First of a two-part story dating to 1986
April 8 is my father’s birthday. But in 1986 I was not with him or the rest of the family back in Des Plaines, Illinois, enjoying a slice of his favorite cheesecake. Instead, my wife and I were nearly 1,400 miles away on a beach of crushed coral. We had used a public payphone to wish him many happy returns. With sincerity he wished us the best of luck on our adventure—photographing the historic Comet Halley from one of the best locations in the United States.
At latitude of 23 degrees north, in the Florida Keys we would enjoy a distinct advantage over other astrophotographers.
We had made the journey knowing that every degree of latitude we moved south, the historic interloper known as “Halley” moved one degree higher in the sky. Comet Halley would be among the stars of Centaurus, a constellation so far south we would never see it from our home in Illinois, and certainly not from our dark-sky viewing site in Algoma, Wisconsin.
We were excited with the promise of new stars to see in the dark skies over the Straits of Florida. As mile blurred into mile and hour blurred into hour, it seemed nothing could detour us from our grand undertaking.
After a brief tour of Key West, we decided to find a comfortable campground where we would set up our equipment and try to get some rest. Retreating a few miles north, we settled on Lazy Lakes Camp on Sugarloaf Key. After checking in, we slowly drove to our campsite. We passed a huge 12-inch Newtonian telescope on a massive mount staring at the azure sky, its owner nowhere in sight. In the campsite across from ours, our neighbor tinkered with his 8-inch Schmidtt-Cassegrain. It would seem we were in the right place!
With our camp made, tent erected, van organized and telescope set up, we settled in for dinner. Our next move would be to polar-align our telescope’s homemade mount, locate the great comet and perhaps begin photography.
As darkness fell we waited in hushed anticipation for the most famous snowball in history to appear. Then, a moment after the great orange globe of the sun slipped below the western horizon, a loud BUZZ-CLICK ... and we were bathed in a sickening yellow light from an unnoticed street lamp directly across from our campsite.
Photography was out of the question for tonight. Bugs danced and played around and around the street lamp, each micro-comets unto themselves in orbit around a quartz-halogen sun. We had driven nearly 1,400 miles to see and photograph history’s most famous comet. The same one that William the Conqueror was said to have seen and took as a sign to invade England in 1066 AD. We would not be stopped by a lightbulb.
What were we to do?
I had a slingshot and was good with it. Maybe no one would notice the sound of the glass breaking. We talked about using the van as a makeshift light stop but the light was too high above us and too close. Before us lay a salt marsh, behind us a small bay, so moving did not seem a very appealing prospect. Besides, we were all set up and ready to polar-align, and it was getting dark fast. We decided to do the right thing and speak to the caretaker of this facility ... and offer him a bribe.
The next day I walked up to the front office where I explained our predicament. At first the campground manager could not believe that one little lightbulb was going to ruin my Florida vacation. Taking out my wallet I laid a $20 bill on the counter. He looked at me and said, “You are serious, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir, I am,” I replied.
“OK,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
I hurried back to our campsite, not sure what to expect next. A few moments later I saw a small bulldozer making its way toward us. The machine rumbled and belched oily smoke as it approached. My wife asked, “What did you do? Call out the Army Corps of Engineers?”
Climbing into the bucket of the bulldozer, the camp manager raised himself up and unscrewed the offensive lightbulb. With the job well done, the camp manager walked over and handed me my $20 bill. He said, “You can keep your money, but if you don’t mind, I sure would like a look at that comet everybody is talking about.”
Pointing to my telescope, I said, “I can give you a great view!” Then I told him to come back at about 2 a.m. and we would treat him to the show of a lifetime. “2 a.m.!?,” he gasped. “I don’t want to see it that bad!” He then climbed back on his machine and drove off.
“Thanks a lot!” we called after him.
Former Arcadian Victor C. Rogus (F.R.A.S.) is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, living in Sedona, Arizona.