Bennett’s Comet

Paul wondered if his father piloted a plane the same way he drove their truck. The only plane he’d seen his father fly was a balsa-wood glider they’d built together years ago while stationed near San Diego. Its wing span was longer than Paul was tall and covered by orange, waxy paper. In broad, green California fields they launched it like a kite, except the string would fall away when the glider flew directly over their heads and then the plane just rested on warm, rising air while gravity gently tugged it back to earth.

But his father wouldn’t talk about flying or the war, so Paul pieced together an image from photos of his father in his Air Force uniform, memories of airplane cockpits seen at air shows, and black-and-white war movies watched with friends on Saturday mornings before playing Army around the neighborhood all afternoon. That image of leather flight jackets and aviator sunglasses was how he’d pictured his father until a few months ago.

His father drove the two-year old pickup slowly, never over 55, and made them keep all but the triangular wing windows closed to increase their gas mileage. The oil embargo made fuel expensive and in some places scarce. He explained how open windows created drag. At even intervals he checked the sideview mirrors that stuck out from the truck like rectangular metal ears and, less frequently, reviewed all the gauges on the dashboard. The truck had no air conditioner, just a fan blowing hot air around the inside of the cab. Dampness puddled past the end of Paul’s shorts, where his thighs rested directly on the vinyl.

His older brother David stared out the passenger window and tapped on the shiny metal wire of his orthodontic headgear. The cloth band connected to the headgear pressed down on his spiky hair. Before leaving on this trip, David finally got their father’s permission to grow out his crewcut. At least David wasn’t playing with that stupid calculator. He had saved his allowance each month for a year to buy it and said its brand name, Hewlett-Packard, like it was a gift from the future. Paul was not allowed to touch it.

Paul had imagined new jobs for his dad as a way to pass the time quietly while he, his father and brother drove north forever that day, from Beaver, Utah to just outside Boise. The morning had started clear and hot and grew hotter as they moved through sage plains between red and yellow hills. In the afternoon they encountered high, lazy clouds whose shadows darkened the valley sides as they passed through Twin Falls. Before retiring last Christmas, his father had been a Lt. Col. in the Air Force flying cargo in Southeast Asia while the family stayed in the States. He flew the big Starlifters and Hercules planes between Korea, Vietnam, Guam, and the Philippines, moving supplies around to support the troops fighting the Viet Cong. Now it was the end of July and his dad still didn’t have a job. Paul hoped he’d get a cool job, like test pilot or fire fighter, something that he could brag about to kids at school.

Sitting still on the hot bench seat would have been easier for Paul if he could have listened to baseball. One game could cover a lot of miles, miles where the hot, brown outside never changed and every hill, gully, mesa, and outcropping looked like the previous one. Paul reached for the radio’s black tuning knob. His sweaty t-shirt peeled away from the back of the hot seat.

“Leave it alone,” his dad said without taking his eyes off the road.

“We’re bored.” He waited for David to second his statement, but his brother seemed oblivious. “I want to look for a ball game.”

“Leave it alone. We’re almost there.”

Paul sat back. He never got to do anything, between his father’s rules and his stupid brother. Why have an older brother if he wasn’t on your side sometimes? He couldn’t really blame his brother for avoiding arguments with their dad. David had enough to deal with, between braces and bad hair and junior high. It must have been hard last year to be the new kid in sixth grade and the only one in school with a crew cut. It sure hadn’t been fun being his little brother.

Mom would have let him look for a game, but she wasn’t here. After working at the hospital less than a year she didn’t have enough vacation to go. She stayed home and worked swing shift while her three men went to help grandparents in the mountains of Arizona get ready for winter. Not cleaning up after them for a few weeks was enough of a break, she said, and besides, it was a good opportunity for her boys to explore the Southwest together.

They exited the interstate a few miles northwest of Boise. From the off-ramp they went right down a two-lane road and then left into a campground across from where a burger stand’s neon light flickered on in response to dusk.

