In the summer of 2000 John Dobson was well into his eighties when I met him at Stellafane, the world’s longest-running amateur telescope-makers’ convention. He was the closest thing the community had to a celebrity, surrounded constantly by admirers thanking him for his contributions to the field, including his design for a cheap but sturdy mount and his tireless work traveling the globe as an educator. My uncle, a telescope-maker and the reason we traveled to Vermont for the convention every year, once told me that Dobson was the only man alive who’d be able to get everyone on the planet to look at the stars through a telescope. This is a goal my family uniformly believes is important—largely, I imagine, for reasons of perspective—and until recently I believed Dobson would somehow have the longevity to do it.
I was eleven years old that summer, and felt lucky to spot him in a moment of solitude so rare I wasn’t sure I wanted to interrupt it. He was sitting in front of one of the shacks at the campground that never seemed to actually fall over, and invited me to join him when he noticed my lingering. I’d brought a piece of construction paper for him to sign, upon which I’d typed “Nothing doesn’t exist,” a motto of sorts held dear by his group of sidewalk astronomers, who wore buttons with the phrase back in the ’70s. They brought their homemade telescopes to the streets of cities and encouraged passers-by to explore the sky, in many ways responsible for generating the interest in astronomy that popularized gatherings like Stellafane. Today you could conceivably spend an entire year traveling from convention to star party and only have a few days off.
I first heard him use the expression during the previous year’s keynote address; he was known and loved for making such grand proclamations. The point of the lecture—something to do with astrophysics and peering through the void—was beyond me, but the phrase hooked itself into my imagination. I liked to think it meant there was always something beyond darkness; that the black of night could only go so far before collapsing into or colliding with a source of light, be it a neighbor’s porch lamp or a star that would take many lifetimes to reach; that darkness was only frightening because, once enveloped by it, you can never tell how far you are from the end of it; that there would eventually always be something or someone there for you if you were willing to search.
He signed it, and I ran off to show my family—forgetting, I think, to thank him.
I was an obsessive child, and in those years I was obsessed with space. Specifically, with the possibility of living in and exploring it. Specifically, with Star Trek. My father was a fan of the original series, and when I should probably have been in bed, we watched The Next Generation reruns together. I wanted so badly to take Wesley’s place, to pilot the Enterprise through some uncharted nebula with Riker’s hand on my shoulder. Often my obsession with the show spilled over into other aspects of my life. My parents bought me a uniform for Halloween, and I wore it for my yearbook photo. When we chose instruments to learn in fourth grade I picked the trombone because that’s what Riker played. At night I lay in the grass with my action figures, imagining my own constellations. I was, in many ways, in need of grounding.
A joke: “When you’re falling out of an airplane,” Dobson said in 2001, “there’s no use blaming the ground.”
I didn’t get it, but I laughed because my uncle did. The microphone had been thrust into Dobson’s hand after, once again, he’d been named the oldest Stellafane attendee at the closing ceremony, just before the raffle and keynote. It’s traditional for the oldest to take a photo holding the youngest (that year, an infant barely three months old) while the crowd applauds halfheartedly, anxious to see if their number would be called for the grand prize, a set of Nagler eyepieces worth thousands.
“I know you’re anxious,” Dobson said, seemingly to both the crowd and the baby’s parents. “So instead of a lecture on the perils of light pollution, let me tell a joke.”
After the raffle we left for our campsite, juggling our lawn chairs and hoping to arrive before darkness fell. It was a walk of about twenty minutes, and the whole way I told the joke over and over, trying in some way to pick it apart, to understand.
“Give it a rest,” my father said when we arrived, so I zipped up my tent and wrote it in my notebook. Every year I brought it thinking I’d keep a journal of everything that happened, but ended up filling it with only leaves, lists of what we ate, and Dobson quotes.
I’m in no position to be writing an obituary, never mind a eulogy. Aside from a few brief encounters with Dobson—not even amounting to conversations—I’ve had no contact with him, I have no relation to him nor his family, I haven’t read any of his books, and chiefly, I’ve never even built my own telescope.
And yet, here we are.
I found out about his death about eight months ago, weeks after it happened. I don’t remember how. In the disbelief one experiences when a childhood hero passes, I’d emailed my father, brother, and uncle about it, and posted the Sky & Telescope obituary to my Facebook page. I wanted instantly to write something lengthier than a Facebook post about his passing, but I couldn’t figure out what I wanted—or even had—to say about his life and his impact on mine, and so for all this time I wrote nothing. Instead I hoped, every time I noticed how unusually bright the moon was or bemoaned the clouds obstructing my view, that his spirit was resting somewhere with constant clear skies.
Perhaps the most stressful part about attending Stellafane is finding the perfect spot to camp. While the grounds cover over ninety acres of fields and hilly Vermont forest, campers compete with about a thousand others for plots equidistant to the observatories and swap tables. To be in the center of the action is often to have the best chance at seeing something unexpected or delightful in the night sky, if only to catch the collective oohs when a meteor passes. When my uncle didn’t bring his own telescope, he liked to camp alongside people he knew so he could walk from scope to scope and gaze without the discomfort of introductions or walking all the way to an observatory as the temperature dipped. My father, preferring quiet, liked to camp in as remote a location as possible. This led to arguments, of course, but there was usually a middle ground between a cluster of acquaintances and the edge of the trees—inadvertently perfect for me, as I liked to look up at the stars from inside the woods, letting the trees frame the heavens I sometimes found overwhelming.
