Monday, November 20, 2006

The Blue Marble

My grandfather gave me a spyglass on my eight birthday so I could see the heavens. I called him Pecaw from a time before language skills developed and the name stuck. He didn’t mind; maybe there’s a rank above “grandpa”, something that only a child notices. I would point my simple telescope, a sturdy cardboard tube painted black with some shiny brass rings to hold the lenses, at the moon. Through it I would wonder about life.

It never occurred to me that one day I would have a grandson to walk with; to point out the stars, the moon and the planets. The wonderful thing about walking with JJ is I become eight years old again and enjoy the night sky with renewed spirit of awe. I certainly never expected to be called, “Peapaw”, an honor to hear; for all I know it means “silly old fart who talks on and on”.

“StarzS, Peapaw, StarzS,!” Jay pointed to the planet Jupiter as the sunset faded into late evening. A jogger approached and quietly acknowledged the special moment we were having; possibly thinking about his own family as he smiled.

“Evenin’. . . nice night.”, his words measured his paced breathing as he continued by us.; glancing upward while Jay pointed at the brilliant object above the horizon. I nodded and returned the smile, a proud knowing smile, while kneeling to sit on the curb next to my grandson.

“Jay, that’s the planet Jupiter.” Jay was two and a half years old and it would be awhile before he would understand the distinction between a planet’s reflected light from that of a distant star’s generated light. The darkening sapphire evening comforter had only a few minutes left, the night’s darkness close to taking over as his young face sparkled back at me. A mockingbird swooped across the street and disappeared into the canopy of a large tree’s branches for the night. It was that magical time when trees lost their green color in favor of the shadows, their having absorbed any light attempting to betray their secrets. The only birds flying above were Purple Martins taking advantage of a swarm of mosquitoes that had volunteered to be a snack.

“Moon!” He pointed to my belt buckle, “Moon! Moon!”. He was right; my belt buckle featured a turquoise shaped moon set against various shades of hardwood mountains with a pitch black sky sprinkled with sterling silver stars. It was all held together in a solid brass frame.

I remember the day I bought that belt buckle. It was 1975 and I was an evening shift police officer assigned to work one of those art fairs at the edge of downtown. It was a hot summer’s day in Houston. I had a given area of the fair grounds to patrol on foot, mainly to be seen in uniform. The crowds, though rather large, were a friendly sort, happy to see a police presence as they enjoyed the flea market atmosphere. There were vendors hawking all manner of semi-artistic items; beads, wind chimes, handmade jewelry, paintings, and custom made belts. I’d passed one particular vendor’s stand several times over the course of the day. Each time I had been captivated by the beauty of his belt buckles. I talked with the fellow, he was from Albuquerque, and he was pleased that I enjoyed his workmanship. He polished and buffed one of them, tempting me to purchase and knowing that each time I stopped his odds of completing a sale improved. Fifty dollars was a lot of money for a belt buckle and I was reluctant, knowing that I would have to admit my weakness as soon as I got home with my new purchase.

“Is that an airplane I hear Jay?”, cupping my ear and exaggerating my anticipation until he too was honing in on the approaching noise that was hidden from view. Jay loved to watch airplanes as they settled into the invisible roads that led to the airport. I wondered if Jay would always look into the skies and appreciate the miracles around him. The moment had been trapped in time as we were both enjoying eternity. In the blink of an eye he would be sitting, pointing into the night sky with his own grandchild wondering how perfect moments happen.

I had been interested in astronomy even as a small boy. I would enjoy the night sky while walking the dog. I can’t remember how many times my grandfather, Pecaw, would direct my attention, pointing up into the heavens, “There is my favorite . ..”, as it cleared the tree line of the early autumn sky, “. . .Orion. See there, his belt with the sword hanging down?” He would draw his finger in the air, “That is where the great nebulae of Orion is found.” He would then talk about the Creation and how God had planned all this, the planets with their individual orbits, the Sun to provide us with energy and the moon to reflect on. Pecaw had a special gift for making the cosmos sound familiar and friendly as opposed to the cold reaches of space as defined by my science teachers. “Its all part of God’s plan.”, He would say, “All part of God’s plan for us to appreciate what we have been given. You ask your Dad, he’ll tell you.” Pecaw died when I was very young and so those walks remain as important memories and my link with him.

