Over many years, as I tried to find my bearings in the night sky, I have been aided by mentors. Dozens, possibly hundreds, of people have helped me to find my way, and each one would be worthy of a long column.   But of all these people, the one to whom I owe the most is my father.  He had a passing interest in astronomy, but he liked to think that his interest spawned mine.

Of all Dad’s influence, by far the most profound happened at dinner one evening early in the summer of 1960, when he told a captivating and unforgettable story of a book he had read as a young adult. Written by Arthur Preston Hankins and titled  Cole of Spyglass Mountain, the book was a story of a young boy whose abusive father sent him away to a boarding school whose students were known not by names but by numbers; Joshua Cole’s was 5635. One teacher at the school was interested in astronomy, and that teacher inspired Cole to follow the night sky.  As Cole matured, he set up his telescope at railway depots and earned a steady income letting passengers look through his telescope. With increasing wealth, he built an observatory on a hill he called Spyglass Mountain.

One night at his telescope, Cole discovered evidence of intelligent life on Mars. At that very moment, a criminal intent on killing him broke into the observatory and began firing shots at Cole. As bullets ricocheted around the curved dome, Cole was seriously injured.

Dad’s voice lowered a bit as he reached the climax of this beautiful story. As Cole lay in bed recovering from his injury someone entered his room excitedly, carrying a stack of newspapers, all of which were trumpeting the story of how this  “alleged fake astronomer” had beaten all the professionals to make this seminal discovery.  Dad smiled broadly as he quoted the end of the book: “Is Mars a living planet? Cole of Spyglass Mountain famous in a night.”

I have had many mentors, though my Dad’s wonderful story is probably the most fertile piece of inspiration I’ve ever had in my life as a stargazer. The story had a direct bearing on my decision to begin my own search for comets five years after I heard it.  There is an asteroid in the sky discovered in 1981 by S.J. (Bobby) Bus.  It orbits the Sun with sunrises and sunsets, like here on Earth.  The asteroid is numbered 5635, the same number that Joshua Cole bore while a student at the institution.  Brian Marsden, late director of the Minor Planet Center, loved the idea of connecting these asteroid worlds with literature whenever possible, and he was enthusiastic about my proposal to name this particular asteroid Cole.

I miss my Dad and think of him every day.  As I recall each of the 23 comets in whose discoveries I played a part, and asteroid 5635 Cole, I am reminded of the joy in the sky my father shared with Joshua Cole  and Hankins’s wonderful story Cole of Spyglass Mountain.


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