If you've ever been to AAVSO headquarters, you've probably seen a small Maksutov telescope in a clear plastic case sitting on a shelf or cabinet in the front office. Its an unassuming table top scope on a little fork mount that looks more like a curiosity than a scientific instrument. If you're like me you probably wondered for about two seconds where it came from and what the story is behind it, and then never gave it another thought.
Quite by accident, the amazing story behind this little telescope revealed itself to me over the last few months, as I did research into the life of Carolyn Hurless, the most prolific female observer in AAVSO history.
I first started to put the pieces together when I went to visit Don Hurless in Lima, Ohio, and he told me the story of Carolyn's long friendship with a Czechoslovakian observer.
Back in the 1960's, at the height of the cold war, people from behind the Iron Curtain had to be sponsored by members of the AAVSO in order to receive newsletters, journals and the other member benefits of the day. Jaroslav Kruta of Czechoslovakia was sponsored by Carolyn and they began a lifetime of correspondence. Jaroslav was a piano teacher just like Carolyn and her husband Don, so they had a lot in common. Don and Carolyn would send him letters and boxes, never knowing what would actually make it through to Jaroslav. Over the years, Carolyn made dozens of audio tapes and taught Jaroslav how to speak English.
"It was our first experience with Communism," said Don. "We never knew what the censors would let through and what they would destroy or keep for themselves. And when he sent us boxes, it was obvious they had been unwrapped and rifled through, and then re-packaged. Sometimes tapes he sent us would be erased, totally blank!"
As a token of their friendship, Jaroslav decided to make a telescope for Carolyn. He labored for months making every piece of the telescope and optics by hand. Materials were scarce and expensive in post-war Eastern Europe, but Jaroslav was an excellent craftsman and with the materials he could scrounge together he pieced together a beautiful little Maksutov.
"He knew if he shipped the telescope whole it would never make it out of the country", Don explained. "So he dis-assembled the whole thing, numbered all the pieces, and started shipping it to us in boxes, a few parts at a time. It was pretty amazing, even the screws were all different. It's not like he had a box of screws all the same size laying around."
Piece by piece the telescope parts arrived at the Hurless' house in the mail, until finally after months and months of shipments the last box of parts arrived and Don was able to assemble the whole telescope. It looks like a toy, but it has very good optics and is a real working instrument. But more than that, it is a work of art and a labor of love.
After Carolyn's tragic death in 1987, Janet Mattei went to visit Don in Lima, and collected the books, notes, and telescopes that Carolyn had willed to the AAVSO. Somehow, the Kruta Mak got left behind. A few years later, Don was preparing to go to an AAVSO meeting to give a paper called '3434 Hurless'.
"It was a great little paper written by a professional astronomer friend of Carolyn's about what it would be like on the asteroid named after Carolyn." Don continued, "I remember one part about how you could throw a baseball in one direction real hard and it would go all the way around the asteroid and come back to you from the other direction. I read it out loud, and the AAVSO people were laughing and taking notes- it was a big hit. Anyway, before I left I remembered the little telescope in the basement and I decided since I was going to the meeting I might as well take it with me. So that's how it finally made it to AAVSO headquarters years after Carolyn was gone."
Jaroslav came to Lima once in the 90's to visit Carolyn's grave and visit Don. "He was pretty old back then, so I guess he's gone now, too", said Don, when I called him on the phone the other day to fact-check this story. (Jaroslav also visited Cambridge to attend the AAVSO 75th Anniversary Meeting in 1986 and, with his daughter, the 1987 Annual Meeting, but that's another story.)
The plexiglass case covering the telescope was a labor of love, too. After the telescope arrived at the AAVSO - to be kept there, not to be loaned off-site - Paul Sventek (SVN) of Houston, TX, who was a longtime, good friend of Carolyn's, offered to have a plexiglass case made to protect the telescope from dust, etc. In due time a large carton arrived at Headquarters, unfortunately showing considerable damage. Inside was a beautiful custom-made cover, shattered. Generously, Paul had a second cover made, and fortunately this one arrived in perfect condition. It fits the telescope to a T!
The next time you visit headquarters you'll see the telescope sitting under its transparent cover on top of some file cabinets, behind the receptionist's desk. Now you know the tale of why it was made, who made it, how it was smuggled out from behind the Iron Curtain, and how it ended up "under glass" in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 21st century.
My sincere thanks to Don Hurless, who it has been my immense pleasure to get to know and without whom this story would be missing the best parts.