My Life as a LASer, or Becoming a Star Geezer by Jo-Ann Kamichitis

Back in my 20’s, I used to tell my pals that I planned to become an eccentric old lady, so I needed to develop some quirks. Some of said pals would quickly point out to me that I was well on my way and I merely had to choose which one or two of my existing quirks I should concentrate on.

I finally decided on becoming a star geezer (AKA a long-time observer).

Geezer (geezerette?) or not, I have tried to avoid being too firmly entrenched in my observing style and opinions about equipment. This has been a struggle since I now own telescopes that are older than some of my observing buddies! What can they possibly tell me that I don’t already know? Plenty, as it turns out.

I bought my first scope in 1967. Although I craved one of those Unitron equatorial refractors you’d always see on the back cover of “Sky and Telescope” (especially tantalizing at Christmas when they’d always show it in front of a Christmas tree, with a huge pink bow tied around the tube), I bought instead a Criterian RV-6, 6″ f/8 Newtonian on an electrically driven German equatorial mount, with a 9X30 finder scope. I spent months reading catalogs and ads, trying to get the perfect combo of features, price and aperture. At a cost of $194.95, it was the first thing I ever bought on time payments. No credit cards yet, I got a coupon book to mail back my payments over 6 months,. I just couldn’t squeeze out another $90 to buy the RV-8 I lusted after.

Well it turned out that I want the thrills of observing not all the fussing around with equipment. I never polar-aligned the scope (OK maybe I did twice in the 25 years before Joe redid the scope as a Dobsonian for me) and when I sold the mount I wasn’t even sure the drive even worked, since I’d never plugged it in.

Luckily, my interest astronomy was lifelong so I persisted with the hobby even with that dinky finder scope, those teeny field lenses in the oculars that came with the scope and the neighbors who would turn on their porch lights or call my dad when they heard Diane and me prowling out there in the yard. “It’s only the girls”, Pop would say to those who feared Peeping Toms in the neighborhood. My sister and I were old enough to not be embarrassed out of using our scope, the way our baby brother had been for a few of his early teen years.

Diane and I joined the LAS in December 1970, with the idea that we’d actually participate in the activities. We’ve “paid” for that plan over the years by each of us holding every office at one time or another, except for Junior Vice President. We’ve been repaid for that plan by getting to see some great things that we might have missed otherwise and meeting a slew of interesting and nice people. Other benefits to me have been getting a nice part time job at Keystone College’s observatory and meeting my husband Joe, at the January 1980 meeting.

What I’ve enjoyed most is observing in groups. For one thing, the howls of coyotes aren’t nearly as nerve wracking when you’re in a clump of people. Neither are the sounds of other things going bump in the night. Beyond the cameraderie though, you get to try out other equipment before you buy anything. (Hmmm, maybe a GO-TO system isn’t “all” bad.) (Hmmm, maybe spending big bucks on eyepieces is a good idea!) Ethos eyepieces though? (Hmmm maybe I’ll just look through Orlando Gonzales’s). Just watch out for competitive observers like Jim Waltich.

Even better you get to pick people’s brains about observing tricks.It’s only since say 1995, that I’ve started to use higher power on deep sky objects, although the combined efforts of Cindy Krott, Dave Barrett, and Wendy Kazmierski still haven’t gotten me stacking Barlow lenses. Jim Spangler has managed to get me using my ZOOM eyepiece on things other than the moon and planets. Now I seek just the right combo of magnification and field-of-view for the most pleasing and detailed image.

Although I still MUCH prefer my 13 inch and 18 inch scopes, I have actually been using my smaller scopes to try for things. Cindy and her Televue Pronto convinced me that even the smallest scopes can show a lot more than I had thought. So I try using them on objects now that I never would have thought of before. Which no doubt is why the best view of the North American Nebula I ever had was on a great night using my 22 mmm Panoptic in my Astroscan. The best view of the California nebula I ever had was on another great night using my 8 inch. (Hmm great skies in both cases … no wonder I loved Cherry Springs State Park so much … and Stellafane).

From Mark Thomas, I learned that I have to somewhat control my thrill seeking and actually spend time looking carefully at such things as M61, using various powers. Mark also instigated the 15 minute rule, to curb some some of the socializing among some of us on truly good nights. You can’t spend more than 15 minutes between looks into an eyepiece on a good night. I think we have to reinstate that rule since good clear nights have been so rare these past several months. If Jim Waltich ever gets the time to observe again, we will really need that rule.

