Astronomer extraordinaire tells star story


One cloudy night recently, my old observing buddy, Biff Smooter, turned up unexpectedly at my doorstep.

Conversation soon languished, so we (he) decided to stream the latest Indiana Jones movie, “Raiders of the Retirement Home Refrigerator.”

Biff didn’t like what he saw.

“Buncha wimps,” he commented in disgust.

“Them ancient peoples had real heroes. Them was the days when men was men and could wrastle giant, multi-headed serpents with their bare hands.”

I could feel a story coming on, so I grabbed a root beer, activated my phone’s voice recorder, and settled in for the duration.

“Back in olden days, there was this water snake named Hydra. He’s slitherin’ low across the southern sky right now.”

Biff whipped out a cocktail napkin and drew the constellation, which you can see on any star map. Perched on its back are Corvus, the Crow, and Crater, the Cup.

“Ol’ Hydra’s as wide as a tractor-trailer rig and long as a Sunday without football.

It ain’t brushed its teeth in a considerable long time, so’s it has breath so bad it flames up everything it breathes on. It has nine heads, which is probly why it never brushes. The center head is immortal, which means it’s tough to kill.

Anyways, there’s this god named Apollo. His job is to tote the sun across the sky in a golden chariot pulled by horses.”

I pointed out that Helios was the charioteer, and Apollo was just along for the ride. Biff ignored me.

“This is hot work, so Apollo builds up a powerful thirst. There bein’ no 7-Elevens up in the sky, he sends his pet crow, Corvus by name, to fetch him a cool one in his water cup. Crows was snow white in them days.

But crows ain’t the smartest of creatures. On the way to the water hole, Corvus spies this fig tree. The figs ain’t ripe yet, so Corvus sets on a branch to wait.

Well, when it finally reaches the water hole and gets some in the cup, it figures it needs an alibi. So it grabs Hydra, fetches it back to Apollo, and says the snake was guardin’ the water hole.

Apollo ain’t buyin’ it. So he uses the sun to burn up the crow pretty good, turnin’ the poor creature coal black.”

“According to the myth, that’s why crows have black feathers,” I blurted out, hoping to dam the torrent of words.

“Whatever. Then Apollo puts the charred crow and the water cup up in the sky. The cup is tipped toward the crow, but the crow can’t quite reach it. That’s one thirsty crow forever.

“Now, here comes the good stuff. That Hydra ain’t too pleased about bein’ pulled from its cool water hole up towards the hot sun, so it decides to breathe on Lerna, a purty little town nearby.

Along comes Hercules, who’s a mean-lookin’, muscular dude like that Arnie Schwartza-what’s-his-name.

Herc wades right in and starts wrastlin’ the snake, but the snake wraps itself around his body. Things is getting’ a tad uncomfortable for Herc.

So he starts whackin’ off Hydra heads with his club. Every time a head goes flyin’, three more grows up in its place.

So Herc pulls up a couple of big trees with his bare hands. Like I said, he’s one tough son of a gun.

He rubs them trees together to start a fire and pushes the burning trunks into the snake’s bloody neck stumps, which is gross, but it shows what a real hero-type can do when he’s in a jam.

The last head Herc cuts off is the one that won’t die, so he buries it under a boulder.

He washes the snake guts off hisself and heads off into the sunset — like a real hero should.

This tickled the gods, so they put the snake carcass in the sky under the crow and the water cup.

“Now, why don’t them Hollywood wimps make a movie outa THAT?” Biff concluded. “It’s all about important stuff, like snake wrastlin’, doin’ what yer told, and proper oral hygiene.”

Of course, Biff’s version of the ancient story is somewhat garbled, but that’s Biff for you.

Next week — the real story.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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