It was a flash, a single streak of light that got me started in astronomy almost sixty years ago.  I have written in this column about this event before, but in thinking about it, I want to refer to it again. The streak could not have lasted more than a second on that clear evening of July 4, 1956.  I was terribly homesick. At age 8, just four days into my first summer away from home, I had already written to beg Mom and Dad to rescue me from that lonely place.  I did not understand at the time that they needed a break from me, and that no matter what happened, I wasn’t going home until the end of the summer.

The sky was clear that warm summer evening, as the children and staff gathered around the softball field to enjoy a fireworks display in celebration of the Fourth of July.  As a young Canadian I didn’t know anything about what the United States Day of Independence stood for.  As the fireworks wound down the youngest groups, including mine, were dismissed for the night.  We began walking up the hill towards Bunk B.

As we strolled up the hill, my glance accidentally turned toward the darkening sky above me.  Stars were coming out.  I saw one bright star high in the east, and many fainter stars around it.  It was beautiful, though I had no idea yet what this beauty would eventually mean to me.  I just gazed upward.

Then it happened.  A streak of light scratched the sky flying towards that brightest star. Startled, I asked the others if they had seen it too.  Since none of them had been looking upward, they all said no.  Interestingly, none of the other children teased or made fun of me or my observation.  Far ahead of its time, this particular camp had no place for bullying, and the children were always treated with respect.   I looked again at the sky.  Is it possible, I thought, that this shooting star was meant just for me?

I simply placed that little memory in my 8-year-old brain where it rested for about a year until October 4, 1957.  I recalled it when I was told that the Russians had launched a rocket into orbit around the Earth.  To me, that dawn of the space age was intensely private because I could relate it to something I had seen personally.  The image of the meteor rested again until June of 1960, when a bicycle accident and a get-well present of a book about astronomy brought the memory to the forefront again.  This time it stayed there. This time I was hooked.

I know now that my first meteor was from the Omicron Draconid meteor shower, an annual event confirmed at about that same time by a young astronomer named Brian Marsden.  It is possible that my shooting star was the first visual sighting of an Omicron Draconid meteor. I’ve seen more since, and on July 4, 2005, photographed one that happened to be passing in front of Comet Tempel just minutes after the Deep Impact Spacecraft crashed into the comet.

Over the next several decades, I saw thousands more meteors.  But I’ll never forget that distant night, at the dawn of my life, where I saw my first shooting star that ushered in a lifetime passion for the night sky.

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