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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 24: Dream and reality

    I had a strange dream. One day Mr. Yamamoto of Chikurinji Temple rushed over to my place riding his scooter. He was out of breath wearing a Buddhist priest's heavy robe and said in a low voice, "Seki-san! I spotted a comet-like object in Orion. Please check it for me." The landscape around us quickly darkened. Climbing to the roof-top laundry drying platform serving as my observing site, I turned my 9cm telescope to the spot in question and found the famous Great Orion Nebula M42 glowing white. I thought, "Yeah, it's just a nebula." While I was watching it, the great nebula began changing its appearance quickly just like drifting clouds in an autumn sky and transformed itself to a comet trailing a magnificent tail! Stunned, thinking I had to report it to the observatory, I was just about to climb down the stairs from the platform hurriedly, then, realized I was standing at a great height. Although Mr. Yamamoto urged me to climb down, but I couldn't. Suddenly, I woke up. "Oh, no, it was just a dream!" , I thought. I was probably possessed by Mr. Yamamoto's spirit.

    There was a reason why I had a dream like that. Mr. Yamamoto still new to Kochi was passionate as a young priest about both religion and astronomy with a pure and intense interest At the time of Mars closest approach to the earth around 1956, he confirmed the last sighting of the disappearing polar cap and received a commendation from the leading planetary observer Tsuneo. Saheki.

    Around 1957 Mr. Yamamoto, perhaps influenced by my comet observing, began to concentrate on search and observation of comets. As a member of the comet observing trio including Mr. Koichi Ike, Mr. Yamamoto believed that someday he would achieve a great result like discovering a comet. However, after taking over the temple and being regarded as one of Kochi citizens of significant importance, he became very busy with official duties and visits. It was disappointing to see his passion for astronomy fading gradually as time passed. The dream I had of Mr. Yamamoto discovering a comet might have been a result of my expectations of his achievements. I am sure that Mr. Yamamoto's telescopes are now stored with great care as family treasures.

    In the 1970s some changes occurred to my roof-top observatory. Light pollution became a very serious problem and the time came to part with this observatory where I had discovered six comets.
All the equipment (the 9cm comet seeker, 12cm binoculars, and 21cm equatorial reflector) was to be moved to Geisei village. I went to Koyama at the village with Mr. Koichi Ike to inspect the place where my observing site would almost certainly be relocated to. The place was definitely dark. Probably because of its darkness, lights from Kochi city more than 30km away looked very bright. With his favorite 12.5cm comet seeker Mr. Ike, checking the stars around Gemini which began to move to the western sky, said in his Kochi dialect, "This is very dark. I can see the stars very clearly. The low altitude sky at Geisei is as good as at the zenith at my place." "If Yamamoto-san were with us, he would be very delighted", I moaned his death. His spirit may following me to the new observatory, I had a little wandering thought. But this irrational thought became a "reality". It was a totally unexpected development.

    This frightening incident took place soon after my private observatory at Geisei village had been completed. At that time a comet named Kohoutek was seen in the evening sky attracting people's interest around the world. It was reportedly first observed from a spaceship. As Geisei's first achievement, I caught the comet quickly which had appeared in the predawn sky. I received a congratulatory letter from Dr. Brian Marsden of Minor Planet Center (MPC) at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Later, in 1974 I recovered the periodic Comet Finlay, my first recover of a periodic comet. I used a small aperture 21cm f/5 reflector (with a Kojima mirror) for this recovery. The only reason I was able to find that comet with such a small telescope was the sky was dark over Geisei.

    During the years I had been observing in Kochi city, the skies were relatively dark, but in the 1960s with the prospering of the city the sky conditions had deteriorated rapidly. The summer Milky Way was faintly visible, while the winter Milky Way, Andromeda Galaxy, and the Praesepe cluster were almost impossible to see with the unaided eye. After moving to Geisei, these objects were easy and even the zodiacal light was brightly visible, so bright in fact that reciprocity failure was always a worry during exposures. During observation I often listened to music on tape. Forgetting the worldly matters, with the stars and myself alone, it was a wonderful place like heaven. Even now when I hear Bach's English Suites I fondly remember a unworldly life of those days.

    It was a humid late spring night. I saw some clear patches in the sky and without wasting time drove to Geisei Observatory. I took National Highway Route 55. This road between Kochi city and Muroto promontory was not well maintained with many tricky places to pass. After 10 pm the road didn't have much traffic and was desolate. If you were driving alone, you would worry about being stopped and robbed. From Kochi city we would pass through Nangoku city. A long time ago, it was a small town called "Gomen". My grandfather often saw strange lights there. Previously I have written about the old stories my grandfather had told me. About 100 years ago, while he was walking home through Gomen alone, he saw a small bluish light, something like foxfire on a dark road. This golf-ball-sized mysterious light rolled on when you walked and when you stopped it stopped too, strangely. If you walked fast, it rolled on faster. Finally, it rolled into a poorly lit room of a house through a narrow gap between the storm shutters.

    My grandfather was so curious about it and quietly walked there to have a look. Suddenly, he heard in the darkness, "It scared me! A huge monster chased me and I barely escaped it! It was all a dream."
What was this "monster"? Was the monster the grandfather himself? Was that bluish foxfire a wandering soul of a human in a dream? This was a story I heard from him when I was a small child, but it doesn't seem to be a horror story or something made up by someone. The highway was so dark and desolate that I would spontaneously remember stories like this.

    Shortly after driving through Gomen, houses became sparse. A motor scooter was waiting on the roadside to let my car pass before turning into the highway. The moment I passed the scooter, I spotted a man on it. The man who was illuminated for a brief moment in the very bright headlights was without any doubt Mr. Yamamoto in his priest's robe. I felt a chill down my spine. Mr. Yamamoto was usually cheerful and laughed loudly, but sometimes he stared at you calmly like a man of religion. His calm eyes were gazing at me sitting in the car. Have I just seen Mr. Yamamto's spirit? Unconsciously, I pushed the accelerator and ran at full speed along the dark highway. A spot of light had been visible in the rear view mirror for a while but eventually disappeared into the darkness.

    Time passed and autumn came. I was looking at the southern sky from the window of the Japanese-style study upstairs. White clouds formed in the distant sky over Washioyama mountain and disappeared into the deep-blue sky. It was a calm, relaxing afternoon with the aroma of a fragrant olive wafting from nowhere. Suddenly, I heard someone said in a loud voice, "Excuse me!" from downstairs. It was a familiar voice. Startled, I went down the stairs and found Mr. Yamamoto standing there smiling. A child, perhaps his son, in 5th or 6th grade was standing next to him. I was lost for words in this totally unexpected happening and felt like crumbling right there. Completely disregarding how I felt, the visitor said something that resolved all the mystery in a second.

Copyright (C) 2019 Tsutomu Seki.