Dave Barry

Classic '96: Comet fever


This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, April 7, 1996.

I guess everybody wants to hear about how I almost got killed by a possibly supernatural being. This happened about a month ago, and I blame Comet Hyakutake.

Comet Hyakutake was of course the most recent spectacular breathtaking once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event that nobody could see except astronomers. Every few years, when they figure we've forgotten the last alleged comet, the astronomers get together at a big party sponsored by the Telescope and Binocular Manufacturers Association, and after several hours of drinking gin straight out of bottles they "discover" a new comet, which they predict will be an awesome display of celestial fireworks clearly visible from inside closed refrigerators.

And of course we in the news media, ignoring the fact that nobody ever saw any of the previous "comets," write breathless front-page stories about the new one, including instructions on how to locate it in the sky. "The comet should be clearly visible at 2:37 a.m. just to the southeast of the constellation known as Mucous Humongous, or the Big Booger," we say, knowing full well that neither we nor our readers have the vaguest idea where ANY constellation is, or for that matter which direction is "southeast."

But people try to see the comet anyway. They stand out in the dark for hours, looking hopefully in random directions, ultimately to be rewarded, if they're lucky, with a spectacular, breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime view of a bug walking across the lens of their newly purchased telescope or binoculars.

My point is that we've been burned so many times that anybody who bought into the Comet Hyakutake hype had to be a total moron. Like me, for example. I can't explain it. One minute I was reading the comet story in The Miami Herald, and the next minute, like Charlie Brown getting suckered into trying to kick the football yet another time, I was saying to my son: "Rob, let's go see the comet!" He said OK, probably because he's 15 -- an age at which you find your parents hideously embarrassing -- and he figured that if we went to a dark, remote area, there was less chance that his friends would see him with me.

So that night we drove way out into the Everglades, which The Herald article had said would be a good place for comet- viewing because it's away from Miami, with its bright lights, shiny jewelry, gunfire, etc. We pulled off the highway onto an overgrown dirt road, and after a short distance we stopped and got out. It was very dark, and as I stood and gazed up at the vast, star-studded universe, I was struck by a question that has tantalized the human race for thousands of years.

"Rob," I said, "do you think there are alligators around here?"

"Why do you think I'm on the roof of the car?" he replied.

You know how when you're in the wilderness at night, you get to thinking that wild animals are watching you? I was definitely getting that feeling. And I wasn't worried about just alligators; the Everglades is also a popular stomping ground for snakes, spiders, panthers, and sharp-billed wading birds that could wade up behind a person in the dark and peck him until he bled to death from his ankles.

I knew these animals were out there, because every now and then, one of them would scream. I don't know why they were screaming; perhaps they just found out they were on the Endangered Species List. Or perhaps they simply enjoyed making me nervous.

FIRST PANTHER: Look! Another moron trying to see the alleged "comet." Make that noise you make, Ralph.


FIRST PANTHER: Good one! He's climbing onto the car roof with his son!

I'll tell you what else I started thinking about: the goatsucker. You may have read about the goatsucker; this is a fanged, reptilian, red-eyed creature that sucks all the blood out of goats and other barnyard animals. It was first reported in Puerto Rico, where it is known as "Chupacabras," which is Spanish for "attorney."

No, seriously, it's Spanish for "goatsucker," and some people are claiming that it's responsible for recent animal deaths in the Miami area. (Sooner or later, everybody comes to Miami, and I include Madonna in that statement.) The scientific community insists that it's just a dog, but of course the scientific community also claims that it can see comets, so I'm leaning toward the goatsucker theory.

Anyway, there we were, in the dark, surrounded by screaming animals, in an area reliably rumored to be inhabited by a thing that would regard us as Giant Economy Size Hemoglobin Slurpees, and I will frankly admit that Comet Hyakutake was no longer our highest priority.

"There it is!" I said, pointing at a smudge in the sky that could have been a breathtaking once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event, or a moth.

"Yes!" agreed Rob, and after allowing it to take our breath away for maybe 12 seconds, we climbed down off the roof and got into the car (Rob did this without ever touching the ground) and motored rapidly back toward the friendly twinkling muzzle flashes of Miami.

Just so you know: Astronomers are already promoting the next alleged comet, which is scheduled to arrive in 1997 and which they are calling -- I am not making this up -- "Comet Hale-Bopp." I have already seen a breathless news story that says, quote: "Some astronomers predict its amazing glow will light up the Earth's night sky." Maybe so. Maybe there really is a comet; maybe you should go out and look for it. All I'm saying is, wear garlic.