No, I am not talking about Neowise, the current celestial body taking advantage of the boredom caused by the corona virus pandemic, seeking attention with marketing superlatives like “extra bright”, “supersize” and “only available for a short time”, which, for a few days, is making earthlings look up from their telephones into the sky, albeit only briefly and not without first using that very telephone for determining or – or rather to have determined for them – the optimal time and the optimal location for the heavenly rendezvous, during which they are more eager to take pictures than to enjoy the moment, and after which they are most keen on posting, sharing and liking on their phone again. Because for most people today, a comet counts for nothing if they do not capture it photographically and if nobody praises them for the photos that have been posted on the internet thirteen thousand times already, most of them in better quality.
I want to tell you of a different comet and take you back to the time when cameras were luxury and telephones were tied up at home. A time when we were involved in nature with all our senses, without distraction, simply observing, enjoying, marveling in disbelief, when we were devoutly absorbed in the uniqueness and transience of such moments.
The year was 1986, and the fly-by of Halley’s comet was imminent. Compared to Neowise, it says “Hello, Earth” much more often, but at that time, life expectancy was so meager (numerically and qualitatively), that even the 75-year interval of the speeding star was sold as a unique opportunity. I was 10 years old at the time and couldn’t handle such enormous time spans anyway. Or I sucked at math.
In any case, at that time, according to concrete calculations by Copernicus and his cosmonaut colleagues, it so happened that at some point, the nightly and thus visible overflight of Captain Halley over my small village in Bavaria had been calculated, prophesied and announced.
The times must have been uneventful, because for months the comet had been the big thing in the media. We bought science magazines, didn’t understand anything and had no money left for MAD Magazine. On television, which at the time had only three channels that weren’t even working around the clock, physicists in turtlenecks explained the planets and comets using pitifully wobbly papier-mâché models. I didn’t understand anything, but I remember that in the end some powder in a bowl was always ignited and exploded. The show was called “Piff Paff Poff” or something. The Postal Service ingratiated itself with the population for the upcoming change of ZIP codes by issuing a special stamp for Halley’s comet.
By the way, for 80 pfennigs you could send a letter from Bavaria to Bremen, Buxtehude or Berlin (West), but not to Berlin (East), because that was intercepted by the Stasi. We didn’t know that, and so we always thought that relatives in the GDR were too wretched to write back. Just one of many misunderstandings between West and East.
For months, people who, unlike us 10-year-olds, had too much money had been acquiring binoculars and telescopes, extending roof hatches and training, practicing and exercising for the day of the century in such an elaborate and serious way as usually only displayed by NATO once a year, when Canadian soldiers occupied the primary school in Ammerthal and thus for one week cancelled PE lessons, which were never more than the dreaded dodge ball anyway, if I remember correctly. (Thank you, Canada!)
But I digress like the wobbly tail of a comet wandering through space for millions of years without the help of GPS. Back to the eventful day in spring 1986, which I can no longer pinpoint exactly, but which I date in March or April, first because it was no longer too cold to spend hours outside in the night, second for an incisive and epochal event, which, for dramaturgical reasons, I will only allow to make an appearance later in this story, hoping that I shall not forget about it as I have forgotten other things, which, however, form the core of this story and therefore must enjoy absolute priority.
I know for a fact, though, that it was a Friday. Because Friday night was chess club, without any competition from any Friday night alternatives. (By now, we don’t even have chess anymore, as if the comet had not only passed our village, but had struck here and wiped out all social life). One morning in the fourth grade (at that time, there was no school in the afternoon, because parents were neither afraid of children being alone in the afternoon nor of them not knowing three foreign languages and two musical instruments fluently), two gentlemen in suits came into class and tried to inspire us for the Soviet communist board game, which, following Cold War terminology, they consistently called the royal game. They resonated most with those who did not care about football, the only local sports alternative. Back then, I could not have explained it as I can now, but I always had an instinctive aversion to fascist cults of physical prowess.
Finally, the enthusiasts for the black and white board game mentioned that chess is somehow good for intelligence. As a 10-year-old, I thought I was incredibly intelligent, perhaps one of the few likable character traits which have remained constant throughout my life. Thus, together with other brave young men, I volunteered for the chess front. I can’t remember if girls were explicitly excluded or if their participation simply didn’t occur.
