Stardust: a glorious, flaming death

Phone call: “We’d like to come over and stay. We’ll get up at three and go outside to watch the meteors. Since you live so far out of town, yours is really the best place to be to watch these go by.”

I wasn’t hopeful. In my entire life I’d seen two meteors—at least, I thought they were meteors—but they were brief, inconsequential moments. Nothing to write home about.

But I told everyone to come over anyway. I stayed up late, talking to a friend, and then got up at the 3:30 ring of the alarm to get up, dress once again, and go outside. Heather, Jess, and Gareth joined Jeff and I a moment or two later. Tim and Kat drove over and were here shortly thereafter.My lack of excitement about the meteor shower went away from the moment I opened the back door. I saw my first meteor before I even got the door entirely open. Suddenly I felt excited, exhilarated—I realized this was going to be a bit more memorable than I’d been giving it credit for.

We took blankets and pillows to the back yard, where it was darker. We spread blankets on the ground, then pillows and human beings, then more blankets for warmth. We lay on the ground—Jess and Gareth together, Jeff and I together, and everyone else scattered out a bit—and stared up at the night sky…

..At the streaking trails of ephemeral light. They came, seemingly, from everywhere. The bright star to my left was no star at all—it was Jupiter. Cassiopeia lay low, sideways, on the horizon. Orion was behind me, low, out of my field of vision. The dipper hung low, seemingly upside down.

The meteors came. Small, large. We told stories of ones we’d seen before. We provided our own sound effects—in my back yard, small meteors streak by with a *ping!* and larger ones with a *spoink!*.

I huddled beneath my blanket, shivering. My right shoe has a hole on the outer edge; I rubbed it against the grass to feel the raspy tickle of the grass against my littlest toe. I snuggled next to Jeff for the warmth of his body. I secretly got frustrated at my no-line bifocals, because they distorted my view of the horizon.

…and I watched, spellbound, amazed. We lay outside for almost two hours, shivering, kvetching at the cold, marveling when we realized that the wandering star we saw was not a plane, but a satellite. The meteors came fast, then slow, then fast again. Sometimes one every five seconds, sometimes several each second.

The one I remember most shot high, far above the Dipper. It blazed a luminescent green and left a fluffy, glowing wake as it silently exploded into a ball of light. The trail took several minutes to fade.

It was one of many tiny shards of the comet formerly known as Tempel-Tuttle. It might have been the size of a marble, lying quiet and cold until it hit the heat and resistance of a planetary atmosphere. In memory it seems tremendous—beautiful, solitary, almost sad.

After a couple of hours, we were cold and our backs were sore from lying in the cold of the backyard. We went inside, discarding our night vision, and fixed ourselves hot chocolate.

To think I almost went back to sleep.

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