Chapter 1: Beginnings
Poor boy leaves
When you see a drop of water,
you see the nature of all the waters of the universe.
At dawn on a deserted Florida beach in 1954, the first rays of the Sun sent my father's long shadow and my shorter one rippling like kite tails across the rumpled sands. We were out early to see what had washed up during the night. In the past we'd found a gleaming conch shell that whispered surf sounds like betrayed secrets; a dark, ancient wine bottle, stout and heavy as a stonecutter's mallet; and a bottle with a note in it from an English schoolgirl who tossed it from the taffrail of a cruise ship in the Bahamas, a hundred miles away. The previous winter a freighter burned and sank in the Gulf Stream, and for weeks afterward cases of its cargo washed up, providing us with a set of new white wooden lawn furniture.
The rising Sun painted the seashore gold, lighting up the pear-amber flotation balls clustered in tangles of seaweed, the indigo sails of beached Portuguese men-of-war, and the miles of unbroken Australian pines that stretched south along the beach. My father in his faded swim trunks was golden, too. He'd been a boxer and a tennis pro, had grown fat and famous in the café society of prewar San Juan and Miami Beach, then gone broke and gone to work driving a truck. Now he looked like an athlete again, tanned and muscled, given to drawing lines on the beach so we could practice the standing broad jump and the hundred-yard dash. Weekdays he loaded forty-pound cement bags onto a flatbed truck and drove them to construction sites. On weekends he delivered wooden cases of soft drinks to gas stations and bait shops in the Everglades. Nights and early mornings, he sat at a typewriter propped on the rattan table in our tiny living room, writing short stories that he sold to magazines to bring in "extra" money. He'd stopped drinking when we fled the city, had escaped the boredom that stalked him when his name was in the gossip columns, and was full of wit and wonder.
"Look," he said, touching my left arm lightly to bring me to a halt as we stepped gingerly around a delta fan of violet men-of-war tentacles. Up ahead, high on the beach, something strange was happening a slow flurry in the sand, rhythmic and methodical. We advanced slowly, peering intently, trying to make sense of it. Scoops of sand flopped up and over, casting long shadows.
"It's a sea turtle," he whispered. "A loggerhead, I think. She's been laying her eggs."
Now I saw her the enormous shell, so dusted with sand that it had been nearly invisible, and the big, powerful flippers, throwing sand into the hole beneath. My father explained that she had dug the hole five or six feet deep, laid something like a hundred eggs in it, and now was covering it up to keep them safe from predators. We backed away and watched as the turtle finished her labors. Then she heaved her gigantic form down to the shoreline and sank beneath the waves, her fins leaving strange, deep tracks on the beach.
My father found two fallen palm branches, handed one to me, and we swept the sand to erase the tracks, taking care not to step on the nest and pack it down, as this might hinder the little turtles when they hatched and clawed their way to the top. "It's against the law to dig up turtle eggs, but people do it anyway," he said, as we brushed. "If the nest is left alone, the baby turtles will dig their way out in a month or two and head straight back to sea. I don't know how they find the water, or get along on their own out there, but at least some of them must manage it or there wouldn't be any more sea turtles. Was it a full Moon last night?"
"I'm not sure."
"May have been. It's June, and they say loggerheads like to lay their eggs at the first full Moon in June. The tides are higher then, so the sea covers up more of the mother's tracks. But you'd think she'd prefer the dark of the Moon. They're usually done laying by dawn. This one was a bit late."
"How do they know when it's a full Moon and the right full Moon?"
"I don't know. A female loggerhead can wander from here to the Azores and find her way back to the same beach where she was hatched when it's time to lay her eggs. Possibly they navigate by sensing the Earth's magnetic field lines."
Our life on this all-but-deserted coast was a species of economic exile, punctuated by the petty embarrassments that afflict the poor. Each morning I siphoned gasoline from the gas tank of our used car to prime the carburetor so it would start, then with the taste of petrol in my mouth took a small yellow bus to an abject school where I was regarded as well off because I wore shoes and a shirt. (To this day I burn with humiliation at the memory of having been thoughtless enough to ask a classmate, "Gabe, how come you don't wear shoes to school?" to which he replied, in a wire-taut Appalachian drawl, "May-be if ah hay-ed some shoes, ah would way-air they-em.") At the market my mother took groceries back from the checkout counter when we hadn't the money to pay for them all, and through my flimsy bedroom door I could hear the strain in her voice as she contended with the landlord about when we would pay the rent.
