Close Encounters of the Badge Kind

The night was balmy though buggy at SPOC, the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex, as I worked outside to improve my telescope’s pointing. Besides training it out of its mechanical crankiness, I hoped to get an image or two before the night ended. From across the baseball diamond, a car spotlight blasted. Then a man strode along the walkway, aiming a flashlight at me.

He was a uniformed police or sheriff’s officer and he wanted to know what I was doing. I said, “This is the Salt Lake Astronomical Society observatory and I’m a member of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, observing.” He looked at my telescope, folding table, laptop and the power cord that ran into the open door of one of the buildings. They’re not usually here at 2 a.m., he said. I told him I almost always stay up all night when I do astronomy.

I was trying to get a picture of M92, I added.

He asked if I had seen it before and I said I had not (forgetting that I’d taken a poor view of that globular cluster about four years ago). He said two kinds of people are out, the good ones and the “crazy kids” who may be up to trouble. Obviously I’m not a kid, though I make no claim in the sanity department. He seemed to conclude I was a good person. We said good-night and he walked back to his patrol car.

Through the years I’ve had several interactions with officers while out observing.

In the 1990s, soon after I had set up in a huge public parking lot near the University of Utah campus, I was visited by a policeman who asked me what I thought about the world ending on Dec. 21, 2012.

That was new; it was the first I had heard about the supposed Mayan cosmology in which their calendar ends on that date. Lately the ancient calendar has been more in the news. The moment of the world’s end or the start of a new era or whatever it is, has been set as 11:11 a.m. How the Mayans calculated that without clocks is a mystery.

An Internet site, CLICK HERE, even features a countdown clock. As I write this, we have 1,268 days, 21 hours, 51 minutes and 18 seconds. Maybe the countdown is to remind us to return our library books by then because we won’t get another chance.

“The most accurate 2012 predictions come from ancient civilizations, such as the Mayan, Aztec, Hopi, Hindu and Egyptian calendars,” the site claims, “and all agree on the Maya December 21, 2012 end date. On that day at 11:11 am, the earth will be in the exact alignment with the sun and the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. This is a rare astrological event that occurs once every 26,000 years.”

How our microscopic dot of a planet can be more precisely aligned with the black hole at the center of this immense galaxy, and more so at that instant than during many days of any year, is an even bigger mystery.

While I was admiring Jupiter’s cloud bands at a roadside turnoff, I think on Little Mountain, an officer drove up. He liked seeing the planet through my telescope. But he could make it look even better, he said. He showed me a night-viewing device that would supercharge the light through a pair of binoculars, letting him see in the dark if there were any nefarious deeds going on.

Sticking it over my eyepiece, he invited me to have a look, and turned it on. A hideous green version of Jupiter exploded onto my retina, showing no additional details but wiping out my night vision for the next hour. How’s that? He asked. I said it was impressive.

In 2003 I set up on the highest deck of the Regent Street Parking Terrace, across the street from the Deseret News. I was still working as a reporter; it would be five years before I retired. I had sent an email inviting all staff members to come out and see the sights. The few who had accepted my offer had gone home to bed. A security guard drove up through the parking ramp and asked what was going on. I explained that I had permission to be there, and he asked a few questions about astronomy.

Would I mind if a couple of other security officers came up when they got off duty? No, that would be nice, I said.

After he left he sent over two young guards who were interested in astronomy. They were college students who worked at night (or maybe one had dropped out but planned to return). They chatted with me for an hour as we sat on the parking terrace roof. We had a nice talk about astronomy and odd things they had seen while guarding Church property. One had a funny notion to start a service for people who think they don’t pay enough tax. He would be up-front about his own payment. He would collect money from the clients and forward it to the government — after taking an extremely hefty cut. I said if anyone is dumb enough to think he doesn’t pay enough tax, he’s probably dumb enough to fall for it. While the telescope tracked our targets, I showed them Mars and the moon on the computer monitor.

My own funny theory is that an hour of sleep under a tree adds two years to your life. In April I was extending my lifetime in the shade of a pinyon pine at a campground near the Wedge Overlook, Emery County, after a night of astronomy. An Emery County deputy sheriff drove up in his white SUV, waking me.

I got up from my mat and walked from under the trees, bent down to avoid the branches, and we talked. He seemed to be checking out my camp. He commented that I had a nice-looking telescope and asked what I was doing. I explained I was going to try for a second night of astrophotography, and he wished me luck. I thanked him for checking on me.

And that’s how I feel about all of these encounters. The officers and guards were professional and polite. I’m grateful they are working to protect us. And I welcome the company.

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