Jackie’s Last Moonrise

Jackie’s Last Moonrise.   A view from her home in Idaho Falls where the landscape is shared with her late husband’s ham radio towers.

I am sad to announce the passing of my mom, Jacquelyn (Jackie) Olson, who lived a full and active life until becoming limited by the gradual but inevitable decline of health from COPD.

I remember her most as the central figure of a busy family; her five children had diverse interests, and she encouraged all of them.  She was the family manager, in charge of feeding, clothing, coaching, logistics, cheerleading, and enforcing bedtimes.  She set the house budget and found many innovative ways to stay within it, becoming a do-it-yourself expert before DIY became a popular acronym.  She was fearless in tackling new skills as needed, providing an example for all of us:  that we could learn and become skilled at just about anything.

As kids, we knew that she was quite talented; she could play piano, operate a sewing machine, program a loom, make leatherwork, and ride horses.  I was surprised to find out that she even had a darkroom, and at a time when my interest was aimed in this direction, her equipment became my equipment, and I learned to develop film and make prints.

Perhaps the strongest example of her brave approach to learning was when she decided to go back to school and get a nursing degree.  She was a student again, and despite the twenty-year hiatus from her earlier coursework, she completed her first semester with an A in chemistry, and all her other classes.  My brother Eric and I were at the University at the same time, neither of us quite matching her GPA.  I recall meeting her for lunch sometimes at the student union, along with some of her classmates.  She was a generation older, but they all seemed quite pleased to be hanging out with her.

She became an RN and worked at Waconia Hospital where she was liked and respected, confirming and adding to her sense of independence.  She started applying her income to new hobbies:  ceramics and upholstery, and one of her favorite activities was attending estate and yard sales, to find antique or underappreciated furniture, which she then restored.

In contrast to my dad, who offered explicit advice, boiling down life lessons to memorable phrases, Mom taught by example.  And not just how to hang wallpaper, but how to be considerate to friends and respectful to non-friends, how to persist in the face of obstacles and setbacks, and how to speak up when someone is not doing the right thing.  From her I learned the skills of patience and persistence, and acquired the values for, if not the skills of, being kind and attentive to others.

In 1997, she decided that Minnesota winters were no longer to her liking.  The more arid climate of the West suited her better, and so she moved to Idaho Falls, acquiring Eric’s original house there as he built a new home for his growing family.  (My dad reluctantly followed, never completely pulling up his Minnesota roots).

She has been happy there for these last decades, gardening and landscaping and able to read as many novels as she wished, solve the daily crosswords and keep up with neighbors, friends and family.  In the last few years she has had to slow down on her interests as her disease gradually overtook her body and breath.  It has been an unpleasant time, and she has claimed that she has been ready to go for a while, but life is a strong force and doesn’t give up without a fight. 

The impact of her examples was not limited to her children.  She made friends all along the way, from lifelong childhood friends, through college and sorority sisters, to neighbors that had the fortune to move next door, and their children who are just now becoming young adults.  Many people will miss her. 

I will miss her.

With my mom Jackie, and her mom, Theodora Pankratz, on Theo’s 90th birthday (1994).


In an odd cosmic or spiritual coincidence, my mother took her last breath at 3:11, the time indicated by the stopped antique clock in her bedroom.  It was the exact complement of the old song about the grandfather clock that stopped short when the old man died.

Orion Rising

Orion Rising
Kinnikinnik Lake, AZ, 14 Nov 1998
24mm Olympus lens at f/2.8, 1 hour exposure on Fuji 800 Superia

I made an expedition to northern Arizona in November of 1998. It was partly to find out what is involved in transporting photo and telescope guiding equipment to other parts of the world. Although cumbersome (I shipped a 90 lb crate ahead to be available when I arrived), it worked.

On the first night I found a remote site in the high desert. The map showed what looked like paved roads to a fishing lake. Evidently the map notations are different in Arizona; at least there were ruts where earlier vehicles had found their way.

The lake was remarkably calm and I marvelled at the darkness of the sky as I watched Orion rise in the east. I could hear wildlife including coyotes, owls, and yes, ducks. But they were far away and the water remained like a mirror. The sky glow here is not from aurora, but instead from distant Flagstaff, a city with an ordinance to use sodium vapor street lighting. The color is strongly yellow, but easily filtered and removed by the astronomical observatories that are hosted by the town. My film however captures all of it.

Although Orion is spread out into an unrecognizable form, he can be identified by the bright orange star, Betelgeuse on the left, and bright blue star Rigel on the right. The triad of belt stars makes a catscratch-like trail, and you may notice a distinctly red star that is even more obviously red in its reflection. This is the famous Orion nebula, a glowing region of gas and dust where new stars are being born.


Kinnikinnik Lake near Flagstaff AZ, 14 Nov 1998
24mm Olympus lens at f/4, 2 hours on Fuji 800 Superia

There is a progression of techniques in taking pictures of the night sky. The simplest is to place your camera on a tripod and open the shutter for a while. The stars form streaks on the film as the Earth rotates under them, creating a startrail image. As I considered what I would need to take more advanced astrophotos, I found that there is plenty to learn and much opportunity for pleasing compositions even with this simple method.