But we lived in a beautiful part of this world. Our little house looked out across a windswept field of sea grape to the blue-green sea. At night the stars stood out so vividly that they seemed to crackle, and we would watch, transfixed, as the Moon rose the color of a blood orange, then changed into costumes of ermine and silver. My brother, Bruce, and I fell asleep each night to the subdued hiss and thunder of the waves all alike, yet no two identical and awoke to the same ceaselessly inventive sounds each morning, and did not understand that we were poor, and imagined that we were blessed.
Throughout those years, though we could afford no recreation beyond going to the drive-in movies two Friday nights a month, my parents always kept Bruce and me supplied with books. We got library cards and were thrilled when the librarian told us we could take home whole armloads of books at a time. For my ninth birthday I was given a chunky book with a green cover titled A Child's History of the World. The author, a New England schoolmaster named V. M. Hillyer, stated on its first page that his purpose was "to give the child some idea of what has gone on in the world before he arrived" and "to take him out of his little self-centered, shut-in life, which looms so large because it is so close to his eyes; to extend his horizon, broaden his view, and open up the vista down the ages past."
It worked. Hillyer began by describing the formation of the Sun and its planets, at a time "long, long, long" ago, "when there was NO WORLD AT ALL!" I found this astonishing, then, and have ever since. It meant that the world we lived in was not the world but a world, a planet, and that all of it the rolling waves, the seagulls, the mud that oozed up between my toes when Bruce and I stalked land crabs along the banks of the Intercoastal Waterway was made of stuff that had not always been here but had once been out there, in the cosmos. The earth and mud had got here, Hillyer informed me, through astronomical processes. Those processes were in action in the tides and the phases of the Moon that the sea turtles seemed to know so well. If I wanted to understand this world, I'd need to broaden my view of space and time, as Hillyer implored. I'd have to learn astronomy.
Fortunately, astronomy turned out to be a wonderful subject. Soon I'd read all the astronomy books in the local library, along with dozens of science fiction novels that filled my head with notions of colonies on Mars and freighters plying routes to Ganymede and Titan.
My mother, who hadn't had a new dress in two years, decreed that once a month we would make the long drive to the nearest bookstore, where Bruce and I could each purchase one new book of our own preference. Soon my single bookshelf held cherished copies of astronomy popularizations by Patrick Moore, Dinsmore Alter, and Bertrand Peek. My father, who had long been interested in land crabs when we were younger he invented a genie named Sam the Crab Man, who caused ice cream treats to materialize in the freezer on paydays sold to Blue Book Magazine a novella-length story, "The Fifth Assault," in which giant crabs, mutated by radioactive fallout, attack the lone inhabitant of a desert island. (He was disappointed that the assailants in the pioneering monster film Them were not giant crabs but giant ants.) Our fortunes began to improve a bit. Dad got a white-collar job and we moved into a small house on Key Biscayne, an island off Miami that had been a coconut plantation, and bought a better car, and then a color TV.
The night skies over Key Biscayne in those days were inky dark and rock steady. The stars seemed close at hand, like the spangles inside a princely Bedouin tent. I learned the constellations from a book called The Stars: A New Way to See Them, written by H. A. Rey, coauthor and illustrator of the "Curious George" books. I would take a dining-room chair out to the front lawn, illuminate Rey's book with a little flashlight whose lens I'd painted with my mother's red nail polish, and trace the outlines of mighty Orion, Cygnus the swan flying south in the Milky Way, and the almost frightening Scorpius, swollen to gigantic size in the briny air along the southern horizon, its starry stinger lurking above the palm fronds.
Mars loomed in the east like a garnet out of Araby, getting brighter every night. I'd read that it was approaching opposition, the point when Earth lay in a direct line from Mars to the Sun so that the planets were close together, and that the opposition this year, 1956, was to be an especially favorable one. Mars would draw within 36 million miles of Earth, affording exceptional views of its polar caps and continent-like markings and prompting fresh debate over the reality of the famous canals, which the astronomer Percival Lowell believed to have been built by an ancient and parched civilization to ferry water to their cities from the poles. But to see these wonders required a telescope. I found a suitably cheap one in a tiny advertisement in the back of Popular Mechanics, and my parents gave it to me as an early Christmas present that fall.