Not until their father set the parking brake and turned off the engine did Paul and David climb out of the truck. This campground looked like most of the ones they’d stayed at on the way to and from Arizona. A gravel road looped through a dusty field, like the base path of a ball field, connecting all the campsites. A cinderblock bathhouse stood where the pitcher’s mound would be. Each campsite consisted of a crude dirt driveway to nowhere flanked by a weathered picnic table on one side and, on the other side, a post with a water spigot and electrical outlet. The site’s number was stenciled on the top of the post in faded white paint. About half the sites held a family staying for the night, either in some sort of large, drab canvas tent or a faded Ford pickup with a dingy cab-over camper shell on the back.

It was nearly six-thirty on a muggy Tuesday night in July. Black clouds from the west pushed a chilling wind across the campground. The breeze gave Paul goose flesh. He shuddered with relief. “Can we go explore?” he asked.

“No, I want you to stay here while I go pay.” He pulled his wallet from his back pocket and took out two bills.” Dinner will be ready soon.”

Paul kicked at a rock. He wanted to run around and climb trees and just do something. David agreed to play Fly-Out, but only if he got to hit first. They took their mitts, bat, and ball out of the camper. Paul ran into the grass behind their campsite and watched the burnished clouds glide above the dusty grasslands while his brother tried to hit the ball out towards him. David wasn’t very good at tossing up the ball and then hitting it as it fell. For every honest hit David made at least five misses and three dribblers.

Paul caught the first three balls that were playable, though he had to run down every one of them, adjusting for the wind and fading light. “That’s three—my turn,” he called as he ran back towards the camper.

“Let me see the ball,” David said. “I want to hit a couple more.”

Paul reached for the bat. “But you did three.” He dropped his glove, grabbed the bat with both hands and swung David around. His brother tugged back and pulled them both down. Paul ended up on the bottom, yelling “Let me up! Let me up!,” though he did manage to pull one side of David’s headgear out of the metal socket strapped to his molar.

Their father returned to the campsite and let out a sharp, rising whistle that cut through the wind. “Paul! David! Come here.”

The two boys scrambled to their feet, walked quickly back towards the camper, and stopped in front of their father. David stood a full head taller than Paul, though he wasn’t even two years older.

“You’re making enough noise for the entire campground. I could hear you from five sites away. Other people are staying here. Do you know how rude that is? If you two can’t play together, you can just sit in the truck until dinner.”

“Yes sir,” David said quietly.

Paul protested. “But it’s my turn!”

“Do you want to sit in the truck?” their father said.

Paul hung his head. “No, sir.”

“And David—you’re too old to start fights with your brother. Now, both of you go put up your stuff and make the beds.”

The boys climbed into the camper but left the door open. The inside smelled musty, sealed all day against the heat and damp all night from three people breathing. The camper shell did not extend over the cab of the truck and David had to stoop to stand inside. Both boys knocked their shins against the lantern case as they folded out the U-shaped bench to make a bed. They arranged the sleeping bags the way they were instructed to, with their father’s in the middle. Each bag had to be smoothed flat with the zipper facing left. They blew up the inflatable pillows and placed them at the head of the large bed.

“Dad should have made you follow the rules,” Paul said between puffs.

“Don’t be such a baby.”

“I’m telling Dad you called me names.”

“I wouldn’t tell him anything, unless you want him to yell some more.”

Outside, thunder bumped around between the clouds. They placed pajamas and toiletry kits at the foot of each sleeping bag. Paul hated it when his brother had things figured out just because he was older.

“You think Dad’ll be an astronaut?”

“Yeah, right,” David huffed. “Send him to the moon. I’m tired of him picking on me.”

“He doesn’t pick on you.”

“Yes he does. I’m the oldest. How come you got rid of your crewcut before me?”

Paul hadn’t thought about that.

“He could, you know.” Paul really did think his father should become an astronaut, and it wasn’t a childish thought, either. He knew an astronaut had to be smart and fit, a pilot and a scientist, resourceful and cool under pressure, and his father was all of these. But he was also strict and always making up rules. Astronauts went on long trips, longer than cargo flights, and sometimes that would be just fine with him. He never got to do anything when his Dad was around.

