The Butterfly Nebula 6 – Burns and Allen

October 3, 2013

Burns and Allen
The Burns and Allen TV show had a run of eight years in the 1950s and has been showing recently in late night reruns. The TV show was little more than a continuation of their radio show which originally aired in 1936. By then George and Gracie had been around for years and had made numerous appearances on radio, in Vaudeville, and movies. Their first film, the feature “Lambchops,” appeared nearly a half century ago in 1929, followed by the more famous revue, “The Big Broadcast.” After seven years of television Gracie left the show because of her health. She died of a heart attack in 1964 while watching a Spencer Tracy movie. The show only lasted one more season without her. She was clearly the star.

And like Beatrice, Gracie Allen also had heterochromia iridium—one blue eye and one green—but not as distinctly polar as the orbs of Beatrice.

In recent years George Burns had been making a comeback with a Vegas solo act and playing God in the hit movie, “Oh, God!” A few years earlier he’d received an Oscar for his role in “The Sunshine Boys.” Despite his late resurgence and popularity as a solo performer and actor, George Burns always carried with him that other half, the Gracie half, and somehow he made you oddly aware of it. George Burns and Gracie Allen had had love in their lives—that was their secret. They were happily married for 38 years and their success in love and marriage played a large role in the success that they enjoyed in their careers. Their work was comedy but also about their relationship. Whenever he was asked about the secret to a successful marriage, George Burns—poised, puckered, cigar in hand—quipped, “the answer’s easy, marry Gracie.”

Couples weren’t staying together anymore. The 70s had witnessed a sharp rise in the divorce rate. The idea of lifelong commitment, of vows to “honor and uphold,” was in free fall . . . and yet I believed I deserved and wished for the kind of harmonious marriage that George Burns and Gracie Allen had known. I wondered if I still had time and whether or not there was any possibility of a perfect, long-lasting union with Beatrice. I could not see that at her age, with her beauty, she would settle into a stable relationship so early, especially with someone 15 or 16 years older. But we’d had a rapport on that star gazing night, I felt it, and I wasn’t willing to abandon the possibility of any kind of relationship with Beatrice—a little friendship or possibly some brief and fleeting carnal knowledge, anything. I simply wanted to be near her and with her in whatever form near and with happened to take.

At least half of the known stars are binary or multiple star systems. I often reference a few of the major Star Catalogs of Visual Double Stars, and I’ve been keeping a private list of multiple star systems I have sighted for almost 14 years. Binaries are often confused with optical doubles like Mizar and Alcor in the handle of the Big Dipper, but double stars are not true binaries. In a true binary system one star is designated the primary, normally because of its greater mass, and its companion, also known as the comes, revolves around the center of mass. The Roche Lobe is a space around the binary system that sets a boundary often in the shape of a teardrop around which other material may also be orbiting the star through its gravitational pull. The red giant Antares, the heart of the Scorpion, is a binary. Some other binaries in Scorpius are x-Scorpii and Nu-Scorpii. Outside of Scorpius, some more famous binaries are Algol-B and –A, and Sirius which is an astronomic binary, and Polaris, which is a double star.

Eclipsing binaries are one type of binary system and they are classified as “eclipsing” because the plane of orbit of both stars is in the line of sight of the observer. The shift in brightness, or light curve, is plotted in phase, and it’s extraordinary that these stars are called variable stars when there is little to zero light shift in either the primary or its companion. The “variableness” is the result of the stars being in mutual eclipse. Algol-B and Algol-A is the most well-known example of an eclipsing spectroscopic binary, its period of orbit (a mere three days) is determined from the light curve and the dips in brightness, or magnitude, are typically pronounced.

Two nights ago, the night before the star watch with Beatrice and her astronomy club, I’d begun tracking Scorpius-429 which I thought might be an eclipsing binary in the stinger stars Shaula and Lasath, and I returned to Scorpius-429 this evening. I was running out of time; in a couple weeks the sun would pass through the constellation for eight days and I could lose the position and need to start over again in late winter or early spring. I was working in a faintly visible region to begin with, but I had wanted to isolate the object because I hadn’t yet recorded any light curve or variable shift to confirm a companion star. Scorpius-429 was invisible to the naked eye but I had its coordinates and position in the Etherscan-1200 and even with the light shift I was still hoping for a slight distention or protuberance, a bulge or growth like a wart on the right of the primary (if there was a primary), and if the companion was closer in size I’d maybe capture an image not unlike an amoeba in mitosis.

