The Most Important Day of My Life

Saturn
Everyone has milestone days in their life that change the direction of their life, for better or worse, things like the day you got married, the day that you bought a house, or the day that your children were born. These are all important days in my life, but the single most important day in my life happened before I was 10 years old.

My Mom and step Dad separated on the summer after my eleventh birthday, so this happened when I was either 9 or 10 years old. Like many of my early developmental events (see Leopard Print Bikini) this happened while we were on vacation in Florida. We were visiting my Uncle Larry and Aunt Alice for a few days on our way down to Disney World. They weren’t really my Aunt and Uncle they were my Mom’s friends (this becomes important in a few sentences). Uncle Larry was doing pretty well for himself. He was a salesman at Xerox and spent quite a bit of money on his hobbies and toys. Back when calculators were the size of the Manhattan yellow pages, and could only add, subtract, multiply and divide and cost several hundred dollars each, Larry had three. Needless to say Alice didn’t have to work and stayed home most of the day. However she did have a part time job as a crossing guard for a nearby school. Now Alice was an attractive woman … Ok she was HOT … anyway when she left the house every morning and afternoon in her dark navy blue skirt uniform with badge and mirrored sunglasses … Well that was about as close as a 10 year old boy could come to having a dominatrix fantasy … But I digress …

So Uncle Larry comes home from work on Tuesday afternoon, and we plan to go to the Planetarium. How do I remember it was Tuesday? Back when I was a kid, ABC used to have the 4:30 movie every afternoon, and sometimes they would have theme weeks. This particular week happened to be ‘Planet of the Apes Week’, and I had just finished watching Beneath Planet of the Apes, the one with Charlton Heston and the doomsday bomb 1, so back to my story. Uncle Larry and my Step Dad take me to the planetarium.

Outside of the planetarium is a rocket graveyard, courtesy of the Kennedy Space Center. After spending 20 minutes looking for the doomsday bomb, we finally go inside. Directly inside of the entrance is a Foucault Pendulum. A Foucault Pendulum is a low friction pendulum that is used to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth. Next we encountered a computer that played tic-tac-toe. Supposedly it was impossible to beat the computer. At that age I didn’t comprehend how easy it was to ‘tie’ in tic-tac-toe, so I spent quite a bit of time trying unsuccessfully, to beat the computer. Next I remember these large static electricity spheres. The balls were about 2 feet in diameter and made of some shiny metal, and about 10 feet apart. On the other side of the room, about 30 or 40 feet away was a button. When you pushed the button an electrical lightning bolt zapped with a crackle between the two spheres. The whole thing was like something out of Dr. Frankenstien’s laboratory. Next we visited the animals section. Since it was a slow night and there weren’t many other people around, the staff was more than willing to spend time talking to me. I touched a some bugs, held a REALLY BIG and HAIRY spider, and then I held a snake. Not just any snake, but a GIGANTIC boa constrictor. The snake was so big I couldn’t wrap both of my hands around it’s body. While this might have been stimulation overload for most kids, I was lovin’ every minute of it, and having the best time I ever remember having.

Next we went to the planetarium show. Now this was my first planetarium show, so I was in pure amazement. My step Dad fell asleep soon after the show began. I remember hearing my Uncle Larry tell the story later on of looking over to check to see if I was awake, and noticing that my eyes were open as wide as humanly possible, and I was like a sitting there like a sponge absorbing the whole experience. At the end of the presentation the person running the show raised the lights and started taking questions. As everyone else left and my Dad was still sleeping, the man seemed happy to enjoy answering my endless supply questions. After a little while my Dad woke up and said we had to leave. At this point the man said since it’s not to busy, he could take us up to the telescope observation deck and let us look at Saturn, there was ABSOLUTELY NO WAY THEY COULD HAVE SAID NO!!

We climbed up a spiral staircase that went up about two stories. On the observation deck was a Newtonian Reflector that was about 12′ long. Now this was the 1970’s, the good old days of telescopes. There were no computer monitors, CCD eyepieces, or enhanced pictures. You looked through a real eyepiece and saw A REAL IMAGE. After spending a few minutes talking with the telescope technician who told me I could look as long as I wanted as long as I didn’t touch anything, and someone else found a stool high enough to let a 4 foot tall person see through the eyepiece, I climbed up and peered in ….

Inside I saw one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen … The planet SATURN. It was a perfect sphere that was pale yellow in color. There were subtle but noticeable bands of color on the surface of the planet. Then there were the rings, greener in color than the surface of the planet. There was a distinct black band in the middle of the rings, which I later learned is known as the Cassini Division. Sure I had seen pictures of Saturn before in books, or even on posters when we visited NASA, but there it was. It was up there in the sky millions of miles away, but in this telescope in front of me, it was right there, the real thing … right there. At that moment it was like I had been living in the dark all of my life, and someone had just turned on the light switch. From that moment on I was different. Science, nature, learning, experimentation and discovery had now become firmly a part of me, in short my life changed the moment I looked through that telescope.

Did any of the people who I met that night know they were going to have a profound and life changing effect on me … no. They were just doing there job. It was probably a slow Tuesday night, they were looking for something to make the time go by a little faster. However they did make a difference. You never know when, where, or how you are going to have the chance to make a real difference in a child’s life. Some tiny little thing you do or say, can effect them, and you can open up the world to them in a way they never knew possible. I owe those people a debt that can never be repaid. The best I can do is strive to make that kind of difference in the life of someone else. So while I am on the later side of thirtysomething, I still have the need to crawl in the grass with the kids and pick up bugs, dive into ball pit that I am far to big for, and to keep reaching out and trying to make that connection, and make a difference in the life of someone else.

1 For those oy uo who follow my blog you may have noticed this sentence changed slightly. My screenwriter friend informed me that even though the movie was almost 30 years old if “it still rocks” I can’t give away spoilers without a warning, so I edited the spoiler out.

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