David shook his head. “They only let military people be astronauts and he’s not in the military anymore. I thought maybe he’d fly for the airlines, like Bill’s dad, but Mom said he’s had enough of flying.”

“Did he do anything before the Air Force?”

David shrugged. “How should I know?”

When they finished making up the beds, Paul suggested they play catch. It was something they could do without arguing. David agreed. The two brothers grabbed their mitts and climbed out of the camper.

This was the first season the American League allowed designated hitters to bat in place of pitchers and Paul was anxious to know what was going on. Out here in southern Idaho the nearest teams were the Kansas City Royals and the Oakland A’s. Before leaving Arizona two days ago, he checked the league standings in the newspaper. With the All-Star Game just completed the Royals stood in second place, one-and-a-half games behind Oakland, the team he was rooting for. The Royals faced the Chicago White Sox at home to start the second half of the season. Every hour Paul hoped the news station his father found would advertise a broadcast of a Kansas City or Oakland game. None did.

“Too bad we can’t get baseball out here,” Paul said, aiming the ball slightly to the left, into the wind, to get it to his brother. The wind was picking up strength, pushing the roiling clouds faster towards the east.

“They’d just be American League games,” David said, “with those stupid designated hitters.”

“It’s not stupid. California’s got Robinson playing DH. He’s going to the Hall of Fame.”

“I don’t see why they changed the rules. It doesn’t improve anything. Oakland’s leading the West with some bush-league DH from the Phillies who strikes out all the time.”

“That’s because Reggie’s got all their power,” Paul said.

“Right. So you get no bunts, no sacrifices, no pinch hitters, just some guy who can’t hit, can’t steal, and can’t play defense. It’s stupid.”

“It’s not. The pitcher bats once, maybe twice, never hits above .200, so why not let someone bat who’s better?”

“The rules were fine just the way they were. They didn’t have to change.”

Paul knew his brother was wrong—lots of sports had offensive or defensive specialists—but he decided to keep his mouth shut and just play.

Their father had just finished setting up the green, two-burner Coleman stove and started pumping pressure into its faded red fuel tank when lightning struck the barren plain behind the hamburger stand. Thunder followed immediately, then heavy drops began drilling into the ground, leaving craters in the dust.

Their father called out orders. “You boys—in the truck.”

“What about dinner?” Paul asked.

“In the truck. Now.”

Paul got into the cab next to his brother, who had already turned on his calculator. He asked David to play a game of Hangman with him—David could even choose the first word—but his brother declined. Rain, driven by the wind, slashed across the open field of the campground. In the sideview mirror he watched his father pack away the food, calmly and properly sealing and securing everything in its place, carrying it from the picnic table back to the camper without running or stumbling. It was just a little squall—what was the big deal? His father locked the camper door and then walked around to the driver’s door. By the time he sat behind the steering wheel, he was soaked. Body heat and wet clothes steamed up the windows.

Paul skimmed the maps and pamphlets they’d picked up at Yellowstone, Arches, and Petrified Forest National Parks on their way south a month earlier. Back then, they had taken their time, spending a couple nights in each park. Their dad hiked with them down trails with names like Biscuit Basin and Delicate Arch. He walked around all the visitor’s centers with them, reading the signs to them and letting them sit by themselves in the front row of the little theater during the slide shows. Paul tried to like all the spires and arches and mesas and boulders because his dad seemed to. By the time they left the Petrified Forest, though, he had to admit it was boring. To him, the Southwest was one big prehistoric desert without dinosaurs. Those were up at Dinosaur National Monument. In a tour book his dad had at home Paul studied pictures of mountains split in two with allosaurus leg bones jutting into the sky. He begged to go. He pleaded to go. He showed his father pictures of all the things they could do: climb over fields of fossilized bones, see a full T. Rex skeleton, and hike to pictures Indians had carved into cliff faces. His father told him no, those places were too far east for this trip and, of course, David hadn’t said a thing to help.