Tonight Scorpius-429’s position was in a favorable 90-degree angle for tracking. Occasionally I would lose the sidereal coordinates (celestial longitude) relative to time of day. I’d been doing this for years and should have been an old hand at it by now, but I’d been distracted lately, profoundly distracted, a passive spectator to the dark chaotic upheaval in my life and routine, something I’d never experienced before, not with Roy’s wife Carol in the early months of ’68, nor in the orgiastic summer of 1969 with Cosmic Cosmo, nor on Bob Crane’s sloop in the late winter months of ’72. The distraction I called Beatrice was unprecedented.

I hit a trough while tracking Scorpius-429 on the Etherscan-1200 so I momentarily directed one of the better Schmidt-Cassegrain scopes at the Butterfly Nebula—NGC6302. I hadn’t bothered to observe this sublime nebula in some time, and I wondered why I hadn’t because it is complex and beautiful and fascinating, with two primary lobes and possibly other lobes and intense heat and color. Its shape is reminiscent of an hourglass and has a cold sensual symmetry, but whenever I observe The Butterfly I see a scarf or veil knotted in the center with two flared ends, or I imagine one of those metal torsos they use in dress shops lying on its side draped with a diaphanous rainbow-hued garment.

Beatrice materialized around 10:00. She sat with our child in a corner of the glass room, in the chair next to where I keep a reading table and lamp. The opposite corner of the glass room has a table and strong fluorescent light under which my star charts and notebooks are spread, but I use the more private meditative corner to sit and think about stars, often in the dark. . . Beatrice shone in the ring of muted lamplight. She was reading a bedtime story to the boy or girl (the child’s gender kept changing, simulacra of sexual dimorphism) who’d just drifted off to sleep, a few tangled locks of silky hair skewed across his/her slightly flushed forehead. Beatrice was clothed in a dark green dress with her hair gathered up and held in a pearl clip. Our sleeping son or daughter made a faint wheezing snore as Beatrice tented the book “Goodnight Moon” on her lap then folded and placed the book on the reading table, the black crystal panes in back of her head trapping her face in haloed reflection, a more insubstantial image within the waking-dream. Beatrice stroked the sleeping child’s dampened brow and gazed out into the night with a serene and contemplative look on her face, a moment of perfect sweet reverie. She then turned her head and smiled at me without saying a word, and the pull of her magnificent aura surpassed anything I would ever experience on Earth.

Gladys habitually left the TV on in the den, and sometimes I would stop in this room on my way to bed and silence the silver-blue chatter, leaving Gladys in her unaccustomed place of darkness. Often the TV would show Tom Snyder interviewing noteworthy guests like Charles Manson or the Sex Pistols, and Gladys would be asleep on the sofa bed, shimmering in a wrapper of pale violet luminescence as if she’d been abducted and taken on the space ship . . . I stared at the Burns and Allen rerun for a few minutes, laughed at some of the jokes and Gracie’s absurd monologues and non-sequitur, and I pondered how much America and the world had changed socially in 25 or 30 years and juxtaposed the brilliant joyous marriage of these two showbiz personalities with the sadness of my own and that of the prone snoring figure lying on the sofa, a disk of amber residue in a tumbler of emptied Southern Comfort carelessly placed on the end table near her lolling head.

As mentioned, I would normally turn the TV off now and go to sleep, but I kept watching Burns and Allen in anticipation that something significant was about to happen, a slippery queasy sense of wonder and dread. I returned to the glass room and looked through the ocular of the Etherscan-1200 at Scorpius-429, deciding to record the objects brightness one last time. There was now a faint distortion, a barely discernible oscillation. I brewed a pot of coffee and stayed with the telescope and soon observed a lip or a small blister on the star, that would hours later appear as an elongation, as if Scorpius-429 had become a pulled piece of taffy. I recorded the light shift. The difference was dramatic from two nights ago—an increase in brightness from 5.1 to 4.8, too marked a shift to be a distortion in phase, and as I began to reel with the thrill of what I’d been seeing, I knew I would check again tomorrow evening and expect to find a shift in the other direction. The brightness now was somewhat besides the fact because the changes in Scorpius-429 were visible. Although I continued to track the star, or stars, until dawn, I knew there wasn’t any way of misreading the properties and behavior of a dwarf companion . . . I had finally discovered a binary star!

