Aging Few Get 2nd Look at Comet : For 'Two-Timers,' Halley Is a Journey Back in Time

Times Staff Writer

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.

"When we saw it in 1910, it was more solid than the way people are seeing it now," Hanz Schwarz, 85, said as the trio headed down the Harbor Freeway in search of a good viewing spot early Tuesday morning. Older brother George, 88, who lives in Seal Beach, had driven up to his sister's Alhambra home to spend a couple of days, and they had picked up Hanz Schwarz at his home in Temple City. When they reached San Pedro, they would have to find a spot with a clear view of the southeastern sky and a horizon as unencumbered as possible by city lights. George Schwarz had brought both binoculars and a compass.

"It had more of a tail," Stansfield said. "I was only 5, but I remember it as well as if it had been two weeks ago. Mother and Dad got us all out of bed and out in the back yard."

"We watched it every night for about a week," Hanz Schwarz said.

"They said, oh, we were going to go through the tail, which was filled with gases, and we might all be asphyxiated," Stansfield said. "My mother was a very levelheaded person, so it didn't bother me any." She remembered something and chuckled. "I think the reverend bothered me. I can remember when I was older and he said the world was going to end, I'd get excited, I don't know why."

"When you stop and think about it, it only seems like it was yesterday," Hanz Schwarz said. "Seventy-six years--boom! There we go!" They all laughed heartily.

Their driver, a Times photographer, stopped on a street that overlooked the edge of the harbor. A number of other cars were pulling up there too. It was 4 a.m. The comet was supposed to be visible just east of the constellation Sagittarius between 4:30 and 5:15 a.m., then wiped away by sunrise. (By Sunday, the moon will so illuminate the sky that it will be virtually impossible to find the comet again until around April 1, when it will again be visible but even closer to the horizon.)

The stars seemed faint; the comet would be very hard to see with the naked eye. As 4:30 a.m. drew near, its position was not apparent. Then a man in a Windbreaker located it through a graffiti-stained, dime-operated telescope and called to the comet-seekers.

'This Looks Different'

"It's just a chalky blur," he advised as Stansfield looked through the telescope, seeing nothing. "It's very faint," he said sympathetically. "If you look at the stars, all the other stars show up as stars, but this looks different."

Someone placed their hand on the side of the telescope's eyepiece to help Stansfield accent the contrast.

"Oh, I think I do," she said. "I think I see it. It's like a blur."

"Was it larger last time?" another bystander asked.

"Oh yes," she said. "You could even see the tail floating. It was as bright as one of those stars up there tonight."

Hanz Schwarz looked next. "You can just make it out," he said. Through the telescope, the image was that of an amoeba seen through a bad microscope, or two very faint stars almost merged.

"It's almost like when you go to the eye doctor," someone else said, "and you think you're looking at something but you're not sure and he keeps saying 'Did you see this or did you see that ?' "

George Schwarz looked. "He's a long way off," he said.

"He's a lot farther off," Stansfield agreed.

Someone asked the sister and brothers if they had used binoculars in 1911.

"We just stood in the back yard and looked over the fence," George Schwarz said.

Sunrise would be nearly due. The sky was turning a deep blue, a thin line of reddish brown smog appearing over the horizon. The temperature had risen from the 40s to the 50s. They climbed back into the back seat of the sedan, comparing impressions.

Visually, it had not been a memorable experience, but Elsie Stansfield said she was satisfied.

"I would have stood on my head to see it again." she said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World