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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 17: Mr. Okamoto and the stars

     I was taught by Mr. Okamoto in grades 3 and 4 at the Fourth Elementary School. During grade 5 I was taught by Mr. Kawazoe and in grade 6 by Mr. Hashimoto. When I was in 5th grade, the Pacific War broke out in December. The fun-filled atmosphere of school completely changed and education aligned with militarism took over. On every opportunity, we were gathered at an old-fashioned spacious school auditorium and listened to Mr. Ueda, the school principal. We were shown war movies very often. A large portrait of Ryoma was hung in the auditorium.

     Childrenfs plays also shifted from relaxed games like Japanese cup-and-ball game, bean bag juggling, and jump rope to flying model planes and gliders, somewhat of a militaristic favor. I remember that our boys craft classes were spent mostly making these planes. Competitions for flying model planes were held many times around Yanagihara in Kochi city and I entered these competitions, too. I still remember names like gA1h planes and gBaby Albatrosh gliders. One day, a plane I flew over the streets got caught in the roof of a tall house and I attempted to recover it performing a risky gacrobaticsh.

     My grandfather (Motherfs father) was born in Tosa city and was a master of kite flying. He was an amateur storyteller (traditional art of storytelling) and loved talking. During breaks from his work (Japanese-paper maker), he made huge kites of approximately 7 to 10 square-meters and went to Yanagihara to fly them. On Sundays a large number of kite enthusiasts gathered and flew their kites. It was quite a sight with various size kites chaotically dancing around in the sky over Kagamigawa river. The pictures and words on the kites had increasingly taken on militaristic flavor displaying the words like gthe whole world under one roofh and gsure victoryh, the symbols of militarism. These kites rise higher and higher in the sky as if to heighten the peoplefs fighting mood.

     The sky over Kagamigawa river running the northern side of Hitsusan mountain was well-known for bad atmospheric turbulence. Sometimes huge kites rising high almost heroically and dancing in the wind suddenly plunged vertically the bottom end first. Once a kite of approximately 13 square-meters fell into Kagamigawa river and the red dye used on the kite turned the water deep red. In 1917 the American aviator Frank Champion flew over to Japan with his wooden bi-plane and showed what is called an gairplaneh to people in Kochi prefecture for the first time. While he was performing various acrobatic maneuvers over Yanagihara, he was hit by severe turbulence which broke the wing of his plane and crashed. He now rests on top of a hill looking down at the beautiful Kagamigawa river. Sadly, Frank Champion perished in a foreign land while flying his plane he had loved so much. I am sure he would want to fly again. Someday, his soul will become a star and flies in space. I would like to discover a minor planet and name it after him.

     At elementary schools in those days, sports were very popular, too. Mr. Okamoto was very good at gymnastics and showed us graceful gymnastic movements. For swimming classes, we went to nearby Kagamigawa river, as the school did not have a swimming pool. The river then was frighteningly deep, ran rapidly, crystal clear and clean enough to drink. In grades 5 and 6, Sumo wrestling was introduced as an official subject and became popular. I was sick and weak in grades 1 and 2, but grew strong enough to become a grand champion in grade 6. An official ranking sheet was placed on the board, too. The fight between the two grand champions, Kataokayama and Sekinogawa (me) on the final day of the tournament is still talked about at alumni reunions.

     Both the school and my home were close to the center of the city, but what is called glight pollutionh was mostly non-existent. At night, we had very dark awesome starry skies. There was no talk about the stars in class, as textbooks for grades 5 and 6 didnft have any astronomical content. But Mr. Okamoto occasionally told us about the stars as a digression.

     When you go mountain climbing, you must be fully prepared and try not to push yourself too hard. One day Mr. Okamoto neglected this rule and climbed Ishizuchiyama mountain without a canteen thinking it would rain during the trek. He lost his way and wandered into a thick forest. This sea of trees was so thick that it was said that once you wandered into it, you would never be able to get out of it. He walked around and around desperately looking for a way out all day. His throat was completely dry and he thought he was dying of thirst any minute. At that moment, he came upon wet moss and immediately tried to suck any moisture it contained. He didnft carry a compass, but at night he could see the stars. As Polaris is almost stationary, Mr. Okamoto was able to determine directions from Polaris and finally came out of the forest after two days of ordeal.

     Mr. Okamoto not only excelled scholarly and artistically (in calligraphy and painting), but also was good at mountain climbing and other sports. Probably, for all these qualities of his, he was respected and loved by children.

     Mr. Okamoto gave me a book on astronomy when he left the school. I forgot its title, but it was likely an introductory astronomy book written for elementary and secondary school students. I was in grade 4 then and it must have been my first encounter with something to do with the stars. Onefs fate is really strange. This book became something like a keepsake from Mr. Okamoto who had departed to the battlefields in China. And yet, I hadnft even tried to open this book until a misfortune struck me. The book was lost during the great air raids of Kochi city in July 1945. My first step toward astronomy was initiated by a totally unexpected event.

     In Part 18 of this series, you will read about the incredibly strange fate of this astronomy book.

Copyright (C) 2018 Tsutomu Seki.