The Johannesburg Planetarium is a place that for me will always be tied to school outings. I must have been taken there on school field trips a half a dozen times over the years. All of my visits there have been blended into my memory as a single fluid kaleidoscope of adventure inside a dome, under the stars.
It was always cold, for some reason we always went there in winter. That may have a been as a result of the city offering discounted or free visits for winter school groups. For me, it added to the charm of the place and wearing gloves and jerseys made the shows that much more exciting. There was always a little downside to those visits though in the form of the dreaded questionnaire you were given before you left the school. Pages and pages of asinine questions about the trip you were about to go on, including everything from when the structure was built to how that particular Zeiss projecter came to find its home in a leafy suburb of Johannesburg.
The padded reclining chairs were always really cold and when you arrived, you immediately scampered about to find the perfect seat. Once you’d staked your claim, your first job was to warm the seat up so that your buttocks were at a comfortable temperature when the show started. There was always a buzz in the dome as chattering of excited teeth mingled with laughter and horseplay. Then suddenly the lights would fade and everything would be plunged into an inky blackness as a booming voice circled the room and millions of stars literally exploded into existence across the ‘night sky’. As the show progressed, the pages of questions you were ment to fill in, often found their way onto the floor and more often than not, stayed there.
Of course it looks much smaller today than it seemed to me then. It was a cavernous place, in reality though, not such a big building, even less so inside than out. But that phenomenon is true of everything we remember from our childhood, isn’t it? A single bed for instance was big enough for you to roll over twice in before falling off and it was twice as long as it needed to be for your short legs. The top shelf of your cupboard held mysterious clothes in it that you could never see and the garage was a big, drafty room where the car slept and where, right at the back in the dark, the stuff that nightmares are made from hid. Every house has that one place, right?
So, we took our boys to the planetarium for the first time today. The visit was inspired by the perpetual load shedding being implemented around the country at the moment, which has resulted in the fairly regular evening practice of shining torches with star field templates onto the ceiling of the little dudes room at bedtime. A scaled-down planetarium if you will, affectionately referred to in our home as a ‘light show’.
We got an early start and took the boys on a whistle stop tour of the museum adjacent to the Planetarium while we waited for the show to start. The dinosaur exhibit was closed which really meant the museum was not exactly as exciting as it might have been. The minutes ticked away and eventually we made our way down to the Planetarium which itself was oddly only accessible via a nondescript, single entrance doorway. Once I inside we picked a row of seats and then tried to get comfortable. A note to parents of small children; when visiting the Planetarium, take a dumbbell with you to weigh down the chair. Your children are not bulky enough to recline the seats all the way back on their own.
The lights dimmed and I watched my eldest, sitting next to me, get drawn into the sweet little story about a Dragon that wanted to know everything about the night sky. We learned about the solar system. About night and day. About gravity and the orbits of the planets around our sun, ‘Sol’. And ultimately being left with the message that whatever time of day it was, one could look up at the sky and always see at least one star (weather permitting). The little guy was also quite impressed by the show, but his attention span is not quite as long as a piece of spaghetti and as such, he was less inclined to stay in his seat as the show progressed, eventually bowing out of the event ten minutes before the end with his mom. The show wrapped up with the Dragon conceding ‘he needed a few more lessons about the night sky before he could call himself an expert’.
When the lights came back on and the patrons, including a troop of Cub Scouts, began to shuffle out of the dome, I found myself making a mental note to write about the day so that my boys one day might read this post and perhaps recall their first visit to the Planetarium with Mom and Dad.
I hope they remember it was huge…