Once in a Lifetime

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Recalling my own personal meteor moment

It flashed cross the Saskatchewan sky last week, lighting up news headlines worldwide.

Although scientists haven't confirmed this (they're still looking for fragments), it was very obviously a meteor. I know, because I have witnessed one very much like it. If anything, the one I saw was more colourful, and it arced across the sky instead of plummeting straight to earth, as this one did.

As one who has always been infatuated with the heavens, with the stars, it was a lightning-rod moment for me.

I grew up in what was known then as Mount Pearl Park', but is now the city of Mount Pearl. Whenever I click through my Viewmaster of childhood memories, I see me, lying flat on my back in the yard of our Spruce Avenue home, watching for shooting stars.

They occur quite frequently all you need is a clear, dark night, and the time to lie there watching. Waiting.

And thinking.

About the vastness of space, and the notion of infinity. I understood, on an academic level, the fact that space has no end. There's an undeniable logic to it. At the same time, it presented me with a paradox how can something go on forever? I imagined concrete roadblocks with flashing orange lights and signs, advising that space ended right here. Don't even think about going past this point. But, of course, any fool could look beyond the barricade and see more stars glittering in the distance.

If someone had told me then that I was looking at the past, at light that had left the stars perhaps thousands of years ago and was just reaching me now indeed, that some of those twinkling stars might already be extinguished well, that would have blown my fuse altogether.

But no matter. Just as my brain tightened itself in another knot of incomprehension, a shooting star would arc across the night sky, yanking me from confusion to wonder. And there was nothing more spectacular than a Perseid meteor shower (which I also saw as a child); the night sky alive with streak after streak of light.

I learned to identify constellations, though was not impressed by the graphic skills of the ancient civilizations who named them. That's a bull? And that's a bear? You gotta be kidding me! Now, the big and little dipper made sense and, Orion, with his sparkling belt, he was pretty cool.

But it was the Milky Way galaxy that awed me more than anything. It gave me a sense of perspective, allowing me to see space in three-dimensions, but also confounding me with its size. I didn't fully grasp this, however, until a science teacher explained it in simple terms.

You've seen pictures of our galaxy; a spiral-shaped mass of hundreds of millions of stars. Our solar system is located on the outer edge of that galaxy, which is flat, like a Frisbee or a plate. When we look at the Milky Way, we are looking at this plate, and its hundreds of millions of stars, from side-on, which explains its narrow, cloudy-white appearance. So we are actually standing on the doorstep, staring back into our own galaxy.

Once you've wrapped your mind around that, think about this: scientists estimate that there are 125 billion galaxies in the universe. Ack. There goes my brain again.

When I worked at The Herald during the 1980s, I was pleased to discover that production manager Sandra Pelley shared my fascination with stargazing. She actually went to great lengths to find ways to watch stars on those cold nights when the skies are clearest; from sticking her head outside of the tent flap to improvising a platform inside her house, enabling her to lie on her back with head out the window. Yeah, she was more gonzo about it than I was. Which was the coolest thing.

Of course, shooting stars are not stars at all they are meteors, or pieces of cosmic debris, falling from space and burning up in our atmosphere. Most meteors are the shooting star variety; thin, fleeting streaks across the night. A really impressive meteor, like the one seen in western Canada last week, is a once-in-a-lifetime event.

I don't remember exactly when I saw my meteor; I calculate these things by pinpointing my location on the spreadsheet of my life, and, in this case, I was loading birch firewood into Geoff Stirling's barn at Motion, near Torbay, where I had the good fortune of living for more than two years. (At Motion. Not in the barn.)

I am pretty certain it was the fall of 1984. It was dark, and I was working by the dim light that spilled from the barn.

I had just straightened up with an armload of birch junks when I looked up and saw it.

My jaw dropped. So did the birch.

A wide streak of colour was cutting across the sky, moving quickly from the north I am guessing above Cape St. Francis to south. It changed colours as it went, from green to blue to yellow to white and perhaps others before burning out in the southern sky, maybe above Bay Bulls (or it may have been Trepassey, depending on how high the meteor was). It did not crash to the earth, as far as I could tell, though fragments must have fallen beneath its wide arc.

It was fast. From start to finish, the meteor's colourful demise might have lasted all of three seconds.

My first thought was for my own safety. For a second, I thought I might die. But that fear passed as the meteor passed overhead and continued south. It did not make a sound. There was no fireball apparent at the front; just a wide, elongated swath of brilliant colour. I know no other way to describe its width than this: if I held my hand at arm's length, and measured between thumb and finger, the swath would be about two inches wide.

Yes, that big.

I listened to the radio that night, but there was no mention of what I'd seen. Next day, same thing the newspapers and TV news seemed unaware of it.

Had I imagined it? Was I cracking up? Well, no, but how could such a phenomenon go unnoticed? It had also bypassed the capital city of St. John's.

Finally, vindication. One of my co-workers overheard me talking about the meteor, and said she had just missed it. She was arriving home that night, and was unlocking the front door while her daughter, just a child, stood behind her. She said something like, "Wow Mom Look in the sky."

When her mother turned around, there was nothing there. Like I said, it was fast. But her daughter managed to describe it roughly the same way I did. I am still puzzled that it didn't make headlines back then, but know someone else must have seen it. If you did, please leave a comment below.

As for the meteor in Saskatchewan, it has been captured in at least three decent video clips, which is miraculous. Click this CBC story to see two and here for another. The accompanying articles are interesting as well.

Occasionally, I meet someone who has never seen a shooting star. I don't understand this. It is like saying you have never seen the sunrise, or the moonset. Shooting stars happen with the same predictability.

If you look, you will see.

Into the chasm of infinity.

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Recent comments

  • George
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    I've seeen a few beauties in the cab at night too, the latest one for me being about two weeks ago when it plunged through the western sky. We get to see a few celestial objects that way.
    I well remember the night of the Hale-Bopp comet after the dismal failing of the last return of Halley's Comet. Up on Signal Hill one evening with some disgruntled visitors from the US on their way back home. They themselves were stargazers and were treated to the best view of a comet that they had ever had, the comet being almost straight overhead. Two weeks later, after a bout of fog, one was treated to a spectacular tail spread from the comet in the western sky shortly after sunset.
    Yes, there may be some dreary nights in a cab but, we do get to see some treats every now and then.