This is a PS to last week’s post on astronomer and UFOlogist J. Allen Hynek, which I was working on when a story about Hynek’s last days came to mind. I looked the story up in Keith Thompson’s book Angels and Aliens (Fawcett Columbine, 1991), and found it to be fully as powerful and moving as I’d remembered. So I give it here, in Thompson’s words.
Thompson was a bit careless. Hynek can’t possibly have been “taken up to the roof to see Halley’s comet” at age 5; he was born on May 1, 1910, during the comet’s appearance. Yet the description of one of Hynek’s last days, when he was dying of a brain tumor, is paraphrased from the eyewitness account by Jennie Zeidman in the International UFO Reporter of May-June 1986. I think we can trust it.
It gives a vivid picture of a scientist who was also a mystic, for whom science itself was a mystical experience.
“Hynek told friends he wanted to go out the way he came in–‘with the comet.’ On May 5, 1910, at five years of age, young Allen had been taken up to the roof to see Halley’s comet. Some of his first astronomy students recalled Hynek telling them the comet would be back, in 1985-1986. Look for it, he said. The man whose phrase Steven Spielberg borrowed for his film Close Encounters of the Third Kind had a proverbial last wish: he wanted to see the comet again before he died, like Mark Twain, who saw it at the beginning and the end of his life.
“So at 4 A.M. on March 26, 1986, Allen Hynek climbed into the Honda’s reclining right-hand seat, a pillow beneath his head, the March issue of Sky & Telescope and a pair of binoculars in his lap, his wife Mimi at the steering wheel, his longtime friend and fellow researcher Jennie Zeidman in the back. All were filled with Allen’s great expectancy as they passed observer-filled cars parked off to the side and continued into the desert where they found a quiet place to park on a dirt road.
“‘The three of us got out of the car. Gravel crunched underfoot, traffic hummed in the distance and there were the low whisperings of other observers nearby,’ Zeidman remembers. ‘We could have been in an art museum or at some religious place, where there is great respect for the privacy and emotion of others.’
“They spotted Saturn and Mars easily enough. Then they thought they saw the comet, but were mistaken. They turned their flashlights to the charts so they could try again. Hynek leaned against the car. Suddenly, there it was! ‘No wonder we hadn’t seen it before,’ Zeidman says. ‘It was just now rising, the tail streaming like a feather in its cap.’ Hynek stood in silence as his mythic comet rose and the Earth turned. Soon they knew it was time to leave, and they did. It was all over so quickly. Hynek had gotten his wish.”
He died a month and a day later, on April 27, 1986. The world lost an extraordinary soul.
by David Halperin
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