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August 8, 2020

Mack Williams column: Looking for the comet

By Mack Williams
For the Salisbury Post
Hearing about the recently discovered comet Neowise and being an old astronomy enthusiast (nut) from way back, I figured to go looking for it, much different than in the movie “How the West Was Won” (1962) when Jimmy Stewart’s mountain man film character was tricked by shore-located river pirates to go “looking for the varmint” in a nearby cave. Stewart didn’t find the varmint, but he later discovered a large pirate-placed lump on his skull and the loss of his goods, proving that of the two, looking for the varmint is much more dangerous than looking for the comet.
I began my comet hunt on a “wild hair” after purchasing a cold Foster’s at a local Food Lion just after sunset. This is the only part played by the can of Foster’s in my comet search, as I didn’t consume it beforehand or during. And speaking of wild hair, the word comet comes from the Greek Kometes, meaning “hairy star,” because of the comet’s tail.
This Food Lion parking lot faced the western twilight sky; and I waited a while, but still no sight of comet Neowise.
So, I drove onto a dark Caswell County road, one eye on the road, the other on the ever-darkening sky. Actually, both of my eyes were glancing back and forth from road to sky.
It was a hot, hazy summer night just before twilight’s departure, and a world of silhouettes, broken up by the illuminated sight of some cheery windows. Each perfectly square, smaller, windowless silhouette was usually a long-abandoned, log-hewn tobacco barn.
I also learned that seeing through the opposing sets of an old house’s windows to the starlit sky beyond, probably meant more than someone having just forgotten to close the blinds or curtains. Instead, it meant long-time human absence.
Just then, at horizon level I did see something with a tail. Instead of a comet, it was furtive, road-crossing opossum.
It became so dark in the country on such a moonless night, that if I had been on foot, minus car headlights, I would have been more concerned about bumping into things in the night, instead of encountering things that go bump in the night.
Having felt old-fashioned dumb in failing to find Neowise, I returned home and saw the planet Jupiter had risen above my neighbor’s house. But since his wife is fairly attractive, standing in my yard with high-powered binoculars trained in that general direction might not have worked out well.
I decided to go comet looking on some other night, putting my summer-night-warmed Foster’s in the fridge to regain its chill.

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