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Hale Bopp

a comet in the sky

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, March 12, 1997.

Last weekend I was driving back from Longmont along the Diagonal. It was about 5:30 in the evening and my eye was following a blinking plane in the distance as it headed north over the mountains. It had reached the spot where a month ago we had watched a plane’s light get bigger and bigger without seeming to move, and this had engendered a conversation about UFO’s and the common things that could cause those reports. The plane I was following crossed another plane, an early star, seemed to bank over the comet, and then headed east. My mind was saying all this as I followed its progress, since my charge, a fourteen year old exhausted by soccer games that day, was not speaking much. Then it registered. A comet.

I had read about and was really excited about the Hale-Bopp comet, supposedly the brightest comet of the century, thus superceding the arrival of Halley’s in the first decade. But Hale Bopp was supposed to be visible in the morning, not the evening, and so I briefly entertained the theory that this was a new comet, totally unexpected, and only a gimlet-eyed old crab in Colorado had seen it first, leading to fame and large paychecks for saying “yes, yes, I discovered it..” on Geraldo, Brokaw, and Lehrer in the months ahead. As I said, I only briefly entertained this, since I suddenly realized that probably nothing appeared in the skies unexpectedly anymore, and I nearly drove off the road.

The lurch adjusted the attitude of my charge, who wanted to know what was going on and as I calmly explained at about Mach 7 that I had just unexpectedly seen a comet, and I had waited all my life to be able to see one, and that in two years there had been two visible without a telescope, and what a bummer it had been a couple of decades ago to wait for Kahoutek and a decade ago for Halley’s and to see absolutely nothing like the spray of white paint across the sky that were always suggested by painting and recollection, and here was one, already brighter than the one last year, and wasn’t it beautiful. “Yeah,” he said, staring with the intensity level normally reserved for scanning the sidelines at soccer games for the location of the orange bucket. “Neat.” I continued my absolutely fascinating dissertation on comets, how I had lain on the decks of boats in the Caribbean bemoaning their current non-existence, berating the scaremongers who saw them only as subjects for bad television movies, adding that throughout the centuries, they were said to forecast both great and bad kings, from signaling their birth to their death. You know, Shakespeare. When a prince dies, the very heavens announce the fact or something. Wasn’t it beautiful?

Yes, he said, then stared at me. “Having a little trouble catching the excitement wave,” he said.

Now, okay, I am perfectly willing to announce that perhaps I was over enthused, and that perhaps the fact I had nearly run us off the road into a clump of llamas, which were equally astronomically unimpressed, had dampened his enthusiasm. All I could think of, though, was how excited I had been when Armstrong had walked on the moon, and that my niece, then eight, asked if she could go back to bed as soon as the adult hysteria around her had diminished. I was somewhat shocked then, and I was still shocked now at a kid not being as excited as I was about a comet. Shocked and a little hurt.

In the Pleistocene of my youth, my early youth, such an event as this comet would have completely dominated society for its duration. There would have been a flurry of telescope buys, and cocktail parties would be conceived around the comet, and restaurants would have offered early breakfast specials if they had a view, and every school child in the nation would have had a comet based essay to read, and there would be no book left in the library on the subject. The last was probably no loss, since virtually everything written about comets then was probably wrong. And kids, who had not ever seen good special effects in movies, and whose selection of television shows dealing with space were at the level of Captain Midnight with his Ovaltine and space ship exterior shots that looked like - and were - cheap, badly made models with rising cigarette smoke dubbing for jet exhaust, those kids would have been absolutely thrilled then. And I suspect, as those kids aged, remain thrilled today at the break in the sky routine.

I suppose what I bemoan is the lack of wonder, or magic, or imagination in the new kids, who are smarter and better educated in so many ways than I was. It’s not a fault, it is a deprivation inflicted upon them by our society. When I read about Native Americans naming their children for meteor showers, like Red Cloud - more properly Red Sky - or about the ancients using constellations to construct memorable, sometimes beautiful stories to explain their world to their children, I can - somewhat - understand it and sense the thrill that an Arapahoe kid must have thought when his unpolluted skies revealed a visitor from god knows where, a star that strew diamonds in its path, a star that moved each day, and slowly receded, leaving nothing but memory to sort its meaning, if any. I think I can summon up an approximation of what the ancients felt, because the same thing thrills me today. I believe this childish excitement makes it easier for me to visualize how people used to think and feel. It is an emotional reaction that I can share with all who preceded me. Not so with many kids today. They know what a comet is. They’ve seen it every week on Deep Space Nine, if nowhere else. They’ve seen a thousand movies, they’ve got great pictures on the Web. They’ve read about the comet in the Yucatan that killed the dinosaurs, they’ve read about it all, and Industrial Light and Sound has provided illustrative examples for two decades of anything that is not concretely in the view of our telescopes.

It upsets me a little to see children so immune to the charm of the night sky that a visible and beautiful comet is looked upon as something mandatory subtracting from their television time. I understand the times change, and that I can not reasonably expect a kid to be as satisfied today with what fascinated us in the past. But .............it’s a comet.