Back To Index Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson
The comet was a tiny white blur, almost a figment of my imagination. To see it, I had driven down to the valley during the dark lonely hours of early morning. I intended my trek to be a communion of sorts, a bringing together of a celestial wonder, the spring awakening in this part of the world, and a reinvestment in nature on my part. A triumvirate, if you will.
I was the lesser of the three.
Actually it was more than that. It was an event I had looked forward to since boyhood, back when the comet was swinging around in its orbit far out in space, speeding along the edges of the solar system.
In books on popular astronomy I had read of its wonders, how people flocked into the streets to see the great fireball in the sky. Later in life, I had relished Samuel Clemen's observation that he had been born in the year of Halley's comet and thought it fitting that he die in 1910 when it came back. "Two freaks of nature," he had said. "We came in together, we might as well go out together." I was always flabbergasted at how his self-prophesy had come true. How had he been able to predict the year of his own death? It gives me a chill to think about it too much. I know it was just pure coincidence as well as I know Sam Clemens was a died-in-the-wool atheist. The funny thing is, I can't remember reading whether he saw the comet before he died or not. I hope with all my soul that he did.
I hope that he stood somewhere out in the night and looked up and saw it blazing across the night sky, and whooped and hollered. I hope it was so bright it lit up that rugged countenance of his, reflected in the corneas of his pale blue eyes. I hope he had the enthusiasm and the strength to give it a robust round of applause. That only seems right.
In my own case, as I grew up, the thought of Halley's comet was always lurking somewhere in the back corners of my mind. If someone happened to mention it, my own eyes would light up and I would exclaim: "That's one of my ambitions. To see Halley's comet." So it was that I nourished the vision, bided my time, and hoped for the best.
Halley's comet is a cat's paw that travels along a great elliptical spring on a closed loop system. In 1948, when I was a senior in college, the year I got married, it had reached aphelion, the farthest point of its orbit from the sun. It was approximately halfway between the orbits of Neptune and Pluto. I was spending my time in Columbus, patiently waiting. The comet was a long time coming.
In 1977, it was almost halfway back to the sun, unerringly zeroing in for its brief rendezvous in 1985-86. It was in the vicinity of Uranus' orbit and headed next for the vicinity of Saturn, solar winds creating the merest wisp of a tail trailing behind it.
The valley was wrapped in sleep when I got there, silent except for what I took to be the barking of a distant fox and the hooting of a barred owl somewhere up on the ridge. Along the banks of the creek, sycamores stood like tall sentries in white uniforms. In the fields, the ragtag broken stalks of last year's milkweeds, sunflowers, goldenrod and Joe-Pye weed had been pressed to the earth by wind and snow. Frost glinted off the fallen debris. I had to rub my hands together to keep them warm.
At first it was difficult finding the comet because a full moon was riding over the hilltops, lavishing its milky light across the sky. With my binoculars I scanned the heavens, found Scorpius and Sagittarius, two constellations I had learned in my youth. I knew the comet was in this part of the sky. The red planet Mars was my other guide. It was in plain view, the most prominent object in that part of the sky.
The proper timing was proving to be critical. The moon was sinking below the tree line now. That was good. There was just a suggestion of light in the eastern sky. That was bad. Hurriedly I scanned the sky. Then I saw it. Pale and luminous, a faint fuzzy orb with what might be construed as a tail, barely discernible, actually better seen, I discovered, from the corners of my eyes. I set up my spotting scope on its tripod and, after a few exasperating minutes of searching, found the comet again. The higher magnification of the scope brought it up closer. I feasted my eyes on the tiny image, but I was elated. There it was, its light coming to me across millions of miles, nebulous and mysterious.
It was now after 5 A.M. and even as I continued looking I could see that it was growing dimmer as the eastern sky continued to lighten with the approach of the sun. Then, suddenly, it was gone. On the other side of a field a song sparrow sang his litany. From a wooded hillside came the drink-your-teeaaa song of a towhee and the clear whistled notes of a cardinal .
My vigil with Halley's comet was over and already I felt a keen sense of loss. True, it had not lived up to its advance billing. I had even thought of the words to Peggy Lee's hit song, "Is That All There Is?" Yet, in spite of everything, I had seen it. From this way station in the solar system, I had personally recorded its passage. I had kept my promise to myself, which was more than poor Loren Eiseley had been able to do.
In 1910, when Loren was a small child in Nebraska, his father had held him in his arms one night in front of their little frame house and together they had watched the comet. "If you live to be an old man," his father had said, "you will see it again. It will come back in seventy-five years.
Remember," he had whispered in his son's ear, "I will be gone, but you will see it. All that time it will be traveling in the dark, but somewhere, far out there it will turn back. It is running glittering," he had said, "through millions of miles."
The boy had tightened his hold on his father's neck as he tried to comprehend his words.
"Remember, all you have to do is to be careful and wait. You will be seventy-eight or seventy-nine years old." The father had sighed. "I think you will live to see it for me."
"Yes, Papa," the boy had dutifully replied.
Throughout his life, Loren had remembered the promise he had innocently made to his father. Late in life, he had written to an astronomer friend asking him where the comet was on its homeward track.
"You're pushing things," old man," his friend had replied. "It headed back this way in 1948 and has a long way to go."
In his book, The Invisible Pyramid, Eisely wrote: "Because of my father and the promise I had made, a kind of personal bond has been projected between me and the comet."
He then recalled how a brain surgeon had once told him that there is inner time, "personal, private chronometry,." as opposed to outer time that harries us ruthlessly to our deaths.
Eiseley, a chronic insomniac, relates how he could sometimes see the comet light like a mote in his eyes, or like a far-off train headlight that he remembered seeing on a western prairie.
The sad and nostalgic sound of the of the train whistle echoed in his head and in a nightmare became the mournful voice of the comet, sweeping through the endless black reaches of space.
Eiseley died of pancreatic cancer on July 9, 1977, ten years before Halley's comet was visible from the earth.
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