His father checked his watch, then searched the AM radio stations for the ABC news broadcast. Paul wasn’t sure what his father was looking for. Every hour the radio said the same names from the nightly TV news back home: Nixon, Mitchell, Roe and Wade, Israel, Wounded Knee. During the news his father stroked his fledgling beard with his right hand. Occasionally he’d humph to himself, especially during stories about the war or the economy. After the weather report—the last one said possible thundershowers over Boise and the Snake River Valley, ending around midnight—he turned off the radio. Paul wished for once he’d wait through the commercials for the sports report.

Paul’s stomach let out a thunderous rumble. He pointed through the steamed-over windshield. “I’m hungry. Can we go get hamburgers over there?”


“Why not? We wouldn’t have to cook or do dishes.”

“It costs money to eat out.”

Paul got scared. His dad hadn’t worked in nearly a year. Mom stayed behind to make money. They were avoiding restaurants. “We’re not going broke, are we?”

His father sighed. “No, we’re fine.”

“Then can we have hamburgers?”

“We’ll eat what we have.”

If they weren’t already broke, a couple hamburgers wouldn’t hurt. Paul’s stomach rumbled again and he glared at David, playing with his stupid calculator. Fat lot of help he was. David probably thought Dad wouldn’t give him anything.

Fat raindrops splashed up from the hood of the truck. His father turned on the dome light and reviewed the route home in the road atlas. Paul knew from the way he roughly turned the pages, he was mad. He didn’t like having plans interrupted. Paul tried to think of more jobs his Dad might do. With his knowledge of numbers and all his planning, his father seemed more like an accountant than what Paul imagined a pilot to be. Is that what his dad would be, an accountant, and could he brag about that?

“We’re going to drive all the way home tomorrow,” his father told the boys. “It’ll be more driving than today.” He held up the atlas and passed his hand over the roads from Boise to Pendleton, through the Tri-Cities, and across the Hanford Nuclear Reservation where, during World War II, they made part of The Bomb. Getting up the Yakima Valley would be tricky—the interstate didn’t run through there yet. His finger rose up over the Cascades at Snoqualmie Pass and traced down to Tacoma. “It’ll be good to be home, though, won’t it?”

“Mom’s taking me to the orthodontist on Friday,” David said. “He better drop the headgear before school starts.”

“I like camping,” Paul answered. Going home meant fifth grade would start soon. That meant American history and fractions, two subjects he dreaded. But there were scale-model fighter jets to build at home. Soon the playoffs would start.

“Can we call Mom?” David asked. “Tell her we’re coming home?”

“No. Long distance is expensive, especially from pay phones.” Their father propped the atlas against the steering wheel. “We didn’t even have a telephone when I was your age.” He paged towards the front of the atlas and pointed to a spot on a map. “We lived on a farm up here by Boulder. Colorado’s just high, flat plains out there. When we finally got a phone, it was a party line.”

David looked up from his calculator. “What’s that?”

“That’s where several houses share one phone line. The operator rang the phone differently for whichever house got the call, but all the phones rang. Anyone could listen in.”

Paul grinned at his dad. “Did you?”

“Just once, right after we got it. Somebody was calling long-distance to tell the neighbors their son died in a car crash.” He smiled briefly. “My father spanked me good for listening. Made me go apologize, too.”

His father seemed like he was in a good mood just then, though even after a month on the road he still wasn’t sure he knew his father’s moods and sense of humor. Paul knew his brother wouldn’t ask, so he’d have to do it himself. “Dad, are you going to get a job?”

His father flipped a few pages forward in the atlas. “Probably not for a while. I might go back to school.”

He’d never heard of anyone’s father going to school. “What for?”

“I wanted to be an electrical engineer once, take you guys fishing on the weekends, maybe buy a boat. The draft got in the way of all that. The vocational school back home might have something in electronics, but I have to see if they accept the G. I. Bill.”

Their father rolled down the fogged side window and stuck out his head. “Looks like it’s letting up.” He closed and stowed the atlas and stepped out of the truck.

