Credit goes to my fellow blogger, the prolifically talented Chuck Miller whose blog post on Chronicles of Change inspired me to take a closer look at this short
subject educational film.
From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.
Chronicles of Change is a short subject film (approximately 15:28)
that was produced by the New York State Education Department and the New York
State Museum and Science Service in 1975. For over two decades, staring in
1976, the year of the NYS Museum’s inauguration at the Empire State Plaza
location, the film was essentially on permanent exhibition, shown throughout
the day for a couple generations of schoolchildren and visitors. The film is provided above from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.
The film was originally shown in the museum's Huxley Theater, a
small amphitheater located near the entrance to the gallery on the first floor. A film
projector and a full-sized screen gave Chronicles
of Change a gravitas worthy of its artistic merit. By the summer of 1999,
however, the film was relegated to a small room opposite the Huxley with
a couple benches seating about a dozen people in front of what was maybe a 24-inch TV monitor.
It was a rather ignoble end for such a wonderful film.
The film utilizes documentary and
industrial film techniques to tell a visual narrative of the influences of man
and nature in the world around us. The narrative is built in stepping-stones,
starting from melting ice to streams, to plant life, to animal life, to new
birth, to animals and man building and altering the world around us. There is a
philosophical and poetic spirit to the film that marks it as a more artistic
effort than the typical educational film.
“The softness of water will wear down the
enduring stone” (Chronicles of Change).
The film was produced, directed,
and photographed by Don Guy, a documentary and short film maker whose career
dates back to the early 1970s, according to his biography on his YouTube channel. Guy graduated from the UCLA
School of Theatre, Film & Television with an MFA, and later accrued
numerous awards and honors throughout his career, including a CLIO and a Cannes
Golden Lion award as well as an Academy Award nomination in the Documentary Short
Subject category. Despite his accolades, Guy remains fairly unknown outside the
industry. Commercial film production usually gets regarded somewhat unfairly as
the bastard corporate step-child of Hollywood, yet the filmmakers are true
artists capable of producing meaningful and moving visual narratives.
While I am usually loath to cover
topics raised by my blogger-friends for fear of seeming to poach their ideas, I
was compelled to present this film to Aeolus 13 Umbra readers for two reasons.
First, Chronicles of Change deals
with influences, both of man and nature, which is the very mission statement of Aeolus 13 Umbra. Second,
the film, particularly the narration and the overall nature theme, has had a
significant influence on my poetry. Some of the verses from my poems Autumn Equinoxand Summer Solstice show the influence of
the film’s narrative language. I really can’t give justice to how significantly
the film influenced me nor the moment of kismet when Chuck Miller blogged about
it. It was like meeting an old, forgotten friend.
“In time, even mountains fall like the towers of
ancient cities” (Chronicles of Change).
In order to move forward the
legacy of the film I made some small contributions. The version of the film originally
posted is from a VHS tape. I edited out the color bars in the beginning and
pick the film up at the audio track which begins 29 seconds before the visuals
begin. This audio-only introduction provided the projectionist time to lower
the lights and cues the audience the film is about to begin. I also trimmed the
ending a bit to tighten up the unneeded space between the credits and the seal
of the State of New York shown briefly at the very end. I wanted to as closely
recreate the film experience as possible.
Further, I transcribed the film’s
narration (written by Tom McGrath), provided below, which reveals a free verse organization that
elevates the language to poetry rather than the dry observations that
accompany most documentaries. The information in brackets indicates screen imagery.
[Opening: 29 seconds
of black screen with a music background]
[Sun rises. Melting
ice turns into water which runs down mountains, creating erosion]
The Sun reveals the Earth and all its life in endless
Whatever is frozen into form shall in time change and flow,
finding new forms and patterns.
The softness of water will wear down the enduring stone, and
in its own time the stone will flow like water.
In time, even mountains fall like the towers of ancient
cities, yet destruction may lead to creation and violence to repose.
What we see as permanence is only momentary, though its
moment may seem as long to us as forever.
[Images of mountains,
lakes, and forests]
The shape and bounty of the lands and the waters all give
opportunities and all sets limits to the culture that man will create.
Within the season and the cycles the world often appears
beautiful and abundant, though sometimes its beauty is brief as a summer day.
