In 1986, my grandpa’s aunt Rose was 88. Looking to the sky one night, we saw Halley’s Comet, and she said, “Like everything else, it’s not as good as it used to be.”
She saw it for the first time in 1910, when she was twelve years old.
It wasn’t just nostalgia talking. Google the famous comet and you’ll see that its first 20th century appearance outshined its second. Rose was a canny old woman and, I suspect, a canny young girl.
When she was twelve, she lived on a farm two miles north of Bloomfield, a Nebraska town itself not very old. A railroad spur (ref) recently linked Bloomfield with the big freight lines. New business was cropping up daily, and emigrants from all over Europe were still leaving the German empire for the more peaceful American west.
In the years after the Schleswig war of 1864 brought that disputed Danish territory into Bismark’s increasing pervue, John Prosch was encouraged by the family to forego “blood and iron” for “corn and cows,” and he came to America, first settling in Iowa, where Rose was born, and eventually to Nebraska. Everything about the Prosch’s life was promising. Even bright new lights in the sky were to be welcomed and not feared.
In 1910, people all over thought Halley’s comet was chock full of cyanide and, unlike the other times it passed by, would dust the planet with poison. Like Jo Harper, the main character in my new young reader novella, Waiting for a Comet, Rose didn’t believe the media hype forecasting the world’s end. But seventy years later she told great tales of grown men spending small fortunes on cyanide gas masks, anti-poison pills and comet deflectors (an early version of the tin foil cap). She told me about one rancher who wore his mask the entire time the comet was visible, despite everyone else happily going on about their lives around him.
Rose makes up only one small part of Jo Harper. Like any fictional character, Jo finds her inspiration in dozens of different people, known and unknown, real and made up. But more than anyone else, it was Rose who introduced me to early Bloomfield, a place she loved more than words can say. A wide open place to watch and wait patiently for comets.