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Close Encounters with Science: Picks

The New Age by Lyle Burwell

It was October of 1957; not too late in the month, I think, because I remember the night was warm. Over the years, cities have hidden themselves from the stars. But this was before that and they filled the sky.

My brother and I, thrilled to be out so late, were in our pajamas, barefoot, standing on a blanket in the backyard. Dad was on one knee, between us. We were waiting for Sputnik to come over the horizon.

A few days earlier my second grade teacher had asked the class, “Who has heard about Sputnik?”

All of us put up our hands. Sputnik was a Russian spaceship and we didn’t have one. Sister picked up the chalk and showed us on the blackboard what a satellite was and what an orbit was and called Sputnik, “an artificial moon.” I liked that part: an artificial moon.

When she was done with her teachable moment Sister erased the circles she had drawn and told us, “We will now say an Our Father.”

She didn’t say why, so I had to guess. I guessed that we were praying that it was okay with Him that there was an artificial moon up there with His.

As we waited, my brother asked Dad if Sputnik was a good thing or a bad thing. Dad was watching the sky and he didn’t look away to answer.

“Too soon to tell,” he said and, a moment later, in the excited whisper he used when we were hunting: “There she is.”

Of the three of us, his eyesight was the best. Mine was the worst, so my brother spotted the satellite next. I whined and Dad tried to point it out, but it still took me a while to find the tiny, disappointing speck. It took Sputnik a few minutes to cross our portion of the heavens. When it was close enough, we laid on our backs on the blanket.

As the satellite passed a few degrees west of straight overhead, Dad, his voice still quiet but different from hunting quiet, said, “Always remember this moment,” and I asked, “Why?”

“Shhh,” he told me. “Make your memory.”

And I did: a fragile pinprick of light that moved but did not twinkle, soundlessly making its lonely way among the thousands of pinpricks of light that twinkled but did not move.

When the satellite passed beyond our sight, our father told us why we must never forget the night Sputnik flew over our backyard.

“In all of history,” he said, “Few have witnessed, or will ever witness, the birth of a new age.”

I thought of Mom, seven months pregnant, in the house with my nine month old sister.

“What age?” my brother asked.

“The Space Age,” Dad said.

And I thought maybe he knew this was coming and that was why he had named our baby sister Hope.

Lyle Burwell is from Gloucester, ON

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