The patterns of nature contain elemental and living forces
ever merging and colliding.
thunder, and forest fires.]
Whole environments altered. New ones created. The survivors
[Rain comes to quench
out the fire, ocean waves crash on a beach, clouds roll through the sky.]
Within the body of these forces also lies the place and time
for new beginnings.
Numberless forms adapted to myriad environments — insect to
bird to animal to man.
Each of the creatures is its own mystery.
[Cells dividing, a
butterfly expanding its wings, birds nesting with their eggs, a bee pollenating
a flower, followed by other images evoking birth and new life.]
Sometimes we seem nothing but an appetite. All lives in the
wild take their food directly from nature. Once man did the same, and we still
look for the summer, hidden and around.
[A hand reaches for an
apple. Various images of agriculture and agricultural workers.]
In our time, we have learned to transform nature, cultivate
fields, extend and multiple our hands through the machines which are now part
of our environment.
All creatures build on the wind. The spider’s airy city
hangs over the void.
[Images of insects and
animals in nature.]
The beaver’s home in his watery parish is no more secure
from the winds of change.
For man, nail awaits for hammer and wood for saw — and some
are content to observe.
Human adaptations are often rapid and restless because they
are made through invention though laid out ever so true.
All that rises shall fall.
[Images of building
construction and demolition.]
Destruction is married to creation.
This is the break-up of a frozen river — this is the
leaf-fall of a city.
[Images of building
In the new season, the city shall rise again. The stone
flowing like water, we build our lives with the elements — wind, water, earth,
and fire — and the city rises in its mineral grandeur where man is the
But each of us also lives beyond nature. Each of us — a
special talent among the crowd — learning, thinking, creating in our own human
[Camera follows a man
walking through the streets and into a concert hall to conduct a rehearsal.]
Elemental and living forces ever merging and colliding.
Intersections of and nature. We populate the very landscapes with images of
humanity. Images of culture set on a great and enduring stage.
[Images of the
landscape, bridges, homes, orchards, forests, mountains.]
An ambient, natural soundbed sweetened
with segment-specific sound effects is used throughout much of the film, but
significant portions include the light and lyrical touch of The Paul Winter
Consort, particularly the title track from their 1972 album Icarus which can be heard at the very
beginning, setting the tone for the film early on.
Civilization grows by harnessing the individual
efforts of many towards a common goal.
While the scenes of nature and wildlife
were the highlights for me as a teenager, it is the section on agriculture starting at the 7:11 mark that impresses me the most
now. There is a logical order to the visual imagery, from a single man picking
an apple to many more hands picking a wider variety of fruits and vegetables to
machine cultivation and preparing the produce for shipping. The camera glides above
the fields and the heads of the workers as though the viewer is on a cloud. In its general composition, it recalls the New Deal
government information films of the 1930s.
The construction segment
beginning at is also a remarkable part of the film. Beginning at 8:52, we see
nature’s architects, spiders and beavers, building their homes. This is juxtaposed
with images of human construction at the 10:08 mark. Again, as with the agricultural
segment, there is a logical order to the visual imagery. It begins with a
single hammer pounding in a single nail to a single piece of wood. Then, more
workers with more hammers and saws and a frame is built. A wall is erected. A building goes up. The visual composition complements the narration and advances
the theme in a chronological progression.
Chronicles of Change gives the viewer a broader
perspective of the world around us.
As the camera pulls out at the
end of the segment, we see that the building under construction is a skyscraper
in what presumably is New York City. At the 12:31 mark, the camera then shifts
from a bird’s eye view of the street to eye-level and tracks the movement of a
man dressed in black walking through the streets into an outside performance space with an
orchestra (this is not The Paul Winter Consort). He is the conductor. If this segment had been done
in the 1950s, or even the 1960s, one would likely see the conductor to be an
older man of European extraction, but here he is a young African American man
with a righteous afro and a full brush mustache.
Civilization is much like an orchestra comprised
of every race, creed, and color, working together to create something greater
than their individual contribution.
It is a simple, innocuous image,
but for 1975, when segregation was still active in parts of America just ten
years previously, it signals that the times had indeed changed.
