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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 27: The story of the "star" of Champion

    On October 30 in 1917, a blue sky looking like a lake spread over Kochi city deeply immersed in late autumn color. An American aviator Frank Champion putting on an aviator's coverall came out of his plane and raised his hands responding to loud welcoming cheers and applauses. Seeing an airplane was the first experience for 100,000 Kochi citizens. They called him a "birdman" and applauded generously for Champion's rare acrobatic displays. Moved by people's enthusiastic welcoming in a strange country, he got back into his plane to do acrobatics one more time and soared high above Hitsuzan mountain. Who could tell this was going to be his last flying?

    The following account is what my father told me, who witnessed Champion's aerobatic show from the rooftop laundry-drying platform, which became the site of my comet discovery 40 years later.

    "It was a windy but clear autumn day without any cloud. Champion's biplane kept climbing easily while circling to an altitude 5 times that of 150-meter-tall Hitsuzan. He performed three loops in a row. I heard a stir from spectators. The next moment, he put it into a spiral dive and stopped the engine for a free fall. Then he turned into a steep climb just a few meters above the ground and soared high again. At the moment he tried a loop again, suddenly one of the wings separated from the plane and was thrown into the air fluttering. The next moment, the plane abruptly turned its nose down and plummeted straight toward the ground."

    When it happened, Champion stuck his hand out the window and waved it wildly toward the spectators on the ground. They say, by doing so, he was warning them to get out and run for safety. Champion, with his kind and gentle nature, tried to save the spectators' lives even at the moment of his imminent death.

    In the middle of spacious Yanagihara, the site of this aerial acrobatics, there was a man in Japanese costume who pitched a tent and watched the show all along. This man was Kito Ryonosuke, who played the main role in inviting Champion for the show. Kito (his real name is Morita Ryokichi) was a professional gambler keeping Kochi prefecture under his control as well as being an event promoter. According to my mother, Kito controlled all these events in those days. The following year, Mr. Kito erected a stately memorial for Champion on the river bank looking over the whole of Yanagihara and some of Champion's ashes was placed in it.

    I was only a child when I learned of Frank Champion. I went to Yanagihara Kindergarten and played often around Champion's memorial on the river bank. From my parents I learned that the memorial was the grave for an American aviator called Champion. In April 1937 the first Nangoku Expo was held around Yanagihara. Goto Kogaku (Goto Optical Research Institute) built "the Pavilion of the Sun" and showed sunspots to many visitors. Around that time, I had a classmate called H who went to the same kindergarten. After graduating from a local university, he joined a newspaper company and worked in the fine arts and literature desk. He was in charge of my serial published in the paper. Later, this serial was published as a book under the title "Seeking Unknown Stars". He was the "birth parent" of this book, so to speak. This reporter who had collected my articles daily climbed the ranks in the company, to the position of president, then on to chairman, the positions of great honor. Eighty long years after the death of Frank Champion, he contacted Champion's family in Sherman, Texas. In November 11, 1996, Champion's only daughter Jeannie Masculine (95) visited Kochi invited by the newspaper company and had a tearful reunion with her father at his grave.

    Around that time, I began to think about " Champion's star". When spring arrives and the water in Kagamigawa river becomes warmer, numerous wild ducks resting on the water take off all together to return to their homeland in the north flying over the Shikoku Mountains capped with remaining snow. Looking at this scene from a hill every year, I imagined Champion must have wished many times to take off to return to the sky like these ducks and fly back to his home. For Champion he was at his happiest when he was flying, they said. At last, Champion woke up from his long sleep and the time came for him to depart for space as Minor Planet 8732. Minor Planet 1996 XR25 discovered at Geisei Observatory in December 1996 was named "Champion". Thus, Champion will continue to travel in space forever.

    Mr. Seizo Goto whom I met at the solar pavilion of Nangoku Expo when I was a little child; and Champion's grave where I used to play on my way to the kindergarten and my way back home. A few decades later, the snivelling kid like me named minor planets after these two gentlemen. It may be pure coincidence, but I cannot help sensing a strange turn of one's fate. I believe that the naming of minor planets must come from the discoverer's own wish and the discoverer must have a strong connection with the proposed names.

    Recently, I got a phone call from Mr. H, the newspaper company's chairman. "I want to tell Champion's family member that a star was named "Champion" by you. Do you have anything you would like to tell her?" I asked him to pass on the following story, one of the facts related to Champion's death probably not known to the public.
"Champion's body was wrapped in a straw mat and crossed Kagamigawa river to the north carried by two men. On their way to a hospital, they walked through Kamimachi and had a brief rest placing him in the front yard of our home, to which a paper-making factory was attached. My mother gently placed chrysanthemum on his body and put her hands together in prayer. Champion's arm was covered with mud from a rice field. This proves that Champion was waving his hand toward the spectators on the ground to warn them of the crash. When my mother wiped mud off his body, he appeared as if breathing faintly and muttering thank you."

    This witness's account was given to Champion's family, 80 long years after his accidental death. When Jeannie Masculine, the only daughter of Champion received the story, she visited the Smithsonian Institute to confirm the naming of Minor Planet Champion and wrote me as follows:

    "My father Frank departed for Japan in the summer of 1917 loading his wooden plain on a steamer. He gave a number of shows across Japan and the site of his final show was Kochi city. Father must have been content that his acrobatics were seen by so many people in the East. I am sure he is at his happiest in heaven with a star named after him. I understand that at the time of the accident your mother and many other Japanese people took good care of him. Knowing this, I would like to express my heart-felt gratitude to you. I am 95 years old and may not be able to visit Japan again. But if I can, I would like to meet you to say thank you. My father who died in a foreign country has become a star and and I feel my father much closer to me. On a clear day I cross myself and pray for his soul."

    One clear April day, I went to Kagamigawa river for the first time in quite a while. I stood in front of Champion's memorial. Flowers from a cherry tree after full bloom were falling on his grave. Colorful spring flowers placed by someone on the slope in front of the grave were flowering profusely. I thought Frank Champion would be a happy person loved by people in a strange land. There were no wild ducks on the river. Champion's soul must have taken off to the sky with the those ducks. I was standing on the river shore and pondering over the past 80 years. The goodwill of 80 years ago is now reborn. The crystal clear water of Kagamigawa reflects the image of Hitsuzan mountain and runs silently as if nothing had happened.

Copyright (C) 2019 Tsutomu Seki.