The Butterfly Nebula – Part 3 Chapter 21

August 20, 2016

Chapter 21

The Glass Room

The light on the panes is bright and sharp this morning, the first day of June. Ramona and I have our coffee and tea in the glass observatory room. Today, for whatever reason, I recall the fights staged here with her mother, years of fights, and they most often occurred as I was either leaving or entering the glass room.

I’ve been making calculations of all the hours spent in here with my observations of stars and planets (a little over four decades), reviewing my old log books in which I’d recorded daily start and end times with the telescope, or telescopes. The hours are then being entered into a database program on my PC. It’s a prodigious undertaking and Ramona has been helping when she can find the time, but she is in her first semester of graduate school at Rutgers and most of her time is taken up with studying.

Ramona is a beautiful 23-year-old woman who doesn’t seem to have inherited beauty genes from either her mother or her father, and she’s intelligent, level headed and focused on her academic career. As we drink our tea and coffee this morning, Ramona and I talk about the coming Transit of Venus, on June 8, 2004, just one week from today.

There have been changes. Gladys no longer lives here, for one. We did well together when it came to raising Ramona, but later Gladys had decided to return to school and gotten a degree in Marketing followed by an HR job in Corporate America along the Route 287 corridor. A late bloomer. She told me she wanted out of the marriage just past our 35th anniversary, a tepid and lackluster dinner celebration appended with Quiz-O and karaoke. The divorce was finalized in 2000 and Gladys remarried soon after. During college Ramona had spent most of her vacation time and summer breaks living with Gladys, (though she was angry at both of us) but since I’ve gotten sick she’s been staying with me and commuting to her classes at Rutgers. No longer angry, Ramona is taking care of me. We have moved my bed into the glass room and one of my prize telescopes is positioned at an angle to the bed so that I don’t need to strain or bend in order to view the heavens on a nightly basis, or every other night lately. Most often I will view the Orion Nebula or Alpha-Centauri or Messier Object-58 until I fall asleep.

Several years ago I started to fill the glass room with plants. It was a natural greenhouse, after all, and I started modestly with Vincas, Philodendron and Cylamen then added several palms, Philodendron, Cymbidiums, African Violets, Anthurium, Birds of Paradise, Giant cut leaf Ferns, Rubber Plants, Bromeliads. Over time the room has taken on a jungle-like character: rank foliage obscuring the mission-style table stacked with my star charts and maps, giant ferns and cut leaf towering to the ceiling, vines and tendrils gracefully coiling around the silver barrels of lesser-used telescopes, a fascinating juxtaposition contrasting the cold inorganic elegance of astronomical science with the Edenesque organic fertility of earth . . . sky and earth. . . . I feel like General Sternwood in “The Big Sleep” and while I don’t have his disease or TB, breathing in all this wonderful oxygen seems good for the lungs and maybe the soul, too.

And a few years ago I acquired a couple of parrots to match the tropical decor. Recently divorced, and alone in the house with Ramona away at college, I thought I could use some company. The parrots, a male and female, were named George and Gracie though I never intended on using the pair for breeding purposes. With the door of the glass room sealed, Gracie and George dart about, a flutter and streak of primary colors beneath a cloak of emerald green. Sometimes one (usually Gracie) will land on my shoulder or in my lap and I’ll stroke its cheek and maybe feed him or her sunflower seeds. At night they mostly sleep outside their cage on the limb of a rubber plant or palm tree, and while watching a lunar eclipse or a meteor shower I may hear an occasional note of contentment escape from a syrinx. But when moonlight fills the glass room I normally wind up putting the parrots back in their cage and covering. I will also find droppings here and there, sometimes on a neglected telescope, but I no longer mind. The parrots, the plants, a few books and magazines, my PC—these are the things that now fill my day as I wait for the stars to appear.

And when Ramona is home after her classes we talk and laugh, sometimes share a glass or two of wine. We’ve started teasing one another about our names. She says that mine sounds like some gloomy Norse dude, and Ramona Hale reminds her of a Romance novelist—“A Ramonance novelist.” I tell her that Ramona Hale sounds better as a lead singer in a band, perhaps a Latin band, some exotic chanteuse belting out Salsa or Mambo, but country and rock-and-roll could work for her too.

“Was your idea,” she reminds me. “Yours and Mom’s.”

“It’s a lovely name,” I say, and after more banter she agrees with me.

Things don’t always go as planned, which is a pretty reliable cliché and true in spite of its being a cliché. I’ve taken good care of myself for most of my adult life: decent diet, never smoked tobacco after the U.S. Navy, infrequent drinking, and from my late 40s through most of my 50s—nearly a decade—I was an avid runner but ultimately needed to quit because of a knee injury. I then replaced running with walking a few miles each day, but walking is also now over for me. I’d belatedly come to realize that during all the years employed at Brainchild Scientific I’d gone from being on my feet most of the day to hardly being on my feet at all, and I also became aware of the problem with Astronomy and my having been mostly sedentary. One could stand for a while, but given the length of time involved fixing coordinates and observing, it was preferable to sit.


