When you live in a place like the Iron Range, you learn to cope with a lot of stuff that needs “saving.” Local businesses need saving. Mines need saving. The arts need saving. Schools need saving. Everybody’s got problems and no institution is really safe. The population is aging and the economy is stuck wearing moon boots like they were new. You can’t save it all, so you save what you can. This is a problem that Superman never has to confront in the movies. You know that if Superman was real it would take 12 hours before someone complained that their relative was crushed by a train because Superman was “favoring Asia that day.” Sometimes I wonder if Superman wasn’t really J.D. Salinger, who just gave up on being super, smoking cigarettes in his yard until death finally came, later than expected.
The other day I was talking to a colleague about one of the Iron Range things that need saving, the Paulucci Space Theater in Hibbing. This planetarium is a truly unique facility, featuring a large panoramic screen, a star projector, large format movies and the ambiance of a place built just before space became old news. Until very recently it was the largest planetarium in the state, something that seems wholly out of place on the Iron Range. Named for Range native Jeno Paulucci, a microwave dinner magnate and vaunted entrepreneur, this facility is managed by Hibbing Community College but the state budget crisis now dictates a new management system, mostly likely one that relies on new funds from someplace else. (Space?)
Anyway, this colleague told me she looked into getting a famous science person to come in for an event raising awareness and support for the planetarium. Bill Nye the Science Guy was way too expensive, apparently, so she was wondering who that guy was, maybe he’d be cheaper.
“That guy who was on TV. That space guy.”
Oh yeah! That space guy on Channel 8, late at night.
“Yeah, that’s the guy!”
He used to walk out on the rings of a planet and talk about space. And then they played the anthem and went to static.
“What’s his name?”
Oh, man, I used to watch that guy all the time when I was a kid. What WAS his name?
And I was telling the truth. That guy was awesome. I’d have to find out his name. He’d be great.
See, I’d spend my nights when I was 15 and then 16, the summer I delivered pizzas in Eveleth, up late, way later than should have been allowed. It was around this time that I abandoned my room upstairs for the cooler, more private basement, where there was an unfinished bedroom that I didn’t use until I was even older. For a year prior I slept by choice on a rollaway mattress, the kind of thing you’d find in a shelter. I chose this because the amped-up TV antennae my dad installed on the roof sent a cable snaking down to an old color TV and VCR perched on a table at the foot of this cot. For most of my teenage years I’d spend every night watching Johnny Carson, and then David Letterman and later Conan O’Brien on this old TV, drinking Sprite and eating peanut butter toast or microwave popcorn, piling the bags in a corner of the dingy basement, clearing them monthly when my mom could see the heap from the laundry area across the basement. Somewhere in all this my parents’ marriage was falling apart, along with the family business. But I was pretty damn happy on that cot, reveling in all the monologue jokes because I read the paper every morning, sometimes before the sun rose.
I couldn’t sleep back then. This reminds me that I’ve never slept especially well without some kind of medication. But they don’t let kids buy the right kind of medication and the cigarettes I snuck from my dad just got me thinking. I’d stay with the broadcast channels until, one by one, they would sign off the air. Channel 8, the PBS station, retired later than most. The last thing they showed was this guy, this space guy, walking out on the rings of Saturn.
This show was “Star Gazer” and the space guy’s name was Jack Horkheimer, also known as “The Star Hustler.” The day my colleague and I were trying to remember his name was last Wednesday. Horkheimer died last Friday. I hadn’t seen his show in a long time and I read now that he had been suffering from a lung ailment. I wish I had remembered his name, because this guy deserves to be remembered. I remember the musical interlude from his show, a sort of soothing techno riff, and his catch phrase, “Keep Looking Up,” that he dropped at the end of every program. And I would run outside in the summer air to look up at clear skies and bright stars. Some things you can save, some things you can’t. But you can save more if you keep looking up.