The squall had passed. The summer sun sank lower behind the jagged horizon, leaving a tarnished-copper glow to mark the start of twilight. Crickets in the grass returned to practicing their nightly music. Paul and David climbed out with their mitts and played catch until they were told to wash up and set the picnic table. Dinner was spaghetti and salad, a festive-enough meal for Paul, a lover of noodles. He heaped a second helping of pasta on his plate and ate until his ribs felt crowded. Their dad wiped sauce from his hairy chin.

After dinner David and Paul washed the dishes and stowed them in the camper while their father packed sack lunches and placed them in the cab of the truck. He said they’d need to leave early tomorrow and eat lunch while driving to get home by evening.

The three of them made their way to the showers.

There was a single, open shower stall in the men’s bathroom housed in the cinderblock building. Mold grayed the grout between the blue tiles. Their father slipped a dime into a small metal box on the shower wall, turned the dial, and adjusted the water’s temperature. While he brushed and flossed his teeth and shaved, the boys hurriedly scrubbed. David shampooed first while Paul soaped down. Paul saw David’s few strands of pubic hair and prayed that he’d have at least some himself before he had to start junior high. He couldn’t imagine showering with all those other kids. It was bad enough sharing with his brother. Paul shampooed next. They both rushed through one final rinse before the dime ran out.

While their father showered the boys toweled off, brushed their teeth, and combed their hair. In the scratched mirror above the sink Paul watched his father, large and hairy and seemingly unconcerned about being naked, scratch shampoo through his hair. Paul imagined that’s how ballplayers looked after a game. There was a tan line around his father’s biceps. Below it the skin was orange-brown, with the left arm darker than the right. Everything above the tan line and below the neck was pasty white in the fluorescent light. There were no tan lines on his father’s legs. At the moment he couldn’t remember his father ever wearing shorts or go swimming, even in this kind of summer heat. Paul tried not to stare at his father’s pubic hair, which was bushier than the few strands David had. His father’s shins both had a weird bald patch on the front. Was that from military socks, or did all fathers have that?

David rolled his towel on the bias and tried snapping Paul.

“Cut it out,” their father said. “You boys head back. I’ll be there in a moment.”

Back at the truck, the boys put their towels and shower kits in the camper. Paul figured that if they couldn’t have hamburgers, maybe they could play a game before going to bed. He wasn’t even sleepy—his hair was still wet from the shower and the large, late dinner made him hot and antsy. His brother was ahead in Stratego for the trip and Paul wanted a chance to at least narrow the gap. No matter whether David played the red or blue pieces, nearly every night his miners and spy marched through Paul’s ranks dismantling bombs and capturing his general. When his dad returned from the showers, he asked, “Dad, can you light the lantern?”

His father didn’t even pause while putting away his kit. “No, not tonight.”

His dad wasn’t listening. After tonight they’d be home and there’d be no chance of sitting out late in the yellow globe of light. Paul looked at his brother watching the calculator flash amber numbers in the dusk. He was such a dork sometimes, and no help. “But we want to play a game.”


“Just one. Why not?”

“Because I said so. That should be reason enough. We’re going to bed because tomorrow’s a long day.” His father slid his knife into his pocket and said somewhat absently, “Luckily we’ll gain an hour.”

Paul looked puzzled. “Huh?”

“We change time zones at the Oregon border.”

He still didn’t understand what his father meant. His father took the atlas from the truck along with a flashlight, spread the two-page map of the United States out on the picnic table, and anchored the corners with rocks. He called David over from where he was playing with his calculator, then crouched down where the Atlantic Ocean would be.

He held the flashlight nearly parallel with the ground. “As the earth spins, light from the sun touches the East Coast first, like this.” He turned on the flashlight and slowly rose out of his crouch. In the lowering twilight, a yellow spill of light shone on the lines and letters of the eastern seaboard. “See, while it’s dawn over here, the West Coast where we live is still dark. The sun comes up in the East about three hours before it hits the West. So the country is divided into zones to match when the sun appears to rise. Each zone is an hour different.”

