I wrote this sketch several years ago just after the Fourth of July. The Cassini-Huygens space probe, according to Wikipedia, “entered into orbit around Saturn in July 2004,” and it is expected to transmit data about Saturn and its moons until 2017. In January 2005, the vehicle landed on the Saturn moon Titan in “the first landing ever accomplished in the outer solar system.” The probe is named for a 17th-century Dutch astronomer who “discovered” Titan. We live in big wide world.—PM



Jim Casselton is one of the morning walkers. One summer morning we visited for a few laps on the South Common oval. The bluish three-quarter moon’s dents and ridges made a mottled surface that was papery in its translucence. The moon held its place like a shape cut out of a blank sheet. Way beyond, after seven years in transit and two billion miles, the latest celebrity spacecraft, the Cassini-Huygens probe, had reached Saturn. The SUV-sized craft “deked” its way past swirling chunks of ice and universal gravel to find a gap in the rings on Independence Day. In no time, Cassini started beaming back pictures of the distinctive rings and several of the planet’s 31 moons. The trip will climax with the landing of a pod on the vast moon, Titan, the farthest surface on which humans have ever tried to land a machine.

     “That moon is fat this morning, and there’s something odd about the light,” said Jim. We’d been talking about pushing the Parks Department to spruce up the Common. He’s a barrel-chested man of medium height. He wore a New England Patriots sweatshirt, the one from the second Super Bowl win, black running pants with a silver stripe up the leg, and white sneakers. When he saw me coming down the hill, he pointed at his white cap with a swoosh and then to my Oakland A’s cap, and said, “Tonight,” meaning the A’s would be playing the Sox at Fenway. Jim lives in “the housing” near the Common, a complex named for a local priest. He’s usually finished his workout before I arrive.

     He takes the train to Boston some days and walks along the Charles River. “That’s a beautiful stretch,” he said, “and they keep it so clean. There were 450,000 people at the Boston Pops on the Fourth of July, and the police didn’t report one incident. That’s people having a good time in a good way.”  Underfoot were dozens of spent red-and-blue paper casings of fireworks from the local celebration. “I had my windows open and heard them until all hours. It’s not as rough as it used to be. They stopped the carnivals after a guy got stabbed, but that was years ago. You still have to keep your eyes open.”

     “When I was with county corrections, a bunch of us would run in South Lowell on weekends. We’d run through the Back Central area, which some people used to call the South End, where the Portuguese have done a marvelous job keeping up appearances. When I came to Lowell from Florida in 1959, that area was run down. The Portuguese took it over street by street. They’ve got a fine neighborhood. It still has problems, but look at what they do with a patch of land—the car-ports crawling with grape vines and the roses and fruit trees in the miniature back yards. Talk about the Portuguese—Did you know Mr. Homer, the fisherman? He’d come around the section where a lot of the black people lived with his truck and put out these big tubs of fish on ice, all kinds. He’d say, ‘Go ahead, Mrs. Casselton, take a couple more. There’s plenty in the ocean.’ He had piles of fish.”


—Paul Marion (c) 2004