The Beach 9

Standing under a dark sky in western Kansas.  An angry crescent has set and stars pepper the sable firmament.  The Great Plains wind ruffles our clothes and sets the prairie grass to gnashing and murmuring.  Orion has risen like an electric kite.

Tonya points at it and says, How far away is that?

Your mind cant comprehend distances that vast.

Try me.

The stars there in Orion’s belt are about four hundred light years away.

How far is that?

Well…the nearest star is about four light years away.  A light year is about six trillion miles.  Or six times ten to the twelfth if you think of it that way.

Stop showing off!

I’m not!  Light in a vacuum travels at 300,000 kilometers a second.  Or a hundred eight-six thousand miles a second.  Seven times around the equator and then some.  The light from those stars has been travelling four hundred years to reach us.

I cant imagine how far that is.

Your mind can only conceive it by scale.  Imagine the sun the size of a basketball in the middle of five points in downtown Atlanta.  The Earth is the size of a marble orbiting about a hundred feet away.  Pluto is the size of a grain of sand orbiting a mile away.  Now Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, is in Seattle, 3,000 miles away.  By the time we get to Denver tomorrow we’ll have only gone half that far.  I thought that since you’ve been travelling mile after mile after empty mile this would give you a grasp of the distances involved.

It does, she says slowly.  This country is huge but on that scale, i cant imagine.

Look at the stars in the belt again.  If you see a picture of the nebula in a book it will be spectacular.  But the only way to appreciate it is to look at it thru a small telescope.  When i was ten years old they got me a six inch Newtonian reflector.  It took me weeks to put it together since nobody around me knew how to assemble one.  When i finally had it ready i took it outside and pointed it at that nebula.  I’ll never forget the sight.  It glows green like Kryptonite and has the consistency of a piece of very stretched out cotton.  Wispy like that.  The pictures of it in books do not do it justice.  They cant.

You did that when you were just ten?

Yes.

I wish i’d known you then.

You werent even born.  Not for nearly another sixty years.

Sometimes i forget how old you are.

try to forget how old i am.

You can be a bore when you’re self conscious about that.  Stop worrying about it.

Easy for you to say.

I dont even know your name, she says.

No?  Havent you looked at my driver’s license enough times?

I only looked at it once!  And i cant even remember your name.

My name is Seth.  Seth Joiner.  Happy now?

No, she says.  It’s chilly.  Let’s go back inside.

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