His father stood fully and walked just behind the two boys to show the sun moving towards the West. Paul turned his head to see his father standing behind him smiling down on both of them with the light shining on his face. Before Paul was born, his father had built a telescope and taught himself astronomy. The local paper even did a story on him. He could answer any question asked him about geography or history or science or math. His dad even seemed to know, or at least have met in the Air Force, Alan Sheppard and Neil Armstong and other Gemini and Apollo astronauts who’d orbited Earth and raised puffs of dust on the moon.

Shuffling across the dusty ground, his father moved to the other side of the table and crouched down again. He explained that sunset likewise appeared to happen later in the West than the East. Then he pointed to a line of little T’s running along the Idaho-Oregon border and explained that they marked the boundary of a time zone.

“So that’s why baseball games don’t start at the same time,” Paul said.

“What’s that?” his dad said.

“Some games start around 4 and some around 7. I never knew why.”

“Duh,” David said. “Away games back east start at 7 their time, which is 4 our time.”

“That’s right.” Their father packed up the flashlight and atlas. “Come on—time for bed.”

In the dark of the camper, the three of them settled into their sleeping bags. “Tell us a story, Dad,” Paul asked.

His father made a scoffing sound. “You’re too old for stories.”

“Just one,” David added sleepily.

Paul smiled and echoed his brother’s plea. “Just one. Something about Vietnam.”

“You don’t want to hear about that. Now go to sleep you two.”

Paul lay on his side, looked out the window towards the full moon rising over the flat lands to the east, and remembered one trip when his dad played card games with them, grilled hamburgers on a rusty barbecue, even wore shorts and went swimming. When they were stationed in Hawaii, his father returned from Vietnam with Chinese finger traps and packs of playing cards with an airline’s logo on one side and cartoons illustrating common Japanese phrases on the other. The family drove to a military R & R camp on the north shore of Oahu. There, they rented a yellow, one-room cabin built on stilts. Across the street, a line of low duplexes running along the bank above the beach deflected the sound of waves hitting the sand. It was Paul’s first Spring vacation from school. He and his brother gathered coconuts, built sand castles, played catch with a Frisbee. The whole family bobbed in the waves.

In the cabin Paul and David shared a fold-out bed in the one, same room where their parents slept. Very early one morning their father woke them, wrapped them in their blankets, and guided them outside to the cabin’s dark porch. There in front of them—low on the horizon, just above the duplexes’ flat roofs—hung something so large and bright it seemed to cover half the sky. His father called it Bennett’s Comet. He measured its length by comparing it to his fist held out in front of him. A comet, he explained, was a big ball of ice and gas that followed the laws of motion to fly in wide circles around the sun. Some returned every couple of years; others took decades or centuries to swing wide out into space before coming back. Bennett’s comet had just been discovered a few months earlier. Astronomers calculated it circled the sun every 1700 years. The last time it might have been seen was during the final years of the Roman Empire. His mother stood behind Paul and held him against her legs. In his sleepy state, he mistook the comet for a construction-paper cutout like ones he’d made in his first grade classroom or a huge, streaking fastball frozen in the heavens. After a few minutes of blinking into the mild tropical night, the entire family shuffled back to their fold-out beds.

In the camper, David fell asleep first of the three, his breathing quiet and regular. Paul noticed it took his father a while to fall asleep but when he did, he started snoring loud enough to drown out the crickets outside the camper. He turned over to look at his dad. At the center of the new beard his lips parted slightly. With closed eyes he still looked smart and concerned, astronaut material. Paul turned back over and watched the moon out the window. His dad’s footprints could be up there. He knew that one day his dad would come around again, put on shorts again and buy them hamburgers. He thought he might like him then, might like having two parents all the time. David would like him then, too. That would make things easier. He waited for sleep to come around again and imagined the three of them driving home tomorrow, one long last day, his brother on one side adding up miles on his Hewlett-Packard calculator and his father on the other side stroking his beard with one hand and steering with the other.

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