Sunday, February 22, 2009


by Joseph Hufham

In 1910, the year Halley's Comet came back, I was eight years old. Mama and Papa, my two brothers and two sisters and I lived in a little North Carolina sawmill village called New Berlin, on the Atlantic Coast Line railroad 20 miles west of Wilmington.

By May 18, the day the earth was supposed to pass through the tail of the comet, people were pretty well stirred up. Newspapers had been telling about the comet for weeks. The Wilmington "Morning Star" had even run a couple of accounts of how some people had gone outside to view the comet and then dropped dead. In those days before radio and television there were rumors everywhere, most of the scary.

Our family lived next door to Papa's grocery store, which also housed the town's post office. Mama was the local midwife. Papa's full name was Noah Daniel Hufham, but most people called him "Parson" because he was also the local preacher, what we called a Missionary Baptist preacher.

Times were hard for us and for the handful of people who gathered for Papa's sermons. There was no church, just an old hull of a building made of rough lumber, with a tar paper roof. Papa had always dreamed of building a country church with a steeple. It seemed impossible. But then Halley's Comet came...

The train depot down on South Front Street held status as New Berlin's hub of activity. People often came running when they heard a train pull in, just to see who and what was getting on and off, and to hear the news from down the line.

Tom Pridgeon, our stationmaster, operated the telegraph, and when big news broke, like the presidential election returns or a heavyweight championship fight, townsfolk would gather outside the depot while Pridgeon listened to the telegraph and called out the window with the latest report.

And so it was on the night of May 18. I remember standing on the big broad porch of Papa's store and looking up. The comet as yellow like the moon and it bulged like an onion. The tail on it looked like an old dollar sweep broom, not much longer than the body; I could just see it swooping down and scrubbing on the mountains.

Tom Pridgeon was at the depot calling out the news to over 100 mean and women standing outside. My brother Dempsey, six years older than I, worked as a station boy. Every so often he would run over to us with the latest report.

The wires that night were singing with all kinds of news. One time Tom called out, "If the comet hits the earth head-on, it'll knock it out of orbit, and the earth will shoot away like a star." Dempsey said the crowd was murmuring like a swarm of bees somebody had taken a stick to.

Tom Pridgeon shouted out a warning that had come of the telegraph: "Even if the comet just misses us, its tail will strike the earth like fire and brimstone and will sweep it clean of every living thing." Women gasped and fanned themselves and men's faces dripped perspiration.

Little by little a lot of the men in the crowd left the depot and headed for Wright Carroll's place. Wright was the town policeman, and he lived upstairs over his shop. Downstairs he operated a cider business, where for a nickel you could buy a jelly glass of cider that had the kick of a wild mule.

Wright was nicknamed "Righteous." He was a tall, lean man, and he even wore a nice blue suit and a black plug hat. He was a soft-spoken man, subject to a fear of the hereafter. And if he drank anything stronger than coffee, nobody caught him at it.

The crowd at Wright's grew. and cider glasses were filled and refilled. From time to time Dempsey ran to give them the latest news. Finally, when he ran to the door and yelled, "They say the comet has its tail bent down to sweep the earth," the men fell silent.

Minutes later most of those fellows came clomping down South Front Street to our place, and they called out to Papa to come and talk to them. Papa was a little ole wiry man, not much bigger than a washing of soap, with a big nose. He sat down on the top step of the store's long porch. "Well boys, good evening," said he.

The men, some a little too wobbly to stand comfortably, all sat on the steps around him, and Wright Carroll got straight to the point:

"Parson, this ain't a praying bunch, but we decided we'd rather be with you at a time like this than in my cider shop. Tell us what you think about this comet and all what's being said."

None of them could see the comet from where they sat, but I could and I yelled, "It's getting bigger and brighter!" A shiver ran through those men.

Papa spoke to them in his slow, even voice. He spoke of fear, especially fear of the unknown. He quoted them stories and passages from the Bible that told of perilous times. But he told them how God looked after his people, and there was no reason to be afraid of anything if you had your trust in the Lord.

The night stilled down a bit, and only the rasping chirp of katydids shadowed Papa's voice. The men sat there hanging onto Papa's words, listening to the things that Papa could quote from the Bible as easy as silk.

Gradually the men relaxed a bit. I heard a sigh. The men were looking more at peace. Then Dempsey, running from the depot, gasped out, Pridgeon just reported that the comet is turning, an neither it nor its tail will strike the earth. But it will be back again in 75 years."

With that, the men got up and quietly shuffled off. Papa figured that was probably the first and last time he'd ever be preaching to those fellows.

But that same year, word went round that Papa had in mind to build a church. Andy you know every one of those men came back and pitched in and sawed some boards and drove some nails.
From the Guidepost Magazine, sent in by Laura Cyr


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