Changing Eras, Changing Displays
Back in the late 1970s and the
early 1980s the New York State Museum had some great exhibits that incorporated
sound and vision. In addition to Chronicles
of Change, there was also a small, circular room with dimmable mood
lighting and a Sensurround–type speaker system that ran a sound production of a
recreation of the November 1950 Adirondack storm that came to be known as “The
Big Blowdown.” In fact, the name of the exhibit was “Blowdown Theater,” which
elicited endless nervous giggles from middle school students. Located on the
left just prior to entering the Adirondack Wilderness exhibit room, it was a
unique audio experience that let visitors appreciate some of the power of a
good old-fashioned Nor’easter.
Another exhibit, located
somewhere near the museum gift shop, was a two-story tall screen on which an
ever-shifting light show was displayed. I forget the name of the display and
information on exhibits of the time is woefully thin. Still, it was a wonderful
full-sensory experience to go from Chronicles
of Change to “Blowdown Theater” to a psychedelic light show all within the
space of a single visit. It broke up the pacing of the typically, traditionally
turgid static exhibits, some of which still remain after 45 years.
I last saw Chronicles of Change at the NYS Museum in July 1999 when it had
been moved to that small viewing room I previously mentioned. I’m not sure if
it had been in continuous exhibition between 1976 and 1999, which seems
unlikely, but it certainly is not any longer and I would be surprised if it had
been shown at all in the past two decades. “Blowdown Theater” is also a relic
of the distant past and I’ve yet to meet anyone who remembers the psychedelic
The last time I was at the museum was probably about ten years
ago. Chronicles of Change was long
gone. There were some new exhibits, but one could still see the faded display
information cards with the worn out 1970‘s-era lettering styles. The
lumberjacks, West Side barbershop, and Tuck High Chinese dry goods store from
Mott Street were still around. It was very much like visiting old friends and
noticing the absence of some others you never missed until they were gone.
All the debate about standing up
or kneeling for the national anthem might lead one to believe that it is a
fairly recent phenomenon, but it is an old, time-honored tradition of protest.
I recall an incident in 1986 at Houghton College, the Conservative Evangelical Christian institution of higher education I attended. I was protesting
Selective Service and the 1982 Solomon Amendment to Selective Service which
denies college financial aid (loans and grants) to males who do not
register for Selective Service by the age of 24. While one may say it was the
young men’s own fault for not registering, I ask you — when was the last time
you saw an ad on TV or in the paper or a magazine, heard a PSA, or saw a
poster at a school or post office promoting it?
The Solomon Amendment was finally
repealed in December 2020, but only after a generation of young men who failed
to register for Selective Service for 38 years were denied financial aid.
Typically, these were drop-outs who only learned of the requirement after they
got their lives on track and applied to college.
I had already protested Selective
Service earlier in the year in the chapel during a talent show when the
college’s resident cover band, The Pledge, for whom I played bass, performed “Johnny
B. Good.” As we walked off after the song, I grabbed the lead singer’s
microphone and asked, “Ronald Regan says the Selective Service is not the
draft, but a list. A list for what? In case we’re invited to his birthday
A mild protest by any stretch of
the imagination, but it initiated a quick response, including a chorus of
“Oooooos,” “Boos,” and a few hisses. One young theology major in charge of the
audio board nearly impaled himself running back to the board to shut off the
mic. I actually liked the guy and regretted putting him in that position, but I
was a young man with long hair and on a mission. I was not to be denied.
Then, later in 1986, a Canadian
basketball team played our school. I stood for their national anthem and
pointedly sat down during the U.S. anthem, furthering my protest against the
Selective Service. I was in the front row on the top tier of the gym
overlooking the court, so it was pretty obvious as well. Predictably, I got
some dirty looks, but no one said anything to me. It was a silent protest and I
The Resident Director of my dorm
approached me in the bathroom after the game and asked why I didn’t stand up.
While I had a political reason, I choose not to offer it. Instead, I asked him a few questions.
"Do I have to?"
"No," the RD responded, "but it’s
“OK, so it’s not a rule. Will it
affect my grades if I don't?"
"Will I get kicked out of
the dorm if I don't?"
"Will I get kicked out of
school if I don't?"
"Then what exactly is the
problem?" I asked.