Dad had a special marble that he kept on his desk that had belonged to his grandfather. It was a deep cobalt blue marble about three quarters of an inch in diameter. When he wasn’t looking, or at least I thought he wasn’t, I would pick it up and hold it to the light. The lamp on his desk was a miniature Sun and I was holding the Earth between my index finger and my thumb, looking at the oceans completely covering the planet. One day while I was day dreaming, holding the Earth and not paying too much attention, I suddenly noticed that I was no longer alone.

“Still waiting for the dry land to appear?”, he asked in a reverenced hush. The marble was crystal clear all the way through, no cat’s eye or cloudy swaths to interrupt the deep blue cast. I smiled weakly, knowing that I had not asked permission to handle one of his prized possessions. “I remember the day I got that marble. It was at the World’s Fair in, let me think . . ., nineteen. . . thirty three; yes, that was it, nineteen thirty three.” He smiled as he remembered his own youth, “It was my birthday present that year. I’d turned eight and my grandfather thought it would be nice to treat me to see the World’s Fair in Chicago.” Dad may have been in the room with me but his mind was lost somewhere in the past as he recollected his train ride into Chicago, the excitement of having an entire weekend in the big city and having a chance to be with his grandparents.

“I remember going to see some kind of exhibition . . .the Century of Progress Exhibition . . . yes, that was it.”, his voice dropping as he emphasized the importance and weightiness of the times. I had never met Grandfather Copland and yet when my father’s voice would drop into that serious tone it was as if I were hearing him from beyond the veil. There was something about the gravelly voice, the way the words were put together, that of a much older person who had the knowledge of the ages caught in ancient vocal cords pleading with my inexperience and youth.

“You see”, he looked at me, the blue marble catching the light, “Grandfather Copland used to own that very same marble.” He nodded knowingly as we both glanced at its simple beauty. It now became more clear why dad had kept the marble in his coin tray on top of his desk; a constant link with one of his heroes. “Grandfather knew that I was ready to have something of enormous value”, dad’s voice shook with emotions from deep inside of him, “and so he took that marble from his watch pocket and handed it to me. I will never forget the look in his eye, a somber and ominous look that came from the center of his soul, “This is but a shadow of a greater truth and I am placing it in your care.”

It had made for a good story, how much of it was imagination and how much of it was true did not matter; it was something that my dad kept all those years, a gift from Grandfather Copland. “I think Grandfather Copland would want you to have it now that you’re old enough to appreciate what it is.”, dad closed my fingers around it, almost as if he’d given me a hug as the blue sphere became mine.

Dad was a pretty good furniture salesman and he did know the nigh sky; all the same, he was more a dreamer than anything. Dad had no real interest in the mathematical equations that linked one planet’s orbit with another or the chemistry that made it possible to identify which elements had shifted blue or red from distant stars. The night sky was part of his testimony of the Creation and that was good enough for him. I had taken basic science courses in high school, the same ones that everyone did. Later, when I went on to college there were the mandatory classes; Biology, Botany, Chemistry and even Physics. Astronomy was offered; but by then my interests, at least my primary interests, had been geared toward obtaining a business degree. I knew the names of the planets and could find them easily along the equatorial plain along with some of the more prominent stars and their corresponding constellations. I could anticipate the seasonal changes that brought into view different sets of stars. It’s no surprise that my favorite season was autumn; Orion leading the way back to older memories and walks with Pecaw or my talks with dad.

That young fellow who'd jogged by had reminded me of someone; nothing specific and perhaps it was only the fact that he was in his late teens or early twenties. Maybe it was his quiet smile when he looked at me standing next to Jay; no matter. I thought back to one afternoon in my sophomore year at Sam Houston State. I happened to notice a flyer that had been affixed to one of the bulletin boards. It was on the Old Main Building, the oldest and most beautiful structure on the entire campus; a building that, I might add, burned to the ground a few years back.

I remember the ornate stained glass windows and the dark oak wood work; a shame that the sprinkler system had never been installed. Anyway, where was I? John Pratt, an astronomy professor from Utah had been asked to speak regarding his theories on planetary alignment and biblical calendars one Thursday evening. While I read the leaflet my fingers instinctively felt down into the deep recess of my pocket for my marble, the marble I kept with me as surely as my wallet or my car keys. My last final of the semester would be Friday afternoon, Managerial Accounting. I had struggled to keep a low B average and it was important that I do well on the test. In my mind I tossed a coin and never let it land, thinking to myself, “If I don’t know it by now then studying for it all night this Thursday isn’t going to make all that much difference.”

