A Tail of Discovery

jeffwagg and I exchange stories by giving each other a word which is the seed for the next correspondence. This is my response to his choice of “Space.”

Hale-Bopp (rocketroberts.com)

Hale-Bopp (rocketroberts.com)

“Where are we going?” I asked my mother as she bundled us into the car. “You’ll see when we get there,” she absent-mindedly replied.

I scowled. “But I wanted to go to the park with my friends.”

My mother made a little noise, the one she always made when she was annoyed and signaled that the conversation was over.

It was April 1997, nearly the end of my first year in middle school. I had finally found a small group of friends that I enjoyed being with and I was beginning to experiment with teenage surliness. My friends were going to the park and I wanted to go, especially because a certain interesting (and cute) boy was going to be there. I was not in the mood for a drive, especially with my younger brother and sister.

Myself, Justin, and Ricky in front of the VAB prior to launch of STS-134, April 2011

We arrived at an unfamiliar destination – a little strip mall with rundown signs and shops with handwritten signs in the windows. My mother led us inside a photo developing store. I thought it was a little strange, dragging all of us to the photo store just to pick up some pictures. She talked to the clerk for a minute while I looked at some framed pictures on the walls, and then she told me to go stand in front of a piece of white canvas that had been attached to the wall.

“POOF!” went the flash and it was my sister’s turn, then my brother’s. I must have looked confused, because as my mother was filling some papers out on the counter, she mentioned that these pictures were needed for the passports we were going to get for our trip to Korea in a few months. I grumbled, wishing she would have told me that were going to get our pictures taken so I could have dressed a little nicer and fixed my hair a little bit.

While my mother was finishing up with the papers, the front door opened and another customer came inside the store. It was an older gentleman, carrying a small stack of photos. Being a shy kid, I withdrew and stood very still, trying to be invisible. The man asked the clerk if he could get some photos duplicated, enlarged, and framed. As the two were discussing size and number of prints, I glanced over at the stack of pictures.

I’m flying! I wish.

I couldn’t figure out what his pictures were. Most of them looked very similar to each other. It was a very dark background with a bunch of white and pink specks that looked like stars, but in the middle of the picture was a large white smear attached to a smaller blue smear, taking up a large part of the picture. What was that smear?

I must have been staring at the photos for longer than I had planned, because the man caught me looking. He smiled and passed one to me. “Want to see?” he said. Shyly, I took the picture, turning it around, trying to figure out what it was.

“It’s a picture of a comet,” he said. “Comet Hale-Bopp.”

A comet.

I marveled. I had heard of comets before, in school and a short story about Halley’s Comet in a book of children’s stories I had. I didn’t know much about them except for the few things I picked up in classes. To me, comets were mysterious – something that only happened in books and stories from long ago. How did this man get a picture of a comet? How did he get the comet to look so big in the picture? After all, space was very far away.

He must have guessed at the questions running through my mind. He said, “I took those pictures with my telescope. I attached my camera to my telescope and I can take pictures of things in space with it.”

By this point, my mother had joined us. She took the picture from me and complimented the man in her careful English. I looked at her in despair, “Mom, we don’t have a telescope!”

The man laughed. “You don’t need a telescope to see Hale-Bopp. Just go outside tonight and look by the horizon. You can see it with your own eyes.

My mother must have recognized something in my facial expression. She looked at the man and very politely asked if she could pay him for an extra print of one of his pictures so I could have it. He chuckled and said no, he would give me an extra print as a gift and would accept no money. However, I would have to wait a week to get my copy. My mother thanked him, and we went on our way. Walking out the front door, I turned back to look at the man, and he smiled and gave me a little wave.

In front of Endeavor, August 2012

That evening, I went out to go look for Hale-Bopp. I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for, as I was usually not permitted to go out after dark.

But there it was, just as the man had said. A little white smear with two tails in the darkening of twilight. The sight was instantly captivating. I looked at Hale-Bopp almost every night after that.

A week later, we went back to pick up our pictures. I couldn’t wait to see the comet picture again. The clerk handed my mom an envelope. She opened it and handed the picture to me. It was a different photo than the one the man had handed to me. This one was even more beautiful, with Hale-Bopp largely and prominently featured in the middle of the photo, burning brightly and tails blazing. It became one of my most prized possessions. I wish I could meet that man again, to thank him for showing a little kindness towards me and for giving me a key that would unlock a lifelong passion and love for space.

Categories: Science, Travel

Tags: , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. A great piece, paperskater. If you’re ever in NYC let me know: I work at the Intrepid Museum where we have a space shuttle, a Soyuz capsule, and lots of other cool aerospace stuff. I’ll be glad to give you a tour! -Mark

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