"Some people found it
offensive," he said.
I thought a moment as I stood in
front of the urinal trying to concentrate on why I was there.
“Well, I’m standing up now. Want
to invite everybody in and we’ll bang out a verse?”
The RD sighed deeply, knowing he
was getting nowhere with me.
As he turned to leave and opened
the door, I shouted so everyone could hear.
Father: You mean what you got your college degree in?
Mother: He could have been an accountant, or maybe a lawyer,
but nooo . . .
Father: Big man, huh? Majoring in “Sociology.” He was going
to change the world. How’s the job at Amazon going?
Mother: Your Aunt Katherine, she could have gotten you a job
at the post office. Benefits . . . a pension . . .
Son: Amazon has benefits too, mom.
Mother: I don’t care what they say, the post office is
always going to be here. Amazon, who knows?
Son: That’s not true Mom!
Mother: Don’t talk to your mother that way!
Son: I’ve got a right to live my own life!
Father: Not in MY house you don’t!
Mother: Your house! My name is on that mortgage too, don’t
you forget. If it wasn’t for my parents there wouldn’t have been a down payment
and we would still be living on Flatbush Ave. Is that what you want? For us to
be living in a third floor walk-up on FLATBUSH!
Son: Yeah, is that what you want for us Pop? For us to
live on Flatbush?
Mother: You stay out of this mister college boy! This is
between your father and me!
Father: You’ve been talking about me!
Father: Don’t talk back! You want a fresh one? [raises his hand]
Mother: [crying] 18 hours of labor, for what? He’s not even
Father: Maaa . . .
Mother: [still crying] Your brother Danny, he has two
children now — our grandchildren — and he’s two years younger than you!
Son: With two different woman in two years, and he
started at 16, and he doesn’t pay child support!
[Mother sobs louder]
Father: Look at what you did to your mother. YOU’RE BREAKING
HER HEART! Is this the way a mother gets treated by her son?
Mother: My son, my son . . . I DON’T HAVE A SON!
Son: Ma! I love you Ma!
Mother: Words, just words!
Son: I have to get out of here. [walks out the door]
Father: Go on Mr. Big Shot. Get out!
Mother: If you go by Rappazzo’s Bakery pick up some cannoli.
Father: And rugelach. Pick up some rugelach.
Mother: Tell Mrs. Rappazzo I said hello.
Father: Here’s some money
Son: That’s a lot more than I’ll need.
Father: [whispering] Keep the change. Don’t tell your
Some memories from our childhood are
buried deep, yet they form the very basis of our life — how we look at it
and who we are as individuals. Even the most ephemeral events can yield the
Sometime in 1970 or 71, I
remember sitting with my grandmother, Nana Fran, in the family room of her home
on Woodlawn Avenue in Albany. It was a split-level ranch with a modern open kitchen
with wall-to-wall carpeting and a family room similarly decorated with the prerequisite
iconic wood paneling and wet bar that defined the era. It was a long way from the
crowded two-family homes on Second Avenue from where they moved, or Flatbush Avenue
in Brooklyn where they started out.
Nana Fran was patiently helping
me put together a puzzle of the main cast from Family Affair, the treacly, saccharine-sweet sitcom, which ran from 1966 to 1971, starring Brian Keith, Sabastian Cabot, Johnny Whitaker, Anissa Jones, and
Kathy Garver. The show pretty much defined the stock sitcom with a laugh track and where all the world’s problems, no matter how serious, were resolved in thirty minutes — or maybe in a special two-parter during sweeps week. Every generation
has its share of these shows. In the 1970s, it was The Brady Bunch. In the 1980s, it was The Cosby Show. In the 1990s, it was Saved by the Bell and Full
House, among others. For me, born in 1964, it was Family Affair. Many of the aforementioned
shows, including Family Affair, have had
reboots or spinoffs that met with varying degrees of success. Instead of creating new
memories, TV networks recreate the past and hope to recapture the lost magic and
fanbase, though mostly the lost advertising dollars.
The kids on Family Affair were about the same ages as me and my brother and sister. My sister, in
fact, even had a Mrs. Beasley Doll just like Anissa Jones’ character Buffy.