“I sat in the back of the auditorium, the same room that I’d taken Freshman Botany, a mandatory drudgery that most students flunked their first try. It was the same room that the drama club used. The podium was spotlighted in the middle of a moderately sized stage; no microphone was necessary due to the marvelous acoustics fashioned into the hundred year old architecture. There was seating for about a hundred and fifty, a steep grade between successive rows made use of both the first and second floors. The high ceilings and the windows made use of convection currents to keep the temperatures tolerable, there having been no air conditioning considered at the time. The lights in the room were brought down and I had the blue marble in my hand, no longer a simple piece of glass. I held the Creation, as it were, supported on my finger tips where it could float in the vast expanse of space prior to listening to the talk.

“Evening, nice night.”, and with the same breath, “May I have a look at that magnificent bauble?”, from a young man sitting to my right. I had not noticed him, or rather, I’d paid him no regard until that moment. There were five minutes or so until the night’s event. The house lights flickered so that all might take their seats on time. I let the marble roll into the center of my palm, having formed a cup so that it would not fall. I was reluctant to permit a stranger to handle it; all the same, I could see no harm lifting my hand in offering.
“What a magnificent orb!.”, lifting it ever so gently; as if he felt my reluctance in the matter. I saw that as he held the marble, his eye studied each mark that had cankered its once pristine surface. There was a familiarity, a recognition of that which could only be observed with prior knowledge, as he found the various marks on the marble. “God’s fingernail”, a hushed whisper escaped his lips as he pointed to a small indention, a minuscule crease that had been on that marble for as long as I could remember.

“What was that?” Dad had explained the history of the marble, the same way that he had been briefed by Grandfather Copland. The fellow who had given Grandfather Copland the treasure had described all the marks on the marble; the thin indention he had called “God’s fingernail mark”. Dad said that it was the Grand Canyon in miniature, but I think he was checking to see if one of my legs was longer than the other. There was a smile growing across the young man’s face, a pleasant unforced smile.

“You are aware of the significance of this jewel.”, stated with validation and sureness. It was hard to place his accent. His clearly spoken words landed refreshingly crisp on the ear; Mid-west, Iowa or possibly Indiana. Maybe my mind was playing tricks on me; when I first had looked at him he appeared to be nineteen of twenty years old at best, then a moment later he had the presence of someone much more progressed, approaching ancient.

“It’s only a marble, a very old marble, that’s all. This belonged to my great grandfather and he’s been dead since; well; before either of us were born”, looking the young man over with a cursory glance. His manner of dress was disjointed; a walking anachronism, more like a “preppie” from the Fifties who’d got warped ahead twenty years. He could easily have come from doing a Bryl-cream or Vitalis hair tonic commercial with his slicked down hair, starched white shirt and pull over sweater vest. The fact remained that the stranger had identified “God’s fingernail mark”, something that would constitute a giant leap in coincidence, were such coincidences possible.

“You’re probably correct.”, handing the marble back with not even the slightest hint of contention. It seemed odd that he would be certain one moment and at once recant.

“How did you know about the mark, “God’s fingernail mark”?”, holding it up for inspection.
“It is a very unique piece of glass; surely you have been given its history?” Dad had never mentioned it in those terms, like it was the Hope Diamond or some such piece of jewelry. Maybe I hadn’t paid enough attention to the wild yarn. Dad told me; on more that one occasion, “Your grandfather thinks that an angel gave him this marble, an angel who knew God.”, or something like that.

“It belonged to my father and before him, his grandfather. I had no idea that it had any value or noteworthy legend.” The small blue marble sitting in my hand was all but black in the dimly lighted reaches of the back row.

“Then you will enjoy this evening’s presentation all the more. Its time to be quiet now.”, placing his finger in front of his lips as the lights in the hall diminished until only the spot light shone on the podium.

“Tonight our guest speaker is John Pratt, noted astronomer and biblical historian. His remarks will, no doubt, be interesting to all as he explains the cosmos in terms we can all relate to. Doctor Pratt will now address us on, “The Planets, Shadows of a Greater Truth”, Doctor Pratt.” There was a cordial yet generous applause as the spot light followed John Pratt from the edge of the stage until he took up his position behind the podium. I had never heard of John Pratt and had never read any of his books when I decided to attend the instructional presentation. My interest was similar to going to a show to be entertained.