Stargazers, like musicians, typically learn on inferior instruments, and my first telescope was suitably wretched. It consisted of a skinny tube made of Bakelite a brittle and literally tacky substance that, like yogurt, is easier to recognize than to describe mounted irresolutely atop a spindly tripod fashioned from wood so green that its legs bowed inward under their own meager weight. Into one end of the tube was glued a war-surplus objective lens with a diameter of 1.6 inches, giving it less light-gathering power than an ordinary pair of reading glasses. The other end held a cardboard eyepiece; you changed the magnifying power by taking it apart and reassembling its yellowing lenses into various bewildering combinations.
Nobody else could see much of anything through this telescope, nor did I have a great deal of initial success, lacking experience as I did and having been a bit unnerved when, on one of my first attempts to use the thing, I looked through its four-power finder scope and was confronted by the grotesquely magnified image of a flying cockroach who had just landed on the tube and was scurrying my way. But I could see Mars its polar caps, at least, and a few of the most distinct surface markings, especially the dark dagger shape of the northern hemisphere feature Syrtis Major and the effect was transforming. Mars was, after all, a world, and even more mysterious then than it is today. Staying up late on cold, clear nights, out in the front yard watching Mars, I began to learn how to observe a planet. I came to realize that the air is rather like the lens of the eye, a curved membrane thinnest at its center the zenith and thicker toward the sides. That's why the sky on a sunny day looks deep blue overhead and pallid near the horizon, and it means that planets are seen most clearly when highest in the sky. I learned that the highest powers of magnification do not necessarily produce the best results: Instead, for any given telescope, trained on a given object at a given time and place, there is an ideal power, a sweet spot. Once you've found it, the trick is to keep watching, waiting for moments when turbulence settles out of the air and the eye is treated to a gratifying and tantalizing instant of clarity an instant as fleeting, yet as potentially significant, as the flash of insight that brings an original idea.
From the new TV inside streamed an advertising jingle: "Dream caaar, fifty-seven, Murr-cury," for an automobile that bore the name of a planet and looked like a spaceship. The future seemed pregnant with the promise of discovery. What lay before me was nothing less than the whole universe. But to see more of it, I'd need a better telescope.
I got a job, along with two of my best friends, sweeping up the sidewalks and parking places in front of stores in the local shopping center on Sundays. It was hard, sweaty work, but it paid well enough that I soon had the down payment on a superior telescope. It had a solid mount, an enameled white tube, and a 2.4-inch objective lens whose components were mounted in an aluminum cell with a thin layer of air between them, instead of being glued together as had been the case with the 1.6-inch. (The glue in the old lens had already begun to separate and turn cloudy.) I still remember the thrill of opening the package when, after an eternity of waiting, the new telescope was delivered to our house the sharp, spar-varnish smell of its wooden cases, the gleaming chrome and black enamel of its eyepieces, the weighty, oily worm gears of its spring-loaded slow-motion controls. I came to cherish it as an instrument of deliverance, the keys to a kingdom vast, ancient, and spectacular. With it, I saw the sand-colored rings of Saturn, the blue-white stars of Orion, the golden glow of the Omega Centauri star cluster, and a thousand other things so big, so venerable, so hot or cold as to balloon one's sense of the plausible.
My father, meanwhile, became alarmed. Why was I sweeping sidewalks? I worked hard enough at school: That was my job. One had a lifetime in which to work; childhood was a time to dream. Late one hot Sunday morning I was wiping sweat from my eyes when he drove up in a borrowed convertible, the top down and the back-seat stuffed with brand-new beach toys a football, a couple of beach balls, two inner tubes, and a rubber ball to bowl at stakes embedded in the sand, in a game he'd invented years ago. (My father could make a game out of anything.) He offered to pay me and my friends the rest of our month's earnings if we'd stop laboring away and instead devote our Sundays to having fun. He'd also help me make the payments on the telescope. We kids looked at one another, turned in our brooms, jumped in the big open car, and went to the beach.
