, the cloudy milky way over dark lakes, park rangers in Jasper’s dark sky preserve, astronomers, photographers with time-lapse settings quietly capturing it all. I couldn’t get the song “Passenger Seat” by Death Cab for Cutie out of my head. The thought of two people who like/love each other very much driving along “the darkest country road” and wondering about the difference between “shooting stars and satellites” and whether they collide.
Soon, my cigar was done, and the bugs found me whole-heartedly. It felt like I had only been out for 10 minutes or so, but it turned out to be over an hour, all told. I waited for one last meteor, but it never came. It probably happened just when I turned my back and headed home.
I bet it was spectacular.