My father never seemed to understand why my love of Star Trek and our trips to Stellafane didn’t translate into a love for math and science at school. I didn’t either. I only knew I had trouble, and I hated asking my father for help because it always went the same way: I’d struggle as long as I could with the problems in question, ask my mother, who would tell me to ask my father, ask my father, watch him finish an equation, be unable to reproduce his method, watch him break the pencil’s tip over and over as he tensed, hear him yell, cry. Sometimes he’d say ridiculous things like, “Give up on space if you can’t divide that in your head by now.”
He was right, of course. My onetime dream of experiencing that particular weightlessness died long ago with my rejection of algebra homework. If words or history weren’t involved, I was uninterested, and tales of space exploration and science fiction captured my interest more easily than chemistry ever did. The dream, as it does, got in the way of the basics.
But what’s interesting to me now is how I often feel the same frustration when writing essays that I once did solving those problems, how I sometimes treat their endings like algebraic equations, knowing how I felt then and how I feel now and wondering where the connection lies, at what experience or turn of phrase the ‘x’ can be found. And always imagining my father behind me, asking why it’s so hard even though this is the life I’ve chosen, asking why I didn’t find a more stable job in engineering if it was going to be this difficult anyway.
I’d never before experienced a death I immediately physically felt. My family is a small one, and while both my grandfathers died before they could make lasting impressions in my memory, both my grandmothers are aging with grace. I’d heard of students passing away in high school and college, but they were never people I was close to, and most celebrity deaths never cross my mind in any significant way. So I was surprised by the physical reaction I had to the news of his passing: a gasp, pressure in my chest, lightheadedness, tears. The pain didn’t make sense to me; I had barely known him at all.
How small we are. How distant our neighbors. How beautiful they must be, aquamarine, perhaps, and glistening. How their heads tilt back, as mine does, wondering if I’m out there.
A realization: The spark to finally write about Dobson came on a recent hike through the Cedar Bluff Nature Preserve with my boyfriend, Patrick. It was a trail we knew nothing about, a half hour drive to the middle of nowhere, southern Indiana. The start of the trail was marked only by a small wooden sign on the side of a long country road, its paint wearing thin in the weather. My GPS had trouble recognizing the address, and there was no parking, just a field of grass that hadn’t been mowed in weeks. We were alone, unsure at first if we were in the right place.
For its first half mile the trail winds through the woods alongside a river, at which point the river sharply bends and the trail leads up the side of a steep hill covered by gravel, boulders, and trees. It was much more difficult than we had imagined it would be. The main problem: Going was a last minute decision, and we were unprepared. It was drizzling, neither of us had gone hiking in years, and we weren’t dressed for the trip. He was trying, for example, to climb over mossy felled trees wearing sandals. We gave up and turned around the third time I fell on a muddy slope.
On the walk back to the car we cut away from the trail to linger at the edge of the river, watching the rain falling into it. One of those moments when you stand in nature and realize just how beautiful it is and, yes, how lucky you are to be alive. Patrick hugged me from behind, and as he pulled my back into his chest, I stared at the trees on the other side of the river. There wasn’t any sound but the mist and his breath. I was suddenly glad it was raining, that the trees would have enough moisture to protect themselves from how flammable they were.
“The trees are so close together,” I said. The realization felt somehow dangerous.
“Let’s go back,” he said.
When I started high school it became increasingly difficult to decide if I wanted to continue going to the conventions. They were three days in tents with my father, uncle, brother, and cousins—no electricity, no running water. And while I could happily bury myself in books through the August heat, it was difficult to avoid their preferred daytime activities: touch football, hiking through the hillside’s dense forest, and espousing Republican rhetoric. Every day they were grateful Clinton was out of office. Every day they were mad about liberals taking their money. Often they complained about Mexicans and Indians stealing American jobs. Often they couldn’t believe the gays thought they should have marriage rights.
I could never bring myself to respond. Tagging along in the daytime seemed to permit the night’s stellar views.
One year, after my cousin told everyone he didn’t believe in God, we started tossing the football and I asked him why, if he didn’t care about religion, he didn’t think gay people should marry.
“It’s just gross,” he said. “What the fuck are you gonna do with two plugs and no socket?”
“Oh,” I said.
I was never good at catching the ball. Which is to say, the reasons for going to Stellafane (stars, nature, the few interesting lectures) never quite equaled the dread I felt hiding my feelings while I was there. In the years I decided to go, it was only in the hopes Dobson would say something invaluable. Never mind that after he celebrated his 90th birthday in 2005 he seemed to stop attending.
I didn’t realize until I spent these months trying to understand my grief just how important Dobson has been to my life as a writer. While I spent many of my adolescent years searching for a more compassionate role model in—yes, let’s admit it—sci-fi characters like Riker, it should have been obvious to me that Dobson was the man I should’ve been emulating. Which is not to say I didn’t subconsciously; I’m sure he’s at least partly responsible for my interest in how words work. Language became a way for me to reach the stars without doing so physically.
I still have the quote he signed for me, now sitting framed on a corner of my desk. It’s next to an action figure of Counselor Troi dressed for The Next Generation’s Wild West episode; she’s holding the keys to the holographic jail. Together they remind me that nothing doesn’t exist, and if I don’t write it she might as well lock me up.
A scene I instantly knew I’d remember forever: I’m riding the Stellafane bus to the clubhouse on the other side of the campground, and Dobson is in the seat ahead of mine, looking out the window and talking to himself. “This is a very flammable forest,” he says. “The trees are too close together. It could go up like that.”
He pauses, then: “No one would see the stars for miles. For days.”
Doug Paul Case is the author of the forthcoming poetry chapbooks Something to Hide My Face In (Seven Kitchens) and College Town (Porkbelly Press). His essays have previously appeared in Hobart and December. Follow him on Twitter: @dougpaulcase