We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts, we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder Star
Okay, none of us were Kings and in no way could we be confused for people of Asiatic heritage. The only things of value we had with us were a couple of pairs of binoculars and an old maroon Dodge Aspen. The field was a pasture, the fountain was a fishpond and I suppose you could call the hill we camped on a mountain if you were prone to exaggeration. We weren’t following yonder star so much as trying to find a really dark place to get a better look at it.
And it wasn’t even a star, it was a comet; Halley’s Comet to be precise.
But this is all out of order.
“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: “Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.”
-Mark Twain, a Biography
Halley’s Comet is a dirty ball of ice in a short-period orbit that brings it close to the Earth roughly every 76 years. Astronomers estimate that it visited our planet about 11 years before Jesus’ birth and was seen in the sky during the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Famed American author Samuel Clemens made it a point to say that since he’d arrived with it in 1835 that he had every intention of departing with it again in 1910. He did it too, very roughly speaking. With that kind of historical pedigree behind it there was little doubt that my friends and I would make every attempt to see this fabled comet for ourselves.
It was in the wee hours of a chilly February night in 1986 when Dale and his little brother Daryl pulled up to my house in their Mom’s car. Local TV weatherman Johnny Beckman had warned viewers that city lights might block metropolitan views of the comet, so we had decided to go to the country for his so-called “optimal viewing conditions”. Dale turned the car south and headed down the interstate toward Locust Grove to my Aunt Dee’s house.
Both she and my Uncle Robert worked for the railroad and lived on about 20 acres of land in the sticks; optimal viewing conditions. What’s interesting is that at some point Robert decided that he needed a hobby to keep him busy in his off time.
Guess what hobby my railroad-working Uncle picked. Go on, I dare you.
Did you guess that my Uncle Robert built an enormous scale model railroad layout? Well if you did, you’re wrong. He bought 60 head of cattle and started raising cows. As a hobby.
So when we me and the guys got to the cow farm we parked away from the house, closed the car doors very quietly and headed straight for the pasture. We weren’t bearing gifts; instead we were loaded down with coats, blankets and binoculars. If we’d truly been Wise Men I believe that we’d have packed more than one flashlight. If we’d even been Reasonably Intelligent Men we would at the very least have packed a fresh change of batteries. It’s really not a good idea to attempt navigating a pasture riddled with cow pies in the dead of night with a dying flashlight – which is exactly what we ended up doing.
Daryl was always a giggler and within half a minute he had the three of us reduced to tears as we tried to stay inside the wobbly circle of orange light. It was a surreal trip across the pasture, full of giggling and cow pie dodging. It seemed like it took forever to cross those 200 yards to where we were headed.
Eventually we did make it to the high spot in the lower pasture where we began to stake out an area that was free of cow plops and big enough to accommodate our blankets. With “base camp” established we all flopped down on the ground, our backs pressed to the hard-packed pasture, our eyes turned to the sky in search of Halley’s Comet.
I can’t remember how long we looked for it, but I remember being disappointed that we didn’t immediately see a giant glowing comet with a long sparkly tail. I think that at most we may have seen a dim smudge where the comet was supposed to be. Dim smudges usually tend not to burn themselves into your memory.
During our journey across the pasture the cows had remained dark shadows ranged well out of our way; phantoms in the night. But as we lay on the ground, chattering about the comet’s location and arguing over whose turn it was to use the binoculars next, the cows quietly began closing their trap. Like jungle natives they slipped up silently and surrounded us. Now you’re thinking to yourself: “Drew, cows can’t BE quiet… that’s complete bullsh-“.
But let me interrupt that thought.
There are hundreds of facts about cows, facts that you may not know. Here are selected Cow Facts that you may need to know to finish this story:
Cow Fact #21: Cows are faster than you’d believe, wait until you spook one to find out.
Cow Fact #114: Cows are actually MORE curious than cats. Unlike cats, they’re far too practical to get into a situation where they might get hurt. You’ll never hear the phrase “curiosity killed the cow”. Mostly because it just sounds silly. Also, cows don’t know how to play with yarn.
Cow Fact #234: Cows can be relatively quiet when they walk, especially if they’re sneaking up on three teenage boys arguing over who dropped the binoculars in a cow pie.
Cow Fact #235: Fresh Cow Pies are the size of large dinner plates, black on the outside, green on the inside. They are squooshy and very hard to get off your shoes.
Cow Fact #3: Cows prefer to sleep hunkered down on the ground and are quite irritated by the perpetuation of the myth that they can be tipped over in mid-slumber.
Another little-known, undocumented fact about cows is that they are willing to use their young as lures to capture unsuspecting humans.
While I was still trying to figure out if the smudge I was seeing was in the sky or on my glasses, Daryl had sat up on his blanket and started softly calling “heeeere cow, heeeeere cow”. At that same moment I noticed a soft rustling sound in the grass behind us so I sat up to see what was happening. Dale, Daryl and I were being encircled by four or five cows who were studying Daryl as he tried to coax a calf over to his blanket. I have absolutely no idea what Daryl planned to do with the calf once he got it because cows aren’t considered to be “lap” animals and this wasn’t a petting zoo.
In hindsight, I know that the cows were just being curious; trying to figure out why there were people lying on top of their poop in the middle of the night. I’d be curious myself if a cow slipped into my bathroom at 2am to take a nap on my toilet. Of course that won’t happen because our bathroom is at the top of the stairs.
Cow Fact #72: Cows prefer escalators.
So the cows were just being curious. At the time however, I didn’t know what to think. For all I knew, the cows were out to exact revenge for one of the herd that had been tipped by some other city boys. I didn’t know as many cow facts then as I do now, and it’s hard to think when you’re squatting on the ground encircled by a ring of surly looking cows.
It was only natural that I panicked.
Grabbing the flashlight off a blanket I aimed it at the cow that looked to be the ringleader. Specifically, I aimed it UNDER the cow, back toward the back parts, the boy-girl differentiation zone. I was looking for udders, which meant that it would be a girl cow, which meant it would be a safe cow because everyone knows that girls are never dangerous (this was how I regarded girls in 1986 mind you, now I know that girls are the most dangerous creatures in existence and only suffer our presence through the medium of tithes, like jewelry and cars).
We didn’t see any udders because no sooner than I turned the flashlight on the batteries died. At the time, sitting in the dark with a large cow leaning in over us, I felt that the proper next step was to jump to the conclusion that the cow was an enraged bull, which I did immediately and without hesitation. We would have to wait to see Halley’s Comet the next time it was in town. For now, we had to escape the pasture.
Grabbing our stuff, we took off at a very fast clip back up the pasture toward the car, without a flashlight to help us. The cows just stood there and watched us run. I bet they were laughing.
Cow Fact #202: Cows love to laugh.
The trip back to the car lasted all of 3 cow manure soaked minutes. Of course I’m exaggerating, we couldn’t have possibly stepped in every cow pie on the way back to the car. Just every other cow pie.
Mark Twain, you can keep Halley’s Comet. I came in without cow manure on me and I plan to leave that way. I’ve become a much Wiser Man since 1986.
O, star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
Until next time,