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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 8: A star-loving lady in a wheelchair

    This year's Leonid meteor shower was the most active in 33 years, but on the day before the predicted shower, there were a lot of clouds around as the winter weather pattern set in without warning. It did not clear up until the day after the event and we missed this important chance.

    I thought that there would be very little chance for the Japanese archipelago to encounter the densest part of the meteoroid stream. As expected, this meteor shower did not live up to our expectations partly because of a time lag. There is nothing wrong about the mass media publicizing the meteor shower widely in the public, but, because of my past bitter experience, I was a little frightened at a thought of a possible disappointing result. I did not say to the public that many Leonids would fall like rain or snow. I deliberately avoided talking too much about the shower, but was asked about them wherever I went. People always brought up the subject whether at a photo shop or post office. Without exception, every student of my guitar class, both young and old, talked about it. Troubled by so many questions, I wrote up my own observing tips and distributed them. This brought about an unexpected result. A nurse, one of my acquaintances, said that she gathered up about 20 people at her hospital and asked me to come to the mountain to show them how to observe the meteor shower. The mountain was 1400-meter-high Kajigamori Mountain. This means I would have to look after the groups both at Kajigamori Observatory and Geisei Observatories, 50 km apart, on the same day.

    Kajigamori Observatory, where Mr. Kenji Muraoka was in charge of observing, was near a Kokumin shukusha (government-subsidized) hotel and many people had booked the rooms well ahead of the day. Geisei also expected a large crowed, as it was conveniently located for visitors from Kochi city. The hill of Geisei was swarmed by reporters, groups of young people with their hair dyed blond, and chattering young women, who would usually not be interested in the stars. They seemed to think that they could see the stars, rain or shine, as long as they came to the observatory.

    Kajigamori Observatory, at an elevation of 1200 meters above sea level, was buffeted by cold wind. The sky was clear until about 2 am and a number of Leonids were observed. I talked about meteors to the participants for about an hour and hurriedly headed for Geisei Observatory, leaving Mr. Muraoka in charge. But the clouds began drifting in past midnight and observing became doubtful. When I arrived at Geisei around 2.30 am, I was stunned. The observatory's parking lot was flooded by cars; cars were lining even the narrow road leading to the observatory. I saw cars heading east to the observatory on my way here, but never expected this. I gave up going to the observatory and staked a little plot along the road and prepared for observing. Messrs Okamura and Kawazoe would be looking after the crowds at the observatory. The sky was covered all over with thin clouds, but a few fireballs as bright as quarter moon flew across the sky, each time followed by a loud applause with an unusual roar heard from the top of the hill. Jupiter was visible but appeared fuzzy. Occasional flashes through the white clouds might be fireballs as bright as magnitude -1.

    We observed through the clouds until dawn. We had two special visitors to the observatory. One of them was Mr. Zenichi Tanaka, a comet hunter living in Tottori prefecture. He came to Geisei bringing his observing gear hoping to be able to see me here. He must have come here to stay away from Tottori, which was known for bad weather during winter. He must have been very disappointed at the cloudy weather here.

    Mr. Tanaka came to my place with his wife and three young children several years ago. Needless to say, we had a lively conversation about comet discoveries. He brought out a copy of the book I had published ages before. Numerous important sentences in the book were underlined in red and the book itself showed more than wear and tear, a sign of his commitment to learning from the book. Whenever I see a comet hunter, I am always impressed by something about them.

    It is not easy to discover a comet after all. It may sound like a little exaggeration, but in order to be able to discover a comet visually, you would have to continue to search until the star images become burned on your retina; photographically, until you get snowed under by the films you have exposed and accumulated in your room. In fact, about 1500 minor planets and numerous comets have been observed at Geisei. The number of photographic plates and film is well over 10,000. In spite of this, no new comet has been discovered photographically at Geisei. MIT's Lincoln Observatory is said to discover 1500 minor planets per night and can distinguish new minor planets from the known ones. Even they cannot find a new comet by one night observing. It may be only natural that Geisei has not captured any new comet on film in the past 15 years, in spite of the fact that they have discovered 1500 minor planets over 15 years.

    Kodak's photographic plates for astronomical use are incredibly expensive. We cannot afford to travel to distant observatories, either. Daily observations do not bear fruit. Sometimes I feel depressed and think of abandoning the effort. However, I still think that I have to continue. Once you have lost sight of the goal shining in the distance, your life is over.

    Now, let's return to the hill where Geisei Observatory is. Someone was recording meteors in a wheelchair at the parking lot, just fireballs, though. He told me that he came all the way from the Tohoku area and that he knew my home well because he used to live in my neighborhood. Encouraged by such a coincidence, we had a great conversation while looking up at the sky.

    There was another person in a wheel chair I can remember. It was a very strange story. Her name was Toshiko Oba. She was an elderly lady and one of my guitar class students. Her husband was a high-ranking soldier but died young in a battlefield. She had lived a life of widow for a long time. She loved guitar and stars. Disabled in her legs, she crossed Kagamigawa River always in her motorized wheelchair to attend my guitar class. She was born in 1910, the year Halley's Comet appeared. She loved our pet dog Taro, who in turn loved her so much. He quickly picked up the sound of her wheelchair and made a welcome howling with his head raised when she entered the gate. Their friendly relationship was not a strange coincidence. He was born in 1986, the year Halley's Comet appeared!

    Mrs. Oba lived in an area on the south side of Kagamigawa River. It was the area where the stars were more beautiful in Kochi City. She sketched the summer Milky Way and magnificent winter constellations seen above a hill in the south and brought them along to show me. Those sketches were of Antares in summer and Orion and Canis Major in winter. On such occasions we were so excited talking about the stars that we almost forgot to do guitar lessons.

    Such happy time was short-lived. She was hospitalized with a sudden illness and passed away before I could go to see her. A few days later, a person who claimed to be her relative (she had no close relatives, though) came to see me with her favorite guitar. He said she asked him before she died to give that guitar to me. I took the now master-less guitar out. I found a white envelop addressed to me on the bottom of the carrying case. When I picked the content out, a sketch caught my eye immediately. The rest of the content was a long letter, which became her last words.

    At first I thought the sketch was one of those constellations she made, but it looked a little different. It was a drawing of a cross-like constellation with "1943" written on it. There must be some reason behind this. While reading her letter, I felt my face was quickly turning pale. The constellation was the Southern Cross. And unexpected facts, which I had never been aware of, was unfolding in her letter.

Copyright (C) 2005 Tsutomu Seki.