With the switch from black and white broadcasting to full color in the 1965-1966
seasons, Family Affair was among the first shows to take advantage of the technology,
drawing in its young viewers with color-saturated film stock.
My spatial abilities were never
really good, and at six years old the 125-piece puzzle far beyond my capabilities.
Still, I can remember being entranced by the image on the box, a beach scene
with Jody and Buffy playfully covering up a dozing Mr. French with sand while Cissy
and Uncle Bill come out of the surf in the background. It reminded me of our
family’s annual summer vacations at Wildwood Beach, New Jersey, in the 1960s — a perfect
family enjoying a lazy summer day without a care in the world.
It stuck out because I sensed at
even that early age all was not right with my parent’s marriage. My dad, bless
his otherwise kind heart, had a few affairs. My mother, suffering PTSD
from her experiences as a child in Nazi-occupied Sicily and abuse from her father, as well as dealing
with my dad, would lash out — sometimes physically. A full-blown Sicilian
meltdown is a natural disaster all unto itself. Some variation of this situation
has been played out in millions of American homes and it is not uncommon for
children to latch onto some TV show that gives a glimpse of something better,
something almost perfect, no matter how fake and make-believe we know it is.
Like a lot of memories from my
childhood, I put it away as I accrued the luggage of adulthood. Last fall, however, Decades TV aired a weekend-long marathon of Family Affair episodes. As I usually keep the TV on for background
noise as I grade papers or work on various freelance projects, I couldn’t
resist catching a few episodes. The show was as stereotypically syrupy as I
remembered it. Though I must admit, the first season episodes played up the
death of the kids’ parents in a car accident and their separation among various
relatives. This was a complete rarity among children-oriented TV shows in 1966.
Nothing preys on a child’s fears more than the possible death of their parents
and the break-up of their family.
Yes, the show was formulaic.
Whatever problems arose would be neatly resolved in thirty minutes. Every
character had their weaknesses and fears, even the adults, and the underlying principle
that everyone needs help and family sticks together stood out. Yet, there were
some episodes that bucked the stereotypical formula. One episode, “Christmas
Came a Little Early,” starred Eve Plumb (later Jan on The Brady Bunch), as a young sick friend of Anissa Jones’ character Buffy.
The parents were concerned that their daughter might not survive until
Christmas, so they decided to have Christmas early. When Uncle Bill offered his
vast resources as a wealthy man to hire the finest doctor to treat the young
girl, the viewer could see where it was going. A treatment would be discovered
and the girl would survive.
In the final act, however, the doctor reveals there
is no cure and the child is going to die. Uncle Bill keeps it from the kids and
after a happy celebration they return home. Later on, Uncle Bill discovers
Buffy crying in her bed. No words are shared. No pithy pearls of wisdom. Buffy was
aware the entire time what was going to happen to her young friend and kept up
a brave face so they could enjoy a final Christmas together — and there the episode
ends. No happy ending. No miracle cure. Fade to black.
Children often suspect the truth
even when it is hidden from them.
Piece by Piece
Having watched several episodes
that weekend, my memories of putting together that puzzle with Nana Fran were
stirred. I jumped online and saw the puzzle for sale on eBay. It was an
original copy, but still less than ten dollars, so I bought it as a Christmas
present to myself figuring I would put it together over break. However, I couldn’t
do it. Sometimes walking down memory lane is more walking away than walking
down. Finally, I recently got around to it. As I put it together, I could
easily imagine myself as a child sitting next to my grandmother.
I don’t think I put a puzzle
together in the past five decades. As my spatial abilities are
challenged, I admit to being concerned. While the final image was available, I
just couldn’t see how the pieces fit together. Produced in 1970, according to the box, I was worried whether all the all pieces were still there. Some pieces, I discovered,
don’t make sense until other pieces are put in place first. Slowly, the puzzle
came together. How much like life is a puzzle I thought. We are handed a boxful of pieces
and we don’t know how they all go together until we diligently work our way
through it piece by piece — driven only by faith that it will all come together
at the end.
puzzle comes together (author’s collection).
The Last Pieces
When I worked in radio, I was
able to interview many celebrities passing through the area. Sometimes, I was
able to connect with individuals who made an impact on me at a young age.
