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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 18: Mr. Okamoto and a book about the stars

    In one of the letters I had received from Mr. Kojiro Komaki of Kanayacho, Wakayama prefecture in 1954, I found the following comment:
gI came across the following memo in the Schurig Star Atlas which I found at a second-hand book store in Osaka: eTelescopic Nebulous Object not found in this Book?f
What discovery does this refer to?h
    The fact is that this gTelescopic Nebulous Objecth in the short note in the star atlas refers to an important discovery. While tracking this gsecret codeh, I became involved in a strange astronomical incident. The meaning of this mysterious remark gTelescopic Nebulous Object?h will become clear eventually as the story unfolds. However, what I would like to tell you now is about a book Mr. Okamoto gave me and its strange fate.

    On November 3, 1973, a blue sky spread like a lake over Kochi city. November 13 is the Culture Day national holiday. Far in the past, it was the day when Emperor Meiji was born and November 13 of any year is blessed with fine mid-autumn weather. That afternoon I went to a bazaar held at Tosa Girls Secondary and High School near Kochi Castle. It was fun to look at things made by students, even if I donft buy anything. At that time I was teaching for the schoolfs guitar music club as an instructor. After looking around within the school, I headed for the castle attracted by the beautiful autumn landscape around it.

    On my way to the castle I walked through the garden of the Prefectural Library where the bronze statue of Master Yamauchi Kazutoyo on horseback stood and then came across a rare sight of antique book sales being held at the library. It was an annual event with all the second-hand bookstores in the city coming together. Old books priced extremely low were overflowing out into the pebbled garden and bathed in the sun. I stopped often to look at the titles of the casually placed books. More often than expected, you would come across lucky finds. Many years ago, I found a book titled gThe Stories of the Tosa Greatsh, which Dr. Issei Yamamoto had asked me to look around for. I found it at an antique book sales like this.

    In those days, we were able to get hold of second-hand old astronomy books which would never be found anywhere today. The great books of the past were found relatively easily such as gCometsh by Shigeru Kanda, gTechniques of Astro-photographyh by Kaname Nakamura, and gEnjoying the Constellationsh by Issei Yamamoto. At this second-hand book sales that day, I came across gTenmongaku Shinwah (New Astronomy) written by Takehiko Matsukuma, which was the only astronomy book I found there. The book looked rather unclean; the pages were yellowed with age and stained perhaps by water. While flipping the pages, I was startled by familiar pages and sentences. As I kept turning pages, I got goose bumps and overwhelmed with rushing fond memories. gIsnft this the very book I got from Mr. Okamoto?h I had no proof to confirm it.

    Now my memories go back again to my days at elementary school in 1940. It was late autumn and we were invited to a Shinto festival in Yoneda village near Kochi city, my fatherfs birthplace. It happened on our way back from the village at night. The distance between my fatherfs family home and the streetcar stop to the south was only about one and a half kilometers. It was a remote countryside. We had to walk a narrow road for 30 minutes along a brook at the foot of scary Akaoniyama (red ogre) mountain. On the left side of the road was sprawling farmland with sporadically located bluish white light-traps glowing dull as if closed in on by darkness. Then you would hear squeaking sounds of water mill wheels coming out of the darkness and know the streetcar stop in town is close. But, for the last stretch of the road, you have to walk through a deep woods of large trees belonging to a Shinto shrine. Helplessly frightened, I walked on hiding in my fatherfs cloak. Suddenly, he spoke: gLook, Tsutomu, the three stars!h

    Looking toward the sky above Akaoniyama mountain my father pointed at, I found the stars sprinkled like dust in the sky so dark even the mountain ridges were hard to see. Small faint stars appeared distant and large bright stars closer, and they all closed in on us with a three-dimensional effect. And, where my father pointed, I saw three stars lined up neatly. Even now, more than a half century later, the magnificence of Orion is still etched deeply in my mind. The shooting star I saw then is also unforgettable. As I heard that will-of-the-wisp often appeared along the road at the foot of Akaoniyama mountain in the summertime, I just walked on barely looking at the sky after that.

