Planetarium Summer 1969
I’m standing at the center of a circular turnaround, alone in the roundabout of grass, here in front of my hometown Planetarium in Rochester NY. It’s a wet June morning. Large gentle drops of rain fall around me and down my nose. The air’s alive with the soft wind and cheery chup-chup and chide of birds; there’s a scent of dampened earth and a grassy petrichor smell of worms and pavement.
In front of me looms a modern metal sculpture by the artist Francesco Somaini, which looks like a tilted copper rocket taking off – the kind you’d find on the cover of a 1950’s Sci Fi pulp paperback overflowing with martians, titans and colonists. It’s a gorgeous rocket of crimson striation, verdigris folds and ochre fire, aimed toward the skies over Western New York and beyond.
Reaching out to touch it, I can sense something palpable trapped in its blighted folds. The sculpture spreads it’s wings, a bright blinding angel. Maybe it’s Icarus. Or perhaps a canted nozzle-and-fin spaceship burning in dazzling pyrotechnic display as it lifts off, caught at the very moment it tries – no, it will lift off from the earth on a trajectory to the stars, leaving earth in the wake of grade school dreams and white vapor trails of after-death.
Whatever it is, it’s gorgeous.
And me? I’m a 57-year-old greying, single working mother. I guess I’ve come back today to recapture the feeling of my first visit here, half a century ago, when the Planetarium was less than a year old. I’m trying to reconjure the awe of a little girl and her gravity in 1969.
Here at the Planetarium, there are shadows.
I can still see the ghosts of my little classmates and I; little girls huddled together, holograms in our tailored prim uniforms, all made of fine-lined sky-blue cloth with navy blue cardigans, standing at the walk. I can see us crossing the parking lot, moving two by two as a troop in our scuffed loafers. Winding around the concrete blocks of the planetarium we reach the front entrance, clinging to each other as this fortress both medieval and futuristic looms above us.
You might feel as though you’re about to board a mothership.
Imagine: you’ve just walked into a lobby which has walls of odd corrugated concrete. The light is queer here, as if the sun’s been turned around and it’s coming through the wrong end of a telescope.
You immediately notice the sound, or rather the lack of it. It’s a theatrical, sound-dampened dark; a sense of muffling, for a sort of sensory deprivation like you’re walking in the padding of a microphone. There’s the faint ring or static of a PA system left on, which could boom at any moment with the voice of a commander giving you directions.
The air is cool; climate controlled. My eyes adjust to a spectrum of dim blues and blacks. We’re swallowed in cobalt and ink; bright silver and mercury. From where I’m standing, I can see into the recesses of the walls, and imagine I see vermillion light glowing behind odd latticed copper screens.
* * *
At the gift shop, a strange woman with horned-rimmed glasses is polishing the illuminated glass countertop in deliberate, slow circles. She smiles, nodding to indicate the star charts, sky wheels, the tiny meteorite fragments for sale. She has a Mona Lisa smile as if she’s enjoying some delicious secret.
And there are toys to buy—wonderful, strange toys—intertwined brass wire semicircular hoops are anchored at the open end to a pair of full circles. They flex into flower petals or polyhedrons depending upon which areas you open. There are click clacks: she lifts one silver marble suspended from a string and drops it. Like a pendulum it bangs against the others and sets everything in a rhythmic motion.
For five dollars you can buy a Hula Hoop; for three you can have a Kaleidoscope; for two, a glass prism in a cardboard box. There are Spirographs, and for a dollar, glow in the dark stars – a bunch of them in a glassine packet. I imagine turning my bedroom ceiling into the night sky, lying below it and telling my own stories about the constellations.
You can buy postcards depicting the zodiac. I’ve got my money in a zippered pencil pouch and choose the cards with illustrations of Taurus the Bull, Leo the Lion, Scorpio, Capricorn. The woman wraps them in a sheet of parchment paper and hands them to me.
Everything here gyrates and seems connected. Our teacher tells us that stars are born, stars die, and we children are made of stardust. Carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron and sulfur; the stuff of stardust that falls to earth and is in the plants we eat and what’s in the cells of our body. All that we are connects us to the universe.
Yet somehow, I don’t feel connected at all. I’m feeling unmoored, untethered.
We are tasting of metal, tasting of dark matter. We are becoming dark matter. I feel smaller and somehow bigger at the same time; like Alice shrinking, falling down the rabbit hole, chasing stars along the Milky Way until I’ve fallen in-between squares on the table of the elements, plummeting down between helium, hydrogen, carbon, phosphorus.