I pondered how to capture that feeling I once shared with a friend seeing the stars from zenith to horizon, then continuing beneath us as we looked out over their reflections in an alpine lake. This became the inspiration for my quest of the ultimate startrail picture: a full semicircle of startrails reflected in the calm waters of a lake. I have not achieved this goal, but the pictures in this series are some of the rewards along the way.

Kinnikinnik is the closest I came to making my target image! The conditions were perfect: a clear dark sky, no aurora, a calm lake with no creatures disturbing it, but my timing is off. This is my first and only time at this site and I arrived late after a day of traveling. I was unprepared to last the night, and after a few one and two hour trial exposures, I succumbed to the cold and returned to my distant hotel room to recharge. I never made it back.

Although not successful that year, I am looking forward to more adventures in future years. In a way, I hope I never quite find full success in this project!

Northern Six-Hour Exposure

Northern Six-Hour Exposure
Boundary Waters Canoe Area, MN, 23 Oct 1998
24mm Olympus lens at f/8, 6 hour exposure on Fuji 800 Superia
Photo by John Walsh

To find truly dark skies, go north. My friend John Walsh, an avid backpacker, headed to the northernmost part of our state for a fall weekend adventure. I convinced him to take my camera and film, explained how to attach chemical handwarmers to the lens to keep it from fogging over, and asked him to open the shutter for six hours when he got there. Among his other nice photos of aurora and bright stars, is this beautiful picture across a gently flowing stream, reflecting the night sky and the northern lights.

Beaver Trails

Beaver Trails
Swamp Lake, north of Mille Lacs MN, 21 Oct 1998
20mm Nikon lens at f/8, 6 hour exposure on Fuji Super-G

This night had brought together nearly all the elements for my target picture:  a lake far away from city lights and radio towers, one with no cabins or roads on the north while I had access from the south, a long night to contain a long exposure without the lake being already frozen, a stagnant high pressure center stalling the winds and keeping the lake surface at a mirror finish.  And my schedule had allowed me to take a night away to make the shot!  All these prerequisites had been met.

I set up my equipment and busied myself with other activities while the camera recorded the motion of the sky.  A loud KERSPLASH startled me.  Who would be throwing boulders into the lake in the middle of the night?  I peered out onto the lake to see dark shadows swimming back and forth directly in front of my camera.  Each traversal left a wake breaking up the reflected starlight.  Occasionally a shadow would suddenly turn over end and dive, slapping its tail onto the water surface to make the boulder-throwing sound.

I cursed the beavers.  They filled the night with constant gnawing sounds as they busied themselves around me.  About halfway through the night I was startled again, this time by the sound of a tree crashing to the forest floor next to me.  One more hazard to add to my list.

The picture I obtained was almost perfect, accented by the glow of the northern lights, and the intermittent breaks in the reflected trails as the beavers swam across the view, oblivious to my intent.

Four-Hour Lodgepoles

Four-Hour Lodgepoles
Lake Louise Campground, Banff Park, Alberta Canada, 12:00am 19 Aug 1998
20mm Nikon lens at f/8, 4 hour exposure on E200 Ektachrome processed +2 stops (ISO 800)

Think about lying on your back as a child watching clouds drifting past. This is the nighttime equivalent. The stars etch a trail on the film as they follow their course through the night.  The different temperatures of stars show as different colors, the cooler stars glow a warm orange, the hottest stars are a bright blue.

Banff Poles

Banff Poles 
Tunnel Mountain Campground, Banff Park, Alberta Canada, 17 Aug 1998 10:40pm
20mm f/4 Nikon lens, 1 hour exposure on E200 Ektachrome processed +2 stops (ISO 800)

While camping trips make great venues for photographing the sky, sometimes it is difficult to get a full view of it. But here is an opening in the canopy, the lodgepole pines framing the pole star. The camera was aimed at Polaris, and the shutter opened for an hour. The flickering campfires and lamps illuminated the boughs of the trees. 

A startrail picture like this is a powerful illustration of the Earth’s motion. The pole star shows almost no motion. The others show longer arcs the further away, but all of them make an equal arc: a one-hour exposure cuts 1/24th of a full circle.

Csuri Exhibit Poster

“Gossip”, by Charles A Csuri, 1990.

When we consider the impact of computer graphics we usually think of Hollywood motion picture special-effects, or beautifully crafted images and commercials from high-end marketing firms, which both seem like products of the east and west coasts.  We don’t think of midwestern artists or public university departments as being part of that world.  Yet this is exactly where much of the pioneering work in computer graphics was done and its commercialization was born.

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The Burn-Hole Club

The coils that provide the magnetic force to move the electron beam

Cathode ray tubes are a remarkable technology that incorporate many seemingly magic principles of physics.  Thermionic emission causes electrons to “boil” off a cathode, high voltage electric fields accelerate and focus them, and magnetic fields steer them to the anode screen where they energize phosphor molecules, which then re-release that energy as visible light!

While developing the electronics to control the CRT and make all this magic happen, we often had to “bring up the spot”, showing the electron beam in one static location, where it could be examined visually and measured with various instruments. 

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Behind Gamma’s Disguise

Electron guns from assorted cathode ray tubes.

Those who know me would be stunned to learn that I have a gun collection.  I acquired them in the course of my work trying to make computer images on film in the 1990s.  They are electron guns, the mysterious workings at the business end of a cathode ray tube.

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