Look, It’s Halley’s Comet!

by Belle Waring on January 5, 2017

My step-father Edmund Kirby-Smith (great-grandson of the very same) was kind of an awful person. In a shorthand way it may help to note he was best pals with Lee Atwater. Well, he was brought up by a…I think brutally strict father is a fair thing to say about Col. Edmund Kirby-Smith Sr.? Though less strenuously strict fairness compels me to say the Colonel was never anything more than abstractly terrifying to me or my brother and sister, and meant well as near as I could figure. They lived in an isolated home looking down into a valley at the edge of Sewanee, Tennessee, at the top of the last arm of one of an amphitheater of mountains, with trees falling away endlessly down the slope and then more mountains stretching out of view which, if not purple, were at least the lavender of eroded East Coast majesties. To say Edmund’s dad was lord of all he surveyed would understate his power. Just him and his sister—shit went Faulkner wrong up there, is the thing. Maybe sometimes I think he didn’t really have much of a chance to be a good person, although that’s not an actual excuse for failing to be one.

So, yeah, he was sort of your all around bad step-dad. You can use your imagination as long as you don’t go overboard. But father to my beloved, best beloved sister. And he had his moments! He was fun at parties.* I’m not being sarcastic; he really was. We invented games like Jupiter-Ball, which we played with a whole Salvation Army’s worth of bowling balls (we systematically switched the tags on them from badminton rackets), and into the thumb hole of the biggest and black ugliest of which we had hammered a broom handle to use as a mallet. We dug a huge hole in the yard to be the golf-analogue target, and created a ring out of which one would attempt to knock one’s opponents’ ball before they could take the shot. When even that grew boring he helped us carry them all over to the park across the road at 12 a.m. where we took turns sending them down the curly slide and seeing whose could go the furthest into the soft sand. We had some good friends with us, like the liquor store clerk and his girlfriend with the less interesting, less relevant job: electron microscopy. But she could play the fiddle pretty fair and could pee standing up like a man and was willing to do it in front of everyone after a few beers, and so was a worthy addition.

Now, Edmund could often wind things up dramatically with violent destruction and breaking his own hand for the nth time and stuff, but isn’t “who knows what could happen?!” a crucial element of an epic party? Like that time Edmund and Lane and everybody started dressing in drag but in my vintage clothes so they were getting torn and I went up to cry to my mom and she came down the stairs wrapped in a silk dressing gown and fury and hacked a big piece out of the wall in the foyer with a machete? We had a lot of memorable parties.

When my mom and him first got married we were quite unnecessarily broke, and my mom got a job on the assembly line of a factory outside Georgetown, S.C. while my step-dad remained unemployed. That meant he could drive me and my brother to the beach on Pawley’s Island in our 1967 white Camaro convertible with red leather interior before going to get mom from work. I don’t know where he got that car but he had it from before. He would let us stand up in the back with the top down, hands over our head and yelling like crazy, and then we would wait in the parking lot for my mom to come out, playing the Rolling Stones’ “Factory Girl”. (It will perhaps illustrate the strange confabulation of factors in my life if I mention that I thought the girl in the song had never had a debutante ball. Because “she ain’t come out yet.” I was like 10; I don’t know what I was thinking.) My mom didn’t find any of this amusing, for some reason.

We would go out to a diner and order just fries and cokes and when Edmund wanted to steal fries off your plate he would say “look, it’s Halley’s Comet!” This was his general, all-purpose distractor, benign in intent and more popular among the rest of us than just saying “down, down like glist’ring Phaëton” every damn time somebody came down a flight of stairs. Every. Time. He was a person with sayings. “You look like a Mexican whore on a holiday” was also frequently heard, if less welcome. I was starting to say that I didn’t actually dress that slutty in HS but I don’t think I need to defend myself on that charge. In any case, my favorite outfit was a 1950s white lace housedress which I sewed shut and wore backwards.

So it’s amusing to me to read people using the “look it’s Halley’s Comet” phrase as shorthand, presumably in reference to the evergreen “…and a pony” post from John and Belle Have Ye Olde Blogge (Jesus Christ that was 13 years ago). It’s Edmund Kirby-Smith’s sole internet legacy and it amuses me. I spent a lot of my life hating him but could have gotten all the way around to just feeling sorry for him if he hadn’t hurt people I loved. I got most of the way, anyway.

