During my childhood days in the 1950s, when I believed that reindeer could fly and that there was a man in the moon, I was most aroused by a story about a comet that was accompanied by Hansel and Gretel-style drawings of frightened observers from centuries past.

Billed as a big ball of bad magic, it spewed fire and blinded little children with hot ash droppings -- sort of like the Sandman did when he caught kids peeking after midnight.

The last sighting had been in 1910, and to my delight, there was not supposed to be another until way, way into the future -- 1985, almost the 21st century, by which time I had planned to build my own civil defense shelter.

Now here it comes again.

Having recently rounded the Sun, Halley's Comet is heading toward the Earth, right on schedule after 76 years and 8 billion miles of travel.

And I don't even have a basement.

Whether the childhood stories were true or false makes little difference today. I believed them then, and even after sitting through an international symposium called "Comet Quest" at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum yesterday, all I can say is: Hey, kiddies, better wear goggles.

While the scientists are out partying and helping folk buy telescopes to celebrate the "return of this solar system nomad," the historical facts speak for themselves: As a once-in-a-lifetime event (which doesn't necessarily mean that you will then die or go blind), it's bound to bring strange happenings.

Brushed off by some experts as just a "dirty snowball," Halley's Comet, you will recall, presaged the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and was interpreted by Genghis Khan in 1222 as a favorable sign of world conquest.

When the comet made its first on-the-record appearance in 240 B.C., Rome was battling the North African city-state of Carthage in the first of the three Punic Wars. At the same time, Argis IV, the 22-year-old King of Sparta, was executed and civil war broke out in the North African cities of Utica and Hippo Regius.

We're talking about chaos in almost half of the civilized world. But we're also talking about a long time ago. So you ask: What about now?

Well, just like in 1456, when the comet was greeted by famine and pestilence in Europe, there's famine and pestilence today like the world has hardly known.

Ever since the beginning of the year when Halley was first confirmed to be headed our way, there has been one disaster after another. Count them: hurricanes, tornadoes, flash floods and fires, earthquakes, mud slides, volcanoes, dust storms, locust plagues and, to add insult to injury, a bad batch of watermelons in California.

Now comes Edward J. Smith, a space plasma physicist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and lecturer at yesterday's symposium, attempting to explain it all away.

"Comet tails, as well as meteor showers, pass the Earth all the time with no effect," he said. "The reason is simple: The material is so tenuous that it can only affect the upper crust of the atmosphere. The weather is driven down much lower and is the result of tremendous energies that a mere comet would have little chance of influencing."

But wait: Halley's Comet is no ordinary shooting star. It is the biggest, the brightest and the most mysterious of the 900 comets known to man.

Just last month, astronomers announced "surprise" at finding that Halley's Comet was emitting oxygen-hydrogen "clumps about the size of the Earth," not in a continuous cloud, as previously thought. Surely, there is much that cannot be explained.

For instance, it makes no sense for a whole bunch of folk to go looking for a comet in some rural area on a cold, moonless winter night, unless they are asking for trouble.

As for scientists, they will simply continue taking the mystery out of everything, including celestial phenomena. But, as far as I'm concerned, all of this excitement wouldn't be in the air if all that was coming was a just dirty snowball.