The Crystal Palace was planned and built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London. It was a marvel of engineering in its time because no other glass structure had ever come before it and the availability of cheap plate glass in the 1840s made construction possible.  There were numerous bids for design but ultimately the plan went to Joseph Paxton a noted horticulturist and master gardener. He had experimented with glass and glass construction to house the amazon lilies imported to England. Every pane of glass was the same dimensions: 10 inches wide by 49 inches long and they were connected by teams of glaziers to form rectangular grids 24-feet long by 24-feet wide that could be extended indefinitely and formed a vast rectangular hall, surmounted by an arched transept roof shaped like a prism that would allow for water drainage under heavy rain.  Paxton also devised ways to deal with the problem of extreme heat including louvres for air flow and saturated canvas covers over the glass to retain coolness. The final structure was 1848 feet long, by 546 feet wide and 135 feet high, the length and width divisible by 24 feet, (the size of the assembled grids) and it was 900,000 square feet overall. Glaziers were brought in from France to help finish the project in time.

There wasn’t anything like the Crystal Palace for efficiency and the inexpensive cost of materials and construction. The structure was a breathtaking marvel of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and set the model for a number of exhibitions and expositions and world’s fairs to follow. Essentially, it was a giant greenhouse with a vaulted roof and not meant to withstand any serious shocks and assaults from without or within. And despite the clever roof design and “Paxton Gutter” runoff system, the Palace still leaked like a sieve. You may observe something similar while standing in a greenhouse made of glass on a rainy day.


The idea of glass, of glass manufacturing and what glass does for us leads me back to telescopes and the optical observatory telescopes like Palomar and Wilson or the Primum Mobile at the Empyrean.  There is an element of the old Brainchild Scientific store in the way I have arranged my telescopes in here. I’m surrounded by my favorite ones though I’ve recently given Wyatt-Edwin a new creation built not long before the illness. Ramona and I often talk about her half-brother. We talk about how well he’s been doing since graduating college (Wyatt-Edwin has had some early successes) and we talk about his quirks and idiosyncrasies, and sometimes our talk will stray to the subject of Beatrice whom Ramona has never met but knows the history. Despite her scientific brilliance and technical acumen, Ramona is also something of an empath. She understands Wyatt-Edwin’s pain, partially as a child of divorce herself, but she is more saddened by Beatrice’s loss and isolation and also that Wyatt-Edwin always refers to Beatrice and Laura as his “mothers.” I’m still his only father, though he did know a stepfather for a short time . . . several years ago.

Until recently I’d never gone into great detail with Ramona about the problems her mother and I endured during our 33-year marriage. Gladys and my first mistake had been starting too young, but in the 1950s and early 60s marrying young had been the norm. I didn’t know if Gladys had ever told Ramona about her extra-marital affair, but it was obvious that I’d happily engaged in at least one dalliance or indiscretion resulting in her half-brother, and I alluded to one other short-lived affair (Carol Erskine). I mentioned Gladys and Bob Lane without mentioning Bob by name, and it turned out that Gladys had already given Ramona that information, including the person she’d been involved with. (“Gee—your boss?”). So much for secrets and the better part of valor.

Oh sure, one could shrug the whole thing off: “The past is past . . . what’s done is done . . . it’s all water under the bridge . . . what difference does it make now?” and so on. However, when children are involved, at any age really, the philosophical long view of past events doesn’t necessarily come easily. Remorse does. I might be flip and dismissive by saying something like, “it didn’t work out,” and while that palliative comforting generalization is certainly true, it doesn’t begin to cover the individual failings of her mother and I, those which had made our relationship bitter, often sad, nor does it cover the steady ache that flung us into the arms of others who were temporarily willing to have us and create the bubble of magical assurances that Gladys and I could never quite see in one another.

I tell Ramona there was a time between her birth and around age five when I’d had to forego my observation work. Gladys and I were too busy. Once Ramona had started kindergarten, I gradually returned to my earlier amateur work and studies, but I never discovered another binary or multiple star system after Burns and Allen. I became more obsessed with comets largely because of Shoemaker-Levy 9 that pounded Jupiter in July of 1994, and also Hale-Bopp in 1997, visible to the naked eye for nearly an entire year! And I’d observed galaxies and novae that I’d previously neglected in my search for binaries.

Comfortably high, Ramona and I reminisce about the nights she’d spent out here with me as a young girl using her own telescope that I had built for her. She fondly recalls those nights and thanks me and credits me for her love of science. Although Ramona’s inspiration had started outward with Astronomy and earth science, by her teens the inspiration turned inward, but not to particle physics. She is studying to be a microbiologist.

“The glass room is a class room,” she says with a quick laugh and adds, “Sorry, I couldn’t resist a bit of rhyming. Must be the wine.”

“Sounds like something your brother would have said,” I remind her.

And we talk some more about Wyatt-Edwin and about his art, including a new series of paintings that recreate the famous Hubble images from the Voyager I and II space crafts. He will be here on June 8 to visit and watch the Transit of Venus with us.



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