Mark Gingrich's Account
The Hale-Bopp Party @ Nancy's
It was a dark and breezy night, April Fools' Day, 1997. Seven intrepid
amateur astronomers, kindred souls who had never before met but who share
a vision of Usenet free of Zetanic blather, all converged on a San
Mateo, California apartment complex. We had a job to do, a duty to perform.
it was finally time: The Zeta-stock Festival '97 had begun.
Chris Franks, Mark Gingrich, Donn Hall and daughter Natalie, John Ladasky,
Paul Laughton, and Michael Packer made the supreme sacrifice
-- they chose to forego their bowling night -- just so that Nancy Lieder
and her unsuspecting neighbors could experience the reality,
the wonder of that apparition in the northwest sky called Hale-Bopp.
We arrived one by one. And some of us found ourselves struck with awe
upon realizing that we had -- at last -- reached the fountainhead of so
nonsense that continues to pollute Usenet news servers around our tightly
woven electronic world. It was like stumbling upon the source of the Nile.
Although, in this case, it might be more appropriate to say we reached
"the source of the bile." "Is this really ZetaTalk World
asked incredulously, while gawking at the a dense, sprawling, three-storey,
roughly-one-decade-old townhouse apartments. But it *had* to be the right
place, for the buildings were painted, appropriately enough, in Zeta
The street fronting the ZetaWorld complex was surprisingly brisk with
automobile traffic. Those accursed cobra-headed lighting standards stood
at attention at equal intervals along the route. Here was a source
of frustration: With our panoply of binoculars, monoculars, and Chris
Franks's 8" Dobsonian, we couldn't put them in a place where the
sodium vapor didn't shine. But we were also in luck, as the street and
parallel sidewalk ran almost directly toward Hale-Bopp's early-evening
azimuth, ensuring that buildings and trees wouldn't obstruct our
(admittedly glary) view.
With introductions and social pleasantries having been exchanged, we
put our astronomical gadgetry in place. Eventually deep twilight set in.
white-fluorescent Hale-Bopp and a golden Gamma Andromedae, the star
Nancy claimed would be mistaken for the comet, were visible simultaneously
the 7x50 binocular field. How could any minimally perceptive person
confuse these two celestial objects?
Now it was time to meet our guest of honor, our protagonist, face-to-face.
A posse of three would be dispatched to her door, proffering an invitation
to "Bopp the night away." "If we don't return within
15 minutes," the four who remained were told, "then send out
Chris, Paul, and I trudged off to the Nancy's apartment block entrance.
It was deep within the bowels of the complex, hidden from the observing
site's view. As we approached, a quick scan of the facade above revealed
no parapet-like structures from which Nancy could pour boiling oil. But
that was little comfort. I felt the anxiety build, much as I'm sure
it had for every prior Avon Lady and Fuller Brush Man who walked upright
this good Earth.
As strange as this sounds, I half expected large refuse piles of discarded
Spam tins alongside her dwelling, but they were nowhere to be seen.
There is a telephone-like intercom and a directory listing a dozen
or so residents beside the locked, glass lobby door of her secured building;
of the entries read "11 Lieder Watkins." I punched the corresponding
number on the intercom and it rang. And rang. And rang some more --
Time for Plan "B". Paul Laughton reached into his jacket
and pulled out a portable cellular phone. After dialing Nancy's number,
Her phone rang incessantly. Still no answer.
Where was Nancy? Was she safely ensconced in her underground bunker?
Was she away from her domicile? Could this was *her* bowling night?
"Damn! I had a feeling she'd try to weasel out."
Discouraged, we returned to the observing site and found it occupied
by curious onlookers and neighborhood youth anxious to view Hale-Bopp.
obliged and encouraged their interest. And we also made sure they knew
*why* we came:
"Did you know that a world famous crackpot lives here? Yeah, her
name is Nancy Lieder. Nancy claims to be in contact with
aliens from Zeta Reticuli, and she says Hale-Bopp is just a distraction
to keep people from searching for a purported 12th
Planet, which is supposed to be just 'left' of the constellation Orion,
right up there. Heck, she's so nutty, she was even
written up in last Friday's _New York Times_!
"No, we're *not* making this up!"
An hour of observing -- the comet (sans Nancy's so-called "icon"
tail), Gamma Andromedae, Mars, the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades, and Sirius
transpired. But before calling it a night, one more attempt at making
contact with the Zetan emissary was called for.
The posse returned to Nancy's apartment intercom. And this time, after
ringing her number, a calm, grandmotherly voice -- perhaps around 60
years old -- answered: "Hello?"
"Hello! I'm looking for Nancy Lieder."
"This is Nancy."
"Hello, Nancy! This is Mark Gingrich, and I'm here with several
others who'd like to invite you outside to view the 'mythical' Comet Hale-Bopp."
"Oh, I know there's a comet up there. But as I've already said
on Usenet, NASA's Hubble and NEAT telescopes found a comet that would show
around this time anyway, just to throw everyone off ...."
Aaarrrggghhh! My brain reeled upon realizing that I was being bombarded
by ZetaTalk -- the audio version!
"Okay, okay," I answered, "but aside from the comet,
we've also got a nice view of Gamma Andromedae."
Nancy paused for moment, then replied, "Well, I'm already in my
Paul Laughton could sense my exasperation. With a relaxed, non- threatening
tone of voice, he took over the negotiations: "Nancy, just
throw on a coat and come on out." Nancy again demurely declined.
Our conversation with Nancy was cut off every two minutes by the intercom's
built-in time-out feature. Upon re-ringing her apartment,
Nancy would continue her replies precisely at the point where the intercom<
had shut off previously. It seemed as if Nancy was unusually experienced
with this particular mode of communication.
But, gradually, we began to concede the prospect of having Nancy observe
with us. Paul, however, tried to meet her part-way: "Nancy, if you
come outside, then could you at least come down to the lobby, so that
I can take your picture through the glass door?"
Chris Franks had a particular agenda in mind when he decided to join
our merry group that evening. After reading her posts on Usenet, Chris
began to suspect Nancy Lieder of being the same "Nancy" he
once knew many years ago, in a place far away from San Mateo. Now was his
to find out for sure: "Nancy, did you at one time live in New
She was tiring of our interrogation. Nancy informed us of her wish
to get back to typing Usenet replies and "to prepare for several newspaper
radio interviews." We rolled our eyes and reluctantly bid her
adieu. We had survived our "close encounter" (such as it was)
Meanwhile, back at the observing site, John, Donn, Natalie, and Mike
were still doing the "observing thing." No sign of the 12th Planet,
although John had spotted a faint man-made satellite cruising eastward
through Orion. Just then, the adjacent lawn sprinkler system went into
action. Were Nancy and the Zetas attempting to send us a message?
It was time for one concluding, ceremonial act. Gathering ourselves
in front of Paul's fancy digital camera, we posed for a group photo. This
will serve to document, for generations yet unborn, that... we came,
we saw, we buzzed her intercom.
Leave it to John Ladasky to cap off the eventful evening by asking:
"Same time next year?"
* * *
In only a scant few hours following the event, Paul Laughton feverishly
worked to create a Web site of images from Zeta-stock. To those who
doubted that such a "happening" could ever occur, behold:
Finally, I'd like to acknowledge Chris Franks, Donn and Natalie Hall,
John Ladasky, Paul Laughton, and Michael Packer. Thanks for showing the
of adventure -- for taking a risk -- by rendezvousing on a chilly evening
with other total strangers in this tilting-at-windmills episode. It was
meant to be all in fun, and I hope that's the way it was perceived
Mark Gingrich firstname.lastname@example.org San Leandro, California