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The night the earth went through the comet's tail

IN 1910 we did not use phrases like ``mass media communications'' and ``mass hysteria'' in our rural community. The ``media'' at our farm consisted of the semiweekly newspaper delivered by mail the day after publication, The Michigan Farmer, and The Ladies' Home Journal. All carried information about Halley's comet. In our three-teacher school, grades 5 through twelve had desks in The Big Room. We intermediates went to a small room to ``recite,'' but at our desks we could listen to all sixteen high school students and their classes. The teacher did not limit himself to textbook teaching and encouraged lively discussions. Halley's comet was a favorite topic.

I leaned against a windmill post in farm darkness and gazed at the comet. I was disappointed. I had expected it to light the whole sky with a tail that stretched to the horizon. It looked so little; like a white cocoon!

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As for mass hysteria, we did not scream nor wave our arms frantically, but at school it was delightfully scary to talk about ``what if'' as we ate lunch from our tin dinner pails. ``What if'' all were asphyxiated the night the earth went through the tail of the comet! ``What if'' debris in the tail hit our houses!

Five years before the comet's appearance a religious sect established a colony four miles from us to await the imminent Second Coming. So we had heard about ``Signs in the Sky'' and ``The Last Days.'' None of us paid any attention until we were due to go through the tail. Then we said ``What if they are right!''

Elsie's family did something about it. The day before the earth was to go through the tail, she reported that they took all the black stocking legs her mother had saved for carpet rags and stuffed the cracks of doors and windows so no gas from the comet's tail could get in. I said my family was not going to do anything. Elsie was smug as she held a wedge of apple pie in her hand. She took a big bite and with her mouth full said, ``Noah's neighbors didn't listen either.''

I wanted to stay awake all night but didn't. The next day the high school teacher and his wife told their experience. They were a childless couple, married four years, whose land joined ours. Since they were relatives and close friends of my parents I thought they were too old and staid to play jokes.

After supper that night, Jim lighted his green shaded kerosene lamp and settled at his desk to work on the correspondence course he was taking from the State Normal. In the kitchen Luella washed the dishes and set the breakfast table. He bent over his desk and book unaware that his heavy wavy hair was too close to the lamp chimney until it began to smoke. Without missing a sentence in his reading, he brushed the singed hair into the wastebasket. When Luella came in from the kitchen, she said ``Something smells queer! Have you noticed?''

Absorbed in his study he only said ``Um-m'' without looking up. She moved around the room. Finally she said, ``Listen to me! Something smells queer. Do you suppose there is anything to the idea of gas from the comet tonight?''

When he realized what she was talking about, he agreed there was a funny smell. He went with her from room to room even stepped outside with her, carefully keeping the singed side of his hair close to her face. She decided to get out towels and sheets to cover all doors and windows, ``just in case.'' It seemed cruel to let her shake out her carefully ironed linens so he said, ``I singed my hair on that lamp chimney a while back, but of course that couldn't be what you smell, could it?''

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He was too much of a teacher to let an amusing anecdote that might have teaching possibilities pass, so soon we all heard the story. The reaction of the students might be called ``mass hysteria.'' Rose Burket

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