As my father was born, Orion was rising in the east. The stars of the constellation form a rough hunter, his shield before him, his rude club raised to slay some mighty beast.
As the old myths tell it, Orion was born in poverty, and so was my father. Abandoned by his father when he was only four, his mother made the best life she could for him. When she remarried, her new husband didn’t want the child around. My father was sent to live with an aunt. Times were tough during the Depression. My father stole milk bottles from the neighbors’ stoops to survive.
School wasn’t much better. The schools in Youngstown were rough places, and my father learned to fight before he ever learned to read. Somewhere among my mother’s possessions is a gold-tipped tooth — evidence of the many battles my father had to fight.
My father never learned to read properly. He barely learned arithmetic. He was kicked out of school in the ninth grade and got what work he could.
At an age when kids these days look forward to high-school dances, my father ran away. He hopped freight trains as far as Salt Lake City before cold and hunger forced him to turn back.
His life was saved by the Salvation Army, which arranged food and a train ticket back. To the end of his life, my father always had a few dollars to drop into their buckets at Christmas, and so do I.
At 18, his life was saved again, this time by World War II. In the Navy he fired guns at Kamikaze planes in the battle of Okinawa and others like it.
As the old myths tell, Orion lived the same kind of life, surviving this or that scrape and many a battle with this or that mighty beast. Orion lived large, and he developed large appetites for wine and women that caused him no end of trouble.
My father was much the same. After the war, his rugged good looks served him well as far as women were concerned. He developed large appetites for cigarettes and booze that were eventually his undoing.
But through all that, he made a life for himself. He got a job working a machine at a hydraulics plant and married my mother.
He wanted to send me to college and realized that his job would never pay enough. He taught himself to read and do trigonometry. My best memories of him are the many nights I saw him at the kitchen table hunched over some book way above his head, his lips moving, pain and joy in every word. I remember also the endless series of books, chemistry sets and telescopes he bought for me.
All through college, I remembered my father’s struggle to get me there. And I remembered just how precious every scrap of knowledge I brought back home seemed to him.
Mighty Orion was setting in the southwest just before sunrise in early January when my father’s powerful heart stopped beating and he went to join the stars.
Winter will eventually end, and Orion will set for the last time as new constellations rise in its stead. But glorious winter will come again, and Orion will rise — powerful, brave and flawed — above the glistening snow.
No one can tell me that Orion is just a “myth,” that as one person once or that my father is dead. Orion lives as long as someone is left alive to tell his story.
My father lives because every one of his aspirations, every joy and pain, lives in me. It is up to me and others like me to pass them on. I wish with all my heart that they both will live as long as the stars still shine against the fearful darkness of the night.
Tom Burns is director of Ohio Wesleyan UniversityÂ¹s Perkins Observatory in Delaware. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.