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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 9: Under the Southern Cross

    It was 6 am when I returned from the observatory. The sky was still in twilight and it was very quiet. When I was just about to step into my study upstairs, I thought I heard a faint "bong", a sound of a guitar. There was no body around and a guitar was kept in the carrying case under a desk at the rear of the room. Thinking it was weird, I turned on the lights and stared at the carrying case.

    There is a short story titled "Piano" among the works of the famous novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa. One day, immediately after the 1926 Great Kanto Earthquake, Akutagawa was walking along a street on the outskirts of the devastated city. He heard a single "bong" apparently coming from the exposed white keyboard of a piano in a partially destroyed house near the street. No body was seen around and it was dark inside the house. Several days later he was walking along the same street again, when he heard the sound of a piano. He got closer to the piano to find that there was no roof over it any longer, but a chestnut tree was growing beside it. The culprit for this mysterious piano sound was a chestnut. A nut fell on the keyboard and hit a key.

    However, the sound of the guitar I heard cannot be explained away simply this way. The owner of this guitar was Mrs. Toshiko Oba, who passionately learned to play the guitar about 10 years ago. She appeared to be over 80 years old, but was very enthusiastic about lessons. She finished the textbooks one by one very quickly and reached a stage where she was able to play a number of well-known classical works reasonably well. Her superb guitar was crafted by Masaru Kohno (Asteroid 5113 Kohno, died December 1998), an internationally acclaimed craftsman living in Tokyo. He was also a serious astronomy enthusiast.

    Mrs. Oba was a good friend to my pet dog Taro. On lesson days, as soon as he heard the sound of Mrs. Oba's wheelchair, Taro welcomed her running around like mad. There was a reason for it. Mrs. Oba always brought Taro his favorite food on her once-a-week lesson days. Between lessons we always enjoyed talking about the stars. It has been several years since she passed away. I sometimes take her guitar out and play it reminiscing about the days with her. Taro still sits in the garden waiting for the sound of the wheelchair on lesson days.

    I was curious about a drawing of the Southern Cross most likely made by Mrs. Oba, who had never been overseas. The mystery was solved when I read her letter, which revealed eternal love between two people involving the Southern Cross.
    "The most enjoyable time in my loneliness was when I was learning the guitar. And there was nothing more enjoyable than talking about the stars between lessons. Facing the end of my life now, your presence was a shining beacon for me. When I depart this world, please play my favorite music "Etude in B minor". I have no doubt that it will reach my ears in heaven."
    Whenever I read this letter, her last, I cannot hold back my tears. Captain Oba (Mrs. Oba's husband) served in the Second World War and his troops occupied the Malay Peninsula. Captain Oba had worked at a weather bureau before the war and never stopped studying the sky continuing weather forecasting even on the southern war front. At night he watched the stars and sketched unfamiliar southern constellations to send to his wife. Captain Oba was a Christian. He made the sign of the cross praying to the Southern Cross for his wife's safety.

    In 1944 the Allied Forces staged large-scale counterattacks to annihilate the Japanese troops led by General Yamashita. Sadly, Captain Oba was killed in action in Singapore. The Southern Cross thought to have been drawn by Mrs. Oba is the one originally sketched by Captain Oba in the south. She dearly kept his sketch and wished to visit his last place to meet the real Southern Cross. She passed away before her dream was realized. When I have an opportunity to look at the Southern Cross, I would like to pray for Captain Oba's soul on behalf of Mrs. Oba.

    It is relatively well known that astronomers and meteorologists continued their observations in the battlefields overseas. There was a star-loving private first class serving on the Malay Peninsula where Captain Oba was. It was Mr. Honda famous for comet discoveries. He came across a 3-inch (75mm) objective lens while working to siphon gasoline from beat-up old cars in Singapore. It is a mystery why an objective lens was lying around in an old car. While other soldiers were fast asleep, Mr. Honda managed to build an astronomical telescope using cleverly car parts and a cardboard tube for maps. With this telescope he began searching the southern sky for a new comet.

    If my memory serves me correctly, this occurred in June 1942. When he was searching the northwestern sky where the Southern Cross was hanging over palm trees, he discovered a 7th-magnitude comet in the area of Leo Minor. The discovery was reported to his superior the following day. However, it was in the middle of war deep in the enemy territory. I can easily imagine that they had great trouble to get the news out back to Japan and the rest of the world. Thanks to the open-mindedness of his superior who believed that astronomy knows no national borders, the Y newspaper sent the news back to Japan, though until then the paper had been reporting nothing but news of the Japanese military advancement. It was heart-warming news found in the middle of horrendous conditions in battlefields.

    Tokyo Observatory, which received the telegram, identified this comet as the periodic comet Grigg-Skjellerup. This comet was detected by Dr. Van Biesbroeck of the U.S.A. and Dr. Shigeru Kanda of Tokyo Observatory. It had been visible and relatively bright from April 11 to July 12. This telegram from the south reporting the comet discovery also suggested Mr. Honda's wellbeing.

    Mr. Honda's discovery was reported in the paper "Sho-Kokumin Newspaper (The Young Citizens Newspaper)", which we were eagerly reading in those days. I was a 5th or 6th grader and still vaguely remember this. Although the war was raging, this paper provided many scientific stories. Almost daily, it carried the news of Comets Cunningham, Okabayashi-Honda, and other bright and popular comets. I thoroughly enjoyed serials about sailing adventures, space travels, as well as science fictions written by renowned authors. Among those stories, Juza Unno's "the Martian Army", in particular, moved and excited countless young people enticing them into the mystery of the universe. Helped with his background as a scientist, his works excelled in imagination and creativity. Influenced by this "Young Citizens Newspaper", many of the young readers may have become scientists. An encounter like this in one's youth can turn out to be extremely important.

Copyright (C) 2006 Tsutomu Seki.