I’m standing with two of my classmates, and I follow them into the star tunnel. It’s hard to see in here. My thick glasses don’t help. I try to keep up, to follow their whispers and can just make out their silhouetted heads together in the blue-black darkness ahead near a greenish diorama of the moons of Jupiter. Now they’re standing in front of Beta Lyrae. But every time I moved closer, they seemed to drift farther away.
I can hear their light echoed giggles and the sound of their whispering sifting up ahead, but nothing else. And then suddenly they’re gone. For some reason they’re pulling away from me, beyond the little track lights of the guard rails.
At the end of the tunnel is a phantasmal blue diorama of a satellite dish pointed out to the night sky. The caption reads WE ARE NOT ALONE. But I’m very much alone in the muffling silence. Nothing but a pale speck in a twilight night. I thought space was much smaller and safer than this.
When I exit the tunnel, I’m in the lesser black of a circular hallway.
A tour guide mentions some famous astronomers and scientists. There’s Copernicus, and Kepler looking out through his telescope from his woodcut. Eccentric fiery-tempered Tycho Brahe, with his brass nose plate. There’s Galileo Galilei observing the phases of Venus, everyone from Ptolemy to Albert Einstein—all the great men are here.
And the only great woman of space I can think of is Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura of the Starship Enterprise, and she isn’t here. Here in 1969, if there are any women engineers, astronauts, inventors or discoverers, they’re still mere shadows behind a screen, with no name plates, no quoted words on brass plaques yet to herald their discoveries. They’re still a vague multitudinous chorus in a sound and light-cancelled chamber.
The hall rises up, the hall dips down, round and round the core of the blue-black vault. A small bald man in a red jacket is tearing the admission tickets for little children as they pass through a door draped with heavy velvet curtains. Now it’s time for the star show.
We’re ushered through into the star theater and we wind around a maze of seats to settle and watch the story of space.
Like a jointed atomic insect from a science fiction movie the projector rises up in the center of the dome and the lights dim.
Slowly my eyes widen in the darkness of a surreal boreal winter night and a tree line forms in my peripheral vision round the circumference. Slowly, ever so slowly, vague constellations appear which should be familiar but somehow aren’t.
Dreamlike, a narrator’s voice through the loudspeaker starts telling the story of the Big Bang. I secretly think he sounds like Charlton Heston, the actor from Planet of the Apes which is a movie I’ve just seen. Here is the beginning of things and I am lying on the plane of the Milky Way, waiting to be formed.
He shares that the word Zodiac is from the Ancient Greek. It means “cycle or circle of little animals.”
We listen to the Haudenosaunee creation story which says that long before the world was created there were the Sky People. Then Sky Woman fell from the sky and landed on the back of a great turtle.
Then there’s the story of Queen Cassiopeia. Perseus saves Andromeda and marries her. When she died she goes to live in the sky.
Each narrative burns across the star dome like a meteor into my memory. Tilted back in the theater seat, I decide that if I were a queen I would carry a sword and stay single and the planets would hang like jewels from my belt.
When it’s over, the man in the red jacket opens the curtains.
Thank you for visiting the planetarium, children; we hope you enjoyed your time visiting the stars.
That first visit to our hometown planetarium was what got me excited about stargazing in my own backyard. I spent the warm, sultry nights of June looking up at Ursa and Taurus, the icy bear and the fiery bull; the silent swan and the ancient young queen’s chair. The silent seven sisters of the remote Pleiades and the wielded weapons of conquerors – it was all written on the sky.
Then, school let out. We spent time at the family cottage on Lake Ontario, where we kids zipped our sleeping bags together outside on the dock and watched the Perseids meteor shower in silent pyrotechnics over the lapping waves of the lake.
But star charts, latitudes and longitudes didn’t plot what was happening elsewhere on the planet.
So many mad things tumultuous and crazy happened in 1969, which I wouldn’t learn about until much later.
In February, a meteor shower hits Mexico creating a luminance in the night sky as bright as day. A full-blown riot erupts on the Berkeley campus of the University of California between striking students and police.
President Nixon orders plans for the secret bombing of Cambodia.
“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” is released as a single by the 5th Dimension. In March, James Earl Ray pleads guilty to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King.
In April, Simon and Garfunkel release “The Boxer” which I hear on the car radio when my grandmother picks me up from school in the rain.
Sirhan Sirhan is sentenced to death for assassinating New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and later the sentence is changed to life imprisonment.
The BBC orders 13 episodes of a new comedy, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl sails across the Atlantic in his Egyptian reed boat, Ra, and reports on garbage floating everywhere in the sea.
Scott Momaday becomes the first Native American awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel, House Made of Dawn.
Walt Disney World construction begins in Florida.