Some of my friends got telescopes for themselves. The ablest observer among them was Charles Ray Goodwin III, a boy of sufficient seriousness of mind that he was teaching himself Russian so that he could read Solzhenitsyn in the original. Chuck and I learned from books how to make drawings of the Moon and the planets with charcoal and colored pencils. Later we got hold of a couple of old cameras and took time-exposure photographs that recorded the lurid orange hue of the eclipsed Moon and the tangle of gas clouds that engulf the constellation Orion. A few of us formed a club the Key Biscayne Astronomical Association, or KBAA with Chuck as president, and started keeping observing logs, portentously filling them with sketches and data like those we'd seen in the books of the august, full-grown members of the British Astronomical Association.
From the KBAA logbook:
June 14, 1958. Observed from 21 hour to 23 hr, made no drawings. Seeing excellent. All observations were of deep space objects, in Cygnus, Scorpius, Ursa Major, and Lyra. A very good night.
July 6, 1958. Seeing fair. Three drawings of Jupiter made, one in color.
July 11, 1958. Good seeing. Observed deep space objects in Scorpius, also Delta Cygnus, Omega Centauri. We had as our guest John Marshall, from Evanston, Illinois, who was made a member and president of the Illinois branch of the KBAA.
Aug. 1, 1958. Ferris made his standard two drawings of Jupiter, and observed a few common deep space objects. The rising of the full moon interrupted observing.
August 24, 1958, predawn. Goodwin and Ferris observed M34, the double cluster in Perseus, Haydes in Taurus, and Mars from 3h 30m to 5h 30m.
As happens if you spend a lot of time outdoors at night, we encountered some unexpected spectacles. One night we saw a mighty fireball a meteor, a chunk of rock probably no bigger than a golf ball but spectacular when seen hurtling into Earth's atmosphere and burning up from friction with the air. I was bending to fetch a star chart from the lawn when suddenly the colors of the chart leaped into view the blue of the Milky Way and the red oval galaxies on the white page, laid against an abruptly vivid carpet of bright green grass. I looked up and saw the whole neighborhood bathed in something approaching sunlight, with green coconut palms waving against a blue sky. Everything cast two shadows, one black and one red, and the shadows were shifting, clocking rapidly from north to south. In the sky I saw the fireball itself, silver and yellow with a red halo and brighter than the Moon, racing northwest and leaving behind a fading white trail flecked with gold.
Watching it fade I recalled a day, years earlier, when my mother had gone into a little rural grocery and I'd wandered over to the railroad crossing. All was quiet. The twilight sky was lavender and dark enough that Venus was out, hung above a freshly minted sickle Moon. Then the crossing-gate alarm gong started ringing, the big red lamps flashed, and the black-and-white-striped gates went down, blocking the dirt road. There was no train in sight, but the rails began to hum. I fished a penny from my pocket, laid it on the track, and dashed back a safe distance, having been warned that if you stood too close to a speeding train it could suck you in under the wheels. A yellow headlamp appeared in the distance and closed with incredible speed. The train flashed past an express! and shot through in a blast of noise, going so fast that my eye could capture only a few snapshots in the blur. There were tan cars with a blood-red stripe that rose from the diesel engine's bullet snout and extended down the cars under their windows, in the warm yellow light of which I thought I caught a glimpse of dining tables covered in white linen. Then the train was gone, in a waft of vacuum that sent sheets of newsprint spiraling in the warm, moist air.
I stood there frozen, my jaw agape, staring after it. I'd been wearing a black cardboard cowboy hat and found that I'd taken it off and was holding it over my heart. Years later I heard an old recording by the Mississippi blues singer Bukka White that captured the sensation:
Got that fast special streamline,
Leaving out of Memphis, Tennessee,
Going into New Orleans.
Be runnin' so fast the hoboes don't fool with that train,
They just stand by the track
With their hat in their hands...
Play it lonesome, now, 'cause I'm a hobo myself sometimes.
Visions like this one produced a sensation that I did not know how to express until, years later, I read what Einstein had to say about the lesson he'd learned from his first encounter with geometry, which, he recalled, provided a way "to free myself from the chains of the 'merely-personal,' from an existence which is dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation."
Decades later, back in Key Biscayne to give a talk, I found that its once-dark skies had been turned to fish-gray by urban lights. Efforts were under way to reduce the light pollution, by limiting the size of advertising signs and encouraging the use of hooded lamps that illuminate the ground without wasting energy on the sky. The stargazers working on the light-pollution issue had found allies among marine biologists concerned with nesting sea turtles. The turtles, it seems, prefer their beaches dark at night.
Copyright © 2002 by Timothy Ferris