Photo from Carl Zeiss AG Germany
Beginning when I was about 10 years old, I suppose, I would occasionally take the train to Chicago to see the Adler Planetarium.
I grew up in Palatine, one of dozens of small towns that grew up into suburbs along the railroad tracks running northwest from Chicago out to McHenry and Johnsburg and Harvard, Illinois. I used to lie in bed late at night in the summertime and listen to the train whistle blow in the distance, never imagining it might be a very tired old cliche. Ah, such innocent times ...
I remember my anxiety about asking the train station clerk for the ticket, even though going downtown to the end of the line was the easiest ticket to explain. My mother must've given me the cash for the trip. (Someday, I will write at great length about the countless ways she encouraged my interest in astronomy.)
My eyes never stopped studying the view from the train, which passed through the oldest parts of every town along its route, because, as I say, the towns were born along the tracks. We stopped at their turn-of-the-century depots, which apparently never got around to becoming obsolete. As a result, the picture in my mind's eye of Mount Prospect, Des Plaines, and Park Ridge is rather more charming than those towns probably are. I still don't know for sure to this day.
The end of the line was the Union Station, which was one of the old vaulted, vaunted cathedrals built when trains were the fastest, proudest vehicles on Earth. I remember walking through the station with my face turned upward, staggering slowly across the marble floor, no doubt obstructing business people late for work.
The Adler Planetarium was truly hallowed ground to me then. Its exhibits stayed pretty much the same throughout my entire childhood, so visiting them was more ritual than education for me. That's what I was looking for anyway, a place that understood and affirmed my view of the world, one that only Adler and I could see. There was no secret to it — it was simply ignored by most people. It seemed they had some sort of defect that left them blinded to it.
I was the youngest of seven children, growing up in a crowded house in a claustophobic suburb. The train to the Adler made me feel adult and free, like I owned my whole self, not just the inside of my head. I don't think I felt much like that again until I left home for Tucson, to study astronomy.