Gathering Dust


I was dusting some items in our home the other day.  If you find that unusual, you should see the amount of dust that can accumulate in a house that was empty for almost six months.  We weren’t even here.  So, where did it come from?  And, it’s not that we keep an unclean home.  I can’t tell you how many boxes of Swiffer Sweeper we have been through. (I can’t tell you how much we recommend this state-of-the-art product!)

That’s another story.

I ran my finger along the top of one the most precious items I own.  It’s an ice axe.  I bought it in the spring of 1964, when I was getting ready to join my brother on the Juneau Icefield for the summer.

I found a bit of white…a bit of dust on my finger.  How could I have not attended to this most coveted item…in my cleaning?

You must understand something.  You can’t get these ice axes anymore.  Oh, maybe in some tiny Swiss alpine shop in Zermatt, but not here…unless you’re willing to pay an outrageous price.  This ice axe is made of ash (maybe hickory), the kind that Edmund Hillary used on Everest in 1953…on the first ascent (maybe).  What you get today, if you find yourself ordering an ice axe, it will be made of anodized aluminum or carbon fiber or some sort of alloy devised by NASA for the International Space Station.

But, my ice axe (note to reader:  it is not called an  “ice pick”.  That is so gauche a term.  It’s an ice axe…so no further discussion here, ok.) An ice axe of an old classic style that you see now in Museums of Alpine History.

Yes, I ran my finger along the top and found dust.  Not so surprising, unless you’re like me…items from earlier years rarely collected dust.  Once I put away the toys of childhood, they stayed mostly out of sight…and therefore out of mind.  There is an exception or two: my Lionel locomotive and a Lone Ranger lunch box.  But, the ice axe was somehow different.  It represented a transition from youth to adulthood and I often would stare at it, up there on the wall reflecting back on the times that were brighter, better, more youthful, full of energy and promise.  I climbed nameless peaks with it in my right hand and even saved myself from falling into a crevasse on a July day in 1964.

This was a special item I owned. I even went into my fathers forbidden workshop and wood burned my initials into the shaft:  P.J.EGAN.  My childhood girlfriend stood by be as I did that.  She kissed it for good luck (al least in my memory she did).  Later, I rubbed boiled Linseed Oil into the wood until my forearm ached.

It was an object of utility, craftsmanship, art and beauty.

Then, when my wife and I moved to the Adirondacks in 2011, I took the ice axe and mounted it on the wall.  It was several weeks until I realized what it was that I had done.  I hung up my ice axe.  This is the ultimate “well, I’m done with that stage of my life” moment.  It’s like when you hand your car keys to your child because you can’t drive anymore…safely.  But, I wasn’t that old…was I?

I walked over to my “alpine bookshelf” and looked at the titles and saw the hardware: the pitons, carabiners and chocks…tools of a rock climber.  I was fairly good in the 1970’s.  They were coated in a thin layer of dust.

I picked up Direttissima, by Peter Gillman and Dougal Haston (someone you should google someday when it’s raining and you want to read about a tragic, enigmatic person), and, again, I blew enough dust off the top pages that I began to sneeze like it was a late summer day in a field of ragweed.


So, this was my past?  This is was what I have left of my glory days on the glaciers, in the bars of Juneau…and watching Eagles soar at 10:00 pm when I was fishing out of Auk Bay?

Dusty books and a very special dusty ice axe…mounted on a thinly paneled wall in our home?

This was me once:

In the Col Looking West (2)

Are the glory days really behind us…gathering dust?




The Weekend I Took the Moon Rocks Home


Only on rare occasions (once or twice a month) do I check for the black SUV’s in my driveway or parked around the corner on the road where I now live.  I hesitate to give the name of the road–I’m not sure it’s in the Big Computer now.  We only moved here in December of 2011 and I know the wheels of the federal government turn slowly.

But, somewhere in a bunker in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, or in the basement of a pizza shop in a small town outside of Cincinnati, there may very well be a clerk, old now and graying at the temples, that is keeping track of my whereabouts.  I know this because I signed a legal paper promising to do a certain thing with some certain things…and I disobeyed.  I did something with those things that is a federal offense.  I violated my pledge NOT to do those things.  But my scientific curiosity got the better of me.  My only hope is that there is a Statute of Limitations buried in the small print that I neglected to read.  Nobody reads the small print.

I should have thought about that a long time ago.

So, here’s the back story:

I began teaching Earth & Space Science at a school in Kingston, PA in February, 1973.  That would make it 41 years ago if my head math is correct (but I was a science teacher not a math genius).  I was to teach 150+ ninth graders the wonders of earth science (with a bit of astronomy thrown in to get them thinking cosmically).  The only problem was that I had no ‘lab’ facilities at all.  My classroom was the old library room dating from 1914.  I needed things, stuff to demonstrate, pass around, hold on to, and use as many of their senses as possible.

