STARMAN the ASTRONOMER-CLOWN
I and a few other scraggly urchins stood awkwardly in a circle surrounding "Starman" as he demonstrated one of his baffling magic tricks.
There was a garden faucet suspended in mid-air with water running out!
Head scratching followed.
"How do you do that, Starman?" Wayne, the mean kid from down by the tracks demanded to know.
Starman turned the spigot and the water ceased flowing. He cocked his head toward Wayne and forced a smug grin.
"I do it very well, I'd say."
Each visit from Starman was special for one or the other of us. He would select one child and go off with him (some place out of sight) to tell a tale of astronomical interest, circus hijinx, or magic.
I was the youngest kid on the block and never got chosen.
I asked the older kids but nobody said a word.
"Starman said if we tell--he'll stop coming around. Magic is secret and we swore."
My feelings were hurt. I was the odd boy out. This wasn't unusual. I never fit in any place either on my block, at school, or at games the others played.
"Who is that strange man?"
My grandmother had noticed with her keen eye. There was something dark in the tone of her query.
She definitely refused to accept my reply.
"He's an astronomer-clown who knows lots of magic. He lives in the circus and ---"
Grandma interrupted immediately. Her face was flushed.
"Next time that man comes around you come straight in the house and tell me. You hear?"
This frightened me but I didn't know why. I was worried I'd end up being blamed by the others if Starman stopped coming around. I did agree to report any astronomer-clown sightings, however.
Years later, I was reading a comic book and came across an advertisement for a book revealing magic tricks secrets and it brought to mind that summer when Starman stopped visiting.
I had dutifully made my report and was told in no uncertain terms to remain inside the house while Grandma went out to speak to him.
I was at the window straining to hear but the two of them were too far away.
Starman was wearing what he always wore; baggy khaki pants and a Hawaiian shirt. He never looked my Grandma in the eye and seemed to say very little. She was doing all the talking.
He had turned to leave but the police car came around the corner and he froze in place.
My heart almost stopped. The neighborhood kids would find out about this and I'd be blamed! I didn't see any of them because he hadn't had time to round anybody up thanks to my intervention.
I remember the black and white police car and how the little red light on top revolved a bright flashing sentinel as I stood at the window without understanding any of what I saw.
A minute or so later, the police drove away and Starman walked off sadly, unmolested by the law.
My grandma had nothing to say to me. She shut me down completely.
The astronomer-clown never returned.
One of the young kids who lived three blocks away was named Don Jetton. He and I walked home from Morningside Elementary school together sometimes. He wasn't exactly a friend, but neither was he a bully like most of the others.
I screwed my courage to the hilt one afternoon and asked him.
"Why do you think Starman stopped coming to see us?"
He froze for a moment in mid stride. His face paled.
I watched a flicker of pain pass over him.
"I told my Mom. I broke my swear. She made me."
This brought immense relief!
I was bracing myself for accusation--but all that paranoia went away suddenly and I broke out in a beaming smile.
I was emboldened.
"What did you tell your Mom about Starman?"
He stared at me with a strange expression.
"Mom told me to never ... ever talk about that."
I could see he wanted to tell me. What should I say?
How could I convince him it was okay?
As I was scheming in my head, Don Jetton turned to me and straight away let it all out in a streaming confessional.
"He explained about the Big Bang and how many billions of years ago stuff suddenly happened and ...also how you could tell how old the universe is by something called redshift and... I can't explain it. I just listened and didn't ask any questions."
"Why does any of that need need keeping as a big secret?"
"Cuz at the end of all he was telling me...he leaned in close and whispered something in my ear."
I waited until my patience ran out. Which was about five seconds.
"Well, don't just stand there--TELL ME."
I can't describe the guilty look on Don Jetton's face but it looked like he was about to pass out.
"I'm waiting. Just say it already."
He swallowed hard and made his decision. He pulled near and leaned toward my ear which caused me to pull back. I don't know what I was thinking he was going to do. Well, maybe I do. I thought he was going to kiss me. He didn't.
He whispered so softly I made him repeat it.
As soon as he told me, I had to stand pretty quietly for about a minute. My wheels were turning.
I took what he said and matched it with the mysterious behavior and secrets and one kid at a time going off with Starman where nobody could see what was going on.
I nodded with understanding. I suppose I could understand the anger my Grandma showed and why she didn't want to say anything.
Back then, in the 1950's, such matters were very very scandalous in the South.
There were things you could never tell a child--especially somebody else's child.
Starman had whispered forbidden words. Three of them.
The astronomer-clown who was a magician had revealed a very creepy secret.
"There is no God."