While camping in Greece in 1971, my father taught me my first and last lesson in stargazing, consisting of describing various constellations by alternately relating their Greek myth of origin and their orientation for maritime navigation. At just nine years old, the celestial details haunt memory not so much with the vague familiarity of fact, but rather the distinct closeness of warm physical emotion. I can still feel the chilled night air stinging my cheeks, contrasting the snug security of my heavy sleeping bag as I lay on my back under the star-filled sky.
Despite my young age, I do recall appreciating the somber nature of our campground site, the central concentration of the antiquities of Sparta. We had arrived at the ancient ruins of the warrior empire just as the sun was setting, leaving us scant minutes of daylight, not enough to find a secluded corner in some farmer’s field to park our VW bus. It had been a long day, and the parents decided to bed down where we were, amid the ruins. Referencing a lone olive tree in the lengthening shadows, we picked a flat spot, somehow missing the small sign heralding the antiquities with the addendum, “no camping.” In retrospect, it might have been the rattling drive south from Athens with four tired and hungry kids that temporarily impaired my parents’ eyesight.
We got up at first light to the bleating of dozens of sheep as they crossed the ruins, ate a hurried breakfast, and packed up, taking care to leave no trace of our transgression into the past. But what I remember most of our short time in Sparta was the raw dichotomy of youth, the unprocessed, exhilarating thrill of discovery alongside the warm security of a well-used sleeping bag, all while sharing the night sky with the ghosts of warriors thousands of years displaced. To this day, those same stars still threaten to wrap me in the benevolence of childhood’s arms, timeless and eternal in their persistent message.