It seemed to be nothing more than choosing between shin guards and the chessboard, but after a few weeks, we chess students were already using terms like gambit, en passant and Zugzwang, while the footballers shouted “hey, pass the ball, you wanker”. At the time I didn’t think that far ahead, and I would be surprised if the adults did, but now it seems either amazing or shocking with which precision the students’ decision between chess and football marked the dividing line between those who went on to high school, university and the big wide world and those who remained in the local school and in the village, many for their whole life.
“What does any of this have to do with the comet?” the astronomically curious readers are demanding to know, and rightly so. So, let me get my ellipsis together: One Friday evening, I walked home with a class and chess mate from the chess club, where we had been prepared for the rook, king or tiger diploma. Actually, we weren’t walking straight home, but like land surveyors hungry for more kilometres to put on the travel expense account, we skillfully took the route in the vague direction of our respective homes, allowing us to walk together as long as possible. Because we still wanted to talk. Chess might have been intelligent, but it was very serious. One of the chairmen of the chess club was also chairman of the correctional facility. There was no room for jokes. After an hour and a half, enriched with lots of sugar-rich Coca Cola, we had a lot of catching up to do.
And that Friday night in the spring of 1986 was a special night. For months, people had been waiting for the comet, preparing telescopes, beer and potato chips and cleaning windows. But it was exactly that evening that Halley’s comet had promised an appearance in our region, spread reliably by the local press. Or maybe the comet could be seen all week, but on that Friday evening, holes in the ozone and cloud layers were as wide open as mankind’s astonished mouths.
In any case, we remained where our paths would otherwise have parted, and did not part, but took turns sitting on some telephone-line distribution box that only had room for one, while the other paced back and forth. Like everyone else, we were waiting for the comet. Unlike everyone else, however, we did not have a watch, as young people traditionally received them at Confirmation, a level to which we had not yet advanced. But then, even a watch wouldn’t have done us much good, for we had forgotten (or never known) at what time the comet would pass by.
I am sure we were speaking about the comet, sounding as important as possible and without any trace of self-doubt.
“Hey man, we’re so small in the universe, it messes with your brain to imagine it.”
“And this thing is so far away, even if you go full speed in your dad’s car, the comet is always faster.”
“And it is so hot, if you fire a nuclear missile at it, it will melt on approach. It’s invulnerable.”
My esteemed colleague was able to come up with an ad hoc thesis on any topic and present it so credibly that I believed everything. I only noticed it years later in high school, when I had studied and he hadn’t, but he was called to the blackboard. He could present complete nonsense with such conviction that the overwhelmed economics teacher finally gave him a good-natured C.
Halley’s comet could not be seen, and so we jumped from one topic to the next. From comets to space travel. In January, the Challenger astronauts, also on the way to Halley’s comet, had burst into flames. From space travel to movies like Top Gun, Karate Kid and Crocodile Dundee. From movies to poisonous mushrooms, because we didn’t need logical transitions. Then we discussed which secondary school in Amberg was the best and whether Latin or French was easier or more useful. We didn’t think much further in our lives, because it was the carefree childhood where you could stay outside for hours at night without calling anyone. Nobody worried anyway. If one of us had only come home the next morning and explained that he had stayed overnight at the friend’s house, our parents would have said: “That’s what we thought. But next time, please call and let us know.”
And there was actually much more crime in those days. Oh yes, we probably also talked about terrorists, murderers, bank robbers and hijackers, because their WANTED posters were everywhere and we had memorized the bearded faces to collect the reward of 50.000 Deutschmarks, which meant potato chips for life.
Unmeasured time passed over these far-reaching conversations. We looked up into the sky less and less and almost forgot about the unique spectacle. We didn’t even know if the comet would pass in the north or in the south. And if we had known, we did not know where in our village north and south were. Who takes a compass to the chess club?
“I think we’ve talked so long, we missed it.”
“I don’t know what time it is, but I’m freezing, man.”
“And I have to pee.”
“When will the comet come back?”
“In 75 years.”
We were both too lazy to calculate the year, also because this period seemed so unthinkably far away. At that time, no one grew that old, only the Japanese, of whom we knew none, except for the one guy in the movie, who remains on an island in the Pacific for decades after World War II, preparing for the invasion. But:
“If we’re still alive then, we’ll meet here again. But next time, let’s be more careful not to miss it.”
A few weeks later, the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl exploded and childhood was over.