Last month’s meteor shower reminded me once again how good it is to live in Orange County, for the simple reason that I saw more falling stars that night than did any of my far-flung friends.
The night began without fanfare. After the sun went down, the sky hung in that perfect balance of light and darkness we call evening. There were scattered alto-cumulus clouds to the west, clouds that the ever-poetic World Book Encyclopedia says “Look Like a Flock of Sheep.” An hour later, I took a sleeping bag, laid it down on the driveway, turned out all the house lights, poured a hefty glass of cabernet and plunked myself onto the yellow-black plaid.
Like a rock concert, the meteor show started with “warm-up stars.” These were comets of modest size and brightness, and very brief life spans. Oddly, most of them seemed to fall in the lower sky, down by the horizon, where the lights of the county and the last of the sunlight combined in a translucent haze. Each little comet gave its best, but you couldn’t escape the feeling that they were getting offstage quick so the real stars could come on.
The central question when watching a meteor shower is, of course: Do you count them or not? I do. Somewhere back in that naturally scientific mind of mine lies a sense of obligation when it comes to quantifying things. Not that you need a pencil and paper. The stars weren’t falling fast, and with each new comet I had time to make up a little rhyme about the sum, such as: “Four in the door, gimme one more,” followed by “Five is fine, but six is sublime,” etc.
There’s nothing like a meteor shower to remind you of other meteor showers, so I quickly found myself back in the fall of 1975, lying in the back yard of a rented house in Santa Ana, doing this very same thing. I remembered the dry fierce winds prevailing that night, remember taking up my notebook and scribbling that the wind seemed like a “breeze coming off the ankles of God.” I also remember that I lost count at 84 that night, finally surrendering reason to mysticism with a poetic yawn, waking up some hours later with my dog, Pudgy, peeing on my foot.
Back to the present. As I lay on the driveway, Cassius, my lab, helped himself to three colossal laps of my wine before I could get his snout out of the glass. The stars continued to fall. By the time I had counted 10, it was near midnight, and I resolved to see 20 before turning in. (“Ten is just 10, but 11 is heaven.”)
Somewhere around number 13, things got good. Number 15 was a fat, searing blaze that burned through the northern sky long enough to illuminate a distant cloud. Number 18 was the best of the night. It was a very long, very bright comet that started low and zipped upward until its head burst, fireworks-style, straight above me, little flecks of light disseminating into the dark like the fuzz from a blown dandelion. I gasped, then smiled. The tail itself lingered in the sky for a full second or two before blipping out like the final image on a TV turned off for the night. Numbers 19 and 20 were gallant in their own ways but couldn’t match 15 and 18.
It’s hard to limit yourself when you can actually get something for free in this life, so reaching 20 stars became unsatisfactory.
I vowed to pig out. “Twenty’s plenty, 21 starts the fun!” Number 21 eked its way across the southern heaven, seemingly growing wings for the journey, but turned out to be a moth. Cassius licked my glasses with his immense tongue, so I had to take two minutes to retreat to the house, wash them off, and refill the wine glass.
When they finally came, the real numbers 21 through 23 were workmanlike and unremarkable. It was 2:47 a.m. and I was fading.
The last thing I remember was a very nice short, bright meteor low over the horizon, and muttering “Twenty four, and there’s so . . . much . . . more . . . " One hour later I awoke, back stiff from the asphalt, wine glass emptied by the dog.
Since competition is the spice of life, I called several friends the next day to see how many shooting stars they had seen. I had no illusions that my hard-earned 24 would be trounced by someone who had gone to the trouble to get better position, or had stayed up later.
A friend in Big Bear reported only “eight or 10.” Another in Los Angeles had seen “maybe four.” A buddy in Palm Springs had forgotten to go outside and look. My final call, two days later, was to the renowned UC Irvine physicist and novelist Gregory Benford, who had been in Aspen, Colo., for the show. He’d only seen two.
Benford explained to me that the meteor shower was not visible over Aspen, but this dimmed my sense of victory not one bit. I’d slaughtered the UCI physicist, 24-2, and that was the simple truth of it.
It was time to gloat. Orange County was the best place on Earth to see the show!
A simple mind is hard to satisfy, however, so I took up position the next night for more free entertainment. I moved to a rooftop perch, safe from the attentions of Cassius, who had gleefully eaten four pounds of raw frozen chicken left outside to thaw earlier that evening. He had also eaten the plastic wrapper, label, and part of the yellow Styrofoam tray.
Although the experts had predicted that the meteor shower would be as good or better on the second night, this was a lie. I stalked comets for the better part of two hours and saw only two. The sky was clear and conditions seemed good, but the miraculous and the predictable are by definition at odds. The meteors had quite obviously rolled up their tails and were by then headed for some other gig.
So I watched the clouds pass over the moon and let their forms play with my imagination.
At one point a thick gray cumulus formed a huge bearded face from which the moon peered like one impressive eye. God’s face, I figured, bearing down on us in stern judgment again. Or maybe with just a knowing wink.