By David Ward
I come from a long line of amateur astronomers. For generations, my ancestors from both sides of the family have gazed up in wonder at the beauty of the night sky. My mother even wrote a column about the stars for a newsletter at the retirement home where she lived her last days. Here are some excerpts from one she wrote 20 years ago. She entitled it “Seeing Stars, a Family Hobby:”
“The place was Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The year was 1893. A young boy [my grandfather], about 11 years old, wrote on the title page of a book on astronomy, “The first book I ever read through.” It was signed James Porter Smith. He was my father.
“Years later I was growing up in Campinas, Brazil. Father used to point out the constellations to my brothers and me. The one I liked the best was the Southern Cross, which is represented on the Brazilian flag. Growing up in Brazil as a teenager, my main interest was the moon. Moonlight seen through the fronds of palm trees on tropical nights had a special attraction for me.
Before leaving Brazil for Virginia my father bought a second-hand telescope [I still have this telescope to this day], a beautiful brass instrument made in London in 1888. Mounted on a wooden tripod, it is, to my mind, what a real telescope should look like. Not forgotten was my first sight of Saturn and its rings, the moons revolving around Jupiter and the rough surface of the moon, with its craters and mountains.
“Meanwhile, half-a-world away three Ward boys [my father and uncles] were growing up on a rural farm in lower South Carolina. The farm was an ideal place to study the stars. It was flat and there were no lights anywhere. Electricity to those farms was years away. There was only the brilliance of starlight. The boys’ mother was their instructor in astronomy. Old quilts were spread on the ground, and lying down and looking up, they learned about the stars and constellations.
“One might think that this was a purely casual and useless pursuit, but it served a very practical and important purpose for the youngest son Simon [my uncle]. He was assigned as ship’s doctor on a United Fruit freighter ship during World War II. Those ships were then taking military personnel to the Panama Canal Zone. On the night of June 15, 1942, his ship was torpedoed and sank in the Caribbean. All personnel, except for 29 who were killed in the explosion, left the sinking ship in lifeboats. Without a compass, Simon was able to steer the lifeboats to land by the stars which he could see in breaks between the clouds.
“Back in the United States, Bill Ward [my father] took the only course offered in astronomy offered at Davidson College, North Carolina. At Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, he continued his interest in astronomy. He soon learned that one of his professors [my grandfather] had a telescope plus a 19-year-old daughter [my mother[. Or was it the other way around?
“A wedding present to Bill and Carolyn was the telescope that had played a part in bringing them together. It has been used for many years to show countless men, women and children the wonders of the night sky.
“I can say that I did not study astronomy, but I absorbed it from my father and husband. Now it is my sons [my brother and myself] who keep me informed on heavenly matters. Astronomy is a wonderful family hobby. It is truly out of this world!”
The two brightest planets are gracing the evening skies this month. Just after it gets dark, look for brilliant Venus in the west and almost as bright Jupiter in the east. Enjoy!