Sometimes I would sit on one of the benches in the quadrangle in the late afternoon to listen while the students practiced their instruments; phrases from familiar classics streamed on a light breeze and I knew that many hours of labor had produced those sounds. I had no skills in music other than to enjoy the efforts of those who did. Astronomy appealed to me in much the same way as I sat toward the front of my seat to listen.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen and thank you.” He picked up a pitcher of water that had been placed on the podium and filled a glass, taking a couple of short sips to prime the pump. “Can anyone tell me where the planet Venus was on the day Mary found the stone rolled away from the tomb of Jesus?” John Pratt looked out into the darkness; a few hands went up around the room. “Well, I see that some of you have read my book, that’s refreshing.” He let out a light rumble of laughter and resumed; pointing to a young man in the front row who had mouthed the appropriate answer, inaudible to the better part of the audience. “You are correct, Sir. Venus was in “Resurrection” as it is called to those familiar with its pattern of appearance either in the evening or the morning sky.”

I was distracted now, wanting to hear the presentation while flashes of my own childhood memories interrupted my efforts to concentrate on the talk. How was it that I would enjoy this evening’s lecture more holding grandfather’s marble? Who was this fellow sitting next to me, younger than myself or so it seemed and yet …? The program continued as Professor Pratt had brought slides that were illuminated on a large screen behind him; he continued to explain his ideas.

“The cycle of Venus requires about 584 days to complete, and Mercury requires 116 days. Both of those values are one day short of being a multiple of 13: 585 = 45 x 13 and 117 = 9 x 13. Thus, the 13-day trecena is an excellent unit of time to track both of these planets. In fact, the period of Venus is about five times that of Mercury and 585 equals exactly five time 117. Moreover, the 263-day period that Venus spends as morning and evening stars nearly equals one Sacred Round of 260 days. Because of these coincidences, the Venus and Mercury calendars I have designed are aligned with the Sacred Round. That is, the day of creation, birth, prime, death, and resurrection of both Venus and Mercury always occur on a day "1" of the 13-day trecena. On the proposed Venus calendar, there are always exactly 260 days, or one Sacred Round, between the days of birth and death, which agrees with Native American traditions.” (footnote: The Planets, Shadows of a Greater Truth by John Pratt )

I was listening and watching as the orbits of each planet were shown along with the appointed dates of alignment. Was he making this up as he went along; what the heck was a trecena? Much of what was being discussed had the flavor of a religious ceremony as opposed to a purely scientific proposition. I looked around to see if they were going to start passing collection plates.

“The Lord stated, "And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, . . . things which are in the heavens above, . . . all things bear record of me." (Moses 6:63). Thus we see that these words can be taken literally. The planets not only bear record of the times of key events in the Savior's life, they sometimes even bear record of what the event was. For example, the planet Venus was "resurrecting" on the day the Savior did. Truly the celestial spheres are "for signs and for seasons" (Gen. 1:14) as the Lord instructed Moses.” ( footnote: The Planets, Shadows of a Greater Truth by John Pratt)

Pecaw had always told me that the stars and the planets were part of God’s creation for us to enjoy and here was a professor of astronomy, come all the way from Utah, to validate that. There was a warm feeling that came from deep within, something witnessing to me that the information was true. I was not up on biblical history; having avoided going to church most of my life, all the same some of the references were of books; presumably in the scriptures, not familiar to me. The first five books of the bible; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, going over them in my head and counting them on my fingers as I named each one, had been delivered by Moses, or at least that’s what I had been taught. I was not aware of a book called “Moses”. The more I listened the more I heard about books I never knew existed.

“Did you ever…”, turning to ask if he’d ever heard of a Book of Moses; he was gone. Maybe he’d gone to the restroom and would return. There would be a chance to ask him after the lecture; at least I hoped to have that opportunity.