One morning, I found the usual pile of science equipment catalogs and assorted junk mail.  But…one envelope had the coveted return address that so many science teachers watch for.  It was from NASA!  Now, here was something.  NASA didn’t just mass-mail every teacher…there were millions of us out there.

During my ‘prep’ period (read coffee time) I opened the brown manila envelope.

I read the letter and made a decision on the spot.  I wanted to be a part of this.

So, here was their deal.  In an extraordinary educational out-reach program, NASA was willing to loan, to qualified teachers, actual moon rocks!

It seems they had quite a few kilos of them and instead of just keeping them locked away, or loaning them to universities and researchers around the world, they would make a limited number of them available to regular (remember, qualified) science educators…like me.

The catch?  I had to get myself to the Goddard Space Flight Center located on Greenbelt Road in Greenbelt, Maryland to attend an orientation session.  Once I was done, I would receive a certificate that would then be mailed in to obtain (on loan, don’t forget), the samples.

These samples were not just chunks of rock.  They came encased in a plexiglass disc, about twice the size of a hockey puck.  There were three rock samples and three soil samples embedded in the disc.  We couldn’t touch the samples, obviously, just look at them under a binocular microscope (and more importantly, give the students a chance to get a few mm’s away from the moon).

My brother, Dan was in the mood to drive to Maryland in his new mustang.  We found a cheap place to stay and I attended the workshop.

This is where things get a little complicated.  When filling out the application, I had to do the following:

  • Inform my Principal of what was going to arrive via special delivery.
  • Have the Principal agree to keep the travel case locked in the school safe when not in the classroom.
  • Inform the local police.
  • Understand, that these samples were “priceless”, to use NASA’s term.  And, that if they were lost or stolen, I would not be held financially responsible.  It was to be done on the ‘honor system’ and I was to do the right thing by using them as a teaching tool and not try to sell them (in which case, the FBI would get involved and I would end up in Leavenworth or some such place (perhaps Inmate #1 at Guantanamo).

I signed the paper, mailed it and waited.

In about a month, a thick, black, heavy-duty case arrived at my school with my name on the label.  I duly informed the Principal and the local police.

I was allowed about two weeks to do whatever I was to do with them.  So, I borrowed a binocular microscope from the chemistry department and showed my students the crystals and soil particles of the moon.  It was all very cool to say the least.  I think I even got a small write-up in the local paper.

Then came Friday afternoon.  I stayed late in my classroom (with the samples in the case on the floor beside my desk).  My red pen ran out of ink while grading a test so I decided to check the case in the school office and begin the 25 miles trip to the farmhouse where I was living.

I got to the main school office of the school and found the lights out and the desks empty.  Everyone had gone home.  I wandered around looking for the custodian for help.  When I found him and asked about the combination to the safe, he looked at me like I was a convicted felon or someone bent on finding and changing vital records for my favorite students.

He backed away and returned to his cleaning.

I was left in the school lobby with my own briefcase and a heavy plastic case that contained pieces of the lunar surface!  Oh, and they were ‘priceless’.  I almost forget.  I worked through my options.  I couldn’t leave them in my room, I couldn’t lock my own file cabinet (the case wouldn’t fit anyway), I couldn’t hide them in the office (they were ultimately my responsibility).

That left me with only one option: take them home.  If I happened to get pulled over for speeding, something that was not out of the question since I was driving an orange MG Midget at the time, the cop would probably sooner or later discover I was carrying around a box with moon samples in my trunk.

That would take some explaining. Even considering my bizarre imagination, and ability to come up with a story.

“I was on my way to a Star Trek convention.”

“I was on my way to Roswell, New Mexico.”

“I was going to sell a few lunar samples I found beside the highway to a guy named Salvatore in New Jersey.”

“I just bought my wife some interesting rock samples at a Gem shop in Altona.  She’s a collector.”

“I was going to Cincinnati to get these autographed by Neil Armstrong.”

“I found them in a room at the Hi-Ho Motel in Hackensack and I was driving to Cape Kennedy to return them.”

“They’re for my kid’s science fair project.”

“I won them playing poker in the back room of the Kit-Kat Lounge in Biloxi.”


I drove home, carefully.  I put the case on the dining room table and showed the samples to my wife and daughter.  I called my brother and told him what I had on the dining room table.

“Yeah, right,” he said. “but I’ll come over if you have any more Rice-a-Roni leftovers.”

I didn’t want to go into the whole story with him, so I said there was plenty of Rice-a-Roni left.

“So, what do you want for desert?” I asked.

“Just a little green cheese and a Moon Pie,” he said.