Grand Junction, Colorado
William was a fellow English instructor at Colorado Mesa University. Since we shared a love of astronomy, we spent many evenings peering at deep space objects through his six-inch reflector telescope from the back yard of his one-bedroom home tucked away in a Grand Junction alley.
This evening, the January night is cold and damp. Bundled up in a heavy coat, I’m watching the eclipse with my daughter Ursula and my wife Brenda through binoculars and with the naked eye. A thin layer of high clouds partially obscures the moon. Through the binoculars, the moon’s rusty disk looks like a telescopic image of Mars, or a misty, romanticized illustration of the red planet from the pulp magazine era, its last sliver of light looking like an ice cap.
On that night over three years ago, it was early autumn. The air was cool but comfortable, and I was with a group of William’s friends at a house up in the foothills of the Uncompahgre Plateau’s northern rim. Below us, the lights of Grand Junction were arrayed like a spray of stars in the southern reaches of the Milky Way. The moon was hovering partway up from the northeastern horizon – a red-orange ball of mystery. That night we had an array of telescopes, and we would take turns watching the eclipse through the scopes’ lenses and mirrors, which made the moon loom large, or witnessing it directly with our unaided gaze. Either way, it was a magical sight – just as it is this evening.
William died May 16th, 2018 from complications brought on by a heart attack. When he passed, his partner, Debra Tucker, to celebrate William’s love of astronomy, had a star named in his honor by the Star-Name-Registry. This 11 magnitude star, now named William Lansing Brown, is designated as 6405787 Sagittarius – 19 hours, 20 minutes, 27.78 seconds right ascension and 14 degrees, 50 minutes, 48.83 seconds declination.
Debra was with us during the 2015 eclipse, but tonight she is in hospice, journeying through the final stages of pancreatic cancer. Just as the earth’s dark shadow has occulted the bright disk of the moon, so it is with this couple who had once been so filled with life and love.
And thus is life’s tragedy and beauty – the cycle of the sun, moon, and earth – a play of shadow and light.