*Lee Atwater was fun at parties up to a point but would totally hit on 13-year-olds.

{ 26 comments }

1

divelly 01.05.17 at 4:10 am

???

2

John Quiggin 01.05.17 at 5:12 am

It is the archetypal bright shiny object!

3

Belle Waring 01.05.17 at 5:42 am

divelly: how so? I mean, it’s all pretty clear, right?

4

Matt 01.05.17 at 5:58 am

This was wonderful. Looking back on the old original “and a pony” post, I was very pleased by the comments. Not mine, really, which I don’t remember making, but I’m sure I did, as it totally sounds like something I would have said then, though probably not now, even though I’d still probably think it. But, the crazy libertarian defenses of libertarianism, the jokes on that, even the spam, all just great. Everything is awful now, except this post. Sigh.

5

Dr. Hilarius 01.05.17 at 6:37 am

Lovely piece. Having grown up in the rural South, it conjures memories.

6

kidneystones 01.05.17 at 7:53 am

This is a lovely post. You’re far and away the best stylist on the site and the content is darn good, too. We need more like this despite/because of the high bar you set.

@4 “everything is awful now.”

Well, it depends upon where you’re sitting. I’m immensely pleased this clown isn’t in charge of anything anymore. And I’m certain I’m not alone. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4087092/Assange-says-14-year-old-hacked-Democratic-emails-reveals-John-Podesta-s-password-password.html

7

Sumana Harihareswara 01.05.17 at 12:36 pm

I read the first para of this aloud to my spouse because it was so good.

Isn’t it funny, what seems to stick around in the Internet’s memories? John Rogers’s “Crazification Factor” is another I think has stuck.

I was just thinking today that I miss Flea of One Good Thing who also wrote so incisively and humorously about her childhood and about feminism and parenting, and Harriet J of Fugitivus, and other women who blogged way more in the last 13 years and I don’t hear from anymore (at least, not under those names and on those sites). I’m glad you and I are here.

8

SamChevre 01.05.17 at 1:37 pm

The other end of the county was a very different place, says the guy who grew up in Altamont.

9

LFC 01.05.17 at 1:47 pm

I seem to recall, based on other things read here, that Belle’s family had wealth in the background, hence presumably the “quite unnecessarily broke” (emph. added) in that paragraph w the Rolling Stones song, which afaicr I’ve never heard.

Anyway that paragraph, with the refs to the assembly-line job and the kids standing up in the back of a moving convertible (today letting kids do that would doubtless violate both federal and state laws; maybe it did back then too), is a nice time-capsule for some social historian.

p.s. cd have linked to a Wiki entry or something on the orig Edmund Kirby-Smith, for those of us whose US Southern history is patchy.

10

Bill Benzon 01.05.17 at 2:08 pm

On a whim I googled “and a pony” and fun ensued. Of course the original J&B post showed up, at # 2.

#1: …and a Pony! – Coding Horror. I actually clicked thu but didn’t read because the phrase itself says it all. I mean, when they were coding up that Matrix software, some joker threw a pony into the code. The horror! The horror!

#2: What is the Difference Between a Horse and a Pony? — Got a lot of this, in various slightly different formulations.

#13: Cows, Crops and a Pony – Page 4 – Google Books Result – Hmmmm… Inquiring minds want to know.

#17: Hypertrophic osteopathy in three horses and a pony. – NCBI – Hmmm… Inquiring minds anyone?

#18: World Peace and a Pony (2015) – IMDb — Bingo! Here’s the plot synopsis:

Onyx is in her 20s when she realises that society doesn’t have a place for her. Usually content to experiment with mind-altering drugs and hang out on top of buildings, Onyx uncovers a condemned building in Kings Cross and makes it her home. Soon her crew of drug-fiend friends want a piece of her paradise, and they bring their problems with them. Onyx is dragged into their drama and wonders if she belongs on planet Earth at all, preferring to fantasise about the cosmos and realms outside of her physical existence. As things start to fall apart around her, Onyx turns to existentialism to make sense of her universe, becoming more and more careless with her drug use. Having lost all interest in the triviality of life, she ponders the possibility of escaping the planet which has held her captive for so long. Suddenly the chaos collapses and everything makes sense: She must leap into the unknown, leaving her body behind.

