When I read last month that NASA's Kepler space telescope was allowing scientists to spy on a potentially habitable planet 600 light years away and compare it to Earth (it's 72 degrees, 290 days to its year), I thought of one person: atheist and Elmer's glue eater Jeff Malone.
When last I trained my home telescope on the unsuspecting Jeff, the year was 1969, Mrs. Sklenkar was our fifth grade teacher, and Pluto's shame was years away (although Mike Brown, the astronomer who put the first nail in Pluto's coffin and recently authored of How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming, continues to receive daily hate mail and from people he calls "Pluto huggers").
The school day had started predictably -- I stood straight beside my desk, faced the American flag that hung in the corner, placed hand over heart and began. "I pledge allegiance to the flag..."
Jeff stood behind me, perhaps lip-syncing his way through the phrase under God. (The original 1892 pledge read: I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. In 1954, Congress, in a patriotic outburst, inserted the words under God.)
As we sat down, Jeff whispered my name and I swiveled in my chair. He told me that the previous night, he had poured glue into his desk's built-in pencil tray and it had dried. Now, he said, he would eat the glue if I wanted him to. I did. As he swallowed, I felt a gravitational tug toward this boy who was going where no boy had ever gone for me. But I knew a stronger force would keep us forever at odds, like Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. My family were Catholics; Jeff's were atheists.
What do atheists do in the privacy of their own home? I wondered. I decided to find out.
Back home that night, I entered my brother's second-floor bedroom, which housed our family's telescope. It stood on its silver tripod near a corner window that afforded me the perfect view for my investigation.
Alone, I trained the telescope to focus across a weeded field into the Malone's living room. I watched and waited for evidence as to how their parallel but ungodly affairs unfolded a half block away, knowing God hated them and could punish them any moment. It didn't happen that night. Nor the next. Nor any time that year.
I lost track of Jeff in junior high school. At some point, students were longer required to recite the Pledge. Astrophysicists stripped Pluto of full planethood. And I traded the Christian god of my youth for a different sense of spirituality.
It's our nature to spy. Whether we train our telescopic eyes toward a neighbor's bay window or a celestial body light years away, mankind is incurably curious about life outside our personal walls. At the grocery store, we listen to one side of a cell phone conversation, and wonder about the invisible partner. ("Did you want chopped tomatoes or stewed?") We stop typing in our offices, and still our bodies to hear co-workers conversing outside our doors. ("I want to stop exchanging gifts with Chris' family.") We Google people, as I just did Jeff Malone. (Was he the Jeff who grew up to be the corporate executive? The one murdered in Mississippi? ...)
Gathering information is not our goal. We are hoping for answers, a yearning that itself can force us to confront questions that ultimately force change. What are my values? How do I give my life meaning?
Since the telescope's invention some 400 years ago, it has allowed man to explore our galactic neighbors and well beyond into deep space. Maybe it will help answer the question of whether Kepler 22b can support life. But it will never answer the big question remaining when I think of Jeff Malone, a question only I can answer: What does Elmer's glue taste like?
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