Our home in space

Guy Ottewell


In the high desert of northern Arizona I could see the stars better than in smog-blanketed Los Angeles, and talked so much about the Lagoon Nebula and the Trifid Nebula that Barbara said: “You just like the names!” The science teacher, Ron Mahka, one day told me he had ordered a Tasco telescope, it had arrived, and I was to learn to use it. I did so, went round the classrooms announcing that we would look that night at Saturn, a planet nine times as wide as the earth. The Navajo kids turned out, a long line of them jostling each other and the telescope in whose eyepiece some of them may have glimpsed Saturn's tiny image. I began to subscribe to Sky & Telescope (the first issue came to pieces in the wind and blew away down the watercourse), and I had the photographer try to photograph the Leonid meteors, and then I conceived the idea of a Longest Night Star Vigil. By watching all through a night at or near the winter solstice, I would see constellations that had gone down in the evening come up in the morning. And the Geminid meteors came on such a night, little more than a week before the solstice, so I would spend the time logging them. I invited everyone to join my little encampment, and a few dropped in during the first hour. I made sketch-notes of each meteor's trail and later plotted them on a map I had prepared (it ended up looking like a bowl full of darting fish). I didn't last through the whole night in the windy midwinter desert at six thousand feet, but I lasted long enough to get some bad sort of cold. I was driven a hundred miles to the Indian hospital at Ganado, where a doctor sat me in a chair, inserted a chisel into my nostril and struck it with a hammer, to break a hole into my sinus and clear it. He said I would get pain and have difficulty sleeping and so he gave me some red pills. I didn't have pain or any more than my usual difficulty in sleeping. However, after a while there came one of the nights when I did have more than that usual difficulty, and I tried one of these pills and had a sensation I had never before experienced: the joyful knowledge that I was actually, unstoppably drifting toward sleep! It occurred to me that it might be interesting to swallow a pill, walk out into the desert, and find where I would wake up; I don't think I did that. Perhaps once or twice in some years, not in others, I remembered about those pills and took one, and found that they wrought one miracle more than just sending me to sleep: the next day I was more purposeful and efficient, I glided without a wasted movement from one action to the next. But that was at a later phase, when I really had work I needed to do. Meanwhile I got an old Volkswagen van, learned to drive, filled it with my works, and drove from South Carolina to New York and Washington. Having tried to meet some editors, I went on into New Hampshire. I picked up a hitchhiker, a pleasant Jewish fellow with whom I argued about Palestine. He offered to drive while I took a nap in the back, which I had turned into a little bedroom. The engine burned out, because I hadn't explained to him clearly enough about having to put oil in. We had to spend the night in the van, and knowing that I wouldn't be able to sleep otherwise I told him I was going to take one of these red pills. He said: “Oh, that's Seconal. People used to take it for a high, but it's been banned because it's addictive.”
     In the morning I woke and saw a nuthatch walking head-first down a pine trunk. While my engine was being rebuilt I stayed with a generous professor from Tufts University (he had helped Brazil write its laws) in his second home beside Squam Lake. The lake had flooded and we helped to clean out a widow's ruined house. Another day he said “We're going for a picnic on that island, you follow in this Sailfish,” and he put it on the water and I had to learn to erect its mast and steer it. After several capsizings I learned, and shot before the wind to the islet, which was at first a speck on the horizon. I didn't know how to stop, but because the lake had risen the islet was just a tuft of blueberry bushes, into which I safely crashed. I had to spend the afternoon learning to tack back against the wind, failed to pass a cape, had to walk from there and resume my tacking next day. On returning to South Carolina I began the Astronomical Calendar. Each September or so I found myself working desperately through the nights. Now I again occasionally remembered the red pills, took one, and the next day glided through my tasks. The little vial of pills, still nearly full, got lost or thrown away. But I thought: “Why not, instead, just say to myself: Glide.” This, one day, I shall remember to do.