The first time Elsie Stansfield saw Halley's comet, comet pills, potions and gas masks were the rage. Prayers were offered up in packed churches and cautious people sealed the windows of their homes.
She was 5 years old, but she wasn't afraid. Her levelheaded mother had shrugged off the scare stories. Besides, the comet was nothing compared to another object that came out of the sky that year and "just scared the dickens out of me" as she walked down a wagon wheel-rutted dirt road near her family's two acres on Vernon Avenue near Alameda Street in sleepy Los Angeles. It was an airplane.
Decades passed. Elsie Stansfield married and moved to Alhambra where she enjoyed a stable life, remaining "close as peas in a pod" to her older brothers, George and Hanz. And memory of the comet lingered.
"I was always fascinated by the idea it was in the heavens when Mark Twain was born and when he died," she said, "and I remember thinking when I was in my 50s, 'I wonder if I'll ever see it again?' "
This week, at 81, she did.
Stansfield and her brothers bundled themselves up in the middle of a chilly night and rode from the San Gabriel Valley to the edge of San Pedro, past the orange lights of Los Angeles Harbor, to watch--just barely--a dim, fuzzy comet's return.
In doing so, they joined millions of "Halley's Two-Timers," whose squint-eyed determination during the last months has been a tribute both to individual longevity and the comet's universal appeal as a signpost for the human race.
To pay homage, numerous planetariums around the United States have scheduled special "two-timers" programs to solicit oral and written reminiscences from those who saw the comet's more tumultuous reception in 1910-1911 and to make it easier for them to find the comet in the sky this year.
There have been a number of dramatic responses. In Fort Davis, Tex., an elderly, ailing man who said he had seen the comet when he was a youngster arrived at the McDonald Observatory last December, wheezing, gasping and clutching a portable oxygen bottle, and asking to see it again through the observatory's 107-inch telescope. After doing so, the man announced that he was ready to die, observatory staff member Robert Scheppler said.
Joseph Laufer, a New Jersey teacher who has become one of the nation's most dedicated comet fans and entrepreneurs of comet-related shirts, buttons and books, has received hundreds of letters from two-timers. A memory that many of the writers share is that of a parent standing next to them beneath the blackness and remarking, with some rapture, that the child might live long enough to see the comet the next time around.
Margaret Batterham Waters remembered being taken for long evening walks at the age of 13 by her father in the winter of 1910 in Asheville, N.C., "his strong voice drifting across the darkness telling us of the recurrence of this phenomenon, and we felt ourselves fortunate to welcome what others had beheld through the milleniums."
Get Second Look
Weeks later, after the comet had disappeared and then returned to her part of the heavens, Waters said her father woke her and her brother in the middle of the night to see it again.
" 'I got you up because I want you to well remember it,' Father said, 'for you may be here when it comes again.' His words fell away to a murmur: 'In 76 years, it will be a very different world. And I shall not be here.' "
In a letter he wrote to Hansen Planetarium's "1910 Halley's Comet Club" in Salt Lake City, Heber Melvin Morris said that through a 5-year-old's eyes the comet "looked like an immense snowball, pieces of it flying off and outward behind it. They were glowing with heat like fireworks and would explode, causing the sound it was noted for. . . . It was a sight and sound that you wouldn't forget in all your life (and) what do you know--I'm going to see it again!"
Experts like Laufer smile wryly at some of the purple prose the elderly writers have submitted, attributing it to fading memory.
"People really exaggerated," Laufer said. "They told me they could smell the tail of the comet in the air, that it was the size of the moon."
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, even second-timers with accurate powers of recall have been disappointed by the comet for several reasons: Its closest point to Earth is about two and a half times farther away than in 1910-1911. And that point, 39 million miles, comes about two months after "perihelion" (the point when an object is closest to the sun and thus burning brightest), as opposed to one month after perihelion the last time around. In addition, the comet's path is more to the south this time, and thus not as high beyond the southern horizon. And finally, for many viewers the perpetual glow of urban life diminishes the natural contrast.