A Christmas story… and a warning!

I have known Clay Sherrod since the early 1970s, going on 40 years now. Throughout that time, Clay has been a strong force for the promotion of astronomy as the “People’s Science” and the education of the public about the Universe.

Clay established his own observatory facilities (actually two facilities comprising the Arkansas Sky Observatory) in Arkansas, where we both grew up and Clay still resides. I received an email from Clay a couple of days ago simply too good not to pass it on to you all. It regards an astronomical Christmas gift from nearly 60 years ago and its remarkable odyssey from Clay’s childhood home to an attic more than a thousand miles away, and finally back to his office in Arkansas. Here is the email:

My best friend and mentor in life was my father, who made me always sign any book that I owned: “You sign it to show that you are proud enough to always want your book back if someone borrows it….” (or something like that).

One of my most memorable Christmases was in 1954 when Santa left me a small telescope under the Christmas tree.

Fifty years later I got a phone call from a fellow (a family practitioner) in Massachusetts who had just bought an old house from an estate. The house had everything still in it.

“Is this Dr. Clay?”

(This was back when I used to still answer my land line phone at home which I do not do any longer.)

“Clay Sherrod?”

He was cleaning out his attic, he explained and came across a lot of stuff that he needed to get rid of. One of those things was an old Gilbert 3-inch reflecting telescope “kit” still in the box with the flimsy¬† metal tripod legs. It showed signs of age, but still was complete and in pretty good shape.

When I was about five years old, I burned my retina of my right eye trying to see solar prominences with an identical 3-inch Gilbert telescope aimed at the sun. In fact, burned it pretty badly… and permanently. I still have blind spots to this day. I vividly remember the day. It was in my backyard, late afternoon with my old Boston Bull Spike sitting at my side. I felt no real pain, but I had seeing problems for the rest of the day.

Several years later, the telescope – wobbly as it was – was retired to sitting in my “laboratory” inside a storage room off the garage. I still have photos of that old telescope sitting in the corner, high above an array of glassware and chemical apparatus that was a bit astounding for a young kid of just 8 years.

“I found something here that might belong to you.” the Massachusetts MD continued. “You are the only Clay S. that I know of in astronomy, so I thought I would start with you.”

My curiosity was piqued.

“There is a box here, with a small telescope in it.” He proceeded to describe the contents. “It still seems to have everything. Even the instruction manual.”

Remember my Dad’s advice?

“I’ll be darned,” he continued, “but I can see where you, or somebody, has written ‘Clay S’ on the cover of this instruction booklet.”

The wheels turned and memory lane unfolded in front of me like the downhill path on a hillside. He had found my old “first telescope.”

I asked him how in the world it ended up in that attic of the old house. “I have no idea,” he admitted, stating that the house had been owned by someone with a name not at all familiar to me.

So, somewhere down life’s complex set of paradoxes, coincidences and particularly fate, my little Gilbert telescope from 1954 had made its way all the way to Massachusetts through the decades to would follow my eye-piercing experiments with it. Plus, it had made it complete with the original instructions, eyepiece “lens”, solar filter (which I obviously never used), tripod legs and even the original bolts and nuts.

Amazingly, somewhere in that complex set of circumstances, he bought a house and he just happened to recognize the “Clay S.” name and associate it with a telescope.

And….he took the time to track me down and get me on the phone and ask me if I would like to have it back. Boy, would I, I told him.

So now it sits proudly assembled Рjust as it did in my laboratory at the ripe age of 7 Рin my library, high above my books and my workspace. The signed instruction book is plainly visible. I look at it nearly every time I go up there and  remember a little kid getting that at Christmas in 1954 and awaiting the first clear night to see the Universe in all its splendor.

Sadly, that little telescope never got close to showing me all that I expected to see…..but it was the first stepping stone across a wide creek to the cosmos.

When you open my website homepage (www.arksky.org) and look at the center photo of my office Library, you will see the little black 3″ Gilbert near the center of the photo, sitting proudly atop my bookcases as my reminder of many things gone by, and as my reminder that every small thing will add to our lives if we let it…..

I am happy to share this story. Memory lane needs to be visited more often.

My Dad was the wisest person that I will ever know.

Clay

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I hope you enjoyed Dr. Clay’s story, and I hope that you will urge him, as I do, to share more in the future.

And the warning? Well, obviously don’t look directly at the Sun, and especially not with a telescope or any optical instrument. Even when the Sun is dimmed by clouds or thick atmosphere near the horizon, eyes can be damaged even when no pain is felt. Just don’t do it!

(Story copyright 2010 by Dr. P. Clay Sherrod.)

Larry Sessions