And I soon nicknamed the binary “Burns and Allen” because if I hadn’t paused a moment to watch the old black-and-white TV comedy I may have never decided to return and continue tracking Scorpius-429. George Burns would have told Gracie if he’d discovered the binary system, he told her everything; there were no secrets between them. But I didn’t feel that I could tell Gladys, at least not yet. I certainly wasn’t going to wake her up from a liquor-induced comatose state to give her the good news. Maybe sharing my discovery in this moment would somehow weaken my exultation and make it more diffuse. I may have needed to experience the discovery alone. After all I’ve spent most of my life alone, and one day I will die alone, so why should my astronomy discovery be any different?

I stayed up for several more hours, watching for light shifts, plotting the light curve, and taking notes. For some inexplicable reason I kept visualizing wires in woven patterns, lines of spark and current, rich explosions. I was hearing the John Lennon song “Across the Universe.” And then I remembered being a boy looking out the bedroom window of my house and watching my mother hang wash on the line. It was a clear windy Saturday afternoon in the fall and the line bowed downward with sodden shirts and jeans as I watched the metal pulleys revolve when my mother’s hand tugged the clothesline to find an open segment. Wet clothes swaying and bobbing. . . Then, like a fast motion time lapse film, day faded into night and I stared at the same clothesline in moonlight under a dense drizzle of stars, but it was January now and the shirts and pants and socks were glazed with ice and the metal pulleys looked forbidding and alien in the moon glow. I dressed by putting on a winter jacket over my pajamas and added a knit cap. The house was dark and my parents were asleep. I slipped out into the star-filled winter night and it was like being under a huge dome fused with a million diamond candles. Most likely that moment, and not the Navy ship in the equatorial Atlantic near Brazil, was when I knew I wanted to try astronomy. But why didn’t I begin back then? I was old enough; my father would have bought me a telescope. Why would it take me another nine or ten years? I figured that maybe it was because the early pre-adolescent experience was so visceral and unconscious that I hadn’t realized I could a give a shape and pursuit to those deep stirring feelings about the stars. Because as soon as I was out there in the middle of the ocean, alone with the universe, I returned to this memory and knew I’d fallen in love with the heavens back then. I don’t remember how long I’d stood outside shivering in the midnight air, but when I returned to the house and crawled into the warmth of my bed, I was unable to fall asleep at first. Whenever I closed my eyes the night was there again, slightly less defined but no less profound, the underside of my eyelids more of a gray screen, but with all those stars gathered on my retinas—some dim, some intensely bright—an afterimage similar but stronger than fireworks, perhaps owing to how long I had stood outside with my head turned upward, looking at the resplendent, dizzying vault.

I ended my observation work around 5:00 AM and climbed the stairs to my bedroom so I could at least try and get a couple hours’ sleep. I met Beatrice at the entrance to the bedroom door. She was still wearing her school teacher’s skirt and blouse at this late hour. She’d been waiting for me, a question forming on her lips.

“I discovered a binary star tonight,” I explained.

“That’s fantastic! Wonderful!”

“You inspired me . . . and the discovery . . .”

“You inspired me too,” she echoed. “I’ve been more confident in the classroom since you talked to my students . . . and I’m not as self-conscious about my weird eyes as I used to be.”

“Your eyes are lovely,” I reassured her. “You should never feel bad about your eyes. They’re who you are.”

“You mean the light and the dark?”

“Yes, the light and the dark, day and night . . . It will be light out soon. I need to get some rest.”

Beatrice clutched my shoulder and leaned against me as she stepped out of her high heels. Her calves were sleek and taut in stockings.

“You’re a genius,” she said. “Like Galileo or Carl Sagan.”

“What are you doing?” I asked her.

“What does it look like I’m doing?”

Her fingers gingerly worked off the buttons of her blouse, and then took the time to fold that garment before starting on the stockings and skirt.


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