by G. Jack Urso
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 Galaxy.
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.
I learned to build fires and latrines, canoe and cook, set up tents and camp in all sorts of weather. I learned to shoot and swim. 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 way back to the campsites on their own.
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 five years, 1974 to 1979. 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.
Troop 2 at the Auriesville Retreat, 1976 (left to right, in pairs) 1st row, Andy O’Toole
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 actually lived close to 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.
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 and 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. Because 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. Still, 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.
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