March 18, 1986
There were four of us in that boat of a station wagon, screaming away from the light into the suburban black. The car could have held double that amount, but strangely, nobody else wanted to come. Driving was Niall (pronounced Neil) Farrelly, an upperclassman who was stuck rooming on a floor full of obnoxious college freshmen because he transferred to our school in the middle of the term.
Niall was one of the last people I thought would be interested in driving 100 miles out of town on a whim. But hey, he was an engineering major, and he had been inundated with the same media hype we'd all been hearing for the past year. Carl Sagan couldn't shut up about it, and there was that ominous looking book nearly everywhere you turned.
This was supposed to be one of the last weeks that you'd be able to see Halley's Comet, in the southeastern sky, as it screamed away from the light and back into its own corner of the suburban black. From our campus, east was the shining Philly skyline, and south was puffing oil refineries. It only seemed logical to do the road trip thing, and the Jersey shore seemed perfect. We pointed to a little dot on the map called Cape May, right at the southern tip, knowing it to be far from the sparkly rides and well-lit boardwalks.
We left around 8:00 pm, with that utter disregard for a good night's sleep that can only be understood prior to the age of 25. Poor Niall was stuck in a car with three of those obnoxious freshmen.
To his right was Fozz, a wide-grinning frat pledge and fellow engineering major, who just spent the last few hours arguing with his girlfriend about this spur of the moment trip. In the back seat, passenger side, was Beave, Fozz's roommate, and the amateur astronomy buff of the group. I was next to Beave, right behind Niall. (I won't be telling you my college nickname, but thank you for asking.)
We stopped at our campus 7-11 to get cigars to smoke on the beach, then we zoomed off to Cape May. After almost 30 years, I can't recall much about the drive down, but I remember that little town. We circled and recircled the half-dozen streets, looking for the best place to park and comet-gaze. There was rampant paranoia about the town cops that we glimpsed from time to time.
Then the beach. We finally parked and walked out onto the sand, the waves crashing higher and closer to us than really seemed proper for that time of night. The stars were crisp and the sky was black. Beave kind of sheepishly told us that, despite being from Baltimore, he had never stood on a beach before. We broke out the cigars, mainly for warmth. I didn't mind the stomach ache it gave me.
It probably took a half hour to really get our bearings -- and to remember that we had a friend's binoculars in the car -- before we found that sad little comet near the horizon. Just barely a smudge with the naked eye, the coma and tail were nicely visible with the binocs. We felt mildly betrayed by the talking heads on TV -- not to mention Professor Billyuns and Billyuns -- who all promised a major spectacle. It didn't matter. This was something special.
Being so excited, we didn't notice the elderly couple walking along the beach. (I won't examine my memory in too much detail, for fear that these old people weren't so much older than I am right now.) They saw what we were doing, and asked us to point out the comet for them. Despite our gesturing, neither of them could make it out. I think it was me who suggested propping the binoculars on a nearby stone wall, and have Fozz go stand about 10 feet in front. I'd look through and get it centered, then tell him how to adjust his stance and his upraised arm, so he would be pointing right at the target.
It took a few minutes to get right, but it worked. The lady and the gentleman took turns looking through the steadied device, and their eyes followed Fozz's magnified finger right to it.
"Hey Beave," Fozz called over, a while later.
"I touched a comet."
We hung around a bit after they left, collecting shells and daring each other to go further towards the water. Before getting back in the car, we did probably the cheesiest thing any of us had ever done, or done since. We put our four hands together and vowed that, if any of us are still alive when the comet comes back again, in 2061, we'll make our way down to this very same beach and say hello again.
We got back in the car and headed to the highway that would take us back to the city, to the light. Almost at the on-ramp, red and blue light filled the night.
Panic, of course. It was something like 3:00 am, and we were 100 miles away from where we should have been. (Though we were breaking no laws here, I still have no idea if we were violating university policy by being out of the dorm like that.)
"You know your left tail light is out, son?"
Again, almost 30 years of time has fogged the details, but I'm pretty sure a verbal warning was all that Cape May's finest had for us that night.
I knew I should've been sleepy on the drive back. We all should've been. We were also not quite 20 years old and knee-deep in high adventure. Classic rock anthems blared from the radio, and we sang along loudly. But then another song started up, one we all knew by heart. Its first bars were just lone piano, cycling through a subtle harmony that penetrates one's chest because the pianist's left hand is all the way down at the bass end. We didn't sing to the first few verses, because this is one that builds. The words that make up the name of the song don't even appear until it's nearly over. It's the one moment of this whole trip that will be burned into my memory until the year 2061.
"Hey Beave," Fozz turned around and called.
"Don't stop believin."