The Loved One and I went out to Paynetown tonight, hoping to take advantage of the first good clear sky in a long time. Funny thing is, we’d gone out Saturday night even though it was overcast and it turned out there was an outage in the area so we were in near total darkness. There are overhead lamps here and there and security lights around the camp check-in shacks and the general store. Saturday none of them was lighted so we could have had a great sky to scan but, this being the Midwest, all we had were low stratus clouds reflecting the glows, low in the sky, of Bloomington, Bedford, and Columbus.
We didn’t entertain any hope that there’d still be an outage tonight and there wasn’t, but the sky was awfully clear and it’s dark enough at Paynetown even with the odd light on here and there to allow us to see stars all the way down to the horizon. Which, by the way, is where both Jupiter and Saturn are these days as they race toward their conjunction, the first since the year 1226, the night of December 21st. Of course, I won’t be able to see that phenomenon because I’ll be doped up in Bloomington Hospital after my total hip replacement that AM. That’s okay, seeing as how our Solar System’s two biggest gas giants have entertained me nightly (clear nightly, to be sure) since the spring.
My goal this evening was to finally catch a glimpse of the Andromeda Galaxy, the farthest object visible to humans in the night sky. The truth is, it’s awfully hard to see the Andromeda even in these semi-rural environs. At best, the galaxy is a faint smudge near the torso of the mythical Greek princess who was chained to a rock at the seashore as punishment for her mother, Cassiopeia, bragging she was more beautiful than the Nereids. Those ancient Greeks sure dug spinning yarns inspired by the twinkling stars.
Anyway, my National Geographic Guide to the Night Sky told me Andromeda is near the zenith in December so I had to spread a blanket out and lay flat on my back in order to focus the binocs. It took me about 15 minutes but I finally spotted the galaxy and I let out a whoop that echoed through the trees. It was a discernible spiral, tinged in red.
Hell, I’ve seen a lot of things in my (gulp) nearly 65 years but the very idea that I can see a thing that’s all of 2.5 million light years from…, well, Bloomington strikes me as something akin to a miracle. What I’d spotted was actually an object as it was at the time of the appearance in central Africa of Homo habilis, “handy man,” who were the first hominids to use stone tools, mainly to carve up the critters they’d hunted. H. habilis was not human. It was at least one species removed from ours, by Homo erectus. Oh, and the Ice Ages first began about 2.5 million years ago. So that’s how long light, traveling from the Andromeda Galaxy to my eyes, took to make the trip. Light, for reference, travels at 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum. Suffice it to say it’s a long slog.
On our way back home, we caught an interview with Dolly Parton on American Routes. Man, she’s a pistol. She talked about having a crush on Johnny Cash when she met him as a teenager even though he was, she said, skinny and all drugged up. Then she recalled her first records, mainly bluegrass stuff. The host then talked about a couple of bluegrass legends, the Louvin Brothers. They’d recorded a song called “The Knoxville Girl.” It was sung from the POV of a lovesick guy who fallen for a very young beauty and he just up and killed her. The lyrics describe the killing in lurid detail. To wit:
And every Sunday evening, out in her home, I’d dwell
We went to take an evening walk about a mile from town
I picked a stick up off the ground and knocked that fair girl down
“Oh Willy dear, don’t kill me here, I’m unprepared to die”
She never spoke another word, I only beat her more
Until the ground around me within her blood did flow
Throwing her into the river that flows through Knoxville town
Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl with the dark and rolling eyes
Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl, you can never be my bride
My mother, she was worried and woke up in a fright
Saying “dear son, what have you done to bloody your clothes so?”
I told my anxious mother I was bleeding at my nose
I called for me a handkerchief to bind my aching head
Rolled and tumbled the whole night through, as troubles was for me
Like flames of hell around my bed and in my eyes could see
My friends all tried to get me out but none could go my bail
I’m here to waste my life away down in this dirty old jail
Because I murdered that Knoxville girl, the girl I loved so well
The song was released on the Louvin Brothers’ 1956 album Tragic Songs of Life. It’s gloriously haunting. And, as you can see, he murdered his girlfriend for no stated reason! I actually gasped midway through the song. I thought about people who lived miles from nowhere back in the middle of the last century, before TV and the internet tied us all together. I imagined them thinking, Well, he didn’t want anybody else to have her or, Maybe she jilted him and what else could he do? I figured plenty of people would have identified with the guy. Yeesh!
We may be living in bizarre times but I don’t see contemporary songwriters penning pretty ballads about braining their girlfriends.
Altogether, a fascinating night.