ON HOT summer nights back in the '50s, my best friend and I would sit in his backyard gazing at the stars and listening to the car radio. Rural Texas did not provide a plethora of events for 10 year olds, and since television had not appeared anywhere but in the major cities like Dallas or Ft. Worth, entertainment was simple, cheap and self-initiated.

Two boys could do much worse than sitting on the hood of the family sedan late at night, chancing running down the battery, while locating first the Big Dipper, then the North Star and maybe the stars in Orion's belt. Speculation abounded about little green men from Mars and what we'd do if a spaceship landed in the field behind the house. However, our best discussion was really about the approach in our lifetime of Halley's comet.

Who knows where we had heard about it, but we had. And we knew it was coming. I guess just about everybody did. How many years did we have to wait? 1980? 1990? Then we would count the years and decide we'd be "old men" when it finally arrived. Rumor had made it quite clear what to expect. Some speculated that it was indeed heralding the end of time.

Armageddon or not, it was going to be the show to end all shows. Undoubtedly the sky would be lit up for days, maybe weeks. It would be as if the sun never set. And the tail of the comet would be so long it would probably stretch across the entire sky.

More than thirty years have passed since those summer nights of stars and dreams and great stories of things to come. While time has changed the way we pronounce its name and certainly has cleared up any misconceptions -- about its brightness or being a threat to Earth or even the length of its tail -- most certainly the visit by Halley's comet was a real happening. Most of us ventured outdoors and strained to catch a glimpse. The most enthusiastic viewers even went so far as to book cruises to southern climes for a "better look." Such was my fate.

After six days and four islands into the Caribbean, the big day arrived. The navigator came on the ship's public address system to announce that tonight he would assist the passengers in viewing the celebrated comet. Just after sunset all those interested were to meet on the various decks, and he would speak to us.

At long last that day of days so often talked about on those hot nights in Texas was at hand. It seemed the day would never end. Finally the sun began to sink into the tropical sea. The passengers gathered, anxious and impatient.

"This is the ship's navigator speaking to you from the bridge," rang out the announcement. "Now that it is sufficiently dark, I wish to assist you in locating Halley's comet. Please look to the port side of the ship."

The ship seemed to lean on its side as the gathered masses moved quickly to the port railing. "If you will locate the moon and then come directly down about three inches, there should be the comet."

"I see it," cried one lady. We all strained as we looked in the direction she was pointing.

"There it is," yelled a man who had remained on the starboard side. The boat shifted as the crowd moved to the other side. Again we all strained to see.

Thousands of stars is what we saw. Thousands and millions of little flecks of light, any one of which could have been the planet Venus, an airplane, a group of fireflies off course, or even Halley's comet.

I suspect that this century's celestial cause celebre has passed with its tail between its legs. Boys for generations to come, talking of stars on hot summer nights, will now know better than to dream of Halley, of daylight for weeks, or a cosmic tail stretching across the heavens.

So it seems to me that we should now start talking about some other astral certainty of the next century -- something that comes every three thousand years or so, and was last seen by Cleopatra as she wooed Caesar. It should be so bright that the sky will be lit up for days, maybe weeks. And its tail -- well, that will stretch all the way across the sky and . . . .