by Robert Grand
August 13, 2019 (originally published December 2, 2017)
Beneath the late afternoon sun of an early spring evening in 1988, more than a hundred of us were milling about the parking lot of the Market Diner restaurant on Eleventh Avenue in Manhattan waiting for another old Bronx neighborhood reunion dinner to begin.
John C. was speaking with a group of guys near the entrance to the diner. He had brown eyes and red hair that was darker in color than the bright red hair he’d had as a boy. He wore wire-framed glasses. John cut an impressive figure. He was well over six feet tall and heavy-set, wearing a light-brown business suit with a well-matched striped tie and a white shirt. He spoke demonstratively, making emphatic gestures with his hands.
When the dinner was breaking up, John and I met at the exit.
“So, John,” I asked, “when are we going to have the next astronomy club meeting?”
He chuckled. “I wonder how many stars have burned out since our last meeting. Long time, Bobby, eh?”
It made me think back to those long ago days when…
Big John and I were together in many classes from kindergarten through fifth grade at P.S. 88 on Sheridan Avenue and Marcy Place. He was always the tallest kid in the class. His bright red hair, neatly trimmed, was combed into a pompadour that he parted on the left side. His face was full of freckles, and he had a broad smile and brown eyes that made him a lot of friends.
In a neighborhood that was more than ninety-five percent Jewish, John was one of the few Christians – his family was Irish Catholic. It was in John’s top floor apartment at 1368 Sheridan Avenue, that I had been introduced, by his mother, to the forbidden fruit called bacon.
I don’t remember exactly why we got interested in the stars, but John and I realized at about the same time that the night sky was something more than just our neighborhood’s ceiling. We were about nine years old when we started an astronomy club. We didn’t recruit anyone else, so it was a two-person astronomy club. Together we learned about Betelgeuse, Alpha Centauri and the astral collisions that schoolbooks told us marked the beginnings of our solar system.
We met on Saturdays to take care of club business, and to study books and astral charts we’d checked out of Highbridge Library. We met one night a week to comb the skies. When the club meetings were at John’s apartment his father was usually there. Mr. C. was tall and heavy-set, with dark red hair. He wore glasses with thin wire frames.
On clear evenings in the spring and summer, Big John and I took to tar beach, the rooftop, to scan the sky with our naked eyes (neither of us could afford a telescope). We picked out the stars we’d studied about in library books, and confirmed our sightings against the astral charts. We sighted hundreds of heavenly bodies. We were soon recognized as the neighborhood authorities on astronomical objects.
One exceptionally clear spring night in 1948, we sighted a star that didn’t appear on any of the charts. For weeks we continued to see this star, often going up to the rooftop every night. Week after week it became more apparent that the star wasn’t noted on the charts. Our excitement mounted to the point that we were ready to disclose our discovery to an astronomical society; but as a final test we asked Mr. C. to come up to the rooftop with us to see our new star.
As we nervously pointed toward the star, he followed our nervous fingers with his eyes.
“Well,” I said, after he’d acknowledged seeing it, “how about it, Mr. C? What do you think?”
“You’re both sure it’s not on the charts,” he asked.
“Definitely not on them,” John said. He held the charts and the flashlight out toward his father. “Here, see for yourself.”
“Can’t really tell. I’ve got an idea, though. I’ll be right back.” He walked into the building and disappeared down the stairwell. Within a few minutes he returned to the roof carrying a pair of army green binoculars.
“I haven’t used these for years, but we have to be sure when it comes to something this important.”
Mr. C. put the binoculars to his eyes and scanned the area John and I had pointed toward. He started to laugh. The more he tried to stop, the more he laughed.
“What’s so funny, Dad?”
“It’s important that you boys understand something. Astronomy isn’t an exact science. You’ve discovered a lighthouse beacon on the Hudson River. It’s a bit north of the George Washington Bridge. Here,” he said, “take a good look for yourselves.”
And that was our first, and last, meaningful cosmic discovery.
Note: This happened in 1948, just before the Coast Guard decommissioned it and turned off the light. The lighthouse still stands. It was relighted by NYC in 2002.)
Robert Grand grew up in the Bronx and says he lived stories that are etched into his mind and soul. They are a bridge from his Bronx days to yours. He reaches back to grasp a time long gone to see his friends and his parents in a brief now and be home again once more.
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