Juliet Mills, of Nanny and the Professor, was performing at the Williamstown
Theatre Festival when I got to speak with her and noted rather anxiously how, when as a young boy, I tried to convince my parents to hire an English-speaking nanny
like her in the show. She laughed graciously and indulged me as we spoke
off-topic for a few minutes about the show.
I also got to interview Paul
Stookey of Peter, Paul, and Mary, about
a concert he had planned for our area. I told him how much I loved “Puff, the
Magic Dragon” as a child and how I played it over and over, due in part to hearing my childhood
name “Jackie” in the song (“Little Jackie Paper”). Even as a boy, I told Stookey, I understood from the song that there was a sorrow to growing up and leaving our childhood behind as only memories that we
abandon in time. Several minutes after the interview ended, as I was replaying
the tape and choosing the best sound bites, the studio phone rang. It was
Stookey saying how much he enjoyed the interview and speaking with me. I was touched,
of course, but mainly shocked. No one I interviewed, let alone a celebrity,
ever called me back to tell me they enjoyed speaking with me. That little
moment drew me back to my childhood and helped to bring “Puff, the Magic Dragon”
back from his cave for one more final mighty roar.
The various cast members' lives of Family Affair turned out a bit
less than the idyllic epilogs to episodes of the series. Brian Keith, suffering
from lung cancer, committed suicide in 1997 only two months after
his daughter Daisy did the same. Johnny Whitaker enjoyed a successful career as
a child actor after the show, though he developed a serious drug addiction that
was only overcome with the intervention of his family, later
becoming a drug counselor. Sebastian Cabot died a few years after the end of the series on August 23, 1977, of a stroke at age 59 — coincidentally, almost a year after Anissa Jones died
at 18 of a drug overdose on August 28, 1976, at a friend's house where they were partying. As I write this, I notice that the day of this post is also August 28, making it forty-five years to the day since Jones passed away. I had not planned it this way. It's just how it all came together.
For those quick to judge Jones, I had my own misadventures as a youth and all I can say is, “There but for the grace of God go I.” As of March 2015, outside her childhood home at 100 Rees Street, Playa Del Rey, Calif., one could still find Anissa's name that she wrote in the cement on the sidewalk.
graffiti by Anissa Jones (FindaDeath.com).
I was finally motivated to put
the puzzle together yesterday after I saw a commercial for ClearCaptions,
a telephone system that converts talk to text. I thought the actress looked
like Kathy Garver, who played the older sibling Cissy on Family Affair. OK, so she’s not acting in
series work anymore, but as actors say, a job is a job. I found her Facebook
page — a modest affair where she updates her fans on her interests and
convention appearances. I posted a brief inquiry asking if that was her, and
she actually responded in the affirmative. I’m sure the young me would have
been delighted at connecting with her, as the older me is as well.
I strained my eyes against the
night sky as I looked upwards.
“There,” the scout leader said,
“that’s the Navigator’s Triangle,” pointing out a formation comprised of
Altair, Deneb, and Vega, also known as the Summer Triangle. Once I found it, he showed me the three
constellations those stars are part of: Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra.
“And there, see that little smudge?
That’s the Andromeda Galaxy.” For the next hour, he continued across the 360-degree
dome of the Northern sky calling out the North Star, the Big and Little Dippers,
Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Scorpius, Sagittarius, and even faint wisps of the Milky Way
Despite having a pair of binoculars, we mostly did naked-eye astronomy. We craned our heads back,
standing in pitch-black darkness in the middle of the parking lot of Stratton
Mountain Scout Reservation, August 1978.
Ancient Rituals and Ruins
Despite being located in Vermont,
Stratton Mountain Scout Reservation (1950-1979) was actually run as a joint venture of the Fort
Orange — Uncle Sam Council and Governor Clinton Council, both from New York. I
attended in 1975, 1977, and 1978. Buried deep in the Green Mountains, it had a raw, unsettled, wilderness feel about it. The reservation was a complex of buildings
and campsites scattered up the mountain and down by the nearby Somerset Reservoir. In 1975, my Troop
2 (St. Andrew’s Church, Albany, NY) was assigned to the Lakeside campsite, but
in 1977 and 1978 we got the much-desired Hilltop campsite, located about
three-quarters of a mile up a hill from the parking lot. We typically spent a
week there working on merit badges and engaging in time-honored
coming-of-age rituals. Our leader, the eternally patient Bob Conklin, who was scoutmaster for nearly 50 years, somehow managed to maintain control with a kind manner, quiet leadership, and an occasional stern look.