    Will-of-the-wisp is often mistaken for a shooting star, but what I witnessed at Yoneda was truly bloodcurdling sights. I apologize for a digression here. One muggy July evening, two persons 20 meters apart were walking toward the town. On their way, this Will-of-the-wisp rose mischievously from the road surface between the gentleman walking ahead and the lady behind. The lady was startled, frightened, and collapsed. Not aware of what happened, the gentleman kept on walking to the town, as if nothing had happened. This incident occurred when I was evacuated at the time of the war in July 1945.

    My grandfather experienced a similar incident. He said: gI think about 50 years have passed since then. When I was a child, I used to walk to a neighborhood fruit and vegetable shop on an errand. It was the time when the lights were switched on as it was getting dark. While walking, I felt something passed me grazing my head. I saw a ball of bluish fire as big as a round water melon flying softly as if floating in the air. It got caught in a pine tree ahead and burst with a pop. I believe it was real will-of-the-wisph, he laughed loudly. I often heard from adults some tales of evil spirits like this. They were called ghitodama (spirits of human) or kitsunebi (fire of fox). It is said that will-of-wisp appeared often because of burials took place frequently those days.

    Sometime ago there was a public viewing night held at Hoshigakubo and I drove there. Driving along a wide bypass road to get onto Ino interchange, I started to cross a bridge with its name gNakanotanibashi Bridgeh written on it. As soon as I saw this sign, I realized that Nakanotani is the Nakanotani of Yoneda village, my fatherfs birthplace. While crossing the bridge, I looked forward on the left side and saw Akaoniyama which had been famous for the appearance of will-of-the-wisp. It was the area where a huge swarm of fireflies inhabited in summer and pristine water welled up in springs. The construction of one bypass road had drastically changed this village lying deep in the mountains where will-of-the-wisp and evil spirits had appeared. There are no horror stories any longer.

    Comet Cunningham must have been visible around the time when I learned about Orion from my father at the foot of Akaoniyama mountain down from Nakanohashi bridge. This comet made quite a fine spectacle in the evening western sky from November to December, around the time when the Pacific War broke out. Koichi Ike of Tosa city, an extraordinary veteran comet hunter with more than 50years of experience, said that Comet Cunningham had been seen in November evening skies near Aquila trailing a tail 5- to 7-degree long and shining at 3rd to 4th magnitude. Fifty-seven years have passed since, but he is still dreaming of a comet discovery.

    There were tall gingko trees on the eastern and western sides of the playground of our Fourth Elementary School with sandalwood trees between them. The skies around the 1940s were beautifully transparent blue or rather darkish blue. One day, after school hours, I caught up with Mr. Okamoto and told him about having watched the stars at Yoneda. Mr. Okamoto said that he loved the stars too and would lug a 3-inch telescope up on his shoulder to Kajigamori (an elevation 1400 meters) to show the stars to his colleagues while he was at a teachers college. He asked me if I liked stars. A few days later, he brought along a book and handed it to me saying: gThis is the only astronomy book I have. Read this when you have timeh. Soon after, he was mobilized and headed for the Asian continent.

    This occasion in my fourth year at elementary school must have been an opportune encounter with the stars, but onefs fate is really strange. Alas, I didnft even try to read that book Mr. Okamoto had kindly given me, letting it continue to sleep on the book shelf. Then, on July 7, 1945, when I became a junior high school student, our home was burned down during the fateful great Kochi air-raids. While we were running along Kagamigawa river to escape from huge fires, we were blasted by an incendiary bomb that landed close to us and lost everything we were carrying. The book I got from Mr. Okamoto too was blown into the river and perished, as if to suggest Mr. Okamotofs tragic fate. I wonder who had owned this old astronomy book sitting on my book shelf now. Was it Mr. Okamoto or someone unrelated? Whenever I turn the pages, memories of the days in the distant past return overlapping with one another.

    Mr. Okamoto never returned to our school. However, his principles of education are shining eternally in the night sky as a star, Minor Planet 6244.
(Will the story of Mr. Okamoto have to end this way? If so, there is too much sadness in life. I will keep writing with a belief that onefs life does not have to be like that.)

Copyright (C) 2018 Tsutomu Seki.