Monday, August 16, 2010

Three Points of Light on an Armillary Sphere: A Requiem

video credit: Youngstown State University/
Office of Marketing and Communications

Three Points of Light on an Armillary Sphere:
A Requiem for Richard Pirko.

Douglas Fowler
Appleton, Wisconsin and McDonald, Ohio
June and August, 2010.

          Remember the job painting a high-school planetarium dome out in western Indiana, where all the school officials were friendly; never asked me for an ID when I showed up mid-day to meet you guys already working, and the students all so respectful. They still had Future Farmers of America and studied engine repair.  We ate breakfast at a cafe inside a bowling alley.

          I travel these same roads, tired of interstates.  There’s a free museum in Fairmont, Indiana where I told the proprietor I’d worked in planetariums.  He smiled and pointed me toward the Rebel Without a Cause Exhibit and drew a map so I could find James Dean’s small grave on the north end of town.  I remember how John Moseley out at Griffith Observatory used to publish our things in the Planetarian.  That’s where Sal Mineo’s Plato hid from everyone at the base of a Zeiss projector.  

          So I travel these roads avoiding rush-hour Chicago.  And farther.  We painted domes, built shelves, installed lighting in San Antonio, Fresno, even West Palm Beach where they put us up in the Hilton, and there was Casper, Gibsonia, Mishawaka, Muncie and Kankakee.

          And there was Kokomo. That first trip when I drove showing you the US routes, westbound 24, then south on 31, and we played Charlie Parker on the tape deck in my aging Ranger that had already gone a full light-second.

          You cut sweeping arcs of plywood in the parking lot, your circular saw compassed on a 15 foot radial arm screwed down to the asphalt.  We overlapped them into cove-shelves and you always humored me when I’d countersink the drywall screws, working three drills back where no one could see anyway.  We told the director how to build four sets of vertical cabinets right up to our cove-shelf at the four cross-quarter points around the dome.   We drove back home and you showed me the county roads with corn right up to the asphalt and we drove through Spanish towns in north Ohio that no one knows and we were lost until Fostoria. 

          We drove back to Kokomo two years later after a tornado peeled the roof off the whole spread-out school building.  But the planetarium dome survived perfectly!  Bound by our cove-shelving, sitting on those four overbuilt vertical cabinets.  We were proud.                    

So here is point #1:  Tony Armeni built this sculpture, with its subtle and accurate armillary sphere, so very well.  You would have liked that.  All things should be as well-built.

          It will survive any natural storm, and I hope it survives the kind of storm that took your boot-prints away.   

          And the best trip of all was Casper, painting another dome with old friends, a simulacrum sky over Wyoming.  We’d take breaks and join the public sessions with telescopes wheeled out on the lawn, both of us showing kids the planets in the real sky:  Saturn and Venus near conjunction in Leo; Jupiter in Scorpius, all along the ecliptic in a long summer twilight that gave enough light to see us down three days later from 12,000 feet of the Snowy Range.    

Point #2:  The imitation sky inside a planetarium is not enough.  Our students and patrons must have access to the real sky with light from real objects.  We orbit a spectral class G2 main-sequence sun.  This sundial is the most classic way for anyone to experience our motion in the warm light of our yellow star.   

          And I come to my third point:

Point #3:  If this armillary sphere sundial is to be any memorial to you Rick, it must be used.  It will always be a piece of laboratory equipment as well as art.  And in the best of worlds, is there really any difference?   

          I promise to finish the lab I’m working on.  But you know – it will require students to make careful measurements outside of class, on their own.  Some measurements will be made hours apart.  There will be no showing up to lab for half an hour, take some careless data and then run off.  We will do nothing less than have them observe nature outside of the classroom.  

          That’s a hopeful thing we shared.  Remember how we both got into trouble in that summer program for the gifted.  My crime was showing them math.  But yours was so much better – you showed them some measure of physical access to our skies on our own small world.  You told those kids about the EAA Young Eagles and at least one of them  had her pilot’s license before she turned 18.  

          So now I think of you every time I drive south on Highway 41, past the F-86 Sabre pointing skyward in Oshkosh.   And there was Milwaukee, that second to the last planetarium dome painting job.  You and Diana drove up there and I didn’t make it because my brother passed away and then I taught astronomy at UW Fox  that summer and in the fall we sawed up the big oak that came down in a storm and you were gone two weeks later.

“I started thinking about you up in Milwaukee
  It was raining when we reached Chicago
  but the tears didn’t start rolling down my cheeks
  until we rolled into Kokomo.           Kokomo . . .” 

                                                           John Mayall, 2002       

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