“The Lord stated that Abraham knew the set time of the moon. The value for the average length of the lunar month on which the Hebrew calendar has long been based is 29.530594 days.
That value is far better than any other used in antiquity, and today's calculation of the average value (29.530593 days) only differs by 0.000001 day, which is less than a tenth of a second. The Hebrew value is so phenomenally good that I've believed for years that it must have been revealed and that the lunar orbit was designed to come out even in Hebrew time units. This revelation to Abraham might explain the origin of this super-accurate value. It is also possible, however, that the value had been known by Enoch, and was contained in the records in Abraham's possession (Abr. 1:31). The revelation states only that he knows it, not that it was being revealed at that time.” (footnote: John Pratt’s article “Abraham’s Three Truths”)

Here was reference to a Book of Abraham; I would have to find these books and read them for myself. I glanced over my program; more had been given in one meal than I could digest. On the back was a brief biography of Professor John Pratt along with information on how to order a soft cover compilation of his writings. I would have to think some more before ordering; twenty five dollars plus shipping and handling was rather steep. My job delivering for Ralph’s Pizza paid almost nothing. They had a small fleet of VW Bugs that could be seen all over campus to advertise and deliver to the dorms; a large pizza logo on every side of the car with Ralph’s Pizza in bold letters. The main reason I had taken it was because I would be guaranteed at least one real meal each day. I was living on the proverbial shoe string and counting pennies, not dollars. Every once in a while I would sell my free pizza to my roommate, take that money and buy a burger just to have a change of pace.

“Interesting stuff, huh?” My new found friend had returned and prodded my thoughts. It was a statement requiring only a nod of agreement, almost as if he had heard this information before.

“’Great, a little deep; but great all the same.” I had never met this young man before, all the same he reminded me of my walks with Pecaw, somehow becoming a familiar spirit by proxy. There was something worth knowing about this fellow, like solving a puzzle in the Sunday Times. The house lights came up as the event came to its inevitable conclusion and I escaped the rigid confines of an uncomfortable chair.

“Come with me, I think you should meet John and get to know him a little better.”, pulling my arm as he moved into the isle. Sitting on the back row had its advantages; one being that getting out of a crowded room was much easier, not so this time. Here we were, a couple of human salmon fighting the current of bodies as we made our way toward center stage. Any reluctance that I had held in reserve evaporated with each passing step.

“John, over here.”, waving to flag his attention. I noticed there was an instant recognition, so much so that Dr. Pratt, who had been engaged in direct conversation with someone else, dropped that person’s hand shake and lost interest immediately. It was the same as when meeting your brother who has been out of the country for several years. Passing time with a total stranger, talking about the latest sports scores up until that moment comes and your brother steps into view; there is no pretense that the earlier conversation was meaningful as you turn away, possibly without even a shallow attempt to conclude with a social pleasantry.
“How long has it been, too long my brother.”, Dr. Pratt could not contain the emotions as he hugged and that hug was returned. I stood respectfully a couple of steps back as the two revived their relationship, mostly by their eye contact and the nodding of heads rather than verbally.

“John, I have someone you need to meet with.”, turning to catch me with his other hand. “William Story, John Pratt.”, arranging that our hands should shake as he introduced us to each other.

“I enjoyed the seminar very much, Sir”.

“Call me John, please. William Story…?”, a momentary hesitation of thought, “…do I know you, somehow there is a familiarity about you?” Call me crazy; but I had to agree; there was a way about him, his eyes maybe or was it something less obvious? From the back row I had only a fuzzy humanoid basic structure; nothing that would have given particulars such as personal features.

“I don’t think so, pleased to meet you, er..a. John.” He had a powerful grip while shaking hands, not like he was trying to show off his strength, more friendly than that; all the same it was plain that he did more than do lectures and write about the stars.

“Show John what you showed me earlier.” There was a brief aside as John glanced over and then back to me as I retrieved the marble from my blue jeans. I could feel that his hand had left my shoulder, the cool air notified me. He was leaving and it dawned on me that I didn’t know his name. Come to think of it, I had never given him mine; how was it that he was able to introduce me so easily?

“Say hello to your brother Jared for me when you see him.”, John extended a wave as I brought the blue marble up higher so that the light would shine on it. The corner spot lights still aimed at center stage made the orb shine magnificently, the beams striking it made the rest of the room disappear in comparison. I know there were still quite a few of the audience by the background noise; and yet there was a distinct silence in that two or three foot circle where we stood. John Pratt breathed in and stood erect upon recognizing the object; something which most folks would have simply assigned to be an ordinary glass marble; it was similar to what I had experienced earlier in the evening.

“My goodness, so we do have something in common.” His voice was clear and hushed as he reached into his own pocket. When his hand came out there was no mistaking that he too had a marble, only his was a clear amber color He handed it to me, making a point to hold it a certain way so that as I took it from him I would have a particular view. “Interesting mark, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Huh, oh my!” It was the same indention, God’s fingernail mark.