For much of my childhood I dreamed of being an astronomer. For a brief time my father owned an excellent telescope which, on clear nights, we would set up on the front sidewalk where we took turns enjoying it. Seen through the telescope, the sky would erupt with new crops of stars, I was sure that I could see the canals on Mars (as drawn by the Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff in 1894) , and Saturn was thrillingly beautiful within its rings.
The poem below concerns the night my ambition to be an astronomer took root. This is the second Sunday Scribblings in a row that I have written of the boardwalk at Santa Cruz.
I know what my writing group will say about it: "A child of five wouldn't have thoughts like that. You must have been older than five." I know the exact date, however - August 15, 1926 - because my mother was in the hospital giving birth to my brother Allen, and the Ferris wheel ride was a special treat to keep me from feeling abandoned. My father was a born teacher. I had already been introduced to the world globe. I already knew that the universe was vast.
Not a dream this time.
The swaying double seat of the Ferris wheel
that holds me safe by Daddy's side
swoops up into the night sky, poises for an instant,
dives down again toward boardwalk lights and noise
and smells of grilled franks and frying grease.
Up again and when we reach the very topmost point
the wheel comes to a sudden halt, swinging in the dark,
while we peer down at oblivious pleasure seekers.
In front of us the ocean heaves its charcoal-colored skin,
spreads a scalloped lace of foam at sand's edge
just within the reach of boardwalk lights.
There is a deep insistent roar and a hiss as breakers crash.
From our height they almost drown
the sound of merry-go-round,
its cheerful bouncing beat turned tinny and sad
against the sea's immensity,
that restless darkness stretching to world's edge.
I picture Daddy and me,
all of us here on the boardwalk,
the small town of Santa Cruz itself
lost on the great curve of earth,
as insignificant as a pinprick on the thick hide of an elephant.
Then I look up and see the stars.
Even the sea, even the earth itself
shrinks to a tiny dot.
"Daddy," I say, "when I grow up
I want to learn all about the stars."
And did I grow up to be an astronomer? No. Too many ambitions and interests intervened. Otto and I together took a university course in astronomy a few years ago, and astronomy articles are the first ones I read in Science or Scientific American. What I still do is to look at the night sky with awe and a sense of how small we are in the total scheme of things.