The winter months are the cruelest months for stargazing. For days and weeks on end, the snow-laden clouds block the view of the brilliant and beautiful stars of winter.
When the clouds do occasionally part and the low-humidity sky reasserts itself, what a view it is.
Bright Orion rises high in the south. He is extraordinarily easy to find because of the three bright stars that form his belt. Look for them in an almost equally spaced line centered inside a tall rectangle of four stars.
A strange retinue of beasts accompanies Orion. To his left and at his feet is Canis Major. His hunting hound follows him doggedly across the sky. The Larger Dog, for that is what “Canis Major” means, is graced with the brightest star in the nighttime sky, Sirius, the “Scorching One.”
To Orion’s right is the subject of his hunt, Taurus the Bull. The head of the bull is formed by a “V”-shaped collection of star called the Hyades. A bright, orange-red star called Aldebaran marks the bloodshot eye of the charging bull.
The bull’s shoulder is a sight to see, even with the unaided eye and even better in binoculars. Look for six stars in a rough dipper shape that is inexplicably called the Seven Sisters or Pleiades.
Canis Minor, Orion’s emergency backup hunting dog, is to his upper left. Lepus, the hare, is trapped firmly under Orion’s feet.
That starry tableau is glorious indeed, especially if you can see it under a dark, rural sky as the ancients did and as nature or its creator intended.
However, at least once every year in late January, my joy arising from the view is mixed with mournfulness as I think of my father, now long dead.
As my father was born, Orion was rising in the east. The stars of the constellation form a figure my father would have approved of — a rough hunter, his shield before him, his rude club raised to slay a mighty beast.
As the old myths tell it, Orion was born in the worst kind of poverty and under the most ignominious of circumstances.
According to an old Greco-Roman myth, the gods got a certain perverse pleasure in disguising themselves as humans so that they could observe us in our natural habitat.
One not-so-fine day, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hermes (our planets Jupiter, Neptune, and Mercury) visited the ancient city of Themes. There they entered the hovel of an old farmer named Hyrieus. Despite his extreme poverty, Hyrieus offered the strangers the remnants of an ox, the last of his food.
Oblivious to his suffering, the gods ate it all, of course, but they were also impressed by his hospitality. They offered to fulfill his deepest longing, and the aged farmer responded that he had always yearned for a son.
The three gods stood around the hide of the ox and urinated on it. They then instructed Hyrieus to bury the hide and then departed. After the usual long wait, a boy sprang from the earth. The old farmer named his son Urion to commemorate the method by which he was conceived.
My father was born in extreme poverty. Abandoned by his father when he was only four, his mother made the best life she could for him. When she remarried, her new husband didn’t want the child around. My father was sent to live with an aunt. Times were tough during the depression. My father stole milk bottles from the neighbors’ stoops to survive.
School wasn’t much better. The schools in Youngstown were rough places, and my father learned to fight before he ever learned to read. Somewhere among my mother’s possessions was a gold-tipped tooth — evidence of the many battles my father had to fight.
My father never learned to read properly. He barely learned arithmetic. He was kicked out of school in the ninth grade for fighting and got what work he could.
At an age when kids these days look forward to high school dances, my father ran away. He hopped freight trains as far as Salt Lake City before cold and hunger forced him to turn back.
His life was saved by the Salvation Army, which arranged food and a train ticket back. To the end of his life, my father always had a few dollars to drop into their buckets at Christmas, and so do I.
At 17, his life was saved again, this time by World War II. He got into the Navy by lying about his age. He soon earned the rank of Boatswain’s Mate aboard an oiler, which delivered fuel to other fighting ships He fired guns at kamikaze planes in the battle of Okinawa and others like it.
As the kamikazes fell around him, he knew that the highly flammable ship’s cargo meant that no one would survive the impact and subsequent explosion.
After the nuclear horror fell on Hiroshima, my father’s ship was the first to visit there. They had dumped their fuel and filled its gigantic tanks with desperately needed water.
I have often wondered if the radiation he suffered during that visit had something to do with his death many years later.
As the old myths tell, Orion lived the same kind of life, surviving this or that scrape and many a battle with this or that mighty beast. Orion lived large, and he developed large appetites for wine and women that caused him no end of trouble.
My father was much the same. After the war, his rugged good looks served him well as far as women were concerned. He developed large appetites for cigarettes and booze that were eventually his undoing.
But through all that, he made a life for himself. He got a job working a machine at a hydraulics plant and married my mother.
He wanted to send me to college and realized that his job would never pay enough. He taught himself to read and do trigonometry. My best memories of him are the many nights I saw him at the kitchen table hunched over some book way over his head, his lips moving, pain and joy in every word. I remember also the endless series of books, chemistry sets, and junk telescopes he bought for me.
All through college, I remembered my father’s struggle to get me there. And I remembered just how precious every scrap of knowledge I brought back home seemed to him.
Mighty Orion was setting in the in the southwest just before sunrise in January when my father’s powerful heart stopped beating and he went to join the stars.
Winter will eventually end, and Orion will set for the last time as new constellations rise in its stead. But glorious winter will come again, and Orion will rise — powerful, brave, and flawed — above the glistening snow.
No one can tell me that Orion is just a “myth” or that my father is dead. Orion lives as long as someone is left alive to tell his story.
My father lives because every one of his aspirations, every joy and every pain, lives in me. It is up to me and others like me to pass them on. I wish with all my heart that they both will live as long as the stars still shine against the fearful darkness of the night.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.