Time magazine published an issue showing photos of the 242 U. S. soldiers who died in one week in the Vietnam War. The pictures of so many war dead within just seven days stuns readers as they face the images of gripping loss on page after page.
Also, the very last episode of Star Trek airs on NBC. It’s called Turnabout Intruder. Devoted Trekkies, we kids sit on the living room floor watching. In the episode, the nefarious Dr. Janice Lester travels into Captain Kirk’s body and she tries to take over the Enterprise. It’s melancholy and horrible. We’re riveted as Kirk battles for self-identity and tries to re-enter his own body.
In June police officers begin raids on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.
John Lennon performs with Yoko Ono in Montreal, Quebec, Canada an anti-war song called “Give Peace a Chance.”
The polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, catches on fire.
And on July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin reached the moon. That evening, my family watches the Apollo 11 moon landing on our old Sony. There are voices in blurred grainy black with a lot of hopping and Walter Cronkite’s voice cracking.
Isn’t it incredible? my father keeps saying. Isn’t it?
I peer at the screen from my usual cozy spot under a chair, my security blanket draped over it as a sort of cave. My mother stands in the kitchen doorway, looking in, my father bolt upright on the couch and my brothers Fred, Craig and two-year-old Eric and sister Anna sprawl on the carpet. We’re eating Jiffy Pop Popcorn, staring at the gritty transmission coming to us live from the Sea of Tranquility via NASA through NBC Studios. It beams into our living room through the tangled ganglia of wires. Coursing the cathode ray tube, it fires onto a heavy convex screen past the folding tv dinner trays and deep into our consciousness.
My father smiles and wonders about whether the astronaut’s foot will sink down and get stuck in all of that green cheese. In truth, no one exactly knows what will happen when Neil Armstrong climbs down onto the moon’s surface. When Armstrong steps from the final rung, his boot makes a distinct imprint on the lunar surface. His tread makes a pattern.
There’s a story that after Star Trek is cancelled by NBC, William Shatner is unemployed. He travels around the east coast taking odd jobs and summer stock here and there to make ends meet. He lives in his pickup truck with his dog. On that July 20th evening, somewhere along the east coast, he pulls the truck off the road. The former starship captain, now out of work, stares up at the moon and listens to the radio broadcast as Armstrong makes one giant leap for mankind.
I’ve sometimes wondered on that historic night of the moon landing if appliance store owners in small American towns left TV’s on in their window displays. Maybe people on Main Street who didn’t own a set gathered and watched. I can picture these people, these streets, illuminated in the darkness that evening; the window glass reflecting their collective expressions of human wonder, the glow from the transmission casting their shadows on the pavement.
“In the Year 2525” is a hit song by the American pop-rock duo of Zager and Evans. It reaches number one on the charts. I’ll sing it all summer long as I hunt for wild raspberries in fields near the lake cottage. In the year 2525, if man is still alive . . . I’m humming happily, scratching my knees on briars, knowing very little of the world yet.
In August, The Beatles are photographed as they cross Abbey Road for the cover of an album.
The Woodstock Music and Art Fair will open in Upstate New York. Joni Mitchell will not perform there: she’s slated to appear on The Dick Cavette show. Deprived of the trip, she will, however, sit in her hotel room watching the concert on TV. She’ll pen the anthem “Woodstock” a trance-odyssey to Yasgur’s farm. We are stardust, we are golden but somewhere over Vietnam, there are still bombers riding shotgun in the sky.
In 1970, one small thing happens too, right here on the grassy turnaround where the Somaini statue now stands. There’s a black and white press photo hanging on a wall in the lobby to commemorate the event. Hundreds of Rochesterians gather here at our planetarium for a block party, to celebrate the arrival of a lunar rock brought back from Apollo 11.
The press photo shows people from our hometown, excited, happy, and eager. We’re swarming around the entrance and roundabout; so many people in attendance that the crowd spills over onto the lawns. Retirees, parents, teenagers and children, all celebrating, hoping for a glimpse. We mill around the booth at the center with overhead signs boasting “NASA” and “APOLLO 11.” We see the importance of this event in each other’s eyes. There’s energy, human connection. Our smiles are deep and real.
I doubt any of this would attract much attention today. I wonder what would.
Celeste Schantz is the editor of Mason Street. She was a finalist in Fugue journal’s 2018 annual prose writing contest. She was also the runner-up for the 2018 Stephen Dunn Prize in Poetry, judged by Terrance Hayes. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Solstice, Stone Canoe, One Throne Magazine, Poetry International, and other publications, and in the anthologies Waves, featuring Maxine Hong Kingston (AROHO), and more. Celeste lives with her teenage son and supports his differently-abled schooling and inclusion programs and champions autism rights. You can find out more about her HERE.