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New day

The winter solstice has just passed. Predawn is still quite dark these mornings before work. This morning, the sky is still and especially clear, and the heavens catch my eye. Majestic stars burn with a fire seen only in country skies, far from the city’s haze of streetlights and advertising.Blue, white, red or yellow stars blaze with colors only noticed in clear, dark skies. Up close, such stars would be monsters, dwarfing our own modest sun. Leo the lion rides high and Orion the hunter has already set. Scorpios, ruler of summer nights, is seen in the southeast predawn gloaming, harbinger of a spring yet to come.Work is only six miles away. In the gravel parking lot, I park my car so its windshield will catch first light. This day looks to be a nice one, and early light will warm the car for driving home a few hours later. Other school bus drivers pull in. In rural silence, gravel crunches under our feet.Shortly we are pre-tripping buses. With flashlights in the darkness, we poke, prod and thump tires. Soon stone-cold diesel engines rattle to life, resentful as grumpy, old men at being roused before dawn. Headlights, diesel smoke – the buses warm to their task. In the vast, quiet darkness to the south, my kids are getting ready, too. Yawning, showering, packing lunches and book bags they prepare for a rattley, warm ride over rippled dirt roads to their little school. Winter days seem to begin too early for all of us. Even chickens are sleeping, our daytime star still hidden and only hinting over the eastern horizon at the day to come.One by one, rocking through potholes, yellow creaking buses lumber out of the darkness of the gravel lot. My thoughts turn to the persons and personalities awaiting me. Some are good together and some must be kept apart. Clem and Henry, two endearing but bouncy little boys, must sit up front and across the aisle from each other, lest they crawl under the seats or pull little girls’ hair. Up front is the only place that they have a smidgen of a chance of being good on the way to school.”Tom, Henry said I pick my nose and eat my boogers and I don’t!””How did Henry say that? I didn’t hear him say a word.””He used sign language.” Clem demonstrates, holding his index finger beside his nose and making a sneering face.Henry didn’t actually say anything, but Clem is clearly upset. What to do? This is why bus drivers make the big bucks.”Henry, you need to face the front. Facing the back is dangerous in an accident.” (This elicits only a slight turn from Henry. He’s still looking smugly at Clem.) “Facing the back means the driver could reach back and give you a noogie and you’d never see it coming!” Ahh, the desired result is achieved.I change the subject to astronomy: “Boys, do you see how the full moon is setting over the mountains to the west? The moon’s lit face shows you where the sun is. The moon’s lit face points toward the sun.” The boys quiet down and look. They look outside the bus, outside the immediacy of their busy, tiny lives. For a moment, the majesty of this morning takes hold of them.”Tom, why does the moon look different sometimes? Why isn’t it always round?”To prevent them from making faces, I explain phases – as simply as possible. “Stars are suns (they didn’t know). Planets and stars are round because gravity tries to pull everything in toward the center. It’s cold now because where we live on Earth is tilted away from the sun in this part of our orbit, our circle. Shorter days, longer nights, but spring will come again.”Soon we’re at school, and my bouncy little boys seem genuinely sad to have to go. Astronomy lesson concluded for today. They join the stream of hubbub running into the schoolyard. Boisterous tumbling chimps head for swings before the morning bell. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll think of larger things, things far away from ordinary life but no less real for the distance. Now and then a little perspective is a good thing. Thinking on the universe is good for that.Our sun’s limb peeps above the eastern horizon and instantly all around is transformed. Golden sunrays race across the undulating prairie. Lancing, covering ground, eager as young horses free to run; the ruddy, gold sunbeams climb hills and leap over. Chasing the darkness from crystal clear air, light splashes up against modest prairie homes, burnishing them in red-gold, windows twinkling like rubies. One by one, farm lights wink out in mute homage to the sun’s power. With the obliviousness of such overwhelming power, sunrays hurtle westward. Darkness shrinks but the sunrays pay no heed. Light reclaims the prairie. Which beam shall be first to climb the western mountain, Pikes Peak? We’ll never know, but the mountain is the winner. She sheds the pre-dawn lavender cloak from her snowy heights for a crown of gold.Tom

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