#19: A pony known as Satan | Facebook – Wasn’t he elected President of the USofA not so long ago?

You get the idea.

11

Bill Benzon 01.05.17 at 2:08 pm

Whoops, where I have “#2” that should be “#3”.

12

Belle Waring 01.05.17 at 4:18 pm

Flea! I forgot about her! LFC: done.

13

Layman 01.05.17 at 4:43 pm

Beautiful post, and meant to be read aloud. I’m reminded of my father, who once went to the Prince George’s County jail, to spring my older brother, at midnight. He was coming from the Navy Ball. In his mess whites. With his sword. He did get some damned respect, from cops and son both.

Thank you.

14

Kiwanda 01.05.17 at 4:44 pm

The “Look! Halley’s comet!” dodge was used at the dinner table in my Oregon family as well, pre 2000. It’s around the web, and mentioned as a “Look Behind You! distraction in TV Tropes, although only a couple times.

15

Ben Alpers 01.05.17 at 6:31 pm

I feel a little silly adding to the chorus of “I love your posts, Belle….more, please!”

But I feel like I have to say: I love your posts, Belle….more, please!

(Also “…and a pony!” somehow feels much longer ago than thirteen years to me. Time starts doing weird things in one’s middle age. And I suspect it will just become weirder.)

16

oldster 01.05.17 at 6:57 pm

The Wiki link is good, and allows you to trace how the original E K-S had a black half-brother who wound up mentoring the authors of the Negro National Anthem. It’s a strange old world out there.

Sumana, without meaning to diminish the special sadness of the silencing of women’s voices, isn’t this just a part of the larger general story? The Web once seemed to offer prospects for the increasing democratization of the public sphere, but has now turned into a megaphone amplifying the voices of power and oppression. Only in small corners like CT can you hear the whispers of what could have been.

17

OutOfTheBlue 01.05.17 at 8:42 pm

With my family it was always “Look – The Winged Victory of Samothrace!”

18

OutOfTheBlue 01.05.17 at 8:46 pm

My daughter was not impressed when I used it on her with the real thing in the Louvre.

19

Warren Terra 01.06.17 at 1:38 am

It’s always nice to come across a well-told story.

20

Belle Waring 01.06.17 at 2:01 am

Layman: noice! OutOfTheBlue: likewise, though differently, noice. And thanks for the encouragement all.

21

PJW 01.06.17 at 4:25 am

Belles-lettres. Mighty fine. More soon, please.

22

Doug Hudson 01.06.17 at 4:21 pm

Southern Gothic on LSD. Great stuff! Have you written a memoir?

23

George de Verges 01.06.17 at 11:08 pm

Welcome back. Missed ya.

24

bob mcmanus 01.07.17 at 1:42 am

Yeah, I enjoyed it. Held this comment back, not sure why, but I did some googling of Sewanee and found pictures of two Kirby-Smith houses, both beautiful but radically different. One Southern Gothic, or plantation mansion still well kept; one modern Wright-ish. My guess is that the family, like many, peaked in the twenties.

25

Meredith 01.09.17 at 6:47 am

Step-parents. So many in our lives, for so long. Once because people died all the time. Later because they divorced and remarried all the time. Needs to be explored more. Quite a start here!

26

e julius drivingstorm 01.10.17 at 1:48 am

I first heard the directive ‘Look, Halley’s comet’ circa 1973 – sailor from Kentucky. About ’75 I tried it on my twin 6-yr-old nieces. They cupped their hands over their French fries, one saying ‘they’re no windows over there’; my 5-yr-old nephew patiently explained that Halley’s comet only comes around once every 86 years.

What’s the appropriate literary award for the phrase ‘ –shit went Faulkner wrong…’? I don’t mind waking up in the morning on the off chance that Belle might write something.

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