Imagine a young man, raised a city boy in San Francisco, Brooklyn, and Berkeley between the years 1937 and 1954. That’s me or was me. (Am I still that young man?).
The stars I saw through the urban atmosphere were relatively few and dim, although I was able to imagine more of them from having read picture books on astronomy and having visited planetariums in San Francisco and New York several times. Stars were mostly fictional places for me, from my avid reading of science fiction in my teen tears.
Being footloose after high school and not ready for college, or anything, it seemed at the time, I was strongly encouraged by my father to join the US Navy at age 17. I did. This was 1954.
After the usual basic training at U.S. Naval Training Center in San Diego (now a housing and recreation development), I was assigned to further training to be minimally competent aboard an aircraft carrier, then being upgraded at the now defunct US Naval Shipyard, Hunter’s Point, San Francisco.
Our ship was finally ready in mid-1955 for sea trials off the coast of California, from San Francisco to San Diego and back. There was the usual coastal fog and cloud cover, and I was busy learning to be a sailor aboard a vessel actually at sea, so I did not notice things like stars that lay beyond what needed my attention immediately at hand.
We eventually were ready for the regular trip from our home base at Alameda Naval Air Station (now defunct) to Japan and the Far East, via Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where “shapes” were brought aboard. Translate that as “nuclear weapons.”
The first leg of the trip, to Hawaii, was 2,400 miles. Steaming between 20 and 25 knots, 24 hours per day, this took less than a week. Our division was busy all this time, below decks—that is, not where we could see the sky.
After a week or so in “Pearl,” I was excited to know that within two weeks I would be in Japan. I was then age 19.
There was more leisure time now and, as an electronics technician, I had access to all parts of the ship. When I was not on duty or asleep, I would explore everywhere that was not “officer country” or restricted to those with the unnamed clearance that meant “nuclear.”
In the great western Pacific, midway between Hawaii and Japan, I had the watch duty ending at midnight. Before retiring to my bunk, I wandered the forward catwalks, just below the flight deck, for some fresh salt air.
There were no air operations that night, so I sat in a gun tub just below the level of the flight deck and observed this new universe without haste for the first time. At night the ship displays only red lights, to be invisible to passing ships and aircraft.
As I began to perceive the horizon that separated the vastness of the sea from the even greater vastness of the sky, it seemed as if I was about to be covered by a blanket of velvet in which there was an infinitude of holes through which the light of the universe was shining. My right hand involuntarily reached toward that blanket, trying to touch the soft velvet, to taste it with my fingers. My head seemed to merge with the blackness between the myriad points of light and I felt surrounded by the light of the universe.
I felt as if I was about to float along a stream of light points when I was jolted back to what passes for reality on earth by a harsh voice barking: “You got business out here, sailor?”