Mack Williams: Keep watching the skies

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 19, 2022

The title is a direct quote from the last line of the movie, “The Thing”(1951); but this piece is about a bit of astronomy, not UFOs or plant-based, blood-drinking Martian invaders.
On May 30th, my son, Jeremy sent me an e-mail with a link to a story about the possibility of a “meteor storm”(much more than a “shower”) occurring during a time span stretching (a short stretch) from 12:45 a.m.- 1:17 a.m. on May 31st.
Sometimes these predictions of a fantastic sight in the heavens pan out. In my experience (at 71 years of age), most are like a Broadway show in which the curtain refuses to rise.
One which definitely wasn’t a “fizzler” was the Leonid (meteors seeming to radiate from the constellation, Leo) meteor storm, happening only about a week and a half after my father, Bernard Williams’ death in 1966 when I was 15.
Back then, I had to walk across the Old Concord Road to W.A. Cline’s yard to get an unobstructed view. The sky above my yard was pitch black; but it was due to the silhouetted, sky-obstructive expanse of trunks, limbs, branches, and twigs ending in a multitude of leaves.
Those streaming, steady shafts of light seemed to number about 10 per second in the heavens above the Clines’ driveway. But if I had watched from my own yard, the long bright streaks would have resembled only the occasional “flickerings” of lightning bugs attempting to navigate the dense tree canopy.
I pretty much thought the prediction for “that wee half-hour of the morning” of May 31st¬†would fall short of reality; but since it was only a thirty-minute watch, I would go outside, look up and see what I could see. I remembered some words of my late, bow-tie sporting German Professor, Dr. Carl Bredow over 50 years ago at Appalachian. Those words were: “Give it the old college try!” And while we’re on the subject: other words I remember Professor Bredow saying were in German Lab, when, after listening to me read German, his voice came over my headphones saying: “Herr Villiams, you are schpeakink German vizout an American acczent!”
I switched off my outside porch light to eliminate that source of meteor-viewing-inhibiting light pollution; the darker, the better to see them by (paraphrased BBWolf terminology). The nearby orb-weaver spider, lying in wait on his great “geometric accomplishment” would just have to get by in the dark! Besides, he only hunts by the vibrations from that part of his web in which a hapless night-flier becomes caught and struggles.
For a good part of that half-hour, I saw no meteors. Out of the corners of my eyes, I did detect what looked like new glimmers of heavenly light appearing; but it was only the result of the moving sky (earth) bringing a few stars into view from behind some leaves where they had been previously obscured.
Then, across the sky’s zenith, I saw something moving slower than a meteor, and it repeatedly blinked. Since its path wavered, and there was no delayed jet engine sound, I took it to be a high-flying lightning bug between the trees.
All of a sudden, I saw a silvery-bright meteor streak by overhead; and its “countenance” was such that it truly looked the way a star, dislodged and falling from the sky should look.
A minute or two later, a red meteor streaked off to one side of the sky; and I was just able to make out a quickly-disappearing smoke trail in its sky-wake. The thought of it being like a smoky old car without any hope of passing an emissions test crossed my mind. In comparing this red, smoky meteor to the starkly silver meteor seen before, the red one reminded me of a purchase from “South of the Border,” ignited by an amateur.
Then, what looked like a tiny piece of starless blackness flew past my upward-looking eyes. When it happened again, and fluttered, I recognized it as a small bat.
But then, in a nighttime reverie, I thought perhaps the constant “turning” of the heavens over millennia had caused some wear and tear, resulting in a small piece of the night having flaked off, like the peeling paint inside an old railroad station’s high ceiling, and that small bit of night had come fluttering by me.

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