From Larry Peoples I actually got to see the charm of a GoTo system; from Dave Barrett, I’ve gotten back into marking the really good objects on my star charts (although I’ll never adopt his constellation figures). Don Murray has shown me the beauty of a good double star, while Joe Dukantas illustrates the value of a red observing hat and has sold us some of our favorite scopes.

John Sabia, much as I make mock of his gushing over every little meteor and faint comet, has gotten me to train my eye to really see detail on the moon and the planets and has helped me keep my observing enthusiasm high. I still can hear him yelling “Don’t unpack your car just get over here!” the night we got to see the 3 biggest impact spots on Jupiter. Not to mention the night, he and I dashed from the car into the classroom building trying to hustle a college class out to see the really great red auroral streaks that we had been looking at on the drive up. I can still see them looking at us dubiously and glancing at Tom Cupillari, to see if he thought we were just a couple of kooks, before they followed us outside. The aurora, by the time they got outside, had subsided to just some pulsating patches. Too bad their mothers had trained them so well not trust strange strangers.

Bill Speare may still gripe that it’s not worth owning a scope in NE Pennsylvania but I wouldn’t have ever tried a solar eclipse expedition without his experiences as inspiration. My success rate is 2 out of 4, and holding. I would never have seen Winnepeg in February, or Hawaii or Australia or New Zealand  without the excuse of an eclipse. Now I also get to vicariously travel to eclipses with the spectacular powerpoint shows that John Mudrian does after each one he tries to see. Finally someone who takes as many travel photos as I did (maybe even a lot more)!

I’ve been able to watch TGC Observatory develop from the beginning. What a break it was that Tom Cupillari wanted to get that 9 inch Clark refractor and dome from Dave Garroway, and he had the ambition and the skills to get the money and support for the observatory. Now that my back yard is so useless for observing the facility really means a lot. What with digital cameras and the bigger newer scopes (20 inch dob, 20 inch RC, easy to use go to 10) even I get some decent shots of the moon and lesser shots of the planets. So much better than the no shots I had with film cameras.

There have been some really memorable observing nights at TGC Observatory. A short (and way incomplete) list would include: the Leonid meteor storm of 2001; the 2004 transit of Venus; Comet Hyakutake stretching way across the sky; Comet Hale-Bopp the next year putting on a grand show; watching Saturn occult a star one year, then years later watching the moon occult Saturn; seeing M51 look all fluffy in Dave’s 24 inch scope; seeing NGC 7331 surrounded by a batch of smaller galaxies in the RC 20; Mars at it’s closest approach in 2003, with the 4 clear night full of mobs of public; in 1985, the state police coming in with bull horn telling folks (who had waited in lines for hours to see Halley’s Comet) to move their cars off the state road  … well you get the picture.

Thanks a lot Tom.

I’ve also had a lot of fun at the State Park Star Parties that we started under Joe Kamichitis’  first LAS administration. You even find that you even have regulars at the parks and at public nights at TGC Observatory.  John Nallin has been a great assistant … watching the scopes and reminding me to start with M13 or M27. My sister wasn’t quite as good at that although she and her kids used to be really good at blocking out car headlights, campfire lights, and the moon from the eyes of the observing public.

In addition there are many varieties of star geezer you can become. Get to know your personal limits. Just show the constellations to kids (only equipment needed is free star maps from online and a laser pointer just for you, the astro jedi adult). Be more technical if you want. Here are my limits. Serious astrophotography? After looking at what Steve Walters does, I know I am out of my depth.  I’ll just stick to tripod mounted camera astrophotography and casual through the telescope photography with my point and shoot hand held camera. Do serious research? Mike Peoples’ work with Tim Pucket on supernova searches in other galaxies, sounds like too much work. Just remember that the hobby of Amateur Astronomy can encompass every level of interest and expertise. Feel free to be an armchair or WW astronomer. Specialize in cosmology and string theory! There is room for everyone!

Near as I can figure out becoming a Star Geezer is easy , and it keeps you from becoming a crabby geezer!  In fact I’m usually on one of my astronomy highs, whether at the observatory, at state park star parties, and now the First Fridays in downtown Scranton. Astronomy keeps you young in mind so you don’t give off an actual standard geezer vibe. You want to show kids the moon and planets in your telescope, instead of chasing them off your lawn. Being “odd” saves you from becoming that cliche crank.

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