I learned to build fires and
latrines, canoe and cook, shoot and swim, and set up tents and camp in all sorts of weather. I saw beaver dams and my first bald eagle. While hiking
through the woods, we occasionally came across the ancient ruins of some old
trapper’s cabin, wondering if he died alone deep in the woods. Order of the
Arrow initiation ceremonies were held in the forest at night with the
candidates led out to places in the woods from where they would have to find
their own way back to the campsites.
We climbed up Stratton Mountain
to the fire tower at the summit and got a bird's-eye view of the wilderness. Looking
at the dense forest, we realized if a fire did break out getting so many boys
out of the area would be difficult, especially if it started at night. There is
no darkness as deep as that of a forest late at night — particularly on a moonless
night. Being the 1970s, we half-expected Bigfoot to jump out and grab one of
us. We were filled with a mix of awe, danger, fear, and mystery.
In 1975, my first year at Stratton
Mountain, I earned the Reptile Study merit badge. In 1977, I completed Geology
and Mammal Study. In 1978, I eagerly signed up for the Astronomy merit badge course, though I was concerned there
would be too many scouts and I might not get a spot. As it turned out, I was
the only one to sign up. Since star gazing and learning the constellations were
required, we had to meet about 9 pm in the parking lot. Walking
through the forest late at night was enough to turn off most of the scouts; however, I wasn’t deterred. My father gave me a Sears telescope for Christmas the
previous year and I was anxious to learn more. I was a little disappointed all
we had was a single pair of binoculars, but naked-eye astronomy is like
learning to drive a standard transmission. I may not always have a telescope,
but I would always have my eyes.
Sometime around 11 pm I would
make my way the three-quarters of a mile back to Hilltop. Leaving the open space of the parking
lot for the claustrophobic nighttime trail, it was so dark I literally could
not see my hand in front of my face. My flashlight barely pierced the
blackness. Along the way, as I passed various campsites, I made wild animal
calls to spook the other scouts as I fought off the tingle of fear at the base of my spine —my howls mixing in with the night and the mystery.
Deep Field Observations
I was an active member for about six years, from 1974 to 1980. I ended up as a Star Scout. If it went by count alone, I
had enough merit badges for Life Scout, but I needed certain ones in areas
I had no interest in. Combined with my parent’s dysfunctional marriage and
later divorce, my interest waned.
2 at the Auriesville Retreat, 1976 (left to right, in pairs) 1st row, Andy
and Jack Urso (author); 2nd row, Andy Kissel and Peter Laz; 3rd row,
the Pelton twins.
I can’t say that I have
maintained any of my scouting skills. I haven’t been camping since I left Troop
2. In my 30s, I lived only a block away from St. Andrew’s Church where the
troop met, and one of my former employers was an assistant scoutmaster for a
time, but I had no desire to volunteer.
I left my telescope in Rochester with some
friends after college and never got it back. The cheap Sears’ lens
never quite worked right anyway, though I regret losing the first Christmas
gift from my father after the divorce. Despite my early interest, beyond
watching segments of Jack Horkheimer’s Star
Gazer and reading books on cosmology, I haven’t really pursued it.
Triangle in the Northern sky.
Still, there are restless late
nights when I go out on my back porch and look up at the small slice of sky I can
see above the rooftops, beyond the glare of the city lights, and I’ll pick out a
few planets, stars, and constellations I still recall — especially the Navigator's Triangle when it is visible. Due to how long it
takes for the light to reach us, looking at the stars is a bit like time
travel. We only see what was, not what is now. Likewise, when I do star gaze, I
am always transported back to August 1978 and that dark parking lot on Stratton
Mountain. The fading voice of my Astronomy merit badge counselor, like that of my
youth, is drowned out by the noise of four decades.Yet, as the Sun only
drowns out starlight that is always in the sky, if I look long enough I can
still see the sparks of